With an authenticity that’s lacking elsewhere, Lublin has remained true to its soul
All of these months penning this column and not one mention of Lublin.
As oversights go, that’s as absent-minded as forgetting your own middle name. Inexcusable, really.
In my defence, I shouldn’t feel too bad about it – it’s not just me that sometimes forgets about the city, the rest of the country often does so as well.
Unsung and under-the-radar, even before the pandemic I’d say visitor numbers fell just about three jillion people short of what they really should be. Why? Good question, but one I don’t particularly care for. In fact, I like it that way. Let the tourists have Kraków so long as they leave Lublin for me. A fair swap.
As a city, it’s come far. Back when I first visited, 2000 I think it was, the few guidebooks that bothered to feature the city brimmed with terrifying warnings about roving gangs of yobs that menaced the streets of Old Town. “Don’t visit at night,” cautioned one book in my possession, “the area becomes lethal.”
Years of post-war decline had, in those days, rendered the Old Town a smudged and sooty collection of ramshackle streets. But dangerous? Nah. Only to the liver.
My intake on that first trip was obscene, and I recall with fondness a passionate singalong with a Klezmer band that stalked between the tables of an atmospheric Jewish restaurant in a chipped-looking basement; chaotic games of pool in a back alley bar; and prolonged residences in the rickety bars of Grodzka, a steep cobbled street running the length of the Old Town.
It was a good visit.
Much has changed, however, not least in the Old Town where this once dilapidated quarter has since been revived with a flourish. To its endless credit, this has not been done at a cost to the area’s overall atmosphere.
Where many of Poland’s key tourist cities have been hijacked by chain cafés, peasant-themed restaurants and shops selling trinkets, Lublin has remained true to its soul and that much is apparent when exploring its Old Town.
Down wriggly back alleys and past dusty-looking courtyards, one gets the sense of an area that functions not for the benefit of tourists but for the people that actually live there. And yes, people really do. As the laundry that flaps and flutters overhead attests, this is not an area that has been entirely sold and surrendered to Air B’n’B. There’s an authenticity here that’s lacking elsewhere.
It looks good, as well. Generously filled with dramatic archways, lavish churches, semi-secret corners and revamped tenements, it’s enough for me to just wander without aim and let the hours slip away. Concluding at the castle, a magnificently Moorish affair that sparkles white in the sunshine, I can’t think of a Polish Old Town in which I’d really rather be.
But beguiling as it is, there is more to Lublin than its historic centre alone.
Exiting at the Brama Krakowska, an enchanting brick tower that serves as the Old Town’s traditional mouthpiece, a new side to Lublin emerges.
Quieter than its namesake in Warsaw, there’s an elegance to Krakowskie Przedmieście that instantly seduces. And its magic builds the further you go; past Pl. Litewski with its stunning multimedia fountain park, visitors find themselves treading towards the crisply manicured lawns of Saski Gardens, an ageless beauty whose subtle imperial pomp is counter-balanced by the slick, urban aesthetic of the CSK cultural centre opposite.
A truly arresting sight, this cultural hub is worth the trip alone; often eerily bereft of other people, you walk its immense concrete halls past hanging installations and stirring bits of art, occasionally finding yourself stepping into a start-up office that you mistook for a gallery.
With apologies offered and accepted, it’s at that point I traditionally head upwards, for a rooftop walk around the glass-encased walkways, or for an ill-deserved pint in Pub Wielokran. The work of Browar Zakladowy, it’s a place that feels almost Scandinavian in its style: effortlessly cool and spartan with a maverick choice of punk rebel beers.
Sure, I’ve mentioned my liking for Lublin’s nightlife already, but it’s a point worth labouring. I’m not certain there’s anywhere I feel more at home than siding up to the bar of the Perla pub. Run by the town’s dominant brewery, it’s an ultra-modern affair that to me reflects how far the city has come.
Of course, the hotels do as well, and on that front none hold a candle to the spectacular Alter. Inside a tenement once owned by a 16th century goldsmith, here you idle to a delicious background of pristine parquet flooring, vaulted ceilings, cherry wood veneer and restored, bare brickwork. World class in its luxury, there ain’t a better stay in town. Not for miles.
That’s not to say other options don’t exist, and among the stronger choices I’d endorse the art nouveau Grand or the nearby Hotel Wieniawski. Sparkling in its modernity, in recent years the latter has grown to become my hotel of choice, that despite a growing list of calamities that I have to my name – you know, like being discovered butt-naked by, first, a cleaning lady, and then minutes later by a bemused old Russian. Greetings, comrade.
These hiccups aside, I can’t find fault with the hotel’s standards, affordability nor its actual location.
For those hopelessly fascinated by Poland’s WWII history, the Wieniawski (and also the Grand) are in the heart of where the darkest chapter of the city’s history was written and rubberstamped, and it is in these surrounding streets that the Hitler’s goons connived and plotted Aktion Reinhard – the deadliest phase of the Holocaust.
As dark and monumental as their acts were, commemorations remain scant and without prior knowledge one passes landmarks such as the honey-coloured Collegium Iuridicum without ever realizing that this was formerly the seat of their heinous operations.
Better-known, though, is the Majdanek concentration camp, but whilst its name is familiar to most it still remains emphatically under-visited. In many ways, mind you, this works in its favour. Windswept and desolate, it affords the chance to contemplate in peace the cruelties of the past. Within eyeshot of Lublin’s suburban tower blocks, the proximity of the city makes the experience all the more haunting in its impact.
Heading back to the city, past dynamic modern murals painted onto chipped old factories and dog-eared apartment blocks, it is with an appreciation for the present and how fortunate we are.