The decrepit train station in Katowice is in true Polish style, it's concrete network of small shops and urine stenched alleys where the drunks and homeless totter around may not be the perfect welcome to the city but at least it can only get better from then on!
Katowice is not really your traditional Polish tourist destination, it doesn't have a cute old town, it has little in the way of great museums and the Silesian town tends to get a lot of stick from Poles from other parts of the country, it has a label as ugly but I like to think of it as just a little bit different.
The cobbled streets with trams running through them and 19th century houses (albeit fairly dirty from nearby industry) are quite charming, there's a lot of good connections to nearby Silesian towns and villages where you can find some great museums, mostly to do with the industry and mining of the past. There's a general concensus that Katowice is struggling but that couldn't be further from the truth, it's actually the most prosperous region in Poland and has seen tonnes of investment from foreign companies, unemployment is low. It's just a case of "The Proclaimers" - ugly but successful!
What Katowice does really lack is a decent nightlife, pubs tend to be small Polish pub/clubs or German beer hall styled places and they tend to close up relatively early, you will not find particularly modern cafes and bars and certainly a poor selection of nightclubs. House parties is what it's all about in this region!
Two festivals are Rawa Blues Festival and Off Festival in nearby Myslowice which tends to cover alternative and punk music, there are also a lot of enormous concerts in nearby Chorzow.
It has to be said that my knowledge on accomodation options in Katowice isn't very good because I've always stayed with friends there, I dare say a google search will lead you to a hostel or budget accomodation of some kind though.
Katowice is no Paris and won't impress the majority of tourists but there's not a great deal of tourists and it's a decent base to explore Silesia, it also makes a pleasant change for some from the the typical tourist destinations and gives you a small insight into industrial Poland. It's only a short distance from Krakow, so if you are not happy with it - you can always retreat there!
In eastern Europe many people sit in the dark. They do in the reception of the Slaski hotel in Katowice; and in the information office at the city's railway station; and I can only assume that the barely dim lighting in the Taj Mahal, Katowice's take on an Indian restaurant, is to disguise the fact that the pickle tray consists of thousand island dressing and tomato ketchup to which a meagre sprinkling of curry powder has been added. I do not know why they sit in the dark - maybe they can't find a bulb stronger than 5 watts, maybe they just like it - just take it from me that they do. It contributes to the surreal ambience to a Saturday night in the south of Poland which, when combined with a sudden downpour, makes this part of the world even more attractive to me. I am a confirmed eastern Europhile and relish some of the quirkier aspects of the region. But is it enough merely to enjoy sitting in the shadows? Does Katowice have anything more to offer visitors?
Easyjet now boldly proclaims that its destinations are airports and not "airfields" - it has to be said that some of the other budget destinations do fly to airports some considerable distance from the city they claim to serve. Katowice is one of Easyjet's newest destinations and one which they remind potential customers is close to the historic Polish city of Krakow. In fact, Krakow is some 60 kilometres away - a couple of hours by slow train, although the scenery is wonderful. Katowice's own airport is isutuated 35 kilometres north of the city at Pyrzowice. Does Katowice have anything of its own to offer visitors or is it simply a gateway to more attractive destinations?
We visited Katowice during an extended tour of eastern Europe by train and the city presented itself as a useful stopping point between Krakow and Prague, the final stage of our trip. We broke the journey with a visit to Auschwitz some thirty kilometres from Katowice and finally arrived in the city late in the afternoon without accommodation but armed with a Lonely Planet guidebook which we hasn't really consulted prior to our arrival.
It is important, before making any value judgements about Katowice to understand a little of the history of the city and the region. As a keen historian I knew that Katowice was the location of the Nazi war courts during the Second World War but I knew nothing else. Since our visit many more people are aware of Katowice because it was the city hosted an international football match between England and Poland. Rock music fans may be aware of the city these days because it is home to a burgeoning alternative music scene and hosts an international rock festival each summer.
If anything, this area is associated primarily with heavy industry - coal mining, chemical works and steelworks. This is immediately apparent as you approach the city either from the airport or by train. In fact the area was dominated by industry well before Katowice was recognized as a city and only really became so between the world wars. The choice of Oswiecim as the location for what became the most notorious concentration camp was based not only on the fact that prying eyes could be kept out, but that it was also close to important railway junctions and to these industrial plants. Not only were many prisoners condemned to immediate death at Birkenau and yet more to slave labour at Auschwitz, many more were forced to work in the chemical and metal work plants at Monowitz close by (Primo Levi's "The Truce" and "If this is a Man" give an extraordinary account of life at Monowitz). When defeat was imminent and the Red Armies were fast approaching Silesia, the Germans began to panic, but knew they had to keep these plants running just in case the Russians could be turned back. This industrial zone was so important to Germany's war effort that operations continued even in the face of heavy bombing by the Allies and it was during these raids that many prisoners managed to escape.
After the war, when Poland fell into the Soviet sphere of influence, this industrial zone was maintained and further developed into an enormous area - Katowice is actually part of a huge industrial conurbation that is made up of fourteen towns and is home to over three million people. So proud were the Russians of this newly acquired powerhouse that (until the leader was discredited) was named Stalinogrod. In the 1970s this pride in the industrial achievements of Katowice resulted in new building in the centre of the city; here you will not find the historic old burghers' houses you find in the "rynek" (town square) in other Polish cities but an array of stark, post modernist high rise buildings - a conscious but clearly failed attempt to re-create Katowice as the Polish Tokyo.
WHAT IS KATOWICE LIKE?
My first impression of Katowice was of an enormous South Bank complex - all concrete walkways and underpasses. However, moving a little further from the station the streets open up into wide passages, lined with businesses - shops and offices mainly. This is primarily the "downtown" or business area and there's not a great deal to see. Stick with it though because you soon reach the more interesting part of Katowice.
Despite it's relative newness, Katowice does have some fairly interesting historic sights but it seems to be the case here that every silver lining has a cloud! The cathedral, which was built bewteen 1927 and 1955 has beautifully coloured stained glass but is otherwise rather plain and not much to look at despite being one of Poland's largest churches.
I would have liked to have visited the Jewish cemetery but, of course, this was not possible on a Saturday and, despite it being close to the railway station we did not have enough time the next day having dropped in at the Silesian Museum whch, in addition to a permanent collection of works by Polish artists (mostly from the 1800s) plays host to touring exhibitions - in this case one of folk art from the region. There are also exhibitions to do with local history and ethnological displays. The museum is open daily except for Mondays, entrance is free.
Elsewhere there is the Archdiocesan Museum which houses a collection of icons and a decorative Gothic altar but it held no particular attraction so we gave it a miss in favour of the Botanical Gardens just outside of town and reached by bus or tram. As well as a planetarium, an amusement park and attracive gardens there is also what is known in Poland as a "skansen" - an open air museum, usually dedicted to regional heritage, often with guides wearing tradtional or historic dress - in this case the focus is in coal mining.
What Katowice lacks in historic sights (it has only three museums) , it more than makes up for in entertainment. It is the cultural capital for a huge number of people and as such offers a wide variety of theatres (eight according to the tourist information office) and is the centre of a growing alternative music scene which attracts young people from aorund the area into Katowice at weekends. We saw lots of posters advertising classical music concerts taking place in the town and so it seems to have a broadly balanced selction of activities for arts lovers. Strangley the tourist information coming out of Poland is less enthusiastic (details given at the end), saying that due to the decline of the coal mining and othr industries, this is quite a depressed area (this is true) and implies that the knock on effect if a virtual void of nightlife and entetainment. I feel that the Poles are being unfair on themselves. Granted, Katowice will never outshine Krakow for tourism points but it can boast a range of interesting cultural events that many British towns and cities would be proud to host.
Nightlife seems to be centred around the pedestrianised ulica Stawowa, a shopping street with a large number of bars and eating places, many of which you can sit outside. Drinking places range from traditional style beer cellars to contemporary bars, though there are only a couple of the latter. Sadly there is a predominance of burger bars and the like but there are still plenty of places to choose from. If you do not speak much Polish - take a mini-dictionary - we found two places that had the menu only in Polish and no staff spoke English, when I tried German I was met with blank looks. Katowice can boast a French restaurant, a Chinese eatery and the Taj Mahal - not particularly authentic Indian cuisine but not bad either - the owner explained to us that it is still not always possible to get the correct ingredients and has to improvise sometimes.
All things considered, Katowice is not an "attractive" place. It cannot boast terrific designer shops nor independent shops selling interesting souvenirs; it does not have a rich cultural heritage with architectural and historical gems or a delightful old town. It seems very much the type of city which has come into being to service the needs of a workforce. This, of course, does have benefits in terms of sport and entetainment - working people must have relax and enjoy their leisure. It is, however, extremely atmospheric. The town centre is pretty quiet, even on a Saturday night, an indication that the local workers do not live in the city but further out where they take advantage of the cheaper facilities on their doorsteps. Overall, it was the younger generation venturing into the city for a night out. Many streets were empty but did feel safe. The centre is compact enough to be able to walk everywhere and most of the trams and buses were empty giving quite an eerie feeling.
Taking advantage of a cheap, flight you could easily find enough to do if, like me you have a fascination for the quirkiness of this part of the world. There is plenty of reasonably priced accommodation (many old state-run hotels have now been updated and taken over by international chains, alas) - I wouldd recommend the wonderful Hotel Slaski, situated close to the cathedral, which has not yet been modernised. It is a "behind the iron curtain" gem with lino that doesn't reach the walls (a "lino rug" if you will), an ancient radiogram and a dingy breakfast room in the basement - my dream hotel! You too could enjoy the delights of Hotel Slaksi for less than £20.00 a night for a double or twin room. Elsewhere accommodation ranges from five star hotels to cheap and cheerful hostels.
The people we met were friendly enough when approached, but unlike more touristy areas, no-one was interested in actively enquiring where we were from or what we were doing in Katowice. Many shop, hotel and restaurant staff did not speak English and most doid not speak German either which surprised me, especially amongst the younger ones. Older Poles will speak Rusisan as a result of this policy in schools after Poland became Communist. The general air was one of "outmodishness", people were quite drably dressed and there is an air of tiredness, not just in the dated public buildings and shops but amongst the people. I find quite understandable that the music of choice for Katowice's youngsters is a form of havey metal which entails the wearing of black and which is associated with disaffection - it seems only natural for them to manifest their feelings in such a way.
My advice would be to take in Katowice if you are ever in the area. Do not make a special trip unless, like me, you are a fan of 1970s high rises and outdated fashions or, indeed, you are a fan of popadoms and thousand island dressing. It is cheap enough to be the kind of place you could visit and not worry about the expense if you didn't enjoy it much. Accomodation and meals could cost as little as £30 each for a weekend. You could use Katowice as a springboard for Krakow but be warned, its not a mere stone's throw away. I have very fond memories of my stay in Katowice but I can certainly see why many would not share my delight - I won't be touting it as the next big eastern European destination to make the travel pages. Maybe we could ship our stag parties off there?
Visit www.easyjet.co.uk for details of flights to Katowice from the UK
Hotel Slaski is situated at ul Mariacka 15. I have not been able to find a website for it or any other room booking site which books for this hotel. Its telephone number is +48 32 2537011. One member of staff can speak a little English - she's not always on duty though!
Visit www.staypoland.com for further information about the area including a room booking service.
The "Rawa Blue" festival takes place in Katowice in early October 2005 - one of the largest international blues festivals in Europe. See the website above for details.
"If this is a Man/The Truce" by Primo Levi is published by Abacus and available in paperback through www.amazon.co.uk from £3.50 new and used.