I was in Katowice recently, end of August; yes, again, I like Katowice, and I took the time to go and visit The Silesian Park, (Park Śląski) which is a big public park, really big, over 600 hectares in area, about 1,500 acres, and it sits on the border of Katowice, Siemianowice Śląskie and Chorzów; it’s actually in Chorzów but borders the other two conurbations. The park came to life in 1950 under the imposed communist regime then in power in Poland as an initiative to re-landscape a vast area of what was essentially industrial wilderness scarred by the effects of mining and strewn with industrial waste.
At its inception the park went by the snappy name of “Provincial Park of Culture and Recreation” or „Wojewódzki Park Kultury i Wypoczynku” which the Poles characteristically abbreviated to the initialism, „WPKiW”. Construction of the park was funded by the state but in keeping with Communist ethos “The People” were encouraged to pitch-in and help, adults and children alike planted millions of trees, shrubs and plants on the reclaimed land. The Park Committee then went about constructing such attractions as an amusement park, a planetarium, a zoo and a world-class sports stadium amongst other things. There was even a narrow-gauge railway and, truth be told, it was that which had drawn me there, but more, or less, of that later.
The park was envisioned to be a state-of-the-art people’s park; a showcase for the Communist way and for many years was it was indeed just that. After the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989 the park went into a period of decline but since 2003 has been on the up again. The park is now a public enterprise albeit subsidised by the (now Democratic) Polish state and run by a company called WPKiW S.A., the official name of the park has also changed to Park Śląski, much easier on the (Anglo-Saxon) tongue, well, apart from the „Śląski” bit.
It was a lovely, sunny morning and leaving the hotel in which I was staying I wondered out onto the streets of Katowice; opposite the hotel was an elderly woman selling Obwarzanek Krakowski, sometimes known as Kraków Bagels, not real bagels but plaited hoops of bread, the dough is parboiled before baking and then they are sprinkled with salt, poppy seeds etc. and like much of the food in Poland, it doesn’t sound awesome but it tastes really good; stopping at the woman’s handcart, well, more a mobile cabinet, I bought two and stuffed them into my bag for later. Now then, I needed to get a tram, the No. 6 would do nicely, I looked up and down the street; the place where I was standing was about halfway between the Rynek stop and the Rondo stop, ah, decisions, decisions.
The previous day, Wednesday 23rd August, I had visited the neighbouring town of Bytom to see and ride on the No. 38 Tram which is a “heritage” tram line. The line is connected to the rest of the tram network at one end but is almost unique here in Poland in that it is operated by double ended vehicles and the 1.4 km route doesn’t have passing loops or reversing loops at the end, hence the double ended vehicles which shuttle back and forth. There are two vehicles dedicated to this curious little line, one dating from 1949 and one from 1950 but obviously only one runs at any one time.
That morning I’d walked up to the Rondo stop, just across the road from Katowice’s flying saucer shaped event and concert venue, Spodek. Przystanek Katowice Rondo, to give it its full name is a tram stop in the middle of a roundabout (rondo); pedestrian underpasses lead off in all directions under the roads and there is also an ornamental fountain, into which it seemed someone had earlier that morning, maybe much earlier, early hours of the morning earlier, emptied quite a lot of washing-up liquid or shampoo, something which had at any rate produced a large amount of froth and bubbles. As I stood there with several other people, waiting for the No. 19 tram to Bytom and marvelling at all the froth and bubbles in the fountain, a pair of workmen appeared, and accessing hidden hatches, turned off the fountain. Boooo… Ah well, had to be done I suppose.
Anyway, so today, Thursday, I decided to walk down to the Rynek stop. It was a beautiful morning, I strode out with a spring in my step and was soon at the Rynek and for some reason I just kept on walking, this was nice, I was enjoying it. I walked down to the next stop „Katowice Św. Jana”, St. John, because it’s on St. John Street and waited there for the next No. 6 tram. A tram appeared from under the railway bridge, It wasn’t the tram I wanted but the next one was and when it arrived I boarded it and presented my Karta ŚKUP to the card reader; two orange lights came on, I was tempted to think of the Enterprise bridge computer saying “Working…” then a green light and a beep, and I took my seat. Alright, hands-up all those who don’t understand the “Enterprise bridge computer” reference. None? Good.
We set off, back past the Rynek, and up to Rondo; Immediately after leaving the Rondo stop and crossing the road the No. 6 route turns sharply to the left, through a stop called Spodek, which is I suspect only used when there are big events on at Spodek, and then turning again to the right, heads in a vaguely north-westerly direction out towards Chorzów. On board the tram the automated PA system was informing us of the next stop in Polish and English, the Polish part in a woman’s voice and the English parts in a somewhat Germanic sounding male voice and even though I knew what „Następny prystanek…” (and then the name of the next stop) meant, it was nice to hear it in English. Actually, as I had found out the previous day on the way to Bytom, as we moved further out of Katowice the English translations fell-off except for some of the more important stops and interchanges, but every little bit helps… as they say.
We rattled along; I was listening out for „Następny prystanek, Park Śląski Wejście Główne”, “Next stop, Silesian Park Main Entrance”. We passed the Amusement Park stop and then the Zoo stop, next up, Main Entrance. When we stopped at Park Śląski Wejście Główne it was a bit of an anti-climax; on one side of the tramway was the main A79 Warszawa to Bytom road and on the other side a small fountain set between two obelisks and a set of stone steps going down into what appeared to be a wooded area. I’m not quite sure what exactly I expected, maybe some sort of statement-piece main gate, but hey, here I was, the sun was shining and I set out down the steps and into the park.
I had a rough, sort of plan for my meanderings, I’d studied the map of the park and I wanted to go and visit a place called „Leśniczówka Rock’n’Roll Cafe”, one of those typically half Polish half English constructions which the Polish seem to be enamoured of, the word „Leśniczówka” doesn’t seem to have a direct translation but I am assured that it means something along the lines of “The Forrester’s House or Shelter”, fitting really as it is located deep in the heart of the park. It’s a bar, café and a music venue. I’d seen many pictures of the place on Facebook, I have several friends who’d been there, attending concerts and it looked like a really cool place to visit, my only regret was that there weren’t any concerts scheduled for the time I was in Katowice but never mind, at least I’d go there and maybe have a few beers. I also planned to ride on the park’s latest attraction, no, not some weird and wonderful ride in the amusement park but „Elka”, a cable car ride which spans almost the entire width of the park. I was also on the trail of the park’s narrow gauge railway, even though, by dint of looking at the railway’s web page, I knew that at the moment it wasn’t running, due to, as it said, circumstances beyond the control of the operators.
I strode off into the park heading for the planetarium, I didn’t intend to “go to” the planetarium but I knew that once I’d found it if I went off to the left I’d be on course for Leśniczówka. The path before me sloped ever so gently downwards towards a lake and overhead was the cable car, “I’ll be on that later” I thought, then the path started ever so gently upwards and split into three, of course I took the wrong turning but soon realised and retraced my steps falling in behind a group of school children out for the day. The path gradually got steeper but I trudged ahead eager to pass the sprawling line of children, two of them ran ahead eliciting shouts of admonishment form one of their teachers, the two stopped and with very crestfallen looks sloped off back down towards their appointed places. The path got steeper still, there was a small flight of steps and then from under the trees a building loomed. It was the planetarium, looking I must say slightly incongruous in what amounted to a forest setting but the building itself looked interesting so I went to have a closer look.
There was a large flight of steps leading up to the main entrance, the building traditionally topped with a large dome. A footpath led around the side of the building so I decided to follow it eventually ending up back where I started, then I went in to the building to look at the performance times, not that I intended to view one, the visual presentation may have been nice but the commentary would have been of course in Polish. Heading back down the flight of steps I bore off in the direction of Leśniczówka but once again, I managed to take the wrong path, passing as I later discovered, below Leśniczówka and ending up on a roadway where I discovered an information board with a map.
Ah-ha, I could see where I’d gone wrong and I noted the relative position of the café and set off towards it. When I got there I checked the time, it was 12.02; the place was advertised as opening at 12.00. Outside there was a large white van and a couple of people were unloading provisions. Hmmm… I turned about and went back the way I’d just come because one of the other things I’d seen on the information board was where the railway was, well, where the station was at this end of the park so I set off to find it, and totally failed. I found a small lake, some lovely flower beds and a road leading out of the park. This was getting tricky, where on earth was the railway? By now I had developed a thirst, the kind of thirst that bottled water just doesn’t address, if you get my drift, so I headed back to Leśniczówka, taking a photograph of the information board as I passed it for further scrutiny.
On my way I saw something moving across the path in front of me, looking down I saw a small snake slithering off of the path into the undergrowth, it was quite dark with light markings on the side of its head, my hand went to my camera but the beast was already sliding deeper into the undergrowth. I stood watching as the tail end disappeared into the vegetation, a satisfied smile upon my face. A snake! This was a first; I’d never seen a snake in the wild before. Later research showed it to be a type of grass snake; grass snakes are fairly common in England, I know what they look like but I never seen one in its natural habitat before and as this one was much darker than those typically found in England I didn’t at the time recognise it for what it was.
I arrived back at Leśniczówka and went in; inside it was dark and gloomy compared to the sunshine outside. There were two other people in there, one sitting on a stool at the bar and one behind the bar. I peered into the gloom, there were three beer taps one of which promised Książęce, not the dark one I like but it’s lighter brother, so I asked for Książęce. The barman shook his head, pointing to the Tyskie tap and although I’d utilised what I thought was my best Polish to ask for the Książęce he said, in English, “Only this.”; “Tylko Tyskie?” I asked, he nodded assent, “Tyskie proszę” I said.
I took my glass of Tyskie outside and sat at a table. It was a hot day, the beer was cold, it was only Tyskie, but it was cold. I looked around; the main building is a single story wooden building set in a clearing in the middle of the forest, at one end of the clearing was a stage topped with a canopy although the canopy had been lowered to about two metres from the stage as no one was going to be performing.
I sat sipping my cold beer and just enjoying the quietness of the place, I could vaguely hear the jukebox from inside but by and large it was very quiet, a little birdsong, some murmuring of the breeze in the treetops but not much else. I tried to imagine the place as I had seen it in pictures, rammed with people and a band playing on the stage. I really must return one day to experience a concert here, I thought as I went back in for another beer.
I asked for another Tyskie and the barman served me, the guy sitting at the bar turned to me and asked me, in fairly good English, what was doing here. I explained that I had a friend who lived in Chorzów and she often came here for concerts and I just wanted to see the place. I’d waved my arm in the approximate direction of where I thought Chorzów was as I’d said this, the guy looked at me and said, “But this is Chorzów”, and of course he was right, I had forgotten that the park is in Chorzów itself. The barman joined in the conversation, again in English which was miles better than my Polish, and the three of us engaged in some light hearted chit-chat.
The barman was complaining, good-naturedly, because he was working alone and he had to do everything himself. Eventually I’d drunk my second beer and was hankering after another, yes, I know, three, on a weekday, but the craic, if I may use that epithet, was good and I was enjoying the company of these two fine fellows. Then I spotted in the large glass-doored fridge behind the bar that there were bottles of Książęce Ciemne Łagodne, a dark mild and quite tasty, so instead of going for another Tyskie I asked for a bottle of the dark brew.
I perched myself on a bar stool and the ad hoc conversation continued, the barman at one point asked me if I liked vodka, I told him that yes, I did. Producing a bottle of vodka and a shot glass he proceeded to pour a healthy ration and presented it to me saying, “Here, this is for you, it’s free because I feel happy”. I thanked him with a „Bardzo Ci Dziękuję” which made him smile, “Maybe a little apple juice?” he asked and before I could answer he was pouring some juice into another glass for me. I sat there with three drinks on the bar, hmmm, I thought, this is really nice.
After a while the guy on the bar stool finished his beer, stood up and and bade goodbye, I had half a glass of beer left, the bartender had gone off to attend to some chore or other and I sat there at the bar contemplating my good fortune. A vehicle drew-up outside, I looked out through the door; it was a large white van. The bartender reappeared; it was a delivery of… I thought at first it was provisions for the bar but it turned out to be a delivery of chairs and tables which were carried through the bar to a back room by the two guys who had arrived in the van and the barman was helping out. He stopped to say to me, again, and in a humorous way, that he had to do everything in this place.
The chairs and tables were delivered and stowed away somewhere out back, the van departed. I finished my beer and again thanked the barman for his free drink and hospitality, we shook hands; “you must come back here again” he said, I agreed that yes, I must. Well, I had certainly enjoyed that, maybe there had been no concert going on but this place had certainly made the right impression on me and after three beers and a decent shot of vodka, I also felt happy, very happy.
I went back out into the sunshine, now, where was this railway? I studied the first information board I came to, I had also been looking at the photograph of the information board I had taken earlier as I was sitting outside Leśniczówka and I believed that I now had a better idea of where things were. I was here, there was the small lake, there was the railway and there was the station behind the lake. I set off. There was no railway track to be found but then I noticed a patch of tarmac in the footpath approximately where I supposed the line of railway to have been. Hmmm… I turned off of the footpath heading across the top of the lake; if the line had been here then it would have curved around the end of the lake to the station. I came across another small footpath which I could see went back up to a main path and then I saw it. No, not the railway but in rather faded paint on the small footpath were the words, „UWAGA POCIĄG” which doesn’t translate nicely into English but can be read as “CAUTION TRAIN”. So, the railway had been here but some time ago this part of the track had been lifted. Following the imagined path of the railway around the side of the lake I came to the station or what was left of it. There was a building, locked and shuttered and two low, concrete platforms. Ah well, at least I had found where it used to be, at this end of the park.
I wondered around the deserted station site, there really wasn’t much to see so after picturing in my mind’s eye track, train and passengers I departed to find the next part of my “walk in the park”, a ride on the cable car. I could see the cables in the distance so I set off towards them where they dipped down to the winding house. It was about this time that the three beers began to make themselves known. Yep, could sure use a pee sometime soon. In the end I took a detour towards a heavily wooded area and disappeared into the shrubbery; well, when you gotta go, you gotta go.
Back on track (no, I just couldn’t help the track pun) I made my way towards the cable car station which was located in the shadow of Stadion Śląski (Silesian Stadium), which opened shortly after the park was opened and for the last few years has been undergoing a complete overhaul bringing it into line with modern international standards; I could see that there were still signs of renovation going on. Stadion Śląski was designated as the official home of the Polish national football team, an honour I believe it now shares with the newer Stadion Narodowy (National Stadium) in Warszawa or PGE Narodowy as it is apparently called; goodness knows what PGE stands for and that’s really quite enough footbally related stuff methinks.
Reaching the cable car station I observed that there was no ticket office just a „Biletomat”, a large ticket machine offering tickets in at least three languages. I was going to use the Polish interface but chickened out when I realised that I’d forgotten the word for “return” so pressing the Union Flag icon I bought a return ticket in English and made my way up the stairs to the “platform” which was accessed by scanning the barcode on my ticket to get through the turnstile. There was a small queue of people waiting to board the various, hmmm, what are they called? Gondolas?
I’ve gone all nerdy here and done a bit of “researching”, „Elka” on the Park Śląski website styles itself as a „kolej linowa”, literally “cable railway”. Cable cars apparently just shuttle back and forth, this affair is a continuous cable loop which doesn’t stop; it just slows down, by means of detaching the passenger carrying bit from the cable to allow boarding and alighting. This thing is a “gondola lift” so the bits that carry people are indeed gondolas. Ah, what the heck, I think I’ll carry on calling it a cable car. OK, where was I? The various gondolas…
The gondolas came in two types, small enclosed cabins and 4 seater open benches, well, you know, not literally open, there is a safety bar which come down in front of you to keep you safely in your seat. Naturally I chose the open bench type of gondola. There was a couple in front of me, their gondola came around the side of the winding house and they stood in the appointed place, ready to sit as soon as their seats were in range. The bench approached the back of their legs and they sat, the ride attendant making sure that the safety bar was down and locked and then accelerating as the mechanism begins to properly grip the transport cable they were whisked away. Then it was my turn, I studied the approaching bench seat thinking that I wanted to sit slap bang in the middle but the bench was divided into four distinct seating places so I opted for the middle, left-hand one. I turned and sat, pulled the safety bar down until it clicked into place and I too was whisked away into the sky.
In the queue for the ride inside the winding house there is the steady rumble of machinery and murmur of voices but of course as the cable lifts you up and away all the noise stops and you are suspended there in a little bubble of quietude. I have a fear of heights, sometimes, I can’t quite pin it down but sitting there, dangling 15 or so metres above the ground I felt fine. The cable car ride in Park Śląski was first opened in 1967 and had three sections in a triangular configuration, the total length being about 6 km, oh man, what a ride that must have been. The old Elka was closed in 2006 due to the “bad technical condition of some of the supports” and the whole thing was dismantled. In 2013 the new Elka was opened, the route is only 2.2 km (4.4 km return journey), essentially the base of the triangle of the old route but the journey was nevertheless impressive.
As I approached the winding house at the other end of the route, the Amusement Park end with its roller-coasters and other rides, my halfway point, I spotted a rusty line of railway, the narrow gauge railway I’d been looking for earlier, well, at least the track was still here at this end of the park but it looked as if it hadn’t been used in some time. Then as I neared the winding house I could see a ride attendant gesturing to me to raise the safety bar and get off. I fumbled in my pocket for my ticket and counter gestured that I was going to go back again. The attendant shook his head, insisting that I get off, so as the ground came up to meet my feet I got off. The attendant pointed to the exit gate, “Scan” he said, ah, the penny dropped. I had to get off and go around to re-scan the barcode on my ticket and join the queue to get back on. Well, why didn’t he say? Ah well, he probably had said and if I could understand Polish properly… Anyway, soon I was back on and going the other way. It was of course that at about this time, ever with the afterthought, I realised that I should have got off of the cable car ride completely at the stop and gone to explore the “other end” of the narrow gauge railway; even though, as I mentioned earlier I knew it wasn’t running, there was apparently a display of locomotives and rolling-stock.
A few days later when I was back in England and not at the mercy of the hotel Wi-Fi connection which was, truth be told, just a little ropey, I did some more research on the narrow gauge railway; you know, the sort of research I really should have done before I got to Park Śląski but plainly didn’t. Most of the track it seems has been lifted but just over a kilometre of it has been re-laid but, apart from a brief operating season starting in 2014, is not at the moment in use. The park authorities have said that their intention is to re-lay the entire length so one day trains will run again from the amusement park station right round to the derelict station I’d visited earlier. So, there’s an incentive to go back at some time. Ah well, next time as they say, and of one thing I’m sure, there will be a next time and who knows? I may even go to a show in the planetarium.
Back to the cable car and some 15 minutes after leaving the halfway point of my journey I was approaching the end of my ride and from the last support tower the cable began its decent towards the winding house. There was an attendant beckoning me to raise the safety bar and as soon as the automatic locking was released, I did and got off. I exited the turnstiles and went down the steps to ground level, keeping an eye out for any sign of toilets, the beer I’d had at Leśniczówka had caught up with me again. Happily there were toilets on the ground level and I availed myself of their facilities. Time to leave, I walked up the road, past Stadion Śląski up to the main road to catch a tram back into Katowice. On the way here I’d got off of the tram at the Main Gate stop, I was now a fair bit further along at the Stadion Śląski stop but my Karta ŚKUP was encoded with an all-zones ticket so I could pretty much go where I pleased. I studied the timetable at the tram stop, this should be easy I thought as all the trams go back into Katowice and the first one to come along was a tram on route 1. The vehicles on route 1 are older types, not as old as the trams on route 38, but old none the less and all the more interesting for it. This was a week-day, it was “rush hour”, the tram was full, standing room only so I perched myself in the back and held onto one of the handrails. Route 1 is exactly the same as route 6 at this point so we retraced the way I had come.
I got off at Św. Jana where I’d boarded some hours before and walked round to ul. Mariacka. Despite a high, hazy cloud appearing towards the end of the afternoon, the day was still sunny and warm and Mariacka was replete with people out enjoying the evening, the spire of St. Mary’s Church at the far end of the pedestrianised road was still catching the rays of the evening sun. I walked down to a likely looking bar and went in. I sat at the bar for a while with my beer then decided to go and sit outside and watch the world go by. I tarried there for some time, dipping into my beer and dipping into other people’s conversations, as you do. There was a small group next to my table, some Poles and what sounded like some Germans but they were all talking in English and once again I envied those who have managed to get to grips with a foreign language. I know some Polish, but not enough to engage in a conversation with any sort of confidence or indeed understanding. Beer finished I went in search of food; I had a hankering for zapiekanka so I headed back to the Rynek where there were various mobile food outlets set-up.
I ought to mention now that today was the opening day of the 2017 Men’s European Volleyball Championship which was being hosted in Poland by Katowice along with Gdańsk, Szczecin, Kraków and Warszawa. Tonight’s game, being played at the National Stadium in Warszawa, was Poland vs Serbia and in the Rynek there was a fans zone set-up with large screens showing the action. Handball and volleyball (yes, there is a difference) are very popular in Poland, almost rivalling the popularity if football so the Rynek was quite crowded, even though the game hadn’t started yet. In addition to the fan zone there were also of course the attendant food and drink outlets. I found one selling zapiekanki and ordered one which I then ate while wondering around the Rynek, It is, perhaps a very Polish thing to be doing, wondering around the Rynek eating zapiekanki.
The Rynek in Katowice is, well, I’ve written about it before, it’s not chocolate-box pretty like some are; it’s a large plaza through which several tram lines run, it’s a tramway crossroads. There is a north-south, south-north tram line and an east-west, west-east tramline, the tracks cross each other and due to the track layout trams from the north can also turn to the west (and vice versa) and trams from the south can also turn to the east (and also vice versa) so it can be busy at times. Can you imagine that in the UK? Trams running through what amounts to a pedestrian precinct? There’d be barriers and signs aplenty, the whole thing would probably be shut-down due to elfen bleedin’ safety issues. In Poland they are much more laid back about such things, there were no large “Beware of the Trams” or “Keep off of the tracks” signs, no barriers, no blood on the tracks (sorry there Dylan fans) and no body parts laying about, everybody was wondering around having a good time and nobody was getting run-over by trams.
After eating my tasty treat I decided to walk down the street a bit to a pub I’d found when I was in Katowice a few months earlier, The White Monkey, only the language being Polish there was no “The” it was just „Biała Małpa”. I turned off of ul. 3 Maja and into the pub courtyard with its tables and benches constructed from old shipping pallets; the wall at the far end adorned with an abstract mural of a tree with cartoon-like faces for the canopy, I veered to the left and went into the bar. I had a couple of beers, maybe three, this is a multi-tap bar and it’s always nice to try a beer you haven’t had before, well, that’s my excuse. I was sitting out in the courtyard initially but the sun was going down, not that it was penetrating into the courtyard anyway as it is bounded by 6 or 7 story buildings, but as the heat of the day waned there was the beginning of an unseasonal chill in the air so after a while I moved inside, sat at my table and contemplated the day so far.
By now it was dark outside and mindful of the fact that I had a train to catch the next day to take me to Inowrocław for the 10th edition of the Ino-Rock Festival, I decided to go back to my hotel room. I sauntered back down ul. 3 Maja, past the neon blaze of the shopping centre, Galeria Katowicka, until I reached the Rynek; by now of course the handball game in Warszawa was underway and the fan zone was very crowded. Influenced maybe by the general atmosphere then prevalent in the Rynek, that little spark of self-control, completely abandoned me and I bought another zapiekanka which was just as delicious as the first one; and while I was waiting for it to be prepared I went to a dispensary of beer. Well, what good luck, they had Książęce Ciemne Łagodne on tap so I ordered one and it went down very well as I stood there watching the handball game on one of the big screens. Umpteenth beer drunk, second zapiekanka eaten I began the short walk from the Rynek to the hotel.
I got to the northern perimeter of the Rynek, there is a shallow, ornamental river here which flows across the plaza; it’s a closed system, the water is pumped around in a loop and it is lined with palms in large pots. There is in fact a real river underneath all this, the much maligned and abused Rawa, which appears from underneath the road/tramway on the eastern side of the Rynek and flows through a mini canyon of building walls and then disappears into a tunnel under another building. It was as I passed that I spotted on the side of the building above where the river disappeared again a large neon sign, it was round-ish in shape and composed of two words, „ZACHÓD SŁOŃCA”, Sunset (literally West Sun). What a fitting end to the day, I thought as I took my camera from its pocket and tried my best to photograph the sign. It proved a tad tricky; the surroundings were dark in spite of the sign being quite bright. Do you think I could get the bloomin’ thing to focus properly? I tried again with my mobile which produced a slightly better result. With a last look back at the Rynek I turned and headed for the hotel and as I eventually laid myself down on the hotel bed I thought again what a splendid day it had been, and it had indeed been a splendid day, a walk in the park.