Come to Gdańsk they said, it’ll be fun they said.
Part 1, in which I go to Poznań and Wrocław then back to Poznan.
Adventures in Poland, Polish beer and Polish progressive rock.
Thursday 17th October, 2019.
07:31 train out of Chesham, back on that strange conveyor belt;
Chesham – Liverpool Street Station
Liverpool Street Station – London Stansted Airport
London Stansted Airport – Poznań Ławica Airport
Poznań Ławica Airport – Poznań.
Early train crowded with commuters.
Battling across the concourse of Liverpool Street Station in the rush hour.
Standing in queues at Stansted Airport.
Paying extra for “Priority” boarding so that I can be amongst the first to stand for 20 minutes in a cold, draughty and ill-lit stairwell.
I enjoy doing this… I do this for fun, I kept telling myself, I do this for fun.
By the time me and my fellow priority travellers emerged from the cold, draughty and ill-lit stairwell out onto the tarmac the sun was shining and although there was a stiff breeze the warmth from the sun was welcome. Then there was the traditional queuing on the tarmac because the plane isn’t quite ready to board yet in spite of the fact that fifteen minutes before the plane even landed the sign at the boarding gate had said “Boarding now”.
I hadn’t thought this through; I’d bought a “priority” ticket but rather than book my usual and preferred window seat I’d chosen an aisle seat for ease of egress at the other end; therefore I need to be amongst the last boarding the plane to avoid any reshuffling to let in the window and centre seat denizens but there I was fairly far forward in the queue. Eventually we were beckoned to board the plane and I took my seat, noting thankfully that the window seat was already occupied. I sat for a few minutes until the centre seat arrived and soon afterwards we were off into the skies above Essex.
The flight was uneventful and we landed more or less on-time. The cabin doors were opened and not having a cabin bag, I just prefer the ease of putting my bag in the hold, I stood in the aisle and having chosen a seat fairly close to the front of the plane was amongst the first off and first into the bus for the short hop around the corner to the arrivals gate. Queuing for passport inspection was mercifully short and my bag was amongst the first on to the baggage carousel.
Why was I in Poznań?
I was on my way to the city of Łódź in central Poland, for a two night event on Friday 25th and Saturday 26th October; “Prog the Night V” the fifth annual instalment of “Prog the Night” a showcase for Polish Progressive Rock and as I had attended and enjoyed the previous four I was “up for it” once more because, you know, Łódź is a cool place to hang-out in.
On the 25th there were three bands playing: Traces To Nowhere, Acute Mind and Let See Thin.
On the 26th there were four bands: The Third Project, Tenebris, Retrospective and Starsabout.
I’ve seen some of these bands before at various gigs, in fact I’ve seen all of them before with the exception of The Third Project.
I was excited about the band Let See Thin as this band was born out of another band (Leafless Tree) that was right there at my immersion into the world of Polish Progressive Rock. What is it about the music of Let See Thin? I don’t know, and that’s the truth, I find it hard to adequately describe why I like something but I just know when I do.
So, a few days in Poznań with Marzena, a friend upon whose sofa-bed I would sleep; I never thought that I’d be the type to kip on a sofa, being a creature of, um… creature comforts, but actually this is better than a hotel (and yes, the sub-text here is cheaper than a hotel) and the food is generally better (although I really have no complaints about Polish hotel breakfasts which are in my experience second to none) and there is conversation and language practice thrown in for good measure, and you know, Poznań is also a cool place to hang-out in.
So, a few days in Poznań and then by train to Łódź, but it was not to be that simple and some weeks before I left for Poznań there came the question; “Do you want to go to Gdańsk?”
Did I want to go to Gdańsk?
I’d spent three days in Gdańsk a few years back and decided that at some point I must return because as usual three days isn’t enough time to do justice to anywhere really (exceptions on a post-card…)
Did I want to go to Gdańsk?
There was a small group of us (apparently) and the others were going to Gdańsk.
Did I want to go to Gdańsk? Yes, I did.
Why were we going to Gdańsk?
On Thursday 24th the band “Archive” were playing at the B90 club in Gdańsk.
The next day of course we were supposed to be in Łódź but these things are achievable. Archive are an English band whose diverse style encompasses what some may call “Progressive”, I have a couple of their albums, the music is quite, atmospheric… and what I have heard so far, I like.
So here I am in Poznań a full week before we need to leave for Gdańsk, a few days in Poznań, which, as I said, is a cool place to hang-out in, and then by train to Gdańsk, and then the day after by another train to Łódź – but it was not to be that simple.
Some years back I’d met a guy called Wojtek who lives in Wrocław and he has, for his own reasons, embarked upon the “organising musical concerts” route; in 2018 he invited me to Wrocław to attend the first of his concerts, “Hard and Heavy” it was called, as I recall, well, hard and heavy isn’t really my cup of tea, I don’t mind a bit of hard rock or indeed heavy rock but a whole night of it? Maybe not and in any case, I was working then, you know, I had a job to go to so it was a non-starter really.
Later in 2018 Wojtek organised a “Progressive Rock” concert which was more my cup of brew but which I also didn’t attend because of “work” constraints. However it became evident that the Prog concert he was organising in 2019, PROGolucja Październikowa, which was on Saturday 19th October meant that not only did I now have the time, I was already going to be in Poland. Marzena and I decided that maybe a quick excursion to Wrocław might be the thing to do, so, here I am in Poznań, tomorrow is Friday and I’ll hang out in Poznań on Friday because you know, Poznań is a cool place… and then Marzena and I will go by train to Wrocław for one night then return to Poznań for a few days then go again by train to Gdańsk for one night and then by train to Łódź…
I was met at the airport by Marzena, who drove me to her apartment where I divested myself of my bag and generally shrugged off the turmoil of the journey. We had a bite to eat, (home-made golonka), and then Marzena and I went out to a local bar, Ułan Browar and relaxed into a few beers or so.
Friday 18th October, 2019
On Friday morning I woke up to a minor nightmare, flicking through the many and varied channels on the TV I found a news channel, Euronews, reporting in English and displaying a banner which read, “BREXIT DEAL DONE” and my heart sank. I voted Remain in that advisory referendum of 2016, the result was Leave and I accepted the result, I didn’t agree with it but I accepted it. I didn’t clamour for a second referendum which would have been I suspect even more divisive, I accepted that the result was Leave but I firmly believe that it is a retrograde step for the UK. I know the EU isn’t perfect, nothing is, but I firmly believe that the best course for the UK was to remain in and take a bigger part in the EU, to eventually become a leading light but a slim majority of my fellow countrymen had other ideas and so the shitstorm of Brexit was released with the ill informed voting for the ill defined.
So be it, I woke to the news that the EU and the UK had finally agreed to a set of terms for the withdrawal of the UK from the EU.
After breakfast, my host went to work and I was left to my own devices. I spent a lazy morning surfing the TV channels and trying to understand as much dialogue as I could, which let’s face it, wasn’t much. Outside the weather was sunny so around lunch-time I got my act together, got properly dressed and went out with my trusty camera. I took a leisurely stroll along past the main railway station and down to the old market square, Stary Rynek, looking for an as yet undiscovered photographic angle, yeah, right, like I was going to find the one that nobody else yet had, still, it’s kinda fun trying.
I widened my sphere of operation going into the streets around the rynek just looking for interesting photo opportunities. I wandered into the market in Plac Wielkopolski; the old market square, the Stary Rynek, is to all intents and purposes a tourist attraction filled with bars and restaurants and gift shops; the market in Plac Wielkopolski on the other hand is a Targ, a “real” market selling vegetables, flowers, clothes etc. In Polish the words for a market place and an actual market are different, a rynek is somewhere a market is held, a targ is the market itself.
I wandered aimlessly yet enjoyably into the late afternoon until I decided that the heat necessitated some sort of beery, alcoholic, refreshment. I made my way back towards the Stary Rynek and to a bar called Klub Dragon in whose cool interior I settled with a glass of cold beer.
A little later, Marzena who had finished her work for the day, met me in Klub Dragon and after a beer we went out, around the corner into the rynek proper to find something to eat, we plumped for a table outside an establishment called Brovaria ordered a meal apiece and another beer and sat and people-watched for a while, afterwards we adjourned to JaBeerWocky a craft beer outfit that I had first stumbled upon in Warsaw and who had recently opened a bar in Poznań.
I’m a big fan of the burgeoning craft beer scene, I like the cask ales, the “real” ales; the lines are being blurred these days but I also like the mainly keg craft beers and in Poland the craft beer scene is alive and well, however… I had to temper this with a “however”, the one thing the Poles don’t seem to have cottoned onto is the concept of the session pint, well, of course, in Poland it would be a session half litre but the salient point here is “session”. As good as I think Polish craft beer is, it seems to start at around 5% to 6% abv and go up whereas in most English pubs, ales are around 3.5% to 4.8% with premium “special” bitters being 5% to 6%abv.
In JaBeerWocky pizza was eaten, and needless to say, but I’m going to say it anyway, beer was drunk. And then on the way back to Marzena’s apartment, before we’d left the rynek, a funny thing happened. We were drawn as if by some invisible force into the premises of Ministerstwo Śledzia i Wódki – The Ministry of Herring and Vodka. An unlikely name for an establishment I suppose but given that their core business is herring and vodka, well, anyway, in spite of the fact that it was perilously close to midnight and we had a long train journey the next day we ended up sitting at the bar in the Ministry knocking back shots of vodka and eating plates of herring. God, I love Poland, sometimes…
Saturday 19th October, 2019
Saturday, to Wrocław then, to PROGolucja Październikowa.
After breakfast there was important business to attend to, England were playing Australia in the Rugby World Cup and I had adjudged that there would be time to watch the match before we left for the railway station.
England 40 – Australia 16, a good start to the day.
Bags packed and in my case, re-packed we made our way to the railway station, the train was at 12.02 so there was a little time for mooching and gricing.
The train arrived and we found our seats and settled in for the journey and arrived at Wrocław Głowny around 14.40. The main railway station in Wrocław, Wrocław Główny, is a splendid yellow castle of a place, dating from the mid 19th century when Wrocław was called Breslau and this part of Poland was part of the German Empire, the Second Reich if you will. The history of Poland is a fascinating subject with far too many twists and turns to go into here, save to say that at the end of the First World War when Poland regained its independence, this part of the country was reunited with the newly liberated Republic of Poland.
I’d been to Wrocław once before in 2017, Marzena had been before but not for a while so naturally I led us out of the station via the passenger subway and ended-up on the wrong side of the station. We paused, Marzena had a cigarette then we went back under the railway tracks to emerge on the right side of the station where our hotel, Hotel Europejski, was a mere 5 minute walk away. Checked-in, bags dropped, we walked out into a pleasantly sunny if not terribly warm, autumn evening and found the tram stop we needed to get to the concert.
The concert was being held at a venue called Czasoprzestrzeń on a street called Tramwajowa and for good reason, the venue, which is now a sort of community arts project type place, was once a tram depot. From the outside it still looked like a tram depot, the overhead catenary had been removed but all the rails were still in place, If Wojtek had told me up-front that the thing was at a disused tram depot I’d probably have come music or not! We got off of the tram at the appointed stop and walked the short distance up the road, following the “Concert” signs
There it was, looking every inch a disused tram depot, all the overhead catenary wire had been removed but the tracks were still in situ. We walked up to the entrance to the performance space, rails let up to a bricked-up tram-sized door but there was a smaller people-sized door and Wojtek was there, his jaw dropped as he saw us walking towards him. There were greetings and not a small amount of hugging, I explained to Wojtek that, yes, I’d got the dates wrong and, well, here we were. He showed us in to the performance area and pointed out the small side-room from where we could buy beer.
We looked around the space, a set of rails led across the middle of the area from the bricked-up door, there has obviously been a inspection pit between the rails, the pit itself planked over but in the middle of the room there was still a lifting gantry complete with chains and paraphernalia. A low stage as arranged along on side of the auditorium and the ‘stalls’ was festooned with canvas, folding deck-chairs, a bit of an incongruous sight, given the location. We bought beer and went back outside where there was a partially roofed over area where one could smoke if one was so inclined. Marzena smoked, I went off exploring the outside of the depot, on the way in I had spotted an old tram car, what looked to be a Konstal ‘N’ type, double-ended tram car. Oh yeah, my inner tram-nerd really came out there…
Soon it was time for the concert to start so we took our deckchair seats and the first band came onto the stage. I didn’t know it then but this was to be one of the most enjoyable concerts I’d been to for a long time.
First on stage, in time honoured fashion, at somewhat later than the advertised time of 16.30 was ‘My Secret Haven’ a ‘home-town’ five piece outfit from right here in Wrocław; vocals, guitar, keyboards, bass and drums. They describe their genre as: Progressive Rock/Metal, Art rock. I always get nervous when the word ‘metal’ creeps in because it’s usually a cue for unfettered, high-level guitar bothering but thankfully the music of My Secret Haven was possessed of more melody than the word ‘metal’ would suggest and having a keyboard player in the line-up always goes some way to regulating the unbridled excesses of guitar.
The songs of the first band, like so many Polish bands who aspire to bigger things, were sung in English. Sometimes this works; and sometimes the sound of a foreign tongue getting to grips with ‘this’ and ‘that’ and ‘the’ and any number of other slippery stepping stones in the English language is a bit of a distraction – not always but sometimes. I’m not complaining mind, they are doing far better than I could in Polish so let’s just make the point and move on shall we? Anyway, for an opening act they weren’t bad. That’s how we English say, “Quite good”.
Fag break, beer replenishment, slight readjustment on-stage.
Second on was ‘Walk Among Statues’, a four piece this time; guitar, keyboards, bass and drums. Genre: Post rock / Metal / Instrumental. Another Wrocław band and another band that like the previous one I’d never heard of before.
Walk Among Statues were a little’ harder’ a little ‘heavier’ than the preceding band, in places but this was interspersed with lots of that signature post-rock guitar twiddling so overall the effect was quite enjoyable.
Okay guys, take 20. Buy another can of beer, go out into the courtyard and try to image the place thronged with trams.
The third band on was, Pinn Dropp, a five piece from Warsaw: vocals, guitars, bass, keyboards, drums. These guys describe their genre as simply ‘Progressive Rock, Rock’ and have been going since 2017 and whilst I had heard of them I hadn’t seen them live. They produce a melodic kind of ‘Prog’ with interesting melodic vocal interplay which is right up my musical street and the songs were once again in English.
Beer and bog break; the toilets being somewhat original looking, to the tram depot anyway, in another building but hey-ho, they were functional and… quite clean, you know, for that time of the night.
Fourth up and a band I had not only heard of before but I’d seen them before. ‘Halucynacje’ (Hallucinations), the first band with a Polish name. Another five piece, another band from Wrocław; vocals, guitar, bass, keyboards/saxophone, drums. Genre: Progressive rock, Jazz rock, Psychedelic rock. Yes, I’d seen them before and I’d liked them so for this performance I left the relative comfort of my deckchair to stand front and just to one side of centre before the stage. I’ve listed vocals above but most of their output is instrumental however, on the night when their vocalist was singing he was singing in Polish which, for the English contingent in the audience, i.e. me, detracted not one iota from the overall enjoyment of the jazzy, proggy, saxyness of the proceedings.
Another beer and bog break; bog first, beer on the way back.
Fifth and last band, ‘Ankh’. Due on at 22.00, actually on quite a bit later but that’s the nature of such relaxed events. Ankh are ostensibly a six piece from, you guessed it, Wrocław. I say ostensibly a six piece band because when I looked at their Facebook page their line-up is presented as six; vocals/guitar, bass, guitar, drums, drums, violin although the photo at the top of the page only shows five of them, maybe they realised they had two ‘drums’ and somebody got the boot.
I stood and watched for a couple of songs and then returned to my deckchair and put my jacket on because the old tram depot had no heating and the autumnal night was cooling down quite a bit. There had been five people on stage and from the comfort of my deckchair, other than listening, I wasn’t really taking much notice of what was going on, on the stage. There was however a female violinist, you notice that sort of thing.
Anyway, they describe the genre they play as: Rock / Prog rock / Art rock and they sang in Polish. As I sat back and listened I have to say that as a headline band they were not the best act on that night. More Rock than Prog, which is not a bad thing, I’m not a Prog snob by any means and good music is good music no matter how it describes itself and it certainly wasn’t that the songs were in a language in which I could only recognise the odd word here and there; but there was something lacking, for me, in this last band.
When I did look up again, there were people leaving in ones and twos, in fact quite a lot of people were sidling towards the entrance which only went to reinforce my opinion that Ankh weren’t quite as good as any of the other four bands but I think in reality it was more to do with the lateness of the hour and people wanting to get home before the buses and trams went into once-an-hour mode and by the time Ankh drew their set to a close there were many empty deckchairs.
Best band of the night? Halucynacje were very good but for me Pinn Dropp just pipped them to the post. It was a good concert and it’s difficult to explain exactly why. The music had been good, I’d enjoyed the bands and the music they played, even to some extent the last band. More than that though I think it had been the setting, not just that it was an old tram depot, that certainly helped but the general ambience, the laid-back deckchairs, the unhurried and friendly air of everything, it was a good concert.
We looked about to say goodbye to Wojtek but he was nowhere to be seen, probably behind the scenes, literally, so Marzena and I drifted towards the exit and out into the Wrocław night, it was definitely past midnight and we hadn’t really done our homework on the tram times so we sauntered nonchalantly towards the nearest tram stop to find out the bad news.
Mere minutes after we’d arrived a tram appeared travelling in the direction we wanted to go so we jumped on with gay abandon and taking note of the route map we tried to decide where the best place to get off would be. As it turned out we got off at Galeria Dominikańska which gave us a nice stroll up ul. Piotra Skargi which runs into ul. Kołłątaja at the bridge over Fosa Miejska which is essentially the remains of a 13th century defensive moat connected to the various branches of the rivers Odra and Oława which flow through the city. There’s a lot of bridges in Wrocław.
Our hotel was at the far end of ul. Kołłątaja and just around the corner so to speak. After feeling the chill earlier at the concert venue, a little bit of late night walking had warmed us and it was very pleasant walking the nearly, but not not quite, deserted streets.
Sunday 20th October, 2019
Sunday morning was a bright and almost cloudless affair with just a hint of autumnal freshness which soon wore off as the sun rose. Our train back to Poznań was at 16:06, deliberately chosen so as to enable a leisurely stroll around Wrocław which is after all a nice place to stroll leisurely around so stroll we did. I was sure that I vaguely knew the way to the old market square so we set off in the general direction that I thought would take us there. It had been two years but I remembered, brownie points for me then. The old market square in Wrocław is a rather splendid affair, bigger than the one in Poznań, with ancillary square-ettes off of the main square and a healthy crop of bronze gnomes. They’re everywhere, once you start looking.
We ambled around the Rynek then struck out towards the river where there are several small and a few not so small, islands between the meandering branches of the River Oder. There were some wispy high clouds and the temperature was quite nice thank you for an afternoon towards the end of October. We ended-up on Wyspa Słodowa, Malt Island, where there are a few floating bars on pontoons moored to the riverbank and as it was early afternoon by this time we decided that a sit and a sup would be the thing to do. We boarded Barbarka, a typical Polish play on words, ‘bar’ being the Polish word for, um, bar and ‘barka’ being the Polish work for barge. There were tables and chairs and deckchairs but having had enough deckchair action the previous evening we sat in proper chairs at a table and drank our beer and watched the river float by.
Soon, all too soon, it was time to go back to the hotel, collect our bags and get to the railway station but as so often happens, the walk back seemed to go faster than the walk out. Seemed to go faster? Did go faster and we had a little time on our hands so we took our bags and adjourned to Kawiarnia Europejska next door to the hotel for coffee and cake.
Standing on the platform, waiting for the train back to Poznań; the sun is shining through the canopy, we feel tired but happy, the train is slightly late. No matter, we’re in no hurry and eventually the train arrives, we clamber on and set off northwards. After a while sitting there and watching the countryside sliding past I walk to the rear of the train which is only a few carriages behind us and spend some time gazing out of the windows of the (closed) corridor connection doors, partly because I am a railway nerd and partly just because I can here in Poland on this train.
The sun sets and the sky grows darker and as we reach Poznań it’s a clear if slightly chill evening, once the sunlight has disappeared.
Monday 21th October, 2019
Lake Malta, Jezioro Maltańskie, is a reservoir formed in 1952 by damming the River Cybina at a point just before it flows into the River Warta. The lake thus formed is used as a sporting venue for various water sports and there are various other attractions along its shores. One of these attractions is a narrow gauge railway and even though I know that it’s the end of the season and the trains aren’t running, I’m going to go down to Malta and have a gander.
We’ve had breakfast and Marzena has gone to work so I set out north towards the railway station where I buy a tram ticket then catch a tram eastwards. It’s not far to go really, I could have easily walked but you know, trams are trams… I alight at Św. Michała and walk down through a small wooded area towards the lake, crossing the railway line as I go. On a nerdy note I observe that the rails are quite hefty, not at all like a UK narrow gauge railway, these rails look every bit as beefy as these used in the standard gauge main line, only closer together, obviously.
It’s another warm day, once the sun gets going, I turn right to visit the railways western terminus, the single line track forms a loop here with the station at the far side. On a plinth in front of the platform there is a typical narrow gauge locomotive, it’s an 0-8-0 tank locomotive and looks squat, chunky and I have to say, powerful.
The railway here is purely a tourist attraction but narrow gauge railways in Poland were quite extensive at one point and used to transport all sorts of industrial goods and the remaining rolling stock that has been preserved or just painted up and put on plinths always looks far more impressive than their British counterparts which were and are for the most part a whole lot smaller and quainter.
Photos dutifully taken I turn and along the lakeside path heading for, well, nowhere really, that’s the joy of it, I’ll just walk until I want to turn around and walk back.
After a good walk, there and back, I made my way to the tram stop at Rondo Śródka, rode down to Kórnicka and changed to another line heading up towards the general direction of the Stary Rynek. I got off at Wrocławska and waited to meet Marzena who having finished work was coming down from the opposite direction. We ate pizza in JaBeerWocky and had a few beers before returning to the apartment. I was by now feeling every yard of my earlier walking and succumbed easily to the arms of Morpheus, once the sofa bed had been deployed.
Tuesday 22nd October, 2019
Tuesday dawned misty and moist, Marzena had a free day today we were going to go to the Poznań Botanical Gardens or Ogród Botaniczny Uniwersytetu im Adama Mickiewicza as they are so snappily called in their native tongue.
I think maybe it rained a bit in the night, either that or there was a heavy dew but everywhere was damp and it certainly felt today like autumn. We breakfasted and after a while set out for the gardens by car, they are only about 3 km away but we decided to drive, well, Marzena drove, I passengered.
We parked in a side street and walked to the garden entrance; the sun was trying to shine, up there, behind the low cloud and mist, and after some time I’m happy to say that it succeeded. The sunlight bringing out the colours of the autumnal leaves.
I’ll just leave s a few photos here shall I?
By mid afternoon the clouds had gone and once again it was a lovely warm and sunny day. We found the visitor’s centre and the cafe and and partook of coffee and cake, a bit of a reoccurring theme, like beer and railways, but it’s good.
Returning to the apartment we left the car and got a tram to one of the giant shopping malls in town, I wanted to buy a pair of boots, Chelsea-type boots, but as per usual, nowhere had exactly what I was looking for so we made for the Stary Rynek and found a place to have dinner, sitting al fresco watching people going about their business. By this time of the evening it was indeed getting a little fresco so I suggested that we go and look for a bar that I’d seen a review of sometime back and it sounded like it might be good.
After a little walking we found it, Piwna Stopa which translates rather inelegantly as Beer Foot. The bar itself I am happy to report was much better than its name might imply. Standing at the bar and surveying the ‘beer board’ a chap behind me spotted that I was English; must have been something I said…
Part two is here: Come to Gdańsk they said… Part 2