Katowice, Jewel of the South?

Katowice is a dump, let’s face it, Katowice, compared to some of the more well-known and touristy Polish towns and cities is a dump, well, that seems to be the received wisdom but is this accolade fully deserved? I don’t think so. Katowice, and stop right there, it’s not Kat-o-wik-e or Kat-o-weise, it’s Kat-o-veets-a or near enough, Katowice is a large city in the south-west of Poland sitting amongst large coalfields which contributed to its rise during the industrial revolution. The whole area was perhaps the powerhouse of Poland’s industrial revolution, there being many coal mines and steelworks throughout the region. Consequentially then Katowice escaped much of the “chocolate-box” architecture that places such as Kraków, Toruń, Poznań, Wrocław and may other places were blessed with.

Spodek, it’s a saucer.

The first time I visited Katowice was to go to a concert, the Metal Hammer Festival “Prog” Edition 2015. I flew into Warsaw and got the train to Katowice the next day. I alighted from the train into a very modern if sparse and functional looking railway station where I was met by Asia, a friend I had arranged to go to the concert with and we exited onto the street through a modern shopping complex. Asia’s daughter’s boyfriend was waiting in a car outside and he transported us the short distance to the hotel where we were staying. The hotel was built aback the concert venue and I could hear that the first band had already started. We dropped our bags, I donned a “concert” t-shirt and we went out into the afternoon. It was the 27th of June, summer but the sky was overcast and grey, it was however very warm.

The concert was an early afternoon into the evening event with a number of bands playing and halfway through the concert a small group of us decided to go out into the town for a bite to eat and a few non-concert beers, well, I say “decided”, I think I was shanghaied, in a good natured way but anyway, having wrist-bands to show that we’d had tickets we left the venue and walked out into the early evening.

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Just across the road from the venue is the Silesian Insurgents’ Monument dedicated to those who took part in three Uprisings in 1919, 1920 and 1921, which aimed to make the region of Upper Silesia part of the newly independent Polish state. The monument is kind of reminiscent of wings, quite striking but then on the just under a kilometre route from Spodek to Katowice’s Rynek there are stark concrete blocks of flats and hotels, all a bit drab and uninspiring. When we got to the Rynek it was set out with food vans and catering wagons all offering a variety of street food and beer, a welcome splash of life and colour. We made our way back to Spodek via the opposite side of the road we had come down on, stopping off at a bar in the middle of a large roundabout which also hosts a tram stop. The building which the bar was in was almost a complimentary design to Spodek itself, a sort of upturned bowl cut in half, modern but not what you’d call “pretty” and a short while later we returned to the concert suitably fed and beered at non-concert prices.

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Left: half a bowl, Centre: Spodek, Right: Silesian Insurgents’ Monument

The next day was spent pottering about in the area around Spodek and the Rynek, the minimal amount of research that I had done suggested to me that the pedestrianised ul. Mariacka was the happening place to be so that was explored. It’s just around the corner from the Rynek and at the far end of the street the spire of the gothic-esque St. Mary’s Church rises majestic above the buildings. There were old buildings here, older buildings I should say, and some positively run-down buildings. It was a grey Sunday morning, nothing much was going on and I wasn’t impressed. The next day I was on a bus journey to Kraków and Katowice was a distant memory.

Gruntled I was not.

I returned to Katowice two years later, again to see a concert at Spodek, Deep Purple as it happened. This time I flew into Katowice Airport which is actually at a place called Pyrzowice some 30 km from Katowice but not to worry, I had pre-booked a 27.00 zł (£6.00) ticket on the airport bus which left 50 minutes after my flight was due to arrive.
So of course the flight was delayed taking-off wasn’t it, not by much but when we did eventually arrive at Katowice airport we had to wait for the steps to be wheeled out to the rear of the plane, and then there was a delay in the customs area. I stood there; on the other side of the “border” I could see my bag on the carousel going round and around. When I eventually made it through customs and collected my bag I strode out of the front of the airport only to see the bus disappearing into the distance so not wanting to wait the hour or so until the next bus I got a 186.00 zł (£38.00) taxi.

Now, 38 quid is not bank-breaking but it’s not to be sneezed at, it’s easily a good meal out. I was just a little disgruntled. The bus I missed was the 15.20 departure; the next one was scheduled at 16.40. Walk through any large metropolis in Poland and you are batting-off buses and trams likes flies, they’re everywhere but here in the major airport for arguably one of the largest conurbations in Poland the dedicated airport bus runs to a decidedly odd timetable.

It was a grey, cloudy day; I had the taxi deposit me at the railway station as I wanted to walk the short distance to my hostel, just to get a feel for the place. Under the railway bridge and up the other side and suddenly the grim aspect of Katowice that I remembered from the last visit disappeared, here were nicer buildings, a small park. I dropped my bag in my room and then went back to the railway station to meet a friend, Dana, who was also going to the concert and was coming in from a town about 70 km away. We met and she suggested going to ul. Mariacka for a pre-concert beer. Remembering the last time I had been there I hesitantly agreed but when we got there the place was abuzz with people, all the bars and restaurants and clubs were open and even though the weather was grey the place seemed transformed. After a beer and a quick snack we made our way to Spodek for the concert. I made a mental note to return to ul. Mariacka.

The next day I was off to Wrocław for a couple of days before returning to Katowice for an overnight stay en route to Warsaw and my flight home.

White Monkey.

Two days later I was back in Katowice, the sun was shining and it seemed a very different place. I alighted from the train and walked to the hostel to drop my bag, not only was the sun shining but it was hot. I stopped off at a Żabka and bought some milk, kiełbaski and cheese, just enough for a light snack and a decent cup of tea in the morning. Heading back out onto the street I decided to take a detour and soon found myself walking down a road lined with trees here and there, towards a small park with a fountain; this was lovely, the trees provided their share of shade and the sunlight through the spray of the fountain was producing small rainbows. I walked through the park to find myself at the “rear” entrance to the railway station. In stark contrast to the “front” entrance on the other side of the railway tracks this side did have an air of having seen better days; I crossed the road and walked through the car park/station approach and into the station building. Descending some stairs I found myself in one of the subways underneath the platforms, I sauntered through to the other side and emerged once again into the modern shopping complex.

I was heading for a bar, a pub called Biała Małpa. I had done a little research beforehand, sad git that I am, and I had come across this place so I thought I’d go and check it out. Exiting the shopping centre I walked up to ul. 3 Maja, I had the address, it was No. 38, ul. 3 Maja, I knew I had to get onto ul. 3 Maja and turn left and it was somewhere on the left. It was late afternoon, there were people on the street, not vast crowds but enough to make the place look lived-in. Trams rattled by accompanied by the odd bus and delivery truck. I spotted a sign above an archway, this was the place. I turned left and walked off of the street

I was in a courtyard, scattered about there were tables and benches constructed from old shipping pallets and at the far end under a wall adorned with a magnificent if rather abstract mural of a tree the canopy of which is made up of cartoon-like faces, it put me in mind of something from the animated film, Yellow Submarine, there was a sandy area with deck chairs and  palm trees, albeit artificial ones. The entrance to the bar proper was a rather inconspicuous affair which could have been the door to anywhere. I went in and ordered a beer which I then took back out and settled myself at a pallet-table.

After sampling a few different beers I decided to go in search of food. Biała Małpa served food of course as does just about every bar in Poland but I fancied a bit of a stroll so I went back out onto the street and headed towards the Rynek.

Let’s talk Rynek.

A Rynek is a place where a market is held. In English we hold a Market in the Market Place, it’s the same word. In Poland they have a Targ in the Rynek, although in Polish it’s probably Targ na Rynku. Don’t ask me why Rynek becomes Rynku, (no doubt some native speaker can help me out here…), it’s just one of the lovely aspects of the Polish language which I am trying to get my head around. The Rynek then is the market place, the market square, and in many Polish Miasta the Rynek is a lovely place. Miasta? Towns, Cities. Polish doesn’t differentiate between Towns and Cities like English does, Poznań is what I would call a medium sized town, Warsaw is a whopping great city but in Polish they are both Miasto. And talking of Poznań, the old Market Square there is a rather lovely place, here’s a picture:

The market square in Poznań

In Katowice the Rynek is very different:

The market square in Katowice

Before catching the train to Wrocław two days earlier, or I should say, before missing the train to Wrocław, for miss it I did through not paying attention to the times printed on the ticket, and finding myself with a couple of hours to kill before the next train, I had taken a walk which included a visit to the Market Square, an unremarkable expanse of paving stones with a couple of tram lines running through it bounded by modern office/retail buildings. The bleak modernity is broken by the neoclassical lines of the Silesian Theatre on the eastern side but other than that it’s not much to write home about.

On the southern edge there is a raised area with seating for some local catering outlets and an ornamental fountain but on the whole it is as I have said, pretty unremarkable, plain even. When I was here two years ago in 2015 there was a bit of building work going on and what they have done is to “install” a river, well, an ornamental river which flows across the plaza to the north of the Rynek, it is lined with palms in large pots and there are sun loungers distributed along its length and I am pleased to say that it all looks quite good. There is actually a real river underneath all this, the Rawa and it appears from underneath the road/tramway on the eastern side of the Rynek and wends its way through a canyon of building walls.

Market ambiance.

However, back to Saturday evening and just as it had been two years earlier the Rynek was transformed into a sort of foodies market, there were tables and benches set-out and lots of mobile catering vans and tents etc. all selling their various wares and joy of joys there was a craft beer tent. And of course there were also people, lots of people, there was a band playing from the opened side of a truck and everyone was having a good time.

My eye was caught by a van selling zapiekanki; I had been treated to this Polish street-food staple three days beforehand before the concert at Spodek so I thought I’d have another one. A zapiekanka can best be described as half a toasted baguette, sliced lengthways and topped with all manner of good stuff. I made my choice and ordered it, the girl serving said something to me which I didn’t understand,
“Sorry, English…”
She smiled and explained to me in pretty good English that if I told her my name she would call it out when the food was ready.
“Tony” I told her,
“OK Tony, please wait about 5 minutes.” she held up her hand displaying five fingers.
“OK, dzięki.” I said, dropping a little of the colloquial Polish that I did know into the equation.
I drifted off towards the Craft Beer tent I had seen earlier, ordered a beer and took it back to a table near the zapiekanki van. Shortly afterwards my name was called-out so I collected my tasty treat and tucked-in.

As the evening wore on, I was really enjoying this, the vibe in the Rynek. I had a few more beers and then inexplicably, as so often happens, I got a severe case of the munchies so I availed myself of a burger. Naughty, but nice. The sky was dark by now and I took one last walk around the Rynek before heading for my bed.

Silesian Sunrise.

The next morning, in spite of my slight excess the night before, I was awake at a ridiculously early hour and feeling not too bad into the bargain. I brewed a mug of tea, and contemplated the day ahead. I was getting the train to Warsaw later, about seven hours later. My room was up in the roof of a five story building, the sloping ceiling had roof-lights set into it which were already open as it had been a warm night. I peered out of one into the pre-dawn sky, “Getting light over there.” I thought, hmmm, on a whim I checked the sunrise times for Katowice. Sunrise was in about 10 minutes and if the colour of the sky was anything to go by, the sun ought to be rising just over there…

I waited, camera at the ready and sure enough a ruddy-red sun began to peek over the artificial horizon afforded by the buildings. In its way it was quite beautiful; I stood transfixed as Apollo in his blazing chariot broke free of that artificial horizon and began his ascent into the sky.

It was still early and I resolved to go back to bed but the sunlight pouring in seemed to preclude that option and anyway, it would be I decided a crime to shut it all out. Sometime later I was summoned by bells, sort of. Somewhere out of sight of my bedroom sky-light there was a church, a Cathedral as I later found out and emanating from it there were rather lovely peals of bells. Actually, if I stood on tip-toe and craned my neck out of the skylight I could just see the top of the dome.

By the time I hit the street some hours later the few wispy clouds that had preceded the sunrise had gone and the sky was a lovely shade of blue, sky blue probably, and the day was shaping-up nicely. I decided to re-trace my steps from a few days back to find that small park with the fountain but first I walked up to look at the Cathedral. It was another neoclassical building, all steps and columns; no, that’s doing it a disservice but you get the picture:

Archikatedra Chrystusa Króla  (Archcathedral of Christ the King)

Turning back down the street I made for the park, stopping on my way to photograph a splendid example of a tram which I had spotted sitting at a tram stop… Oh dear, now I’m tram spotting.

It was about 10 o’clock in the morning and already the day was hot but the trees in the park provided welcome relief from the direct heat of the sun. I lingered in the park, it was a nice day for lingering in a park and I was in a park, lingering. There were people sitting on benches, people walking dogs, others walking purposely through. A young couple were sat on some steps in front of the fountain engaged in conversation. I got an almost overwhelming urge to plonk myself down on a bench and just while the day away. Ah, but I had a train to catch. Re-adjusting the bag strap on my shoulder I slowly walked towards the railway station, and down into the cool of the subway beneath the platforms. After checking the departures board I went up to the platform my train would be departing from. I still had about 40 minutes so I began my platform pace, slowly down to one end of the platform and then back to the other end; it’s a thing I do, I can’t help it really, I just enjoy being on station platforms, maybe it’s something about the expectation of travel, maybe I’m just a bit of a railway nerd.

The scheduled departure time came and went but the train hadn’t appeared. Two days ago I was late for the train, now the train was late for me. Poetic justice I suppose. I strained my ears for the station announcements, not that I could make much sense of them and let’s face it, announcements over any type of PA system can be a bit ropey at the best of times let alone when they are in a language you don’t really understand, but I took heart from the fact that all the people who were waiting on the same platform were still waiting. The train eventually arrived some 20 minutes late, it was a through service from the Czech Republic, this excited me somewhat, well, yes, I’m easily pleased, but I’d never been on a Czech train before. I walked along to coach 352, boarded the train and finding my seat settled in for the journey to Warsaw.

You just have to look for it.

Katowice then, not a comprehensively inclusive visit I know, I doubt I’d even really scratched the surface but what I had seen I had liked, It’s the kind of place I think I could easily live in. Later I posted some photographs I’d taken in Katowice on Facebook and one of my friends commented: “…in your lens Katowice is more beautiful than in reality.” I thought about this; I had used no effects, no filters, I had just photographed what was there. I think that the ill-defined quality “beauty” is always there, you just have to look for it. It’s plainly not the same for everybody because different people will find a different beauty or beauty in different things but I believe that it is always there, somewhere, just go and look for it.

One thought on “Katowice, Jewel of the South?

  1. I can’t claim to have seen much of Katowice. I’ve never even flown into the airport. But I did attend a wedding there a couple of years ago. The reception was at a beautiful hotel in the centre of a public park. Reclaimed land from the former mining industry. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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