Sunday 27 June 2010

Poland 4: Beauty and the Beast

I've just made my latest visit to Białowieża, in Poland's east, and came away with the same confusion I always feel about how the place is marketed to the visitor.

Its famous herds of wild European bison are the focus of tourism to this remote village - but should they presented as a miracle of nature or as the traditional target of the hunter?

To me, the answer seems obvious. To understand why, you need to know a little of the story of this part of Poland.

The Puszcza Białowieska (Białowieża Forest) is the last remnant of the great primeval forest which once covered most of Europe. Nowadays it's split between Poland and Belarus, but for centuries it lay entirely within the Kingdom of Poland.

It was also packed with wildlife, including bison, the cousins of the buffalos we all know from Hollywood Westerns. So Polish kings built hunting lodges here for a bit of sport, and they were followed by the Russian tsars after eastern Poland was swallowed up by the Russian Empire at the end of the 18th century.

These monarchs made some some effort to protect the dwindling bison population even as they hunted them, but in World War I the German army occupied the forest and hunted down nearly all of of the remnant population. By 1919, they were extinct outside zoos.

A sad end for these mighty beasts in their native environment. Impressively though, a conservation program started reintroducing the creatures to the wild in the 1950s, and there are now several hundred bison in the forest. Visitors can enter the Strict Nature Reserve accompanied by a guide, with the chance of spotting bison in their natural state. As a result, Białowieża is a popular destination for tourists year-round.

You would assume, therefore, that the theme of the place would be animal conservation and the harm that hunting and other human activity has done to the natural environment over the centuries.

To some extent it is, and visitors marvel at the forest and the life within it. However, the hotels and restaurants of the village are generally themed in quite a different way. Decked out as mock hunting lodges, decorated with fake bison heads, animal skulls and other hunting memorabila, they seem to glorify the hunting that caused so much harm to the local fauna in the first place.

In one way they're just drawing on history, referencing the Tsar's hunting lodge which was burned down by German troops retreating from the Soviet army in the next world war.

However, it does seem a jarring choice of decor in a 21st century world that's far more sensitive to the harm that humans have done to the environment around them. Also considering that many people are less tolerant of hunting nowadays, seeing it as unnecessarily cruel (while, perhaps hypocritically, remaining tolerant of the breeding and killing of animals in controlled conditions for use as food).

Maybe I'm missing something here; but either way, I always cringe a little when I see the antlers, skulls and heads hanging on the walls of Białowieża venues, right above the animal skin rugs on the wall.

Am I too sensitive? Hypocritical? Misinterpreting some important aspect of the local cultural heritage? Or is the happy juxtaposition of hunting and conservation in Bialowieza just a little bit odd?

Friday 18 June 2010

Poland 3: Stalked by Copernicus

Wherever I go in northeastern Poland, I inevitably encounter a man in a robe holding a globe of the world. This is none other than Nicolaus Copernicus, the astronomer who first proposed that the Earth orbits the sun.

He’s also a member of an exclusive club - famous Poles who outsiders sometimes don’t realise are Polish. I think of them as the Four Cs: Copernicus, Curie, Conrad and Chopin.

In fact the first three of this group were christened Mikołaj Kopernik, Marie Skłodowska, and Józef Konrad Korzeniowski. Chopin really was Frédéric (or Fryderyk) Chopin, by the way, as his dad was French.

No chance of mistaken identity within Poland though, especially in Copernicus' old stamping grounds in Pomerania and the neighbouring region of Warmia & Masuria.

Here are a few snaps of the great astronomer that I've taken over my years of researching for Lonely Planet in Poland...

1. A Star is Born. This is the most striking statue of Copernicus, in front of the Gothic town hall in Toruń. This is where he was born, and there's not much danger of this fact escaping you as you stroll around this attractive city on the Vistula River - there's a Copernicus Museum and a Copernicus University, for a start.

Toruń isn't only famous for Copernicus, though. It has an age-old reputation as a manufacturer of gingerbread. And you can buy this gingerbread baked in the shape of Copernicus, if you like.

2. Rebel With a Cause. Copernicus looks a little sinister here I think, as if he's about to peel away from this wall in Toruń, trap the little beggar kid within his globe of the earth, then give him a good sharp lesson in astronomy.

3. Do You Want Cosmology With That? I spotted this Copernicus figure outside a hotel restaurant in the little town of Frombork, east of Gdańsk near the Russian border.

It was here that the great man made many of his observations and wrote his revolutionary work, On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres ("A cracking read... guaranteed to make you question everything you've ever believed about an earth-centred model of the universe." - Nuremberg Times, 1543).

4. Touching Genius. I took this photo three days ago outside the drawbridge of the former Teutonic Knights' castle in Olsztyn. Copernicus was the administrator here after the Kingdom of Poland captured Olsztyn in the 1460s. The astronomer finally gets a chance to sit down here (must be tiring carrying that globe everywhere) and visitors sit with him and rub his nose for luck. Hence the shiny hooter.

5. You Say You Want a Revolution? The final shot is one I snapped in February 2006 on my first-ever Lonely Planet assignment, when the weather was very very cold. In those days this Copernicus statue sat in the centre of a roundabout - quite appropriate really. Recently the area surrounding him has been closed to traffic and repaved, creating a pleasant square in which to marvel at the Copernican achievement.

As you can see, I run into Copernicus everywhere. But is he stalking me... or am I stalking him?

Friday 11 June 2010

Poland 2: Gdańsk by iPhone

Anyone who has an iPhone knows how impressive it is as a portable computer that also provides telephony - and also just how poor its inbuilt camera is. There's no flash, no zoom, and it struggles in low light.

However, give the iPhone camera some strong, consistent light and you can take a decent shot with it. I took my iPhone 3GS's camera for a test run yesterday as I walked through the streets of historic Gdańsk, Poland, on my current Lonely Planet assignment to update the Eastern Europe guidebook.

Here's what the lens caught...

1. Rivers of Gold(wasser). This statue of Neptune is the symbol of the city, and stands above a fountain in the main market square, Długi Targ. It's said to have once gushed forth the famous gold-flecked Gdańsk liqueur, goldwasser. I suspect this of being a tall story invented by the city's tourism marketing department a few centuries ago; perhaps after the Thirty Years' War, when visitor numbers had presumably slumped.

To be honest though, the real miracle about the statue is that it's here at all - the entire city centre was little more than rubble at the end of World War II, and was painstakingly restored in the decades which followed.

2. The Milk Bar That Shook the World. In the communist era, the state subsidised a type of cheap cafeteria known as a bar mleczny (milk bar), which supplied basic meals to the proletariat for nominal prices. Most of them have vanished since the fall of the regime, but a few have survived by moving with the times. Behold the Bar Mleczny Neptun, with its cheap snacks and (shock!) capitalist cola...

3. Silent Picture. I love it when buildings bear faint traces of previous incarnations. On the wall of the Dom Harcerza, a budget hotel, you can just make out the word "KINO" - as it was once a cinema.

4. The Medium is the Message. Just outside the old city wall, I spotted this slightly dilapidated floral arrangement. As Czyste Miasto Gdańsk means "Clean City Gdańsk", I assume it's connected with some sort of environmental awareness program.

5. I Want to Break Free. It's a largely forgotten fact these days, but between the First and Second World Wars, Gdańsk was its own independent micro-state. The Free City of Danzig (Danzig is Gdańsk's German name) was established by the League of Nations as an independent enclave between Germany and the then newly reborn Poland.

I stumbled upon a small new museum in ulica Piwna tht's devoted to the Free City era, called Historical Zone: Free City of Danzig. It exhibits lots of artefacts from the era, such as promotional brochures, maps, stamps and passports. It was intriguing, and the caretaker was so taken by my enthusiasm that he let me handle some of the documents. Below is the cover of a tourism brochure of the period, in English.

6. You Are What You Eat. Sigh... there's just no way to take a sexy "food porn" pic of dumplings, is there? But take my word for it, these pierogi from the dumpling specialists at U Dzika made a tasty lunch.

7. Completely Drained. This decorative drain pipe in ulica Mariacka, Gdańsk's amber retailing strip, catches the eye as effectively as the nearby outdoor stalls selling amber-studded jewellery.

8. Water Sports. It's always a pleasure encountering something new in such an old city. I happened upon this fountain, installed only last year, which seems to encourage passers by to interact with it. These guys were having a lot of fun trying to anticipate its spouting patterns and getting each other wet.

9. Tall Timber. Speaking of history... here comes the Galeon Lew, which takes tourists along the Motława River to Westerplatte (which, you might be interested to know, was the spot where World War II broke out in 1939, when German gunships attacked a Polish fort there).

10. Wall No More. Finally, some recent history - a piece of the Berlin Wall, encountered outside the Roads to Freedom exhibition. The museum is devoted to the downfall of European communism, which began when the Solidarity trade union took on Poland's communist regime in 1980s Gdańsk. This slab is a fragment of history, and a thought-provoking one.

So, the photographic verdict? Clearly Apple has a long way to go in providing an iPhone camera that you'd want to use as your sole photographic device. Of course this could all change with Apple's upcoming iPhone 4, which is rumoured to contain a vastly improved camera. For the time being however, I'm certainly not ditching my regular Olympus compact digital camera.

But, as you can see, given enough light, a close enough proximity and an interesting enough subject, even the iPhone 3GS's camera can turn out a surprisingly good travel photo.

Thursday 3 June 2010

Poland 1: Cinematic Exit

You expect change when you visit a city regularly. However, it’s still jarring when seemingly permanent elements of that city disappear.

That’s what I discovered in Kraków, my first stop on this year’s Lonely Planet assignment.

For the next few weeks I’ll be travelling around the whole of Poland, updating the Poland chapter of the Eastern Europe guidebook.

I began in the Polish city I know best, having lived here in 1994-95 as an English language teacher.

Kraków is an effortlessly beautiful city and its main attractions never change: the sprawling main market square, the Rynek Główny; mighty Wawel Castle; the narrow streets of Kazimierz.

However, in my own mental map of the city there are other fixtures, one of which was the tiny Kino Pasaż. Slotted within an arcade leading off the main square, this 42 seat cinema was a shabby little gem.

When Narrelle and I lived here in the 1990s, this was the place where current releases went to die, providing a last chance to catch them before they left the big screen altogether.

To be frank, I was expecting the Kino Pasaż to be closed when I returned to Poland as a travel writer in 2006, having been away for 11 years.  

Single screen cinemas were under pressure in city centres everywhere around the world, and this had no particular architectural charms that might have saved it as an art house venue - it was just seven rows of six seats (or was it six rows of seven?) in a scuffed old room.

So imagine my surprise to find it was still functioning in 2006, then in 2007, and in 2008. By now it had entered my own private folklore of the city, an eternal piece of Kraków’s furniture.

Then, last Thursday, I walked through the arcade to discover that the Kino Pasaż was no more.

The letters spelling out its name were still attached to the wall, and there was even a relatively recent film poster pasted on the door. But there were clear signs of closure, and I was able to peer through a recently uncovered window to see the battered old cinema seats within.

A woman working in a nearby office confirmed that the cinema had closed the previous year. As I stood there contemplating its closure and the likely removal of those big metal letters that had been there for god knew how long, I felt a distinct pang of grief.

Its closure wasn’t at all unlikely, after all. In an age of modern cinema multiplexes and boutique art house outlets, an ugly duckling like the Kino Pasaż was always living on borrowed time.

But still, it was a part of my life in Kraków in the 1990s, when Poland seemed much more foreign to me than it does now, as a comforting place to take in an English language movie.

And it was comforting to keep encountering it as the years went by, a tiny fragment of my own life’s narrative. I distinctly remember seeing Rapa Nui there, for example, an obscure Hollywood flick about Easter Island; an experience which provided context when I finally visited Easter Island a decade later.

So the Kino Pasaż is gone, and in a few years almost no-one will remember it was once there. But it lives on here, and in my mind.