Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Back to the future

Its so nice staying in a local building with windows that you can open for a fresh (and brisk) breeze! None of this 'locked-in-a-hotel-airconditioned-room-that-could-be-anywhere-in-the-world' if we can help it!

We wake with the city waking around us. The sounds of everyday life - a garbage truck, cars rushing on the cobblestoned street below. The building door shutting and a car starting - oh damn, he has forgotten something and rushes back inside briefly. And as we have our breakfast, a local resident is raking the leaves up from the lawn below our balcony. No matter where we are, life progresses just the same. Reassuring really!

First on the agenda this morning is a stroll through the Old Town. Once we manage to just drive into an empty parking space (thank you Frances), we first visit what is locally called 'the Parish Church'. Its full name is Kościół Farny Sw. Stanisława Biskupa (Parish Church of St Stanislaus) and it is known as one of Poznań's most impressive historic monuments. It was created as a Jesuit temple in the 17th century and has works of art by the best roman baroque artists. What is surprising is the interior space that although surrounded by typical heavy baroque works, retains its openness and airiness. And the colour is warmer than we have found in most of the baroque churches we have seen thus far - pinks and rich browns. And never ever believe it when a local tells you that their city is not a tourist destination - just as we arrive at the church, not one but two tour groups also arrive - one French, one German, with their respective guides trying hard to be heard over each other. And there are lots of smaller family groups too. And lots of locals inside, in reflective prayer. Yes, Poland is safely and staunchly Catholic.

Next it was over to the market square. Now this is one really big square - but with a bit of a difference - there are a series of buildings in the centre of it! Right in the centre is the Town Hall with a highly decorated facade and a magnificent clock tower. We are told that there is a great show at 12 noon daily once the clock has struck, so we will be back to have a look. Around the perimeter of the square today you find cafe after restaurant after bar. All have tables under large market umbrellas set outside their shops so that the square is ringed by people at tables looking inward to the people in the square. Many of these buildings are covered with intricate sgraffito and many too have fancy shingles hanging from their walls. We have enough photos of shingles to dedicate a whole book to them!

Beside the City Hall there are a couple of other buildings in the square centre. One must have once been the market hall as it is surrounded by an arched arcade. Maybe the buildings above these once housed the merchants. Michael demonstrates just how narrow some of these houses are. Bit too cramped for my liking I must admit!

And the Square is filled with statues and monuments - there are five fountains that house major statues - most of them from the classics. There are even elaborate statues on the top of the City Hall and a couple of the other buildings facing in to the Square.

So we wander, gazing into the shops and marvelling at the work of artisan craftspeople of days past. There is a Military Weapon Museum in one of the buildings in the centre of the square too. Unfortunately its not open today (whew I silently breathe!) so Michael must be content to look at the display boards set up that focuses on the Polish Independence Day declared in 1919 as an aspiration for Polish independence from Prussia at the time. The parade of the army camped nearby must have been stirring to say the least which was followed by a huge field Mass. The dislay also shows people of note from the Poznań area. As we walk back around to the face of the City Hall, we see one of those moments that belongs in some old slapstick movie - there is this building that is being renovated and on the scaffolding on four levels there are four workers, each identically dressed in dark blue overalls and bright yellow safety helmet. They all stand directly above one another, leaning on the railings, looking down. Ah, its ok - they are passing further scaffolding materials up each level to the top - but gee, it looked so funny!

Its now 11:40 am and if there was a single tourist in Poznań today, then they have all made a bee-line for the Square outside the Town Hall. Now, the show isn't until 12 noon, but no-one wants to be late! There are those French and German groups and they are joined by a smaller Japanese group, there are mums and dads with their kids, there are young lovers, and older couples too. The place heaves with people. Right on the stroke of twelve, everyone looks skyward to the set of doors just above the clock face. And once the bells have tolled the magical hour, those little doors open and two bucks (male goats) emerge slowly from their housing until they are fully on show, at which point they turn to face each other and promptly begin to butt heads - twelve times exactly! They then recede back into the safety of their little enclosure and just as quickly as it congregated, the crowd heads off to other places.

And then there is the guy who is just hanging around! From a huge bra!! I think it must have something to do with advertising the fact that the band Radiohead are coming to a festival in Poznań in a few weeks as it hangs between two posters. Hmm local curiosity I hope - doesn't do much for me, but as you can imagine it got Michael laughing!

Next, we are off to Biskupin - a drive of about 100 kms to the north-east. Both Chris and Gosia have told us that this is somewhere really worth a visit. And they were very right. We program Kate to take us off the motorways and so get to see a bit more of rural Poland. This is open wide and flat country and the farmers are busy harvesting and baling hay, ploughing the land and applying that stinking liquid fertilizer from the back of tankers pulled by tractors. And the towns we pass still exhibit the influence of the former socialist government in the form of those drab apartment blocks.
Once we arrive at Biskupin and park the car where the lass taking the money spoke no English, and us no Polish (it's OK, a hand holding up 5 fingers is easily interpreted correctly as 5 złoty), we decide to eat before exploring. Again, it was all dutch to us all, but shaslick is the same in both languages and they were good. Very delicious!

Now, Biskupin is one of those treasures that would have been lost for all time were it not for the keen eye and keener will of a local person. This is the recreation of an old settlement - a very old settlement. Discovered in 1939 by a local teacher who wondered what a regular line of poles sticking out of the marshes could be, Biskupin recalls the human habitation on this small peninsula that juts out into a lake system that dates back ten thousand years with the remains of a deer hunter's camp. Then there is a Neolithic Age house belonging to the first farmers - complete with a nearby inhumation burial, and an Early Bronze Age Kraal - a large settlement surrounded by a series of ditches. All these hae remnants remaining.

But by far the most significant site is a settlement from the early iron age. Fortifications, roads and buildings were incredibly well preserved in a form of peat which slowly built up over the settlement once the humans had left. It allowed for an amazingly accurate recreation of the a portion of the settlement to be done. After a range of dating tests over a period of seventy years, this settlement has been conclusively dated. The oak timber for the buildings was cut down between 747 and 722 BC but over half the trees were felled in the course of one winter - 738-737 BC! So yes, it is old.

The iPod audio guide is excellent and offers much more information. The reconstruction is amazing - using only simple tools as the original builders would have access to. Some of the features uncovered from the marsh included the original gates into the complex as well as remnants of buildings, part of the wall rampart and the road. The impression of the town remained buried deep in the murky earth - there were 13 long houses each containing between 3 and 9 seperated and identical dwellings and it is estimated that up to 1,000 people could have lived here at a time. Oh yes, our early ancestors were much more sophisticated than we give them credit for!

And in the museum attached to the settlement are relics found on site during the numerous excavations - including the skeletons of a number of people found in various burial positions. Yes, the actual skeletons, not moulds. They were a little shorter than us and probably died in the 40s to early 50s. There is evidence of weaving looms, and sewn clothing, of beautiful jewellery and religious icons as well as the anticipated arrow heads and cooking pots.
What a truly amazing site.

From here we head to Wenecja to have a look at the narrow guage railway museum. The museum itself was closed, and the rolling stock on show was fairly minimal and in desperate need of some tlc (tender loving care). But as Michael said, the cost of maintaining such is enormous.

Then to the Gąsawa to have a look at the Church of St Nicolas. Now, this is a true cultural gem. Built in the 1600's of larch wood, local officials asked the regional Prussian government to allow the church to be dismantled and build a new one when it was in bad repair in the 1850s. They only gave permission to overhaul the building when wall paintings were covered with a layer of reed and ordinary plaster, and forgotten for some 150 years. The interior of the church has been cleaned and today the beauty of the paintings is very obvious. The local custodian is very proud and despite us telling him English only, he chose to excitedly chat to us in - German! Still, we got the gist of what he was telling us!

The afternoon is barrelling along so we keep moving, going through Strzelno to have a look at the Church of St Prokopus - a round brick building that dates back to the 12th century on the hill next to the St Adalbert's Hill with its baroque Basilica where the 6pm bells are calling the faithful to worship. And come they do - quite a lot of them. They must get some big masses here because it is broadcast outside. I won't go in because we don't want to stay too long. We drive via Żnin before turning to head back towards Poznań. But there is one last stop we want to make at Gniezno to take a closer look at the Cathedral we had seen from a distance on our way out this morning. This twin-towered edifice can be seen for miles. Unfortunately it is closed by the time we get there, so we don't get to see the famous 'Gniezno Doors' - one of the most valuable romanesque monuments in Europe with their richly engraved bronze doors of 18 panels showing the life of St Adalbert (popular guy, huh!) dating back to the 12th century. Oh well.

And as we return to Poznań we see a new temple in the form of the Galleria Malta. Gosia reckons that it is a great shopping mall - the newest in town, but honestly, seen one, seen em all! You could be in any shopping mall in any city - although open for business, trade tonight is quiet. We buy some cakes and them stop at a chemist to re-stock on bathroom essentials. By now it is after 8:30 pm and we struggle to find somewhere to get dinner. We are both tired and can't be bothered cooking or going into a restaurant in town. We take a fruitless search for a pizzeria and end up with the dreaded Maccas. Oh well, predictable - we knew exactly what we were getting! It tastes just like their cardboard food at home!!!

Still searching for accommodation in Berlin - wish us luck.

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