Friday, 29 May 2015

At the Grand (Budapest?) Hotel in Łódź, Poland

Last year my travel writing colleague Lee Tulloch wrote an article prompted by the movie The Grand Budapest Hotel. In it, she regretted the gradual loss of the "eastern European hotels that have perhaps seen better times, preserved in all their dusty glory through decades of neglect.

I knew just what she meant. When I started visiting Poland for Lonely Planet in 2006, I regularly encountered grand 19th century hotels which had faded over the years. Rather than this being a negative, their scuffed wood and tired velvet curtains lent these places a hugely romantic aura, with a whiff of glamour from the past.

And of course, they were affordable. Owned by Orbis, the company which was once the communist state's official travel agency, they'd also retained some fascinatingly unsympathetic Cold War decor layered over the original fin de siècle architecture. 

I remember staying in the Hotel Monopol in Wrocław, which had a breakfast room of modernist pink furniture entered from an enduringly imperial lobby. In Łódź, The Grand Hotel put me up in an unrenovated single room which had a chunky communist-era radio and a shared bathroom.

I can't afford to stay at the Hotel Monopol nowadays. Bought by the Likus group some years ago, it's been renovated into splendid luxury accommodation. Likus also bought the Grand in Łódź, so I assumed it would also be out of my reach when I approached the central city on my current visit to Poland.

Except, it wasn't. So I decided to reserve a room at the Grand, to see what they'd done to the place.

To my delight, the answer was... nothing much.

For whatever reason, Likus has held off from launching the expected multi-multi-million złoty refurbishment of the Grand. So it turned out to be much as I remembered it, though the old dame had been cleaned, tidied and given a certain amount of necessary maintenance.

But oh, the aura of the faded past! It was everywhere I looked, as I roamed about the lobby:

When I took the lift to the fifth floor to find my room, this is what I encountered (along with creaking floorboards and cracked tiles):

The room was the only disappointment in all of this. As you can see, it had been modernised in a fairly straightforward way, gaining neither the glamour of past eras nor the luxury of the present day. But its time will presumably come.

There was one more surprise from the pre-WWI past, when Łódź had been a major industrial city of the Russian Empire, and anyone who was anyone had come to the Grand. 

Behind the lobby I found its vast dining room, decorated around its walls by plaster statues of pink-hued cherubs:

That's the room I had breakfast in this morning. As I dealt with my scrambled eggs, I looked around me and felt glad I could see the old Grand one last time, before it was inevitably refreshed for the 21st century.

And it was only costing me $70 a night for this dash of faded glory. The next time I visited Łódź, I suspected it would cost much, much more.

Note: I paid for my own stay at the Grand Hotel; its staff have no idea their workplace is the subject of my nostalgic musings, and are probably just waiting impatiently for the renovation.

Friday, 22 May 2015

Świdnica, Poland: Everything Old is New Again

This week I visited Świdnica for the first time in four years, checking it out for the next edition of Lonely Planet's Poland guidebook.

Four years is long enough to see distinctive changes in a place. The biggest change I noticed in this city, is best illustrated by a pair of images. 

So, look upon this picture sourced from the Fotoforum, of Świdnica's 18th century town hall in 2009:

... and on this, a photo of the same scene I took on Monday:

And here's another pic I took around the other side of the building:

It's not hard to spot the difference: an elegant white tower, rising out of the yellow structure below.

The tower is in fact a replica of the original town hall tower. When it collapsed in 1967, during the communist era, no-one had the cash to rebuild it. But recently, thanks in part to EU funding, the money and expertise was assembled to re-create it. 

In 2012 the tower reopened, with 223 steps to the top for a splendid view of the city. In a nod to modernity, it also has a lift.

My other encounter with a freshly refurbished element of this Silesian city was its train station. When I alighted at Świdnica Miasto station in 2011, I remember it being a dingy, unloved piece of architecture. 

Now it's nearing the end of a major renovation, and is looking splendid both inside and out:

It's now a beautiful public building and a centrepiece of civic pride. And from a visitor's point of view, it certainly leaves a good impression upon both arrval and departure.

A local told me the other day that Poland's regional train stations had largely been handed over to local townships in recent years, the railway company wanting to focus on its rolling stock and onboard services.

This created an opportunity for towns and cities to repurpose these important buildings, as galleries or museums or restaurants. 

It's a two-edged sword, however, creating a problem for local councils without the funds to refurbish the stations, many of which are decayed from decades of neglect.

On the other hand, where the funds can be found, there's a golden opportunity for civic renewal.

And speaking as a visitor, it's a delight to see places such as Świdnica Miasto station come back to life. It's more than a simple act of refurbishment; it's a statement of optimism, and of confidence in the city's future.

Friday, 15 May 2015

Wrocław Główny: Poland's Most Beautiful Train Station

I'm currently in Wrocław, Poland, on assignment for Lonely Planet. 

If you're wondering how to pronounce that placename, by the way, it's not what it looks like in English. Think Vrots-wahf and that's more or less right. 

There's a lot to like about this city, including its lively central square, its attractive Old Town, and its diverse eating and drinking options.

One of my favourite Wrocław things, however, is more functional: its main train station.

The last time I came through Wrocław back in 2012, the station had just undergone a major renovation for the European football championships which were being co-hosted by Poland and Ukraine. The result looked like this:

I think you'll agree, it's a spectacular building. When I'd first visited Wrocław in 2006 I'd admired this castle-like structure, but it was in much shabbier condition both inside and out.

When it was constructed way back in 1857 in Breslau (the city's German name), the station was seen as an important civic statement by the Kingdom of Prussia, which had only ruled Silesia for a century or so after winning it from the Austrian Empire.

Designed by royal architect Wilhelm Grapow, Breslau Hauptbahnhof replaced a humbler earlier structure and marked the importance of that new invention, the railway, to the expanding Prussian state.
From what I've been able to discover from research, the original platform ran through what is now the ticket hall - which would explain the elevated section along one side, which now houses cafes and restaurants:

I like the look of that timber roofing, added during the renovation. You see timber used quite a bit by Polish architects in large structures such as shopping malls, to give them a dash of nature. 

There's more of that roofing over the platforms, and some Art Nouveau-esque decoration along the staircases:

The most spectacular decor, however, is to be found within the row of cafes and restaurants opposite the ticket counters. Inside such bland international franchises as KFC and Starbucks, it pays to look up:

It's great to see Wrocław Główny returned to its early glory as a centrepiece of this beautiful city. There's no more pleasant way to travel in Europe than by rail, in my opinion; and stations like this make it a delight to depart and arrive.

Sunday, 10 May 2015

Dinner at the Art History Museum, Vienna

The exterior of Vienna's Art History (or Kunsthistorisches) Museum looks like this:

Impressive, isn't it? Vienna is full of such relics of its imperial past. A century ago the city was the hub of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and into imperial capitals flow riches which can be spent on grand edifices evoking both culture and power. 

Think of London, Paris, Berlin or Rome, each with imposing remnants of empire.

Vienna has more than most, partly because of the Ringstrasse (Ring Road) which replaced the old city walls from 1865 - in fact it's celebrating its 150th anniversary this year. Once the walls were cleared, a series of opulent buildings could be constructed along its length.

So there's plenty of magnificent places to visit. The reason I was drawn to the Art History Museum on a Thursday night was its regular gourmet evening. Each Thursday the museum serves dinner on its first floor, in an area beneath its dome which usually serves as a daytime cafe.

This is what the space looked like as I arrived:

This was my table:

And this was what I saw as I looked up:

It was an atmospheric space in which to sit, and I could happily have spent hours there. But that wasn't the idea.

Our first course was a selection of dishes, laid out buffet-style on tables around the edge of the seating. I ate a few items, including an inevitable asparagus soup (it's asparagus season in Central Europe, something the locals go dotty about). 

I could order my main course any time I liked, and this was the beauty of the concept. You could eat a little, then wander off to explore the art in the adjacent galleries, before returning to eat some more.

So I meandered through some galleries featuring the work of Rubens and Brueghel:

I particularly liked a Brueghel depiction of the Tower of Babel, a mighty layered structure like a crazed wedding cake, towering above a small sea port at its base.

Another asset I appreciated were the sofas placed regularly through the museum, allowing one to sit and contemplate a large work in comfort.

The architecture was, of course, an artwork in itself. No neutral white boxes for art museum designers back in the 19th century, it seems:

It was a great way to experience great art. Having dinner available, but in a casual format that allowed me to wander off, felt both stimulating and liberating. I'd love to do it again, next time I'm in Vienna.

The Kunsthistorisches Museum's gourmet evenings cost €44 per person; read more and make bookings here.

Disclosure: On this trip I was hosted by the Austrian National Tourist Office. 

Saturday, 2 May 2015

Vegetarian (More or Less) in Germany

In January, I went vegetarian. Well, more or less. 

Narrelle Harris and I decided we'd cut right back on eating meat, partly for animal welfare reasons and partly for environmental reasons.

However, I knew I'd probably eat meat occasionally. In my travel writer job, for example, I need to taste various types of food in order to write about it.

This approach is sometimes called "flexitarian". In reality though, we've eaten almost no meat at all while at home in Melbourne. It turned out that eating vegetarian and eating well - especially via the city's celebrated cafe scene - was not that hard at all. 

Apparently things had greatly improved since the days when the single vegetarian option might be a side salad.

It's been trickier when travelling, as I expected. And the greatest challenge would come, I imagined, here in Germany where I'm currently on the road.

Hotel breakfasts have been somewhat challenging. Until you've seen a German breakfast buffet, you have no idea how many varied forms pork can be fashioned into.

To be fair, there are many cheeses and breads present as well; but once you remove the pork, the hot dishes are usually reduced to scrambled eggs. Or maybe boiled eggs.

Things are not that tight later in the day, however. German bakeries are the great unsung heroes of the local cuisine, in my opinion. 

Not only do they produce excellent sandwiches (with vege variants), but they're very affordable for their quality. A budget traveller in Germany could do quite well existing on these bakeries' output.

Cafes have generally been OK as well, serving vege bagels and wraps.

Restaurants, I imagined, would pose more of a challenge; especially the more traditional ones. But there was a handy old-fashioned restaurant right next to my hotel in Augsburg, the Bayerisches Haus am Dom, which looked like a warm haven on a cold rainy day. So I gave it a try.

The menu was, as you might expect, heavily populated by pork. There were knuckles of pork, fried escalopes of pork, and roast filet of pork. If you tired of pork, you could order a fried calf's liver or half a duck.

Assembling a vegetarian option looked challenging. But there was enough to work with, once I looked at the items more closely.

For first course then, one of the specials of the day - a clear soup of chopped white asparagus and pancake strips:

That was great. The Germans and other Central Europeans have an obsession with fresh asparagus this time of year, so anything asparagus-related on the menu will be worth trying.

For my main, I went for a traditional Bavarian dish - spätzle. This is basically very small dumplings made of egg and flour, like a German gnocchi. This version was laced with cheese and topped with crunchy fried onions. Very tasty and filling.

After this course it was questionable whether I needed dessert, but it seemed a pity to skip the most reliably vegetarian course. So I ordered apple strudel, served with custard.

That was my traditional Bavarian three-course meal, and no meat to be seen. Something of a triumph. And at €22.60 including beer and coffee (about A$32 at current rates), it was very good value.

So maybe it's not as hard as I thought to cut back on meat in Germany. Though I have a food walking tour in Munich coming up... If sausages aren't involved, I'll be very surprised.

Disclosure: On this trip I'm travelling courtesy of the German National Tourist Board.