Sunday, 15 June 2008

Poland 6: Mountain Finale

I'm nearing the end of the Lonely Planet section of my journey. Over the past six weeks I've described a loose clockwise circle around Poland (with a brief detour to Lithuania), visiting each of the cities and towns featured in the Poland chapter of Lonely Planet: Eastern Europe.

Yesterday I passed through the train station in Kraków, where I began this trip. And hopped onto a bus heading south into the mountains, to the attractive holiday town of Zakopane.

As this is my last full day in Poland, I thought I'd summarise a few highlights of this visit to Poland. Each research assignment here has been different, even when visiting the same cities. Here are the experiences which stood out in 2008:
  • Łódź: Visiting the National Film School and interviewing Andrzej Bednarek, a former film director and now a professor at the school. We talked about Roman Polański and Krzysztof Kieślowski's days at the school, and he pointed out the stairs where Polański used to sit when hanging around between classes.
  • Wrocław: Hunting for the city's gnomes, hidden here and there among its buildings. These small statues derive from a symbol used by a protest group during the communist years. Each one is like a little cartoon: a gnome making a telephone call, or lying in a food bowl, or holding a suitcase set for travel.
  • Szczecin: Touring through a former WWII bomb shelter, which was later redesignated as a fallout shelter during the Cold War. Built by the Nazi regime and taken over by the communist authorities after the war, it was a fascinating warren and a potent reminder of the paranoia of those postwar years.
  • Gdańsk: Seeing the Roads to Freedom exhibition in its new home next to the Solidarity HQ. This retelling of the long struggle against the communist regime, which started well before the strikes of the 1970s and '80s, is very moving, and an essential grounding in Poland's late 20th century story.
  • Mikołajki: Meeting the same cat who watched me in 2006 as I walked out over the surface of a frozen lake. I realise now that it belongs to the owner of the nearby guesthouse on the lakefront, but it was a little surprising to see it again. I had my laptop with me, so I checked the 2006 photo - yep, same cat.
  • Kozłówka: Visiting the Socialist Realism Art Gallery in this tiny town north of Lublin. After Stalin's death in the 1950s, much of the over-the-top statues of workers striving for socialism, etc, were gathered up and stored at the Zamoyski Palace. Now, with a stirring musical soundtrack, it's an intriguing window into an all-encompassing ideology, with the bonus of being located within an attractive 18th century palace.
It's been, as always, a fascinating journey around a fascinating country. Next stop: the High Tatras in Slovakia.