6 Alternative Trails around Poland
#language & literature
small, 6 Alternative Trails around Poland, Świebodzin, photo: Tomasz Wiech, w poszukiwaniu diamentow 11_6964771.jpg
Are you fond of ugly, grey places? Do you prefer to avoid noisy holiday resorts and head to the scenic wilderness instead? Do you like exploring traces of places which no longer exist? If you answered ‘yes’ to any of the above, then this is the guide for you! These trails around normally unexplored parts of Poland were inspired by recent Polish books and photo albums.
Trail 1: The ugly
We begin our journey on the E7 highway – the queen of Polish roads depicted by Ziemowit Szczerek in his ‘post-Sarmatian thriller’ Siódemka (Editor’s translation: Road no. 7). The author guides us through a land of curious roadside signboards, inns, and declining little towns, describing the ‘jewels in its crown’ as ‘the seven wonders of road no. 7’.
Places similar to those featured in the book are illustrated in Tomasz Wiech’s photo album Polska: W Poszukiwaniu Diamentów (Poland: In Search of Diamonds). His volume comprises exquisite collages of greys mixed with a fashionable motley of other colours, and a visual collection of the curiosities you may encounter while travelling around Poland.
This is how Michał Olszewski, the author of the texts featured in Wiech’s photo album, describes Poland’s grey drabness:
It has characteristic overtones. More than anywhere else, you will find it full of energy, madness, anger, and a certain kind of undigested despair which comes up to surface wherever possible. This drabness lined with madness is an explosive mixture.
If you crave more ugliness, read Wanna z Kolumnadą (A Bathtub with a Colonnade) by Filip Springer, a reportage book on spatial planning, which is something every Pole has heard of but never seen. Springer travelled across Poland and examined the ailments of its public space: developers’ wilfulness, advertising chaos, an obsession with walls and fences, and, most importantly, the common indifference to all these phenomena.
If you are into metropolitan folklore you will be interested by Wojciech Wilczyk’s photo album Święta Wojna (Holy War). The photographer spent several years documenting graffiti made by football fans in places where animosities between team supporters are the strongest: in Kraków, Silesia (Śląsk), and Łódź. The book also decrypts the signs, so you may learn what JŻS abbreviation stands for and why many walls in Łódź look as if the city had enjoyed a Zionist revival. While exploring the spots shown in the book, it is worth posing the question of why calls for violence and xenophobic, anti-Semitic, and homophobic slogans have become a natural part of the landscape in many Polish cities.
Trail 2: The nostalgic
How about exploring the traces of what has been irrevocably lost? If you're looking for pre-war tourist attractions, you will find them in Poland on the Road, a photo album by Zofia Chomętowska. In 1936, the artist won a special contest to became the official photographer of the Tourism Department of the Ministry of Communication. Her photographs were supposed to advertise the depicted places and were displayed on trains and in stations. In 2013, the Archeology of Photography Foundation published an album featuring a selection of Chomętowska’s photos. It documents her method of creating the state’s image and at the same constitutes a visual record of everyday life in pre-war Poland. The attractions shown in the album include a summer resort by Otwock, a procession in Łowicz, river rafting in Nowy Sącz, industrial buildings in Katowice, a bar called ‘Zakopane’, the park in Busko-Zdrój designed by Ignacy Hanusz, and the Dramatic Theatre in Płock.
If you want to know what the Tatra Mountains looked like years ago, when the trail to Morskie Oko lake was not covered with concrete and when Krupówki Street was not so crowded with tourists, check out Tatrzańska Atlantyda (Tatra Atlantis). This photo album, compiled by Piotr Mazik, is a collection of little-known photographs from the Tatra Museum's archives, which were taken at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. They depict the first mountain climbers and rescuers, smart holiday makers, Tatra’s wild nature, and its now-perished mountain hostels and leisure facilities.
If you prefer lakes, such as those in the Masurian Lake District (Mazury), we recommend Na Tropach Smętka, a pre-war reportage by Melchior Wańkowicz. The book is an account of a canoe journey across what was then East Prussia. The author describes the coexistence of Germans, Russian Old Ritualists, and autochthonic Masurians – an ethnic mixture which disappeared with the outbreak of the Second World War and in the aftermath of later deportations and migrations.
Trail 3: The passing of time
There are places in Poland which are now mainly architectural testimonies of bygone days. Wojciech Wilczyk’s photo album Niewinne Oko Nie Istnieje (The Innocent Eye Does Not Exist) is a collection of images of buildings, scattered throughout Poland, which used to be synagogues, houses of learning (Beth Midrash), or houses of prayer. Now abandoned, they are falling into ruin or have been converted into libraries, fire stations, or shops selling household appliances or scrap iron. The photos in the album are supplemented with the histories of the respective places and accounts given by encountered locals or people who frequented these sacral objects in the past.
Topografia Ciszy (Topography of Silence) by Waldemar Śliwczyński depicts devastated, destroyed, and often abandoned or forgotten mansions and village palaces in the Wielkopolska region. The melancholic photos published in the album may also be interpreted as historic records of the social changes that took place in the 20th century.
The issue of passing in the context of shifts in political systems is raised by Krzysztof Pijarski in his photo album Lives of the Unholy. The artist is interested in the demolition of ‘devalued’ monuments after 1989, but he also presents photographs of the new monuments which have been erected in the same place, as well as the phantasmal remains of old ones.
I was interested not only in the monuments and their histories but, first and foremost, in the issue of their (in)visibility. Some of them have become completely demolished while others, although still existing, are symbolically invisible.
Trail 4: The industrial
This trail has a lot in common with the previous one. After all, the glorious times of Polish heavy industry have already passed. When still in its heyday, Polish industry become the subject of the richly illustrated reportage Sztafeta (Relay). The book, written by Melchior Wańkowicz and graphically designed by Mieczysław Berman, documents the big investments of the Central Industrial District (commonly known as COP). It praises Poland’s economic success during the inter-war period and was clearly part of the state’s propaganda. However, its artful and unique literary and visual qualities make it an interesting read.
Stocznia (Shipyard) by Michał Szlaga is a photo album featuring the Gdańsk Shipyard as an example of a post-industrial landscape and the collapse of large industries. Michał Szlaga spent 13 years documenting the gradual decline and the ultimate collapse of the place which was once considered the pride of Polish industry.
If you want to see the decline of Poland’s industrial age through a foreigner’s eyes, you should have a look at Traces of People, a photo album by Cristiano Mascaro. The artist commented in an interview for Culture.pl:
I knew that I wanted to tell about industrial history and culture, about memories of work and places. That’s why I photograph traces of human activity in the abandoned, inoperative industrial places, graphics on the wall, worker’s trousers left hanging on some string in a factory. This way I reminisce about the people who have worked here in the past. People do appear on some of my photos, but architecture always plays the main role, understood as urban scenery.
Trail 5: The ethnographic
Let us leave behind the hustle of factories and visit Polish countryside. Its evolution and the interweaving of tradition and modernity can be explored in the Zapis Socjologiczny (Sociological Record) series by Zofia Rydet. The artist worked on this monumental series with thousands of black and white photographs between 1978 and 1990. She started in the Polish mountains, in Podhale, and later moved on to other places, such as Śląsk, the Kielce and Suwałki regions, and the areas around Kraków. In her austere photographs she usually depicts elderly people in their homes.
Irena Jarosińska’s Picture Writing is another photo album which enables you to compare modern Polish villages with those from several decades ago. Jarosińska has also taken photographs of Polish peripheries for the magazines Świat (The World) and Polska (Poland).
If you travel to Ukraine, you will find Karpackie 10 kilometres away from the Polish border, a village which Jan Brykczyński visited in order to document the everyday life of the Boykos, whom Taras Prochasko called ‘the most extraordinary of the Carpathian peoples’.
I was looking for a village that is as original and unchanged as possible. I had this archetypical image of countryside at the back of my head – slightly idyllic, like a fairy tale (…) On the Polish side of the border, the authentic tradition has been largely destroyed. Our Bieszczady mountains are for tourists. Nothing is left from the ancient culture. It is empty there. Right across the border, you will find villages bursting with life: animals, land cultivation, everything like it was a hundred years ago.
Trail 6: The natural
The final trail leads us through places where civilisation meets nature. Warsaw’s thirty-kilometre-long strip of land along the Wisła River is one such example. Five photographers from the Sputnik Photos collective made it the leading motif of their photo album Distant Place. The book tells five stories about the whole array of relationships between people and the river: attempts to tame nature or live with it in symbiosis, modern life by the Wisła and a recollection of its golden age of sailing.
To finish our journey, let us take a glance at Poland from a bird’s eye view. Kacper Kowalski took flight on an unpowered paraglider to photograph traces of human activity in the natural landscape.
What I am interested most in are the contact points of civilisation and nature. The most interesting things happen there: harmony is disturbed and new forms are created. When I am high above the ground, I cannot enter into any relationship with the people or the surroundings, as I would do in traditional photography. I cannot participate in any events. But I can evoke emotions by a purely aesthetic display of symbolic places. I look at forests, fields and lakes. I watch natural disasters an people taking their rest – and I see a portrait of civilisation.
Author: Patryk Zakrzewski, July 2015; translated by EP, August 2016