Wednesday 29 June 2011

Poland 4: The Big Jesus of Świebodzin

Nothing makes you feel more cosmopolitan than meeting up with friends in a foreign country.

In 2006 I rendezvoused in Kraków with my Australian friends Ben and Claire who live in London; Ben was actually flying in from Paris while Claire arrived from London, so it was about as cosmopolitan as you can get. Last year Narrelle and I were in Budapest when we met up with our friend Celia, who flew in from Germany.

Last weekend saw the latest instalment: Ben and Claire flew out from London to meet me for a weekend in Poznań, Poland. Though it doesn't attract the international tourism spotlight that the likes of Kraków, Warsaw and Gdańsk receive, it's a lively city with a great dining and nightlife scene, courtesy of its big populations of resident students and visiting businessmen.

However, we had a plan for the Saturday which involved getting out into the Polish countryside. We caught an osobowy train (which stops at every stop, no matter how minor) to the western town of Świebodzin (pronounced shvee-e-bo-jeen). It's a fairly quiet and unexceptional locale, except for its newest attraction, the 33 metre high statue of Christ the King, which stands on a modest hill south of the railway line.

Two of the great things about walking in Poland are a) it's flat almost everywhere except the southern borders; and b) Poles don't assume that everyone's going to drive, so even rural attractions are served by decent footpaths. And so it was in Świebodzin. With the help of both Google Maps and eyesight, we navigated along the streets on foot, happening first upon this church:

I was interested in the large hoop-like arrangement below the statue - it looks like a clock, but it certainly wasn't showing the right time. A small mystery along the way.

By this stage we could see the Christ the King statue poking among the trees and houses, but it was unclear the best way to walk there. Then Claire spotted an access road up to the hill, with a pedestrian path alongside, so we headed up.

This is what we found:

It's hard to give a sense of scale here, but 33m is pretty high. In fact arguably it's the tallest of the various big statues of Christ around the world, depending on the stance you take about including/excluding crowns, plinths, hills and various other factors.

Not that the erection of this Jesus was without controversy. It was the brainchild of a local priest, and a lot of residents and Poles across the nation regarded it as a gaudy folly. There has also been some question of whether its foundations are sufficiently strong.

In fact, on the day we visited the hill was fenced off, and an engineering device was at work probably strengthening the structure, as you can see in the photo above. You certainly wouldn't want to be hanging about beneath if Jesus ever fell.

Anyway, we took a few photos and I popped into the gift shop to buy a postcard and stamps, so I could post Narrelle a greeting from JC.

Then we crossed the railway again to Świebodzin's compact Old Town, centred on its Rynek (market square). Here we discovered this unnamed gentleman, presumably a local musical success:


(I later discovered via Google that it's a likeness of Czesław Niemen, famed Polish musician of the 1960s and '70s. What his connection is with Świebodzin, I'm not sure.)

Świebodzin's centre is like an architectural puzzle - as we walked around, we encountered a medieval church, a 20th century church, baroque and art nouveau facades, remnants of medieval walls, and unmistakable communist-era concrete structures.

They were interwoven into the town's layout, no one element dominating, and it made for a fascinating patchwork of styles. It was as if every era in the eventful history of western Poland (which was sometimes eastern Germany) was represented in stone or concrete somewhere in the town.

I paricularly liked the tower of the town hall. Its castle-like turret made it look medieval, but I felt strongly it must be a nostalgic folly of later years - I'd seen this sort of thing before, eg the 19th century mock castle that is Wrocław Główny train station. And sure enough, the clock tower turned out to have been a 19th century addition. Nice, isn't it?

After that, we dropped into a local restaurant featuring chunky old radios as decor, where the menu promised pierogi domowe (home-made dumplings). They were good, too - good enough for Big Jesus.

Monday 20 June 2011

Leipzig on the Menu

I'm now in Leipzig, Germany, the city in which the communist government of East Germany first crumbled under the weight of public demonstrations in 1989.

However, it's not Leipzig's dramatic political history that's on my mind, but its food. It turns out that Leipzig is a haven for those centuries-old local specialties that pop up on Central European menus as you travel around.

Join me for a meal (taken across a few different restaurants) and I'll show you what I mean...

First course

The Saxons love a good filling potato soup, and this is one I had yesterday. In an unexpected but tasty variation, it contained chunks of smoked salmon:

Main course

Here's a distinctive local dish for my main - Leipziger Allerlei, which more or less means 'Leipzig Allsorts'. Aptly named, as this version was a jumble of carrots, kohlrabi (a type of cabbage), asparagus, cauliflower, snow peas and mushrooms.

Within this vegetable mix were numerous small river crayfish, accompanied by hefty potato dumplings. The whole lot was held together by a subtle sauce. It was probably the healthiest dish I've eaten for weeks:


Here's a glass of Leipziger Gose beer, made to a 300 year old recipe that was almost lost after its sole brewery closed in 1945. It was sporadically manufactured on and off until a local brewer revived it completely in the 1980s.

It's top-fermented and tastes unlike the sort of beer I'm used to - it has a sour taste with a hint of lemon, and is apparently related to white beers:


The dessert here is Leipziger Räbchen. It's made from plums which have been stuffed with marzipan then deep fried. They were served here with a blueberry yoghurt parfait and slow sauce. I don't have much of a sweet tooth, but they were fantastic:

And here's a bonus dessert. It's a Leipziger Lerche, a 19th century cake involving almonds, nuts and marzipan. It supposedly represents the nest of a lark, hence the name - lerche means 'lark' in German:

So it's bon appetit in Leipzig... or rather, "Guten Appetit!"

Friday 17 June 2011

Quirky Dresden

I don't know quite what I expected from Dresden, Germany, which I'm visiting as a short side-trip from my Lonely Planet gig in Poland.

I knew it had been burnt to the ground by a massive British and American bombing campaign very late in World War II, a dark episode believed by many to constitute a war crime. And I knew after that it was part of the Deutsche Democratic Republic (aka East Germany) for nearly a half-century after that.

So between knowledge of the massive war damage of the 1940s and my experiences of architecture elsewhere in the former communist bloc, I wasn't expecting much. Some hideous DDR architecture and maybe even some remaining derelict areas, perhaps, in addition to the numerous museums I'd already heard of.

Which made the reality a pleasant surprise. The communist-era buildings have been given effective facelifts and aren't that noticeable, and there's been an astonishing amount of thoughtful reconstruction and restoration over the past two decades since German reunification.

Though to be honest, sometimes the tourist hub of the Altstadt (Old Town) seems too neatly arranged and a touch sterile. For example, next to my hotel is a laneway full of pubs and restaurants, Weisse Gasse. Each business within it has its name mounted on the buildings in a similar style, and many of these signs are in very familiar fonts (even Comic Sans); which makes the whole set-up seem too generic. Maybe it needs time to wear with age.

Having said that, there's also plenty that's unconventional and distinctive about Dresden, especially within its fantastically earthy and vibrant bar district in Äussere Neustadt across the River Elbe from the Old Town.

Here are some quirky elements I've noticed around the city...

1. Within the Weisse Gasse, here's a statue of a man apparently nicking a goose:

2. One of those busking statues, but this time with a bit of an Old Masters vibe. Can anyone identify the pictorial reference?

3. The amazing Albertinum building, whose courtyard has been covered over to create this foyer for its multiple museums:

4. A section of one of the few overt reminders of the DDR, a big 'striving for socialism' mural on the side of the communist-era Kulturpalast:

5. A curious watery sculpure on a wall within the Kunsthof Passage, a complex of arty shops and restaurants in Äussere Neustadt:

6. This bookish statue at Albertplatz devoted to local boy and famous writer Erich Kästner, best known for his poetry and children's works:

7. And finally, another set of human sculptures. Yeah, I know, this whole living statue thing is old hat, but I really like the way these particular guys looked - like a pair of plaster figurines on a larger scale:

Dresden - it's fun. Next stop - Leipzig!

Friday 10 June 2011

Poland 3: Statues of Silesia

I'm over the halfway point in this year's Lonely Planet assignment in Poland, and I've been traipsing through beautiful Wrocław followed by towns in the vicinity of the Sudeten Mountains.

Something you can always count on in Polish towns, big and small, is interesting statuary and street art. So here's a selection from Silesia...

1. I've written about the gnomes of Wrocław before; they're a series of small statues scattered around the city's streets, based on the folkloric krasnoludek (a kind of cross between a gnome and a dwarf). Each of them is undertaking a specific activity, usually connected to the bnuilding or business they're near. Here's a new one I spotted, next to (of course) the post office:

2. Here's a religious statue from Kłodzko; it intrigued me that one figure has a halo that's triangular. Presumably he's a fan of Pythagoras.

3. A faux piano in the mountain spa town Kudowa-Zdrój; I suspect it's had flowers planted in it at some point. There's a matching cello leaning against a lamp post nearby.

4. The Poles like these bench-based statues, I've seen a few of them around. This one is in the town of Świdnica, and depicts Maria Cunitz (1610-1664). A successor to Copernicus, in 1650 she published Urania Propitia, an acclaimed astronomical work. She's depicted holding the book here:

5. And finally, some of the more outlandish decoration within the Maximilian Hall of Książ Castle, a magnificent former stately home near Świdnica. Can anyone identify the mythological creature on the right? You certainly wouldn't forget her, if you met her at a party...