Arriving in Białystok, I suddenly remembered what living was all about. I wanted to kiss the ground
Now first things first – let’s begin by agreeing that Białystok is NOT the world’s greatest city. An easy ask, I’d guess. But here’s something you probably didn’t know – for 48-hours it came bloody close.
I say this because having spent two months hermetically sealed inside my Warsaw apartment, it was to Białystok that I headed to celebrate the easing of the lockdown. True, you could have dropped me into a war zone and I’d have enthused about its lively atmosphere, but it was to Białystok I went – and I left with no regrets.
Not that I did much. On my one and only previous visit to this north-eastern city, my travel buddy and I happened upon a British pub pretty much immediately and then proceeded to spend the rest of our stay finishing their entire supply of Pimm’s.
Staff aside, the only other person we saw that trip was a vagrant committing a vile, ungodly act in the shadow of a bush. What was Białystok really like? We left none the wiser.
This time, I was keen to avert the mistakes of the past: avoid the pub; visit museums; mingle with the locals; and enjoy the regional food. Of course, I failed on every count.
So what did I do then? Primarily, I was there for a football match, a dead rubber of a game pitting the mighty Jagiellonia against Lechia Gdańsk – originally meant as a daytrip, the prospect of stepping inside a stadium for the first time since October proved too much to handle. Let’s make a weekend of it, I figured.
Honestly, just climbing onto a train felt a thrill, and as for Białystok, that’s changed quite a bit since the last I was there. I mean, the train station alone has been transformed from a stinky, grotty smudge into a magnificent swish of elegant, pre-war details.
The hotels, too, have improved quite a bit. Previously, I’d stayed in a pleasant enough place, just something more akin to an upmarket B&B rather than the boutique kingdom that the website had promised.
Now though, I found myself choosing between the five star Hotel Royal (featuring a brewery on ground level) and Traugutta 3, a place recently spotlighted by the lifestyle program Tu Jest Pięknie. Of their selling points, it was the free minibar that immediately caught the eye.
The decision, literally, fell on the toss of a coin: Traugutta 3 it was. And what a place.
Occupying a modern brick building attached to the remains of a former Tsarist era barracks, homages to the structure’s heritage come by way of portraiture of whiskered, medal-adorned gentlemen, a scattering of equestrian statues and a proliferation of antique-looking chests.
But this is not some fusty old time warp; beautifully appointed, it’s a stylish swirl of shiny surfaces and contemporary bits and pieces. Everything you see is a sensory joy, right down to rooms fitted with vintage phones and surprising elements like cavalryman’s jackets and quirky bits of art.
Tempting as it was to head into town, the novelty of being in a great hotel for the first time in a while won through, and I happily spent the first day ensconced in my room making occasional forays to reception to stock up on beer sourced from a niche, nearby brewery.
With Sunday set aside for exploration, I headed into Białystok’s city centre the following day. With little memory of my earlier visit, this was done with some trepidation.
“Even the habitually enthusiastic official Polish guidebooks are mute on the glories of Białystok,” cautioned the travel bible I’d taken on my trip, before picking up a sledgehammer to paint a damning picture of a town of “billowing smokestacks, ugly tower blocks and faceless open streets”.
Happily, this is not the city that I saw. Turning into the Rynek, nothing prepared me for the sea of life with which I was immediately confronted: balloon waving kids lining up for a Ferris wheel; families piling out of church dressed in their Sunday best; teenagers weaving amid the crowds on electric scooters; buskers filling the air with parping brass instruments; and cafe terraces crammed to capacity with coffee-sipping couples.
In that moment, for the first time in months, I suddenly remembered what living was all about. I wanted to kiss the ground.
Needless to say, as if on cue, Mother Nature played its Joker; when I say the heavens opened, I’m really not lying. Sure I’ve been wetter, just only after swimming.
Seeking shelter in a pub garden alongside Versace clad geezers that looked like cage fighters and the kind of women that you’d guess aspire to own a solarium, I waited out the rest of the afternoon until the time came to order up a cab and head onwards to the match.
Soaked through to the bone I may have been, but nothing could wipe the smile from my face hearing the click of the turnstiles and the chants of the crowd. Sparse though the attendance was – 25% capacity due to Covid regulations – it was enough to bring memories of the good days rolling back in droves.
Surely, this was all just an elaborate hallucination? With rain aborting pretty much all my remaining plans for the day, it wasn’t until Monday morning that I actually engaged in sightseeing of sorts: a jaunt to the cosmic St. Roch’s Church (which at one point was to be turned into a circus for the Red Army); a look around the PRL era onion-domed Orthodox Church (the largest Orthodox church in Poland); and a glimpse within the majestic twin-towered Cathedral.
That this is a staunchly religious city is never much in doubt. But if the churches were welcoming, the museums were less so. Now you’d imagine that Poland’s cultural institutions have enjoyed enough days off already this year, but my hopes that the lockdown would have prompted them to abandon the practice of closing on Monday proved ill-founded.
For this reason I found myself loitering outside a curious looking military museum in a state of irritation. Maybe I’d have better luck at the Branicki Palace? No chance.
Dubbed “the Polish Versailles”, initial disappointment that its museum was bolted was soon tempered, however, by an exploration of its courtyards and gardens; here, elaborate sculptures of frolicking cherubs and heroic mythological figures came scattered amid billiard green lawns, trellised gazebos, pristine flowerbeds and tinkling water features.
Delighted to have at least wallowed in this magical aspect of this Baroque style residence, I returned to check-out from the hotel in an exuberant state – the kind of mood that finds you slouched in a station-bound cab smiling through the window as the city passes by.
And I was doing just that when the city revealed its last, final hand – as the taxi pootled its way through traffic, there it was, one of Poland’s most striking murals: a four-storey high effort depicting a girl with a watering can cheerfully positioned above an actual tree. Not a bad finish, I thought. Not bad at all.
In fact, it was all pretty great, so thank you Bialystok. Thank you for making me feel alive once again.