Somewhere for the weekend? Say hello to the upper Silesia region in the southwest of Poland. Never heard of it? Prepare for that to change writes Kaye Holland
I had intended to take a stay-cation at home in Harrow this summer (times are hard and money is tight) but alas, by the end of July, I had a desire to escape and see something other than Primark and the Pound Shop.
Despite not having deep pockets, what I needed was to disappear for a long weekend - which is how I found myself reaching for my passport and planning a trip to Poland, a place where prices remain refreshingly low.
Krakow - with its heady blend of history and architecture - has long been a huge draw for travellers but there is another town in southern Poland with the letter ‘K’ that this year might be hard to ignore.
Step forward Katowice (pronounced Kah-to-vee-tseh). Situated at the centre of the Upper Silesian Industrial District, Katowice is not your traditional fly and flop weekend and as such is rarely visited by Westerners but, I suspect, not for much longer. Come September, Katowice should take its place on the world stage when it hosts the final games of the World Volleyball Championship at the saucer shaped Spodek complex, one of the most recognised arenas in Poland.
But it’s not just sports enthusiasts who will want adding Katowice to their travel itineraries. So too will art aficionados for TheSilesian Museum - which covers the culture and history of Silesia as well as housing an impressive collection of Polish paintings from 1800 to 1939 - is set to get a swanky new home. Subsequently while Katowice has not always had good press - not least from the Poles themselves - even residents have to admit that the place they love to loathe is having a moment: it’s building up rather than boarding up.
Other big hitter sights include the Skyscraper - a 14 storey, 60m tall structure that was Poland’s tallest building from 1934-1955 and is widely considered to be the best example of Functionalism in Poland.
For all that, while Katowice’s eyes maybe on the future, its heart is in the past as evidenced by Nikiszowiec. In this suburb - approximately 5km southeast of the city centre - you can still hear the Silesian dialect spoken in the streets. The historic mining estate was developed at the start of the 20th century by Georg von Giesche Erben out of concern for those who worked in a nearby shaft. Today it serves as prime example of Silesian tradition and culture - the former miners you’ll meet are eager to share their story with you. If you’re planning on visiting in December, don’t miss Miner’s Day - which takes place every year on the 4th - when residents of Nikiszowiec are awoken by the march of a mining orchestra. Other events include a ceremonial mass at St Anne’s church and an evening beer feast.
Speaking of which, if you fancy a beer (piwo) or a vodka (Poles love their wodka) make for Mariacka Street, arguably the coolest street in Katowice humming as it is with buzzy bars, pubs and places to eat.
But much of Silesia’s appeal lies beyond the city of Katowice which - while it certainly has character and is attractive for what it doesn’t offer ( tour groups, glitz, pressure, distractions) - could never be described as a pretty city.
When you want - and you will - a reprieve from the urban crush, seek out Silesia Park aka Poland’s largest park. Dappled by the late afternoon sun, the beauty of the park - with its three million trees - is dizzying. Said to be bigger than New York’s Central Park, it’s perfect for those who want to hike, cycle, skate or simply enjoy some time doing nothing - the perfect tonic after an afternoon spent pounding the pavements.
The park is also a hotspot of music where festivals fill up the calendar during the summer months. I could have remained in the park for longer but wanted to press on deeper into the Silesia region and explore the area’s many mines. For you don’t come to this part of Poland without venturing down the mines - be they the coal, salt or silver variety.
I found the mines to be a highlight - albeit an unexpected one (I thought they would, pardon the pun, be the pits) - of my trip, offering an insight into what working underground was really like. Expect to slip into overalls and boots, before being kitted out with a helmet equipped with a cap lamp and a heavy belt containing the battery pack. Once suited and booted, you’ll descend down the shaft to tramp through hot, dark, damp tunnels using just the light from your lamp.
Make no mistake: it’s not for the faint hearted. While I did enjoy donning my explorer’s hat and living out my Indianna Jones' fantasies, by the time I emerged back above ground in daylight, I had definitely developed a new found respect for the miners who risked darkness and danger n a daily basis to feed their families.
Every meal in Silesia invariably starts with a soup followed by gutsy specials such as Kluski slaskie ze sloning (large dumplings stuffed with bacon) served with Rolada slaska (a beef and red cabbage roll). It might sound wrong but don’t knock it until you have tried it...
Fortified by a hearty lunch, I ambled around Tarnowskie Gory’s ancient market square admiring the pretty town hall to my heart’s content and concluded that, for those who want to avoid the crowds, go off the grid and have a gritty, more authentic Polish experience, then the upper Sileswia area delivers.
I returned from my weekend energised and alive, having rediscovered my zest for life. Pity those who don’t understand the potency of the short break...
Where to stay
I can vouch for the four star Hotel Angelo: staff are attentive and always smiling, the beds are the kind you could spend all day in and the hotel’s location proved the perfect base for exploring the Upper Silesia area. Even if you don’t stay here, do have dinner in Sunlight restaurant. I’m not normally one for sticking to the safe parameters of a hotel restaurant but the the menu - regional and international dishes all feature - is fabulous and complemented by a wide selection of wine that will appeal to the connoisseur and casual wine enthusiast alike.
For more information, please visit www.poland.travel