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Szczecin, Poland. Pronounced Stche-cheen…or, Sh-che-chin…or, St-chech-een. The problem with Polish, for a native English speaker, is the consonants. There can be so many of them in a row, your poor tongue doesn’t know where to turn next and intuitive spelling goes right out the window. I can handle reverse syntax and rolling Rs, but the consonants will kill me. I love living in this difficult-to-pronounce city way up in the Northwest corner of Poland. It’s off the beaten path enough to feel like it isn’t putting on a show, allowing for authenticity. It’s big enough to have quite a bit to offer in the way of shopping, culture, restaurants and entertainment, but not so big as to be overwhelming. We can walk a few blocks to the tram and bus stop, and be in the city center in 15 minutes, or walk out our door, around a corner, and step in to miles…excuse me, kilometers and kilometers of connecting parks and wild forest. City mouse and country mouse would be happy where we live. Its perfect for me, and my heart, which often feels split between the two.
When you come to visit- and you better come, because you said you would and I made the bed in the guest room- here are a few things you can look forward to. This is, by no means, a “best of” list of things to do in Szczecin. I haven’t explored the city enough to warrant such a list quite yet. What follows are simply a handful of things that I have enjoyed and found interesting in Szczecin, Poland. . .
Pierogies. Quintessential, perfect, pierogies. If you don’t know, pierogies are Polish dumplings- dough, stuffed with with a variety of fillings including: ground meat, potatoes and cheese, sweet cheese, potatoes and bacon and quite likely other flavors I haven’t tried yet. They can be found everywhere; at restaurants, handmade at little peirogie stands in markets, fresh or frozen at the supermarket, and, if you’re making your own, flour can be purchased especially labeled for pierogie-making (have not yet attempted, someone send your grandma to teach me). The savory kind are typically served topped with an onion relish that I find delightful, despite the fact that I despise onions. For a peek in to my childhood (100% foreshadowing my future), and a preview of the other Polish cuisine you may look forward to enjoying during your visit, please, please, please click this link, and watch the first silly song. Veggie Tales hit the nail on the head. The things that come full circle, I tell ya.
Plac Jasne Blonia (see also Green Space) is one of my favorite places in Szczecin. It is a long grassy mall. At one end stands a tall, prominent, statue of three eagles, a memorial to WWII, erected on the 40th anniversary of its beginning. At the other end, the government offices of Szczecin city hall in an ornate, green building. And, a large statue of Pope John Paul II placed in the location where he celebrated mass during his visit to the city in 1987. Along the mall are paths lined by colorful flower beds and tunnels of trees. It is a lovely place to stop for coffee and/or ice cream at a little cafe, enjoy the view, and people watch. It reminds me of a scaled-down version of the National Mall in Washington D.C.
Old touristy things. Saint James Cathedral (Bazyliki Archikatedralnej p.w. św. Jakuba). Built in the 12th century, it was severely bombed in WWII. While it has been mostly restored, renovations are ongoing, even still today. You can take an elevator to to the top of the 110 meter tall steeple tower for a sweeping 360 degree view of the city, the river and the port of Szczecin. We’ll walk down the street to Old Town, and have a beer and a bite at the brewery in the stylishly crypt-like gothic old Town Hall building dating back to the 15th century. Nearby is the Pomeranian Duke’s Castle, where the Dukes of West Pomerania ruled from the 1100s. Its a subtle silhouette, white and green and we admittedly haven’t toured, or learned much about it. But, we have had dinner (of course we would bypass history and go directly to food) at the *somewhat hidden* restaurant inside, where we’ve had one of the more delicious and surprising (hi language barrier) meals to date. To find it, we literally followed the scent of cooking through the neighborhood until our noses lost the trail. I went inside an entrance and asked someone at a booth and they sent a small child to lead us across a courtyard, through a tunnel, across another courtyard, and up some stairs. Of course, by the time I got there, my husband had already found it.
Touristy things along the Odra River. The Waly Chobrego is an impressive promenade above the Odra River, it is flanked by two restaurants with nice food and nicer views of the river and the port. It has a large fountain below the promenade and many steps leading down to the river, with the world’s most randomly placed laundry room underneath. The woman working there will wash, dry and fold your clothes for like $6USD per load. This comes in extremely handy if you’re living in a hotel for a month, or perhaps backpacking Europe and find yourself in Szczecin. While your clothes are washing, you can stroll along the Odra riverfront boardwalk, enjoy views of the castle and Old Town above, stop for a bite to eat or drink at one of the adorable little restaurants dotting the path, and/or take an hour long river boat tour of the city and port (Szczecin is a Baltic seaport, connected via the Odra river and a very large lagoon). Tours depart directly in front of the Waly Chobrego. They are in Polish and English, blankets for cooler months are provided and there is a food counter on board which serves beer and coffee and other essentials for an hour long river cruise.
Beauty in the details. You will see a little bit of traditional, pre-war, Polish architecture, especially when we visit the *new* Old Town with its ornate, colorful buildings surrounding a cobbled square. *New* because, like much of the rest of it, it was bombed and rebuilt. But you’re more likely to see apartment buildings with flower boxes on balconies, turrets topped with round onion domes, subtle floral patterned detail in building facades, hidden behind decades of grime and in need of a good power washing. If you’re anywhere near the river, you’ll see enormous towering yellow cranes dominating the skyline from the port, cargo boxes and barges. The face of the city itself is beautiful in the way that true beauty lies, below the surface and timeless. I like to classify cities in two categories: pretty city and nitty gritty city. For example: Washington D.C and Seattle = Pretty Cities, nearby Baltimore and Tacoma respectively = Nitty Gritty City. I’d place Szczecin in the latter of the two categories. It could use fixing up in many places, but has good bones and a history that has given it character. And more than anything, in that, lies its beauty.
Green space. I get the feeling that Polish people love their green space. I don’t know enough Polish people yet to know if this is actually true, but I’d be willing to place a bet on it. The city of Szczecin itself has an extensive parks system. We can get from our neighborhood to the city center almost entirely through connecting parks. We can also turn the other direction and head into the forest trails, both paved and unpaved. These trails seem wild to me and I’m always surprised at the amount of people out on a simple nature stroll. There are community gardens where people tend flower, and veggie plots, grow fruit trees, keep trampolines and small lean-to huts or greenhouses. Yards themselves have an indulgent amount of landscaping. I’ve loved discovering the extensive trail system both on foot and by bike. Trails that circle lakes and traverse forest paths, then back home again. There are ruins of a century-old tower hidden in the forest nearby. A former garden and lookout with a cafe, where the citizens of Szczecin used to ride out to enjoy a Sunday afternoon. It was bombed and destroyed in WWII. Although, when exactly and by whom is unknown. Now its remains lie crumbling a ten minute walk through the woods. It’s level 10 creep factor, but by far the coolest thing I’ve ever come across in the woods.
Szczecin Bazaar. We just visited the Sunday Bazaar and I’m sorry we waited this long! Don’t be afraid of its outward appearance. Through a tunnel walkway, behind an old building, up some creaky stairs in another old building, you will walk in to the bazaar. We would call it a weekend market, with vendors selling everything from beer, wine and kombucha, to handmade pierogies, cakes, mini pies and gourmet Indian cuisine. Possibly my favorite thing about it though, was the large room to the left, reserved for play, eating, drinking and relaxing. Poland has been so family friendly and its really nice to find places where you can enjoy yourselves as grown ups while your kids play.
So, there you go. A handful plus of things that make this corner of the world unique. Both touristy and not. Szczecin is off the path, but definitely worth a look.