From Lublin With Love
It was in April that I last wrote about Lublin, but penned as my column was during the lockdown, it was an ode based on memory rather than anything more recent.
So with that in mind, let me allow for an update: having spent months thinking about Lubbers, I finally used last weekend to climb off my sofa and train it to the city. Using a football match as my ulterior motive, I travelled down with lofty expectations.
“Things always go right in Lublin,” I reminded myself.
And yes, they most certainly did this time as well.
It helped that I began with Old Town. No matter how many times I’ve seen it before, there’s something about Brama Krakowska that electrifies the senses. A solid, 14th century structure capped with a Baroque era finish, it’s a gateway that causes you to stop.
“Halt,” it seems to say, “you are about to enter history”.
And indeed you are.
Though it never really proved much use in battle (in 1656, Lubliners decided it’d be a whole lot easier for everyone if they just let the surrounding Cossacks in), the stout brick tower did at least double as a nice little home for the town trumpeter.
As historic centres go, it’s one of my favourites in Poland, a place of wonky, cobbled streets and mysterious passages accessed through dipping, dark archways.
But despite the tangle of twists and turns, it’s an Old Town that makes it easy to get your bearings and that’s thanks to its central element, an artery known as Grodzka. Walking down it, you pass the vanilla-coloured Royal Court of Justice and the unearthed foundations of a mediaeval church before reaching another striking gateway that leads to the castle.
Moorish in its design, its postcard perfect silhouette gives way to an interior whose highlight is a chapel filled with lavish 15th century polychromes.
Now, I’d strongly suspected that Lublin would be dead given the general implosion of tourism, but with morning giving way to noon I exited the castle to find hives of sightseers clambering over each other to wrestle over ice cream and selfie spots – I’d scoff, usually, but given the times it was heartening to see such an emphatic return to normality.
Likewise, it was similarly heartening to see that so many of my old haunts had survived the gastro cull. Newbies had also been added to their number, and whilst I’m naturally prone to hyperbole, it would be no exaggeration to call Święty Spokój the best café I’ve visited for years.
Positioned in the shadow of Brama Krakowska, it’s the kind of venue that instantly engages: on one side, a hip vinyl store fringed by towering shelves of broken-spined books, and on the other, a retro-designed café vending specialty coffee and wacky craft beers.
Retreating to their pavement terrace to people watch (a polite codeword for ogle), I’m not sure I’ve smiled so much for months.
But Lublin is more than just the Old Town. For me, it’s a living history lesson and that’s exactly what comes to mind when exploring the shattered tenements just to the north.
Once forming a part of one of the biggest Ghettoes in occupied Europe, swathes seem frozen in time – you enter chilly courtyards filled with stagnant, slimy puddles and explore gnarled, wooden stairwells smelling of rot and rats.
Adding an extra layer to the experience, it’s somewhat a voyeuristic thrill to walk past the long-shuttered dive bars and bizarre large-scale murals.
Filled with the frowning faces of dozens of gnomes, one such artwork found on Targowa announces “Jest Super”. Painted in 2014, it’s apparently “a comment on the incomprehensible optimism of Poles in the face of the deteriorating state of the country.”
But if there is decay, it’s not in evidence on Krakowskie Przedmieście. More elegant than many Polish high streets I can think of, it’s magically split by Pl. Litewski.
As loud as the backlash has been about Poland’s outbreak of so-called ‘concretosis’, on Pl. Litewski its concrete coating looks smart and pristine – not least, that’s down to a dazzling fountain arrangement that’s particularly captivating at night, as well as the temporary addition of the world’s first ‘virtual doorway’.
Seeking to foster a sense of global unity, the digital portal was unveiled in May to link Lublin with Vilnius via a pair of circular screens capable of beaming real-time images between the towns.
I can say for a fact that in Britain such a concept would have been hijacked by gesturing yobs, so it was charming to see it being used for its real, intended purpose: young and old alike blowing kisses, sharing heart signs and giving waves to their Lithuanian counterparts.
However, this isn’t the only innovation on the strip. Further up, the CSK cultural centre never ceases to impress with its imposing glass form. What it’s true purpose is remains something of a mystery to me, but according to them they look to “break patterns, provoke questions and inspire.” Mission accomplished.
Immensely user-friendly, I can’t recommend it highly enough – entering, you do so with an open mind to find yourself confronted by impossible stairwells stacked on one another, glass-encased, vertiginous skywalks, apiaries, on-trend galleries and outbreaks of art. There’s much to enjoy while you daydream and dawdle.
Drawing visitors in, one such display encourages visitors to pin personal bits and pieces to a wall of wire: bus tickets, messages, café loyalty cards, passport photos or whatever else you may be holding at the bottom of your pocket.
Walking through a tunnel of glowing red blocks, you exit to view giant cuddly animals suspended in the air.
Normal does not work here, so it’s apt that the centre is also home to the flagship bar of one of Poland’s most experimental breweries: Browar Zakładowy. Scandinavian in its aesthetic, and lively in its spirit, overlooking their bar should be punished by spanking.
Of course, this part of town is not all about the future, and in Saski Gardens opposite you find a magical counter-ballast: inspired by its Warsaw namesake, this 19th century park is an oasis of serenity, its long, skinny trees casting fantastical shadows on the manicured lawns.
Tragedy, though, is never far away. At Pod Zegarem, the wartime suffering of the Poles is soberly commemorated within the cold confines of a subterranean torture centre once used by the Gestapo. Peering inside the former cells is an uncomfortable experience that feels suffocating and heavy.
It is, however, for the Holocaust that Lublin is better-known, and while instinct carries most visitors to Majdanek concentration camp in the city’s suburbs, the area around Saski is not short on sights.
Nicknamed the SS Quarter, it was to all intents and purposes the administrative heart of the Holocaust. Although the SS bowling alley, bar and brothel were dismantled a few years previously and rebuilt as a swanky office complex, other landmarks remain.
Now a law school, it was inside Collegium Iuridicum that Aktion Reinhard – which resulted in the murder of over two million Jews – was planned; close by, Christian Wirth, the inspector the Reinhard camps (Bełżec, Sobibór, and Treblinka) lived in what now has the appearance of a rickety cottage on Wieniawska 7.
Further, and now housing the HQ of a specialty coffee roasters, Lubomelskiej 4-6 was the personal residence of one of the Holocaust’s primary perpetrators, Odilo Globocnik.
Given the quiet residential atmosphere that permeates the area today, it’s hard to fathom that these pretty little streets were once home of such horror.
Thankfully, there’s no shortage of lighter diversions, either, and none are more bewildering than Tadeusz Bobek’s tribute to Le Corbusier. Balanced on V-shaped pillars, and set in a wave-like form, the office block on Lubomelska 1-3 is a contradiction of art and nightmare. Taking nearly 20-years to complete, it’s positives and negatives leave you bamboozled.
But what of the match I’d planned on seeing? A more fitting finale I could not have wished for. Marketed as Motor Lublin’s biggest match of the millennium, it saw the local side running out against fallen giants Ruch Chorzow.
Attracting a bumper crowd of 9,000 (for ‘real feel’, it would help to add a zero), what followed was a devastating display of pyrotechnics and the kind of wall of noise that left the head spinning. What a night this was.
Perched up in the best seats in the house (VIP ticket from PLN 135) it was a gratifying end to a weekend to remember. Lublin, let’s do this again and let’s do it soon.