Break within a break
Borders within the European Union may have become largely symbolic, scars of ancient conflicts, but there are also places where the underlying wounds are relatively fresh.
When you are crossing European borders for a “break within a break”, you should not expect to see a sudden and dramatic change of scenery. Across most of Europe, the lands on either side of national frontiers have more in common with each other than with the faraway lands of the state they belong to.
In our previous post, I quoted the French and Italian Rivieras as an example, but the same is true in the Alps, along the Rhine and almost everywhere you may care go to.
“Scars run specifically deep in Eastern Europe…”
Borders, after all, are (by and large) arbitrary lines: they divide what belongs together and what is, in this day and age of European integration, growing together again. Essentially, they are scars that have remained from ancient wars and conflicts. Bear in mind, however, that some of these scars are deeper and more painful than others. Scars run specifically deep in Eastern Europe, where more people have died defending and attacking borders than anywhere else. Incidentally, this is also where the contrast between neighbouring countries is the widest. Further to the west, along the frontiers of Germany and Holland or of France and Belgium, countries may shade into one another.
This, however, is not something you would want to say about Poland and Germany.
If you ever visit Berlin, do not miss the opportunity of experiencing this for yourself. Trips from Germany to Poland are quick and easy, not least because many Polish towns near the frontier are covered by German Rail’s cheap one-day ticket options.
The nearest Polish town to Germany is Slubice: take the one-hour train journey to the German border town of Frankfurt an der Oder (not to be confused with its near-namesake in the West, Frankfurt am Main) and walk across the river Oder into what was, before WWII, its eastern suburb, then called the Gartenstadt. It no longer feels much like a garden these days, however, and has been officially twinned with Tijuana in Mexico. We had done this memorable trip a few years ago. But for our most recent stay in Berlin, we decided to go a little further afield, visiting Szczecin, formerly Stettin, Poland’s seventh largest city, 2 hours away by train from the German capital.
How to spend two hours in Szczecin
Turn left out of the train station and left at the next large intersection for the Red Town Hall, one of the city’s landmarks …
… before making your way to the Pomeranian Duke’s Castle (you can see its outline ahead of you over the roofs) …
… which is surrounded by Szczecin’s Old Town.
Not many historic buildings are left there, however, Stettin having been heavily bombed during WWII, and what has been reconstructed is surrounded by rather unattractive municipal housing estates from the 1960s. The idea of integrating residential homes for workers into the town’s historic centre was undoubtedly laudable, and much in the spirit of the times, …
…. but from a visitor’s point of view (and the tourism industry’s, I bet), the result is strikingly unsatisfactory.
More impressive is the harbour area in the north of the inner city, down the street called Waly Chrobrego. From this part of town, you get great views across Szczecin’s large harbour (before 1945, Germany’s largest Baltic port), and the vast scale of the red-brick administration buildings gives you an impression of how important the city once must have been.
From here, you are probably best advised to head back for the area between St Jacobs Cathedral (on the far side of the Ducal Palace) and the Sacred Heart Church on busy Potulicka street. Roam a little through the residential alleys, where some of the old patrician houses from the early 20th century are still standing, …
.. sometimes even preserved with their old German inscriptions.
I cannot tell for sure, of course, but I would be glad if this were a sign for an increasingly relaxed attitude of regional and national administrations towards the town’s past. Szczecin has always been, undeniably, a German city. Before WWII, the Polish minority was only about 2,000 people strong, accounting for less than one percent of the town’s population. The Polish border down the Baltic coast, after all, was nearly 400 km away – a 6-hour train ride.
After WWII, when Stalin claimed all the Polish lands for Mother Russia that had been ceded to him under his pact with the Nazis, Germans were driven away from what subsequently became Western Poland.
Still, considering what the Germans did to Polish towns under their control, Stettin’s fate could have been worse. A lot worse. East Prussia, an area that was almost 100 % German before the war, was far more brutally “slavified”, with Königsberg – the city of Immanuel Kant and the ancient seat of the imperial Hohenzollerns – cleansed not only of its German inhabitants but of all traces from its German past.
Virtually the entire town, now called Kaliningrad, was razed to the ground, and of one thousand years of history, only the manhole covers in the streets remain which bear the name of the German company that made them – and the year in which they were last changed: 1937.