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Drilling into Poland’s past

Travelling on we had to struggle along the rutted Polish motorway which made the journey slow, noisy and frustrating, and so we had to negotiate Wroclaw centre in the evening rushhour. We crawled through the evening traffic alongside the town cemetery which is guarded by world war two tanks, past the ornate central station and into the town centre, where unexpected one way systems nearly foiled us, but we successfully found our neat hotel perched on an island in the River Odra. Wandering along the River we passed the stylish facade of the University buildings with the statue of the fencer and walked on into the main square for dinner. In keeping with my policy of choosing the meal on the menu I understood least about due to my ignorance of the local language, I chose to eat something local and so I tried Polish dumplings. Unfortunately these were disappointingly dry and very filling, or maybe I had overindulged in the bread with garlic and lard spread as a starter. Interestingly this was my most disappointing meal in Poland which I put down to the restaurant catering for tourists. The Stroganoff at a motorway truck stop earlier in the day had been both tasty and a generous portion, and the hotel breakfast the next day was delightfully varied with everything from potato salad to bacon and eggs.


Wroclaw had the same layout as Poznan, with the city arranged around a medieval square, dominated by the town hall, decorated with interesting statues and clocks. In one corner stood St Elizabeth’s Church which was interesting because of the green and red checkerboard pattern of the tiles on its roof. The spacious square was the perfect place to sit in the sun people watching but I was on too tight a schedule for that. Many of the old buildings were well decorated some with bright colours but venturing beyond the inner old town the newer buildings although unattractive tower blocks in general gave a truer picture of everyday life. However the signs of emerging capitalism were strong with satellite dishes perched on balconies and new shiny glass fronted office blocks. The statue of Boleslaw the Brave, the first king of Poland seemed to be trying to preserve the peace between the old and new towns where the opera house and churches faced off over the city moat against the Renoma department store and busy tramlines. By the Statue of Copernicus, the renaissance astronomer born in Poland, the homeless asleep on park benches reminded me that as I had seen in the countryside not all of Poland was benefitting from capitalism and the rapid integration of former communist countries into the global economy, but as the flags on county hall showed, the European Union now had equal status with the Polish state.


In Slowackiego Park I was shocked to see Wroclaw’s famous tourist attraction the medieval painting the panorama of the battle of Raclawice was housed in a monstrous circle of concrete blocks. Nearby among the trees stood a black statue of an angel, this is the Katyn Memorial. Earlier by St Elizabeth’s Church I had seen the information boards marking the recent anniversary of the Katyn massacre. In 1943 around 20,000 Polish officers were murdered near the city of Smolensk, apparently on Stalin’s orders but it was only in 1990 that President Gorbachev admitted the Soviet Union had been responsible.  It was of course on the way to commemorate this anniversary that the Polish president Lech Kaczynski was killed in a plane crash in Western Russia on the 10th April with his wife and other senior officials. Here groups of school children were led to the memorial by solemn teachers as they learnt about their country’s history. On the other hand by Mary Magdelena’s Church Wroclaw was looking to the future with a fountain decorated with giant footballs in preparation for the 2012 European championships. Another more positive note and my favourite memory of Wroclaw is the Most Tumski, where the handrails of the bridge are adorned by padlocks of all shapes and sizes, with messages of love written on them left by happy couples on a romantic walk through the picturesque Ostrow Tumski (Cathedral Isle) on the banks of the river Odra, which winds its way through central Wroclaw.


Heading back westward, Wschowa is a small town with a lot of history dating back to the 12th Century. In 1945 it became part of Poland again having been part of Prussia and Germany for long periods of its history, when it was known as Fraustadt meaning literally town of a lady, but referring to the Virgin Mary, so it is fitting that the building most visible from around town should be the tall tower of the parish church. The old town clusters in narrow streets around the central square which is dominated by the yellow and white town hall, here the walkways and fountains in the small park were being renovated with money from the European Union. This work meant the route to our hotel in the old Castle was blocked and so we had to gain access via the local bus station and the park which occupies the former town moat.  The old town is sheltered from the busy roads and new buildings of the new town by this now green moat and the reconstructed town wall, and guarded by life size medieval knights carved of wood on sentry duty in the park. In the main square one shop was decorated in Union Jacks, apparently selling imported clothes from Britain which are very fashionable. In another shop I conducted an experiment, having been warned of this difference in customs before I left Britain, I raised my first two fingers to ask for two bananas, as predicted by the friend who warned me, the assistant tried to give me three bananas, until I protested saying two and another assistant who spoke some English intervened, apparently your thumb whether raised or not automatically counts as one, so two fingers equals three, all very confusing! Walking around town I found posters from the recent presidential election supporting Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the twin brother of the former president Lech Kaczynski. Spookily the picture had a stain under Jaroslaw’s right eye which looked like he was crying.

Wandering the Kopanica Valley our fieldwork gained the feel of a James Bond movie as our Polish colleagues led us through sleepy villages and along dirt roads into the dense pine forest, one car led us, while another followed close behind. Then where we stopped a wooden watchtower surveyed the flat green countryside and our companion declared “it’s very quiet here” whilst we set to work digging a grave sized hole beneath the trees, however this was for nothing more sinister than taking geological samples! For lunch we were invited to a local farm house where we feasted on pork, salad and potatoes, followed by cakes, while new puppies played in the yard with their mother, observed by a Shetland pony and two of the largest dogs I have ever seen.

Our final stop was Krosno Odrzaskie on the Oder/Odra River near the border with Germany. There a sculpture of Neptune surveyed the fast flowing river waters from the wall of our riverside hotel, across the road in the riverside park another wooden sculpture of a medieval knight stood guard by a memorial to Pope John Paul II. With the town largely perched on the hill above the river, the riverside was green and home to herons, stalks and other waterbirds. For dinner I order soup which came with bread, what I hadn’t realised was that the soup came in the bread. A round loaf had been hollowed out, and filled with vegetable soup, with pieces of sausage and boiled egg, after such a huge starter I struggled with the main course. This was once again a generous portion and like all our meals so far featured a generous portion of boiled potatoes. Apparently the area was famous for its potatoes and indeed they were delicious. Our final day took us along the banks of the Oder working in floodplain fields. A levee reinforced with sandbags held the river back and on the far side of this fishermen camped by disused pill boxes among the reeds and willows, overhead a black stork circled looking for a spot to do some fishing of its own.

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