Welcome to The Special K – Kielce!
The way I view it, you can divide Poland’s cities into two distinct groups: first, you’ve got the Super League hubs with thriving economies, large populations, enlightened policy makers, bags of tourists and heaps to see, eat, drink and do.
In that bracket I place the likes of Warsaw, Poznań. Łódź, Kraków, Wrocław and the Tri-City conurbation. Come to think of it, I’d include Katowice in there as well. Then, you have ‘The Rest’. But this lot have not been created equally, and in their number you get the ones that ‘have’ and the ones that ‘have not’.
Where does Kielce fit in those? I’m not sure, but I’m angling towards the former. Though lacking in overt attractions like a ‘Visit Me Old Town’, it’s got enough pleasures and treasures to make it quite special. In fact, I’ve actually started calling it The Special K.
I can support this assertion by presenting you with what I reckon is a sure-fire candidate for Poland’s most insanely creative building: the bus station.
Looking like it was dreamt up by Douglas Adams, this flying saucer structure was opened in 1975 after nine-years of work. It was worth the wait. Amid growing resentment of the Communist system, and to a backdrop of looming economic catastrophe, it was presented by the authorities as proof of Poland’s optimistic future.
Defined by its cosmic outlines, and dotted with 2,700 disc-shaped lights, it became known as the Pearl of Kielce and – unlikely as it seems – a tourist attraction in its own right. Recently reopened after a sensitive refit, it’s back to its best, dazzling all who view it with its memorable form.
When even the bus station looks like this, you know it won’t be a weekend that’s wasted. I was though, and that fell squarely on the shoulders of my hotel of choice.
You see, I’ve always wanted to stay in a pub, and that ambition was realized when I came across a place called the Shoemaker. Tucked through a skanky passageway, my initial alarm found itself alleviated the moment the place came into sight.
Greeted by an exterior of poppy red colours and cascading plant life, I knew immediately that this was one of the smarter choices I’ve made. Though Polish-owned, I’ve yet to find a more convincing Irish pub in this country – quite happily I spent the evening ensconced under a black-and-white picture of Grandmother Murray while road-testing their Guinness in the spirit of research.
And despite running into a tearful, naked Russian geezer in the corridor (I can offer no explanation), my accommodation also hit the spot: an atmospheric attic room embellished with emerald green colours and dark wooden panels. As far as I know, the Russian remained weeping outside for the duration of the night.
Come dawn, I was ready to explore, and this first meant walking Sienkiewicza: touted as the town’s main artery, and lined with occasionally fancy tenements, this gently dipping street stretches for over a kilometre and brings to mind memories of Piotrkowska in Łódź.
Similarly, it’s infilled with little bits and pieces: a monument of the heroic wartime courier Jan Karski sat on a bench (similar representations of him can be found in Washington and New York); a trumpet-tooting Miles Davis; and a standout statue of the street’s patron, the writer Henry Sienkiewicz posed by a Roman column.
But though the importance of Sienkiewicza street cannot be overstated, it is on its flanks that the city comes alive.
So named for its regular outbreaks of public art and general popularity with young, scholarly painters, Pl. Artystów narrows down to lead you onto Kapitulna which kicks-off in style with a statue of a noble-looking boar.
Relating to the legend of the city’s foundation (in short: hapless prince gets lost, animal saves the day), it’s become a much-loved feature of Kielce. Even so, it pales when compared to what lies a little bit further.
For quite some time, the city was the summer escape for the Bishops of Kraków and their influence is visible by way of Kielce’s most photogenic attractions: a cathedral sporting 19th century frescoes and, most compelling of all, the Pałac Biskupów.
Completed in 1644 to the Baroque musings of Tommaso Poncino of Lugano, it’s an impactful tease of turrets and towers. Having first walked the pristine gardens behind, enter inside to tour a collection of weaponry, paintings by Polish masters and the standard collection of coins and scrolls.
Without devaluing this branch of the National Museum, the true power lies in simply walking the interiors of this quite magical palace. Decorated with intricate friezes, restored polychromes, beautiful plafonds and painted larch beams, it’s hard not to be stirred by the imperious majesty.
You certainly should be, for much of what you see came from the Krakowian workshop of Tommaso Dolabella, an Italian painter best-known for his work on Venice’s Palazzo Ducale.
Back outside, and it’s equally blissful to just soak in the full frontal glory of everything ahead. Now recently, much noise has been made by architecture critics (everyone’s an expert now, eh?) about concretosis – namely, the Polish predilection towards casting her public spaces in a thick cape of concrete.
Done correctly, I see nothing wrong with this, and in the case of Kielce I feel it serves to accent and highlight the beauty of the wider scene.
After all, it’s not like there’s no shortage of greenery, and that’s apparent if, like me, you take an accidental turn and end up in Park Stanisława Staszica. One of the oldest in Poland, it’s a park filled with shaded alcoves, leafy trails and burbling fountains.
But for those who enjoy nature in its rawer, unrefined form, that too can be had not far away in a place called Kadzielnia. A former quarry, it’s thick with rocky cliff faces and dense vegetation.
All the more remarkable considering its proximity to the centre, such is its power and look that it’s said that a few East German spaghetti westerns were filmed in this spot.
And this is what I really like about Kielce – the surprises just keep adding up. It was when I was sweating and panting back into town that I came upon the city’s Museum of Toys. Seeing that I never really advanced that far beyond the mental age of 11, I knew I couldn’t miss this.
Serving as the country’s oldest and biggest collection of such infantile amusements, it passes in a bit of a madness: PRL plastic tat, epic models, creepy dolls, and even lead soldiers from the days of the Third Reich. Whatever way you look at it it’s inexplicably enchanting.
Yet if I thought that would be the biggest shocker, the best was around the corner – literally.
Visiting Kielce I had suspected that, at one point, I would have to resort to eating the soles of my shoes. What I hadn’t gambled on was unearthing a place called Sushi-Ya. Offering a spectacular Japanese experience, what transpired was the kind of culinary journey I never expected.
Subsequently, I’ve learned that many hail it to be the best Japanese in the country, and to this I can offer no resistance. Go there. And while you’re at it, enjoy Kielce as well.