June 29th, 2020

One more new pass over old territory

After my last journey through Poland and the comments I made about it back then, it did not escape my notice that I had omitted some of Poland's most important cities on that trip, and that I would perhaps be giving the country more of a fair shake if I went back and explored what I missed. Well, this month, I tried to do exactly that. I've briefly summarized my thoughts and experiences on this trip below, but to make a long story short: I didn't reach any conclusions that I didn't reach on the previous trip, and my overall impressions of Poland do not remain particularly positive.

I started the trip by taking a bus to Łódź, Poland's third-largest city and the most geographically central of its large cities. My bus dropped me off at Łódź Fabryczna railway station, which Wikipedia describes as "the largest and most modern railway station in the city of Łódź", which is a bit like describing one particular defecation as the newest among all the defecations in a dung heap. Fabryczna station looks good, but it has the curiosity of having neither trains nor people in it. It is a huge, impressive and modern-looking building which serves no function because hardly any transportation actually goes there. Fortunately, it is within reasonable walking distance of the city center, being only about one kilometre east of it. So with a map of the city in hand, I set out to explore.

As Łódź is a relatively new city (in 1830, the city population was only 4,300 people), most of its growth has happened in the modern era, which has lent the city a regular grid pattern, in contrast to the twistier and less planned layouts of classical-era cities. This makes navigating Łódź fairly easy, as you usually know whether you're walking north, south, east, or west, unlike other cities where you can start off walking in one direction and soon be going in another because the street curved around more than you realized. To see as much of Łódź as I could, I thus took a methodical "scanning" approach, walking from north to south along the east-side street of Jana Kilińskiego and working my way west from there one north-south street at a time, ending my scanning matrix at the west-end street of Stefana Żeromskiego.

Despite my use of terms like "city center", "east-end", and "west-end", I soon came to realize that these terms do not have much meaning in Łódź, as the city does not have the usual sense of gradual urbanization that most large European cities have. Because the city is relatively new and does not have a long history, it hardly has any center; the real center of Łódź is Piotrkowska street, the one single street in the city which has been made up to look anything like an actual city. The rest of Łódź does not feel like a city, but more like a lifeless small town or suburb where nothing exists except underdeveloped properties, battered-looking apartment buildings, and occasional shops. What's really stunning about Łódź is how unplanned it all feels; different types of properties exist next to each other, and in fact often in the same building, with no rhyme or reason to any of it.

The more I saw of Łódź, the more I was struck by questions regarding its inexplicable lack of structure. Why do official-looking government buildings exist next to fast-food stores? Why does an "international software company" have its main office in the ground floor of what looks like an apartment building (and indeed, probably is one), in a space so small that the entire company cannot consist of more than perhaps 4 people, while the floor above it is visibly being used as a warehouse for bed linens? Why do signs advertise the locations of stores which appear to have no doors and consist entirely of a boarded-up window? And why does every business in Łódź have opening hours from 10:00 in the morning to 15:00 (which is 3:00 in the afternoon)? Do people in Łódź not have daytime jobs here that would prevent them from going shopping during these hours?

The more I saw of Łódź, the more incredulous I became. The city is so absurd that it's hard to believe it is real; it almost feels like a huge joke which someone played. Did the entire city planning board really leave their city in this state of disarray and neglect? Why do gorgeous new apartment buildings exist right next to torn-down ruins of old buildings that have not been inhabited for decades? Why do random, empty buildings exist in empty lots next to the street? Why did people fill the entire city with street tram lines when the city does not contain any people? Why does Łódź, of all cities, have a place called "Muzyka City Bum Bum", which describes itself as a "School Of West African Percussion & Dance", but no supermarkets?

When I had seen the entirety of what passes for the city center, my overall impression of Łódź was that it is a great city to visit for people who are looking for something different. Łódź has nothing to attract tourists in the usual sense, but once I had gotten used to the city, I found that I tremendously enjoyed it because of its sheer sense of insanity. Łódź is so surreal that it's actually surprisingly entertaining as a comedy of errors, as a funhouse freak show of urban planning failures. Even in the nominal city center, on Piotrkowska street, where some effort has been made to make the street and buildings look pretty, you can look down literally any side street and see scenes of such destruction and decay that I had the feeling of being on one of those movie sets where the city is just a cheap facade. Well, it is a cheap facade. Łódź has no city center because it is not even really a city; it's just a random grid of streets and buildings which was hastily constructed in response to population growth, and no further planning or development occurred beyond that.

I have a feeling that Łódź somewhat mirrors the American model of city development in which the city center is left as a derelict pit of urban decay, and all the nice development happens in the suburbs, beyond easy reach of the pestilence which breeds in the center. Looking at maps of Łódź suggests that nice shopping centers and supermarkets exist outside of the city center in areas where tourists and other non-residents will not find them, and indeed, when I took a train out of Łódź, I became conscious of the reality that there are suburbs beyond the city center which look nice, normal, and relatively prosperous, featuring normal attractions like a zoo, a water park, and stores which actually open sometimes. There is nothing to see there and no reason to go there unless you live there or know someone who does, but the people in Łódź who know the city well seem to be the ones who have the sense to live outside of it.

Speaking of taking a train out of Łódź, after I had walked all up and down the "center" of it and wondered how such a place could exist on Earth, I went back to Fabryczna station with the intent to take a train to Bydgoszcz, Poland's 8th-largest city and the next planned stop on my trip. The people who sell tickets in Polish railway stations almost never speak a word of English, so I tried to buy a ticket from a ticket-vending machine because such machines usually have options for three languages: Polish, English, and German. After choosing English and informing the ticket machine that I wished to buy a ticket to Bydgoszcz, the machine helpfully informed me that no trains were running there, which seemed odd to me, as I had checked on the Polish train system's website ahead of time and seen that there were multiple trains supposedly running that route. Of course, having free public wi-fi wasn't part of the plan for the "modern" Fabryczna train station, so I didn't have a way to check train schedules online. Finally, I went to a ticket agent and, correctly guessing that she didn't speak English, simply said "Bydgoszcz?" to her. Correctly guessing that this meant that I do not speak Polish, the woman simply held up 5 fingers and pointed at ticket window number 5, which I presume meant that she didn't want to deal with me and was passing me along to some other colleague. At ticket window number 5, I repeated my question, after which the woman there replied with a long answer in Polish, the only word of which I recognized was "Warszawa", the Polish name for the capital city of Warsaw. After a moment of trying to imagine what to say, I asked, in English: "Do you mean to say that it's necessary to change trains in Warsaw?" The woman gave me a much shorter reply in Polish, which I also did not understand but which seemed to have the tone of "I don't understand what you're saying". I thanked the woman, walked away in thought, and a few minutes later, returned to the first ticket window and simply said: "Warszawa?" Moments later, I walked away with a ticket to Warszawa Centralna, the main train station in Warsaw. Łódź does not appear to be well-connected to other cities in the Polish rail network, which makes sense considering that there is no reason to go there. Fortunately, it does not take too long to get from there to Warsaw by train; the trip only lasted about an hour, and at Warszawa Centralna, I was able to buy a ticket directly to Bydgoszcz, arriving there a few hours later.

On my previous trip to Poland, I gushed about Wrocław, a fairly small but lovely city which feels more German than Polish and is located on a landform which feels like an island but isn't quite an island because it isn't entirely surrounded by the river which encircles most of it. Bydgoszcz is kind of like a cross between Wrocław and a regular Polish city: It has a really wonderful old town, known as "Stare Miasto" (old city) in Polish, which is located on a peninsula on the river Brda that feels more like an island and which is very German in its architecture and mood, but outside of Stare Miasto, Bydgoszcz is just another disorganized group of random shops and residential blocks with nothing interesting or even superficially beautiful to see. I did make my first YouTube video of Poland in Bydgoszcz which can be viewed here, but to put it briefly, Bydgoszcz is a wonderful old town on a river peninsula, and the rest of it is just a generic city without any real character.

From Bydgoszcz, I also took a one-day train trip to Gdańsk, Poland's most important city on the sea. Gdańsk, too, used to be a German city, but today it does not seem to be so much German as international. Its architecture feels like a mix of the naval German architecture one sees in e.g. Hamburg, naval Nordic architecture one sees in e.g. Denmark, and something else rather unique. Gdańsk has become neither a German city nor a Polish city, but actually a highly global city. It seems to want to be both a Nordic and a Baltic city, as the flags of Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Finland are prominently flown in many locations around the city, and in some spots, the flags of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania join them, but really, Gdańsk has gone global in a way that is distinctly un-Polish. I would say it is by far the most global city in all of Poland; a mix of different global cuisines are available in the city's manifold restaurants, one hears more foreign languages on the street than in any other place in Poland (hearing foreign languages in other parts of Poland is very rare, and when it happens, the language is almost always either German or English), and I saw the rainbow flag flown prominently in many places in Gdańsk, which is something one does not see often in other parts of Poland.

For these and other reasons, Gdańsk is also easily one of the most touristy cities in Poland. I have a hard time deciding whether Kraków or Gdańsk is more touristy. Gdańsk has a smaller tourist center than Kraków does; in fact, the tourist center in Gdańsk is very small and consists of only a few city blocks, but within that tourist region, I think there is more diversity in all the usual senses--not only racial diversity, but also musical, culinary, and architectural diversity--than in any other city I've seen in Poland. Once you get outside of that tourist area, however, this rapidly fades away and Gdańsk becomes just like any other Polish city, mostly decaying apartment buildings and disordered shops. Gdańsk is worth a look if you like places that cater to international tourists, or if you want to see the most un-Polish city in Poland, but I do not like tourist-centric places and so I did not enjoy Gdańsk much, although it is a beautiful city and it was worth the relatively short one-and-a-half-hour train trip from Bydgoszcz.

From there, my last stop on the trip back to Germany was Szczecin, a city very close to the German border. As one rides a train west from central Polad, the landscape and the towns which one sees along the way gradually become increasingly German, as the territory, of course, used to belong to Germany. I was particularly impressed with Wałcz, an absolutely gorgeous small city about half-way between Bydgoszcz and Szczecin. I would have liked to have stopped there and taken a look around, but like most of the good places in Poland, Wałcz is simply a city for locals and there is not much there to attract foreign tourists. It really reinforced the idea which I had already developed in my mind during my previous trip to Poland that Poland's large cities are terrible because Poles are bad at organizing cities or putting any kind of culture into them, but the real warm heart of Poland is in its countryside and small towns, where Poles are excellent at creating strong communities and wonderful homesteads. It's a nice place to live if you want to live in a small town for the rest of your life and be either a farmer or a tractor mechanic.

Arriving in Szczecin, I had assumed that it would be similar to the small German-looking towns I'd passed on the way, as it is right next to Germany and so undoubtedly has strong influence from Germany despite having been part of Poland since the end of World War II. I was wrong. My first impression upon walking into Szczecin was that I suddenly understood why there is so little traffic to see in Polish cities like Warsaw, Kraków, and Łódź: All of Poland's traffic is in Szczecin. The city was clearly not built to handle its current population of over 400,000 people, and although the city does have a street-tram network, either the city's tram network is not adequately serving the needs of the population, or people just don't use the trams enough for some reason. Whatever the reasons, Szczecin has such ubiquitous and intractable traffic that it forms a good case study of failed transportation design in a city, as I have never seen such pervasive traffic congestion in any other city in Poland. It actually feels like an American city in this regard, the kind of city where everyone drives everywhere because of failed public-transit design.

Szczecin's urban planners seem to have decided that since they didn't know how to deal with the city's traffic problem, they could make their city more beautiful and appealing by simply turning every intersection in the entire city center into a "place", a plaza named after some historic personage. Unfortunately, this measure was ineffective: Even with some kind of significant plaza at every single street intersection, Szczecin is still a remarkably ugly and unpleasant city. Like so many other large Polish cities, it looks like a city which might have once been beautiful but which has since been neglected and turned into a cheap strip mall with trashy shops lining the sidewalks and trashy apartments above them. I walked around Szczecin for a few hours and suddenly said: "You know what? I don't like it here. This place is ugly, unpleasant, and uninteresting, and I have no reason to be here any longer". I walked back to the train station and took the next train out of Poland. Along the way, I noticed some graffiti scrawled on a wall which said: "Suck dick, not economy". I do not know exactly what this means, but I do know that these words constitute the greatest pearl of wisdom I saw during my time in Poland.

While on the topic of summarizing countries, now that I have been to every Balkan country except for Moldova (regarding which I will defer to Bald and Bankrupt's coverage of the matter, which is much better than anything I could ever manage), I might as well take a moment to provide a quick summary of each. I gave this summary verbally during the second video of my trip to Skopje earlier this year, but perhaps it might be appropriate to communicate these impressions and opinions textually as well:

Slovenia: Too small to be interesting in any way, Slovenia is a pleasant little mountainous country that serves mainly to be the first country that gets invaded when some invading force comes out of Germany, Italy, or the deeper Balkan regions. Ljubljana is a pleasant small city that is distinctly Slovenian in that it has nothing to distinguish it. Maribor is more of an Austrian city--which is not surprising considering that it is close to the Austrian border--with the exception that there is still nothing interesting in Maribor.

Croatia: Widely and correctly recognized as by far the most beautiful of all the Balkan countries, but for the wrong reasons. Most people think of Croatia as a great place to go to the beach, but in fact, Dalmatia, the region of Croatia which is on the Adriatic Sea, is a dead, ugly, and dangerous place. The real beauty in Croatia is in its northern half, including arguably Europe's most underrated capital city and other wonderful towns to take a stop in on your way to the inferior countries which Croatia borders.

Serbia: Powerful but uninteresting, Serbia is a place you should go to just once so that you can say you've been there and explain to others why you have no reason to ever go back there.

Bosnia and Albania are both living nightmares to be avoided as stringently as possible.

Kosovo is basically Albania, except with a huge infusion of American money and influence. Kosovo does not have any large cities--even its capital of Pristina is like Łódź in that it feels entirely suburban and has no identifiable "center"--but as a political experiment, it forms a fascinating laboratory where American political and cultural values clash with some of the most deep-rooted backwards thinking in all of Europe. As a political or sociological study, Kosovo is interesting, but for more traditional tourists, there is nothing in Kosovo to warrant a visit in any way.

Montenegro: A tiny country with huge mountains, Montenegro benefits economically from wealthy tourists who visit to go to the beach or to the mountains, and it's a great place for these activities. However, Montenegro is entirely devoid of any culture or its own cultural identity; go to Montenegro if you want to explore its stunning mountain landscapes, but don't go there expecting cultural attractions.

North Macedonia: I have a personal fondness for North Macedonia because it is such a small country that takes itself so seriously. It really tries very hard to distinguish itself from its neighbors, and it does a surprisingly good job of this. The city center of Skopje is very pleasant and warrants a stroll through if you happen to be in the area, but I wouldn't go out of my way to go there if you're not already travelling through the Balkans.

Greece: One of Europe's biggest train wrecks, Greece appeals for its beaches and mountains, which are nice if you like that sort of thing, but Greece is not a cultural travel destination, because the only culture it had disappeared literally thousands of years ago.

Bulgaria: Bulgaria's capital city of Sofia is a pleasant but unremarkable place. After spending days there, I honestly can't name a single location there which stands out in my memory. The really nice place in Bulgaria is the city of Varna on the Black Sea, which is a surprisingly beautiful and enjoyable place to be a tourist, as the beaches are great, the city center is pleasant and compact, and good shopping opportunities abound. Everything in between these two cities is absolute desolation which should be avoided except as a place to pass through on the way to either of these destinations.

Romania: A country split roughly in half by the Carpathian Mountains, Romania consists of Transylvania, the part northwest of these mountains, and the real old Romania, which is the part south and east of these mountains. Old Romania is a horrific place where urban planning, economic development, culture, and basic human decency go to die. Transylvania used to be nice when it belonged to Austria-Hungary, but since it went back to Romania after World War I, it has become much the same as the rest of Romania. The Black Sea resort town of Constanța tries to attract tourists, which makes it all the more astonishing how shockingly ugly and dangerous it is; go to Varna in Bulgaria instead.

Hungary: Western Hungary, including Pécs, Győr, and the "Buda" part of Budapest are nice places with a small-town feel that are pleasant to visit if you don't mind that nobody in Hungary speaks English. Eastern Hungary, including Debrecen, Miskolc, and the "Pest" part of Budapest are among the worst disasters in all of Europe, featuring such deep-seated poverty, decay, and hopelessness that it's hard to believe such places can exist in the world, let alone in the European Union. Szeged is okay, but it's not a Hungarian city, it's an international university town.

Some people will protest the inclusion of countries like Romania and Hungary in this list and say "Hey! Those aren't Balkan countries!", but these people are wrong. Romania and Hungary are Balkan countries, no matter what anyone else says.

I guess that's all. I wanted to give some of Europe's underdogs another chance by making one more new pass over old territory. Sadly, this trip only served to confirm popular biases regarding which I am of course entirely neutral and in no way subject to personal bias of any kind. I'm so done with complaining about Eastern Europe. I really should just never go back at this point; that would probably be the best thing to do. So I probably won't go back again. I hope that my travel notes are worth the time, trouble, and expense I endured to go there.