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Phespirit goes to Poland
Wrocław, Poznań & Szczecin     January/February 2008

A most pleasing and unexpected treat awaited Phespirit when he visited Wrocław at the end of January: the townsfolk still hadn't taken down their Christmas decorations. Vast chandeliers of tiny white lights lined the streets around the Rynek (market square). In the southwest corner stood a huge conical tree, tastefully adorned with a broad ribbon of gold and delicate twinkling lights. More intricate arrangements in blue, white and yellow were strung across side-streets and wrapped around lamp-posts. It all made for an uplifting spectacle. Arriving at dusk, Phespirit's first impressions of Wrocław were favourable.

An even more impressive Christmas wonderland awaited in the 14th century Kościół NMP na Piasku (Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary on the Sand). Its dim little 'chapel of the blind and deaf' had been rammed full with little trees and miniature moving figures, all intensely illuminated by multi-coloured fairy lights, whilst feelgood music wafted across the tableau and out into the main church. The whole grotto had been thoughtfully assembled for vision-impaired or hearing-impaired visitors. It is enchanting for all ages, but is especially captivating for small children, as Phespirit witnessed.

There is more to Wrocław than its seasonal attractions. Among numerous sights, the Panorama Racławicka proved infinitely more gratifying than Phespirit ever would have imagined. The prospect of paying to stand at the centre of a single large cylindrical painting that depicts an 18th century battle between Poles and Russians had done little to stimulate excitement on its own, regardless of it being the city's pride and joy. Yet it is a majestic thing to behold, in vision, scale, composition and execution, not to mention the superb setting that has been created for it, which tricks the mind into believing it truly three-dimensional. It's worth seeing.

When the time came to move on from Wrocław, Phespirit boarded the 08:15 train, scheduled to arrive in Poznań at 10:37. Before departure he found himself cornered in an isolated rail compartment by a pair of unduly-aggressive young beggars. A disconcerting moment, but he fronted them down and his journey was uneventful thereafter. The train hurried through a flat landscape of saturated fields and skeletal trees. Frail sunlight fell upon his window throughout, but the weather deteriorated within a few hours of Phespirit's arrival. Wrocław had been still and overcast, with temperatures in the high single digits, but at Poznań the wind picked up, temperatures dropped a couple of degrees and the first few rain spots appeared. Might this herald the arrival of a proper Polish winter? As it turned out: no.

Next morning the sun came out and there was neither a cloud in the sky nor a breath of wind; ideal conditions for exploring another attractive city. Like Wrocław, Poznań has a charming chocolate-box Rynek with an even more sickly-sweet Town Hall, but its other sights are a little more sparse. The National Museum and the Citadel were worth devoting a few hours to, nonetheless.

The weather remained Phespirit's friend for his train journey to Szczecin, which left Poznań at 11:05 and arrived promptly at 13:37. Szczecin is the least picturesque of the three cities that Phespirit visited, but is home to a couple of interesting museums, a handsome castle, and various other shapely buildings. This is all the more admirable considering the city was, if not entirely flattened, then certainly shattered during World War II. To see the city now through the eyes of a newcomer, one would never guess the state it must have been in just sixty years ago.

Since it joined the European Union, flights between Poland and the U.K. have increased in number and decreased in price. And whereas a few years ago only Kraków and Warsaw were spoken of as potential destinations for city breaks in Poland, there is now an intriguing array of possibilities. These will come into sharper focus when Poland and Ukraine jointly host UEFA's European Football Championship in 2012. Phespirit was pleased to have got in there before the hype.

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