David Tejer takes us on a tour of Katowice, the post-industrial mecca of music that’s fast rising as an off-the-beaten-track destination for the adventurous.
When foreigners come to Poland, most gravitate towards Warsaw and Krakow, but rarely does Katowice find itself on their itineraries. Hey, even I, whose mother’s family is from the place, was almost put off by friends who insisted upon its dreariness. And after having spent a few days there I can confidently say that claiming that Katowice is an unattractive town is an understatement. At first glance, it appears dull, rundown and without much relief offered in terms of activities.
However, if you dig deep into the nooks and crannies of Katowice - the metropolitan heart of the Upper Silesian Coal Basin and its extensive heavy industry - then you’ll find precious stones. And boy are they lustrous.
Since the fall of communism, the city has had a tough rap shaking its strictly industrial reputation. Under Nazi occupation, many of the city’s monuments were destroyed and many influential public figures were either publicly executed or sent to concentration camps. The city then underwent a communist touch-up that involved a lot of haphazard city planning and an even stronger exploitation of industry. An acquaintance told me, perhaps hyperbolically, that back then the snowfall was grey due to the tar-heavy air.
But now, things are changing. Katowice and its inhabitants are doing a great job putting the “post” in post-industrial. Katowice is home to two major music festivals (OFF Festival and Tauron New Music), lots of culture, plenty of breweries and there’s even a Humans of Katowice Facebook group.
How to find what’s cool in Katowice
Leaving the train station, you don’t have to walk far to be smacked in the face by the heavy facelift that the city centre is undergoing, construction well under way just outside. Instead, grab a cup of coffee at the very chic Kofeina Bistro (number 13 on 3 Maja Street) and head on down the road to number 19, turn into the alley and check out the funky record store Komis Płytowy. Nod your head to the eclectic music they put on while you examine the wide variety of local and international artists sold at more than reasonable prices (I happened upon an album from the Polish Jazz series I’d wanted for quite some time and grabbed it for 30zl. Success!). Top this off with a cold beer at Biała Małpa (number 38 on 3 Maja Street), a bar sporting a yummy assortment of beers from local breweries. Located in an open courtyard, it’s a quiet retreat from the rushing on the street and you can bask under the gleaming sun (at night, it inevitably becomes bustling).
Pass the majestic Silesian Theater as you walk Korfantego Street northwards. You’ll soon reach the Silesian Insurgents’ Monument, a huge impressive statue comprised of three wings shooting up into the air. Following WWI and the Treaty of Versailles, Silesia was a focal point of consternation for the Allies – they couldn’t find a feasible way of dividing it between all its ethnic groups. They scheduled a plebiscite, in the meantime leaving it under German rule (as it was before the war). Rising violence between paramilitary factions culminated in three bloody Silesian uprisings from 1919 to 1921 that finally forced the region’s division. The statue - with each wing symbolising one of the uprisings - was a welcome present from Warsaw when Silesia was integrated into the newly-declared Second Polish Republic (although smaller in area, Poland saw the better end of the deal as most of the mineral deposits and heavy industry was in the area allotted to the Polish side).
Also from this spot, you can catch a view of two architectural landmarks. It’s easy to discard much of the city’s architecture as simply “communist architecture”, but that would be doing it a great disservice. During the 60s and 70s, the French modernist architect and urbanist Le Corbusier heavily influenced many young Polish architects. He coined the expression “The house as a machine for living in” which, to the best of my layman understanding, involved the building of massive tenement complexes and turning them into almost self-sustaining units offering residents wide access to natural light, leisure facilities, surrounding greenery and open spaces, as well as easy access to the workplace. In other words, functionality over ornamentation (there’s so much more to it and I suggest you read a little bit about him for greater knowledge). Through Le Corbusier’s philosophy, Polish architects turned Katowice into a playground for his revolutionary ideas, often to quirky and comic effect.
Find the flying saucer
If you glance north, you won’t be able to miss the Spodek arena. Its name means “saucer” on account of its resemblance to the flying variety, and it’s a dominant landmark of the visual landscape and a city symbol. A few years ago, with much self-deprecating humour, when the lights turned on at night, the arena would emit the iconic tune from Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (you can check it out here – it’s hilarious!). If you now look to the west, you’ll be confronted by the brutish Superjednostka, a titanic sixteen-floor residential mega-complex that’s a staggering 187 metres long. It was initially planned to hold up to 3,000 residents - I can confidently say I never saw anything like that many there.
Cross the road and turn east, and before long you’ll be in Plac Kilara where you’ll find one of the pillars of modern post-industrial Katowice: The Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra (aka NOSPR). The building is impressive in its own right, with the red brickwork of its walls offering a distinctly local feel while the two sprawling cement footbridges and the building’s interior are modern and lavish. Check the calendar for upcoming concerts! Walk a few minutes further east and you’ll reach the second pillar - the recently-opened Silesian Museum, which occupies the former site of the Katowice coalmine.
The museum down a mineshaft
Trying not to spoil the post-industrial landscape and paying homage to the former function of the terrain, the three exhibition levels of the museum are entirely underground (thirteen metres down, to be exact). The only parts of the Silesian Museum above ground are the glass cube houses that allow natural daylight to seep into the galleries and the former shaft tower that offers visitors an elevator ride up to a panoramic view of Katowice. You have to see it for yourself – it’s astounding. Amongst the many permanent and temporary exhibitions, there are two galleries covering some of Polish art’s greatest achievements, one from 1800 to 1945 and the other 1945 onwards, that showcase the most significant trends and major stars of the country. But the true highlight is the Light of History - Upper Silesia Over the Ages exhibition: an interactive tour through the area’s unique history, with a special emphasis on the industrialisation period that gave Silesia its distinct look and character. Due to the museum’s recent unveiling and the very generous free entrance (soon to expire), the museum is extremely popular - unless you’re the type of person who enjoys melting in the sun while standing in line, make sure you come early. Also, steal a quick view south of the museum towards another Corbusian oddity, the Osiedle Gwiazdy, a complex comprised of seven star-shaped residential buildings.
All right. Tired and hungry after a long day at the museum? Head on back to the city centre and the restaurant Staromiejska 13 (its name is its address) where you can find tasty food on a traveller’s budget. Rested and well fed, you should now cap this day off on Mariacka Street, the beating heart of Katowice’s nightlife. Beer gardens sprawl the street one after another and you’ll have no problems finding one to your liking, with beer that is definitely to your liking. Make sure you pay a visit to Kato, widely considered the most alternative of all the bars.
Take the time-travelling bus
Rise and shine! Nurse your hangover with a quick zapiekanka and get ready for the highlight of your Katowice excursion: a day trip to Nikiszowiec. The 974 bus takes a little bit of a detour, but it’s worth it. Leading up to your final destination are many old squalid factories that offer you a time-travel-like experience into the area’s past, culminating in your arrival at Nikiszowiec. This old district of housing estates was formerly reserved for heavy-industry workers and looks like a fort made up of two-storey red-tinted brick houses, many with red-painted window frames (these “familok” were designated mainly for coal-miners’ families). Nikiszowiec has become a favourite haunt for artists, many of whom have moved into the old neighbourhood, and you’ll see tourists come pouring in whenever there are cultural events.
Go to the ever-so picturesque and whimsical Cafe Byfyj (5 Krawczyka Street), if only to marvel at the baked goods they prepare. Make use of your sugar rush and wander through the courtyards in the middle of the nearby estates, past mothers on their balconies keeping an eye on their children in the playgrounds below. If it’s not mothers, you’ll often spot regal-looking dogs lounging in the red window frames and keeping watch. The centrepiece is St. Anne’s Church - also made from brick, it really ties the neighbourhood together. I happened upon a wedding when I visited. A slick open-roofed red American car stood guard outside, waiting eagerly for the newly-weds, while children peeked through the open doors to catch a glimpse of the ceremony. It was beautiful.
An antique shop like no other
Now, head on down to 2 Zamkowa Street where you’ll find a true pearl: the Galeria Riksza pub. Outside, you’ll be greeted by the menacing maître d’ - a skeleton dressed in uniform behind a podium bearing the text “PZPR” (The Polish United Workers’ Party). With a terrace that looks like a flea-market-cum-redneck-junkyard, and an interior like a whimsical abstract dream, Galeria Riksza is an antique shop like no other. The owner travels all over the country gathering up quirky (and not-so-quirky) bric-a-brac, so you’ll end up getting lost for hours examining what the shop has to offer. But hey, they also have beer and food.
Now head on back to Centrum, preferably stopping through Dolina Trzech Stawów, a massive park where people come to have barbecues, ride the bike trails, or just relax next to its three lakes. Sztauwajery is a pop-up bar situated beside Łąka Lake, set up by the good people of the Tauron New Music Festival. With its Mexican food and cocktail lounging during the day, and its parties and music at night, the place has some really great vibes.
Watch a concert at the betting shop in a forest
Finish your trip off with an evening at the amazing Bar Galop (73 Kościuszki Street). Formerly a gambling establishment where people could bet on horse races in Warsaw, it was then a bar, and then a condemned ruin. But now the historic Bar Galop has undergone reconstruction and has officially reopened. The main building preserves the look of the betting shop (with long windows sprawling across it) while the yard is full of deckchairs, all adding together to give Bar Galop a young and vibrant character. A forest surrounds it all, nesting the place away from the urban landscape, and giving you the feeling that you can be as loud as you want there. And it does get loud. Concerts are held in the yard where musicians perform out of an open truck (it looks very cool). I was lucky enough to catch a Gooral concert – a band I can only describe as a Goral-folk fusion dubstep act of epic proportions. It was wild! (Check them out here).
To sum things up, Katowice was an amazing experience. Whether it’s the Silesian Museum and its inventive design, the young blood seeping into Nikiszowiec, or the revitalised Bar Galop, Katowice and its locals are all about breathing fresh air into their historical and cultural heritage. Instead of simply demolishing or revamping for the sake of modernity, the city’s aim is to mindfully preserve that which is distinctly and characteristically local, all while fusing it with a modern twist.
Indeed, the future is looking very promising for Katowice.
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