Poland was as wonderful as I’d hoped. The travelling, the cities, the people, the conference: all enormously pleasurable; all wonderfully thought-provoking. If you’ll excuse the indulgence, I’ll spend two or three posts on my reflections and some thoughts. This post is on the journey to Lublin: the architecture, shops and bridges of Cologne and Warsaw and the sights, sounds and smells of the trains and trams that got me across Europe. I’m afraid I don’t have time to write a short post, so I’ve had to do a long one instead.
Ignoring my diversion to Canterbury on the way down, I travelled to Lublin in five stages:
1/ Nottingham to London by East Midlands trains (covered here)
2/ London St.Pancras to Brussels Midi by Eurostar
3/ Bruxelles Midi to Koln Hbf by Thalys
4/ Koln Hbf to Warszawa Centralna by Jan Kiepura (EuroNight sleeper train)
5/ Warszawa Wschodnia to Lublin by PKP TLK (Polish State Railways semi-fast train)
The total travelling time from Nottingham-Lublin was around 21 hours, but I deliberately allowed myself time to sightsee around Cologne and Warsaw on the way there and Warsaw and Brussels on the way back, meaning I took around 36 hours to make each journey. The total cost was £220, which comapres favourably with flying when you factor in free food and coffee on two trains and the fact that travelling by train is infinitely preferable in that you get to see so much more (from the windows and when changing trains) and in that you do far less damage to the environment. And the incredible experiences that you have…
I enjoyed the Eurostar more than I’d expected: the thrill of travelling at 186mph is really quite something; it still seems so futuristic to me that it’s hard to believe they’ve been running for 16 years now (and that the French and Japanese have been reaching such speeds with their trains for decades). My enjoyment was tempered slightly due to the fact that I was sitting behind a lady who pulled the window blind down over half way as soon as we left the tunnel under London. Had she asked I wouldn’t really have minded, but I came over all superior and decided that my desire to see the landscapes of Kent was more important than her desire to read an abysmal ‘lifestyle’ magazine without the glare of the sun bothering her. I spent the next hour or so slowly inching the blind up but she got off at Calais and the French/Belgian countryside was all mine. Not that it’s especially interesting, but little matches the joys of looking out of the window of a train for me and it certainly beat Nottingham-New Street, if only for novelty value.
I had a couple of hours at Brussels Midi which revealed itself to be a truly uninspiring station- detractors of Euston should be forced to spend some time there: it really is drearily forgettable. I also ventured so far as to poke my head around the surrounding area but this proved to contain no more joys so I retired inside for a coffee and muffin, immediately disproving the theory that it’s impossible to get bad coffee on the continent. My spirits were lifted by the site of one of Brussel’s many President’s Conference Committee trams (yup, that’s the name of the manufacturer), the design of which dates back to the 50s.
My initially negative impression of Brussels was reinforced further, however, with a near death experience on the platform as I waited for the Thalys to Cologne. ‘Brussels’ is often used as a byword for POLITICALCORRECTNESSHEALTHANDSAFETYEUROPEANBUREAUCRATSGONEMAD in Britain, but it would appear no-one had told the driver of the articulated delivery wagons supplying catering products to my train, for he tried to reverse down a particularly narrow and particularly crowded stretch of platform, almost knocking me (and several others) into the path of our arriving train.
Surviving this, I boarded. I’d got a first class ticket to Cologne; it was a fiver more and included food and coffee, which was brought to my seat by an immaculately coiffured, tanned and dressed steward who reeked of cologne (which, as I discovered later, many men in Cologne do: and I took a quick detour into a department store to check if it was the eau de Cologne, and indeed it was).
The food was an odd mix. A tiny plastic cup (rather like the ones my parents used to give me Calpol in) filled with a lovely pea veloute; a cold white fish I could not identify, sugar snap peas, an overwhelmingly strong (and strange) tumeric cake/bread slice, another plastic cup of houmous and some radishes and cucumber. Oh, and a bread roll of the finest central/west European variety- designed to eliminate weak teeth with the utmost efficiency.
And another cup of shit coffee.
The train itself shot through Belgium. Brussels North, I noted, was of an infinitely preferable design to Midi- a cool, art deco efficiency to its clock tower marking it out from the glass monstrosities which dwarf it.
We didn’t stop there though; first port of call was Liege, which has a truly magnificent station, even if it does have something of the showpiece airport terminal about it. It’s not sealed off from the town though, which I like- the platform shelter roof framed the ‘outside world’ rather nicely. The best photographs seem to show it under construction (it’s now finished), but they give an impression of its grandeur. Part of me hopes the town’s workers rediscover their 1961 radicalism though, when they smashed the station’s predecessor up over disatisfaction at low pay and job cuts. These buildings seem a little too self-satisfied with their position, somehow; as if divorced from the hustle, bustle and trouble of the outside world. No matter how hard they try, they still seem to be marked by the problem of what Marc Auge calls ‘non-place’; places of transience whose significance lies in the fact that you pass through them, pausing only for a coffee or to use an ATM.
Whilst the sheer effort and size of Liege Guillemins (to give the station its correct name) seems to suggest it might transcend this problem of non-space, to me it seems to embrace it and magnify it. Perhaps I’m being too harsh, and I’d certainly like to ‘use’ the station rather than just pass through it. And at least they’ve tried, as opposed to, say, the recent redevelopment of Derby station.
Cologne Hauptbanhof is infinitely preferable to me, though. It’s modestly spectacular, if that makes sense, and seems to both frame the city and be an integral part of the city. The glassed roof allows in plenty of light and on the approach to the station and the exit from it you’re dwarfed by the incredible gothic cathedral, which survived the Allied bombardment in the war (perhaps not by accident- its towers were apparently used as navigational aids by Allied pilots).
I spent the rest of my time walking around Cologne, with a vague idea of where I wanted to head. It’s a picturesque if unremarkable city, though I warmed to it immediately. I spent a great deal of time in the Kompakt record shop and bought what I think was a mixtape in Groove Attack (their sister shop, I think- and highly recommended). I was drawn to this by the inlay card, which featured various rail freight wagons graffiti’d (in full American subway style) with the names of Pitchfork indie types: Bonnie Prince Billy, Neil Young, The Van Pelt, Modest Mouse. I had no idea what the music was like, but the trains drew me in and for six euros it seemed worth a punt; particularly as I didn’t fancy carrying vinyl around the rest of Europe with me. Unfortunately, I left the damn thing on the sleeper train, so I fear I’ll never find out.
I had an absolutely delicious pizza in Ristorante Sansone and went for a final walk; crossing the Rhine by the Rodenkirchener suspension bridge and back via the Hohenzollernbrücke- a truly spectacular rail and pedestrian bridge. I guess bridges should constitue non-places too: they are, after all, designed for transience. But at their best they interrupt the seamless journeys of (post)modern traveller; forcing them to sit up and take notice. Those going over water are always especially evocative- there’s always a slight thrill from the menacing depths beneath them. Hohenzollernbrücke is also notable for a number of love padlocks (these gave me a Kanye West earworm which would not leave me for a week), and I saw one couple cement their love in such a way- culminating with a quick kiss and a ceremonial chucking of the key into the depths of the Rhine.
I made it back to the station in plenty of time: I was knackered, and paranoid about missing the train. This was to be my first sleeper experience, and I was full of nervous energy when it finally pulled in ten minutes late (forgivable, given that it had come from Amsterdam). I found my couchette (a cabin with six bunks) easily and- as it was dark- decided to settle straight down. I had a reasonable chat with those I was sharing with, who- as it turned out- were also heading on to Lublin, though the language barrier prevented me from finding out where they’d been or why.
I had a reasonable sleep, though it was broken by the uncertainty of my surroundings and my natural curiosity. Everytime we stopped I wanted to pull back the curtains to find out where we were: I have a desperate desire to know such things and hate not being able to pinpoint my location on a map. By 5am I was wide awake and decided to go and sit in the seated carriage: this was just in time for arrival in Berlin Ostbanhof, which meant I got to see the sun come up over a city I’ve always wanted to visit.
A trip to the loo revealed the fact that the door on the last coach of the train was glass, meaning you can stand there and watch the tracks disappear behind you. I spent probably an hour engaged in such a manner, and had a friendly chat with a guy who’d gone there to smoke (which you can still do in certain ‘vestibule areas’, as they’re wont to call them on British trains).
You’re in Poland not long after leaving Berlin (I’d never quite realised how close to the border it is before). The countryside between there and Warsaw reminded me of nothing so much as the Fens, which I have traversed many a time on my way to relatives in Norfolk. It seemed the same mix of tiny hamlets, anonymous warehouses and endlessly flat farmland. I had the joys of a breakfast (scrambled egg, breads and a cheese platter, and a cappucino- all for 14zl (£2.80)) in the buffet car and felt most contended with life.
The journey to the buffet was a joy in itself: the train is made up of various coaches going to and from various places: a few Polish and German coaches on the Amsterdam-Warsaw service; some more from the Frankfurt-Warsaw train; Russian coaches going from Amsterdam-Moscow; and a lone Belarusian coach going from Amsterdam-Minsk (the latter two also going via Warsaw). Each country’s coaches had marked differences; most profoundly in smell and carpet. The Russian coaches smelt exactly how I’d imagine Russia to smell: vaguely modern and vaguely musty- a ghostly scent of Communism’s failure, perhaps. The posher Polish coaches (with cabins rather than couchettes) smelt overwhelmingly of rose-scented cleaning products and the Belarusian coach smelt of coffee and cigarettes. The latter also had a quite wonderful rug stretched along the corridor:
Still the endless fenlike flatness trundled past- punctuated by occasional stops and the thoroughly depressing site of an enormous Tesco warehouse. A stop in Poznan enlivened the surroundings, it being a city I’d like to visit one day, and which I feel is probably more lively than, say, Wisbech…
…and Ely certainly has nothing on Warsaw.
I’d heard mostly negative things about the city before I arrived, but was almost instantly blown away. Warszawa Centralna station- where I disembarked- is everything New Street should be. Owen writes about it in a far more architecturally literate manner than I here.
I spent a good 5 minutes on the platform soaking up the atmosphere and watching trains arrive and depart- including a good few hauled by the EP07s and EU09s I mentioned in my previous post.
The station isn’t enormously easy to navigate though. I wanted to come up in the main hall to see what it was like and buy a drink, but found myself navigating an interminable (though quite wonderful) underground shopping mall (which is still above platform level); eventually coming up by the side of an uncrossable main road. I disappeared back into this labyrinth and eventually managed to resurface in the main hall- which is every bit as impressive as Owen makes it out to be, though is spoiled slightly by the tacky looking PKP boards (though these are helpful, as they clearly list every departure and arrival). I was also amazed- and pleased- by the total lack of international chains (though, thinking about it, ‘Pumpkin cafe’ probably wouldn’t be recognisable to a foreign traveller traversing Britain’s railways). I’d expected to see a Costa, or Starbucks, or even a Polish equivalent: but everything seemed fairly one-off: little news kiosks and a fast foody type restaurant, with kebabs, little newsagents and a bookshop on the concourse immediately below the booking hall.
Leaving the hall, the next thing that hit me about Warsaw was the heat: it was in the high 30s (astonishingly hot for Warsaw, where the hottest July temperature on record is 35 celsius, which I’m sure must have broken- one building’s thermometer said 38). And then the trams! They were everywhere. Some were unromantic low floor articulated things which bore a resemblance to Sheffield’s ‘Supertram’ trams, but my heart was stirred by the site (and whine) of a pair of these beauties whizzing past:
They’re alarmingly common in Eastern Europe, and probably as dull to those who live there as, I dunno, a Plaxton bus is to us. But to me it was wonderful, though I can’t help but wonder if I have some Iron Curtain form of Orientalism.
My first port of call required no such transportation though. The Palace of Culture and Sciences- a ‘gift’ from Stalin to Communist Poland- is Warsaw’s tallest building (and the world’s 187th), and a mighty example of socialist realism. It’s right next to Centralna station (though accessible only through the maze of subways). Whilst the ideology which built the building is abhorrent to me, as is what the building stands for (which one might generously call paternalism), I can’t help but be attracted by it. My aesthetics and my politics rarely match- and architecture is perhaps where I feel this most strongly. The non-spaces of capitalism always abhor me, but I can’t embrace anarchistic dwellings and love those produced by State Socialism.
The building currently houses a cinema (I later learned this was once called Kino-Prawda: ‘cinema of truth’, but it’s now called Kinoteka: google translates ‘teka’ as ‘briefcase’, I assume it’s more a play on ‘biblioteque’ or ‘discoteque’), a few theatres, an art gallery (with an environmental themed exhibition sponsored by Renault…), offices and seemingly thousands of starlings, which swoop in and out of the rafters and circle the viewing platform- to where I quickly headed. Predictably, this has some cracking views of Warsaw- I was particularly taken by the red and white chimneys of the power stations as well as the appalling row of glass fronted shops: C&A, H&M, Marks & fucking Spencers on Marszalkowska Street.
I descended the ‘Palace’ to find another site familiar to Brits: an open top bus from the City Sightseeing franchise, which was waiting to depart. Whilst I’m wary of these things (and their price), I was knackered from walking around Cologne and decided it’d be a decent way to scout out interesting locations I could visit on my return to Warsaw on the journey back to Nottingham.
I initially miscalculated the cost of a ticket, thinking 60zl was £1.20. It is, in fact, £12- which is what these tours tend to cost in Britain’s most touristy places- Stratford-upon-Avon and London, where there are thousands of rich tourists to soak up the extortion. Little wonder that there was hardly anyone on the bus (and no-one Polish: a Warsaw bus/tram day ticket- as I later found out- costs 9zl). It nearly proved the death of me too; I have encountered suicidal bus driving before (notably on the Isle of Arran, where the driver seemed to think he was Colin MacRae), but nothing on this scale. Cobbled streets, reversing police cars, pedestrians, red lights: nothing thwarted this driver’s need for speed. His haste meant that the GPS triggered commentary rarely matched the actual location of the bus, but I got a good flavour of what was where and so the bus served its purpose.
One thing that struck me was the startling mix of architecture in the city. I’m not sure what I think of rebuilding demolished buildings in their original style- but it’s done very tastefully in Warsaw (and if I did have an opinion, I think I’d keep it to myself: it’s not my city that was destroyed by the Nazis, so it’s really not my place to stick my aesthetics in). And it contributes to a remarkable mix of rebuilt 15th-18th century, socialist realism, socialist brutalism and glass skyscraper’d capitalism: a bizarre hybridity which really struck me.
I’ll deal with my return to Warsaw- when I visited the old town, the ghetto and visited the uprising monuments- in a later post. My time on my first visit was pushed by my need to get to Wschodnia (East) station for the train to Lublin. I wanted to leave plenty of time for this as I had no idea how to get there. I had a map and decided to walk, but the head eventually defeated me and I decided to take a tram. Disappointingly, this wasn’t one of the Konstal 14Ns- though it was a pleasingly boxy Konstal from the 80s.
Wschodnia station is remarkable. It’s quite something on first view…
…but is in a terribly crumbling state inside, as if it’s Pripyat’s main station. Pigeon crap is everywhere, and there’s a real air of melancholy. Which of course I quite like, and the flap display board is quite something. The underpass to the platforms is truly bizarre and is dotted with little market stalls selling DVDs, magazines and lots selling various kinds of bread and pastries (from where I purchased a delicious bread/tomato/cheese/pepper roll thing). These stalls are great but the underpass surpasses even the booking hall for its state of disrepair. Needless to say, I found it most evocative. You can certainly see why Joy Division initially called themselves Warsaw, and despite the encroachment of free market capitalism it remains a wonderfully brutal, crumbling, strangely alluring city in places.
Near to Wschodnia is the National Stadium, being constructed for the opening game of Euro 2012 (it will also host a semi-final)- which Poland is co-hosting with Ukraine. The stadium’s another example of this creeping globalisation: it’s a fairly anonymous design and is built on the site of the fascinating Tenth Anniversary Stadium, which shut as a football stadium in 1989 and survived hosting an enormous market selling huge amounts of counterfeited goods. It was also the site of Ryszard Siwiec’s self-immolation in protest of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 (at a state propaganda festival attended by 100,000 people). To build such a predictably drab stadium on the site saddens me somewhat, as do the plans to renovate Wschodnia station in time for Euro 2012:
This was the part of the journey I’d been looking forwards to the most, and it didn’t disappoint. The train was hauled by an EU-09 locomotive and the non-matching liveries of the coaches reminded me of late 80s British Rail, when it was common to see an engine in one livery and the coaches in two or three more. It trundled, creaked and squealed its way south-east through the countryside (which was slightly bumpier and decidedly more forested than that to the west of Warsaw). Coaches had compartments (which are still fairly common in Europe) and you can open the windows to stick your head out- which I frequently did (though one has to be wary for passing foliage). It travelled through a gentler Poland; people swimming in lakes and rivers, and an old man loading broken up cement into a horse drawn cart. The sun was still blazing but I still detected a certain darkness to the landscape; this perhaps something more psycho than geographical though, my western imagination overlaying narratives of dangerous Eastern European forests and Katalin Varga-esque rawness over what- in reality- is actually far more benign.
Just before the train pulled into Lublin (two and a half hours after leaving Wschodnia), it passed a quite magnificent engine shed- complete with turntable- which is still in use (I can’t find a photo, unfortunately). It still looked proud, despite its rather run-down state (and the rusty looking locomotives surrounding it).
It was a fine way to end a 1,300 mile journey.