Poland’s grand eastern city looks destined to be the last discovered by travellers. A one time bastion of Jewish culture, and now lively University city, Stuart Wadsworth finds plenty to recommend in Lublin.
Long in the shadows of hipper, more well-known destinations in Poland such as Krakow, Wroclaw and Warsaw, Lublin has traditionally languished, economically and politically, out of the limelight, happy to be a big fish in the small pond of eastern Poland. In recent years however, Lublin has seen an upturn in fortunes, as European Union money has flooded into its coffers, infrastructure has improved and the architecture has been spruced up.
The city today is a confident, young, vibrant and cultural place with plenty to offer those (still relatively few) visitors who make the effort to travel here. The town’s Rynek is ripe with tourist potential, ringed as it is with an array of cool bars, imaginative restaurants and relaxing cafes, and there is enough here to keep you busy – especially if you are interested in Jewish history – for several days. Lublin is beginning to wake up to its potential as a premier destination in Poland at last, and put its painful history behind it.
Best of the Beaten Track
You’ll no doubt head through one of Lublin’s main historical ‘gates’ – Krakowska or Grodzka – on arrival, and into the cobbled alleyways of its old town. These winding streets are full of life in summer, and you can soak up the history in and around the Rynek (market square). At the Rynek’s centre is the 1781 neo-classical Old Town Hall, beneath which can be found the fascinating Lublin Underground Trail, which tells the story of the city with the aid of scale models and photos including the story of the fire of Lublin in 1719. Visit the 16th-century cathedral nearby to see the ‘whispering room’; an acoustic vestry famous for its ability to project whispers. The Castle should be on anyone’s hitlist, not so much for its exterior beauty (it was rebuilt as a prison in the 1820’s) as for its interior, especially the Chapel of the Holy Trinity, which contains a beautiful set of frescoes, perhaps the finest examples of medieval wall paintings in Poland. Next on your itinerary should be a tour of Lublin’s Jewish sights, starting with the old Jewish district around ul. Lubartowska. Here you’ll find the only synagogue in town, and nearby the ‘Yeshiva’ – the school of sages of Lublin, or rabbi school, where rabbis were trained and dispatched all across Europe to teach before the war.
Finally Majdanek stands as a stark and austere monument to man’s inhumanity to man. Unlike the other well-known Nazi-run concentration camps which were mostly hidden away from public view in remote locations, Majdanek was situated on the edge of a major city, and visitors today can read accounts of the horrors that took place in full view of the local populace – around 80,000 to 100,000 died in just over two years of operation. You will not find the crowds here that you do in, say Auschwitz (indeed you may walk around for half a day with only a few crows for company, particularly out of season).
Lublin is a great city for cycling in and around and hiring a bike (cheap at around 30zł/8 Euro a day) will certainly open up some interesting options off the beaten track. First up, the skansen, 5km out in the west of the city. Over an undulating terrain of 25 hectares, this reconstruction of middle-ages rural Poland is a delight, and you can while away several hours here, exploring old wooden buildings, windmills, manor houses and even an orthodox church. Bring a picnic, have a campfire in the woods and watch locals sing folk songs on balmy summer evenings. Next door the pretty botanical gardens are worth a look too. Afterwards head to the south of the city through the forest (Las Stary Gaj) to the lake (Zalew Zemborzycki). Popular with fishermen, sailors, swimmers, cyclists, walkers and anyone who fancies a break from the city, this is a great place to chill out in the summer and unwind. Bring a book.
Further afield, Kozłówka makes a pleasant day-trip; famous for the Zamoyski Museum housed in a sumptuous late-Baroque palace, the main reason to come here is to see the Socialist-realist art gallery, a great place to see that most politicized and discredited (yet still oddly fascinating) of styles, depicting various ‘glorious’ scenes of delirious workers interspersed with portraits of their infallible leaders (mainly from years 1949-56). Also nearby (90 mins by bus) is the stunning Kazimierz Dolny, probably the best-preserved medieval village in Poland, surrounded by picturesque hills and situated by the Wisła river.
Experience & Events
Most of your time spent in Lublin will involve strolling around and enjoying the many cafes and bars around the old town, but for a town of its relative international obscurity, Lublin has a lively cultural life and only narrowly missed out on being awarded European Capital of Culture for 2016 to Wroclaw. Famed throughout Poland for its theatre tradition, don’t leave the city without checking out a performance – the main venue being Teatr im Osterwy.
Lublin is not blessed with a wide variety of accommodation and it certainly lacks on the budget front, but Hostel Lublin tries to make amends for this with cheap and clean dorms, a common room with internet, free breakfast and friendly English-speaking staff. A bargain at 40zl (10 Euro) a night. Moving up the scale, Hotel Waksman, just inside Grodzka Gate in the old town, is a retro hotel which offers comfort and style in spades with faux antiques, historic portraits and some rooms with great views of the castle with rooms in the 200-250zl range. If you really feel like splashing out, check in at Grand Hotel Lublianka, a century-old pile which boasts a Turkish bath and sauna for all guests, one of the best restaurants in town and floor-to-ceiling charm from 300-500zl per night.
The number of good bars and restaurants in Lublin has proliferated in the last five years, so much so that you’ll find it hard to make a choice where to go in and around the Rynek. 16 Stołow (16 Tables) does a fine job of pretending to be in a much bigger city, and its refined and elegant surrounds are matched by an eclectic European menu including everything from English style fish and chips with mushy peas to roasted fillet of duck with orange sauce. A great place to try Polish cuisine is Old Pub. Less of a pub than a regal dining experience, this place serves up ‘staropolska’ (old Polish) cuisine in sumptuous surrounds, and it won’t cost you a king’s ransom. Nearby, Magia sprawls over several rooms and out into a summer garden, each area beautifully decorated. Fresh and tasty ingredients are used to create an imaginative European-influenced menu. To complete the Jewish-tour experience, try Mandragora, one of the finest kosher restaurants in Poland, whose menu includes all manner of mouth-watering Jewish specialities. For cheap and tasty eats, Zadora serves up bumper-sized pancakes for less than 5 Euro (15zl).
Lublin’s nightlife scene is no match for Warsaw’s and Krakow’s, but in and around Krakowskie Przedmiescie in the new town, there are a cluster of bars where you can hang out and party till dawn if you so wish. Try Kwadrat for a few local brews in relaxed surrounds with a bit of blues music and friendly locals for company, or Czarna Owca (The Black Sheep), complete with an English red phone box, Murphys and Guinness on tap, great for any Anglophiles or homesick Brits. Caxmafe, with its vibrant orange and yellow walls and upbeat music, brings a splash of colour to Lublin, whilst the spacious Klubokawiarnia Archiwum is a great place to go and meet some young Lubliners, as it’s slap-bang in the middle of studentville. Back in the Old Town, try Grodzka 15 for some locally-produced fine ale (made on the premises) or Ceska Pivnice for some Czech brews in Czech-style wooden clad surrounds.
At the moment, Lublin does not have an international airport, but this situation is set to change, with a new airport slated to be open in time for the Euro 2012 Championships next year. Until then, the closest airport is Warsaw, 3 hours away by train. Lublin is well connected to all the major cities in Poland by frequent trains and buses, and is a regional transport hub for Lubelskie. Krakow is 5 hours distant, and Lviv in Ukraine (another Euro 2012 city) about the same.
Online information about Lublin is pretty scant, at least in English. www.tnn.pl is a site which shows a moving gallery of the Lublin Jewry and ghetto 1940-41, before the concentration camps wiped them out. Apart from that, Lonely Planet’s website and a chapter on eastern Poland is your best bet for reliable online info.
Both Rough Guides and Lonely Planet do solid travel guides on Poland, but if you are looking for some more poetic travel reading, then Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated gives a great insight into the fate of east European Jews, and most interestingly, the history of ‘shtetls’, Jewish communities that existed in the Polish/Ukranian borderlands for some four hundred years until WW2. Bruno Shultz, another Jewish writer, wrote beautiful dream-like novellas and short stories, and was born in Drohobycz, in present-day Ukraine but then Poland. His collection The Street of Crocodiles & Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass is the best choice. Although not set in this region, Joseph Konrad’s Under Western Eyes, is the writer’s most eastern-European novel; often thought of as English, he was born Jozef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski to Polish parents in Russian-dominated Ukraine, 100km from Lublin. Finally The Magician of Lublin is an immensely readable account of a talented performer corrupted by his dreams of the big time. Isaac Bashevis Singer wields the pen.
Soundtrack to the City
Featured photo by Petrol Head.