Poland: Gdansk for the memories
As soccer fever sets in for Euro 2012, Thomas Breathnach heads to host country Poland and discovers plenty to distract even those who are avoiding all things ball-shaped.
Poznan was blanketed by a curious darkness. The birthplace of the Polish nation flickered under candlelight as oil lanterns burned behind fairytale baroque windows.
Ambling across Old Market Square, with its noble hint of a Prussian Downton Abbey, I wondered: with such period perfection here, why do all the tourists make a break for Krakow?
Suddenly, the cathedral bells gonged, the city lights beamed up, and the plaza's giant digital clock ticked down again to June 8. Earth Hour in the city was over, but Poland's Euro 2012 countdown had just cranked up again.
My Polish pilgrimage began the night before at Poznan's playground, and the site of the Irish Fan Village during the tournament, Lake Malta (campingmalta.poznan.pl; chalets €40pps).
The campsite, just a 30-minute stroll from the town, is a vacation favourite for holidaying Polish. I checked into one of their lakeside chalets to escape the April chill.
"We can meet tomorrow for drink if you'd like", piped my guide, Wotjek. "I'm seeing my friend, Dagmara, she's a very successful singer here -- Top 20 in Ukraine!"
Sold, to the man in the green jersey.
The next morning, rays of an early continental summer began to peep through, so I headed for some pre-bustle R&R at the city's new lakeside resort, the Maltese Baths (€7).
Fuelled by thermal waters which run under the city, it lies just 1km away from the bustle of Poland's fourth city.
I unwound in the infinity pool overlooking the lake, before taking in the Jacuzzi, sauna and tropical waterpark. All in all, it was a perfect Mr Bean day out.
Afterwards, I wandered into Poznan proper -- the ornate spires of the medieval city hall guiding my way. It's a lively student town with a youthful Slavic swagger.
Cubic Communist high-rises are now draped with massive H&M adverts. The buildings do, however, add to the city's mixed-borscht of design: Commie chic, renaissance elegance and revamped industrial zones.
Stary Browar, for example, is perhaps one of most beautiful malls east of the Vistula.
Food in Poznan panders to every palette. Brovaria brewery (brovaria.pl) is a German-style beer hall serving top-notch hearty fare; Vine Bridge (vinebridge.pl), Poland's smallest restaurant, has a Michelin-star finesse with prices cheaper than a Dublin early bird; and milk bars are a throwback to socialist days of yore: state-subsidised cafés serving budget menus of untranslatable national dishes.
Think Russian roulette dining, with dumplings.
Poznan Stadium, where Ireland will play Croatia and Italy) lies 2km west of the Old Town, ballooning over the city horizon like a pulsating zeppelin (€5 taxi; bus €0.75).
I headed to the grounds for a Saturday clash between local side Lech and Polish league wooden-spooners KS Cracovia to sample some local soccer fever.
On entering the stadium, there was a gladiatorial furore. Resident fans cowed the Krakow visitors with a deafening chant before suddenly breaking into an epic riot.
"Don't worry, it's all choreographed," Lech fan Paulina told me. "They even practise once a week!" After a 3-1 victory, it was time to paint Poznan blue and white.
The city's nightlife centres on Old Market Square and the off-beat side streets which surround it. I met up with Wotjek again in Kulisami -- a vibey pub packed with brooding Cracovia fans and, unless post-Communism fashion trends have finally come full circle, Poznan hipsters.
Inside, a Ukrainian film crew was swarming around a funky young brunette. As luck would have it, it was Dagmara herself. Not quite the bouzouki-strumming Linda Martin lookalike my shameless preconceptions were anticipating, she is an acclaimed young jazz star with a Polish Grammy under her vintage belt.
Irish-Polish relations out in full force, she invited me on to a concert of her friend Czeslaw Spiewa (a national superstar, and, as it would later transpire, an 'X Factor' Poland judge). It was just my first night out in Poznan and I was inadvertently rolling with a Bohemian Bressie.
But, alas, it was time to say my goodbyes and make for the coastal town of Gdansk.
Aside from budget airline OLT (oltexpress.com), which flits between Gdansk and Poznan for as little as €25 one way, the best way to travel between the two cities is by Poland's rail service (polrail.com; €12).
Five hours north, gallant Gdansk basks in a remarkably different energy to Poznan. Waterfront cafés and docklands of yachts and catamarans offer a Copenhagen cool, while its cobbled laneways of towering townhouses veil a fairytale Dutch feel.
I scaled the 812-step round trip to St Mary's Basilica to capture the town's postcard panorama. From the summit, red pitched roofs domino across the old town and mighty cranes guard over a warren of canals meandering north.
And if the tawny toned dome of Gdansk stadium doesn't tip you off (along with the plethora of bijouteries in the town below), the city is the largest producer of amber in the world.
Along with its sister towns of Gdynia (where locals work) and Sopot (where locals party), Gdansk forms Poland's sprawling Tri-City region, home to 800,000 Baltic bay-siders.
I grabbed the zippy urban-rail out to coast-kissing Sopot (€1) for some seaside kick-back. Despite being the nation's summer party magnet, the resort remains largely unspoiled; fine sable sands stretch along a coast of pine forests, while Sopot's wooden pier (the world's longest) juts majestically 500m into the surf.
It's the perfect place for a cooling afternoon sundae, spying tankers coasting north and watching fisherman casting their lines into the chilly seas (temperatures bump up to over 20°C come June).
From the pierside, period panache oozes from the Grand Hotel, which boasts an infamous guestlist of the good (Edith Piaf), the bad (Hitler) and the great (Boney M). During Euro 2012, the neighbouring Sheraton will play host to Trap & Co.
Within throw-in distance of Zdrowjowy square, dotted with casinos, clubs and cocktail bars, the hotel is the perfect location for the Irish team to relax -- according to the Sheraton's marketing manager, anyway.
I caught a lift back to the city with my local guide, Eliza. Stranded at a bustling intersection, we waited at length for the mercy of a yielding motorist. "We could probably spend all afternoon here," huffed Eliza. "We should have brought some coffees -- or a picnic".
Driving in Poland can indeed leave you a little slack-jawed. Face-offs with oncoming traffic are an adrenaline-pumping norm, and even zebra crossings here can bring out a Serengeti-like survival technique in pedestrians.
That night, I dined on the bounties of the Baltic at Tawerna (tawerna.pl), an imperial dining hall with a cosy maritime warmth. Delicious zanderfilet and chanterelle mushrooms was chased with Gold Wasser, a local herbal liquer with flakes of 22 karat gold.
Nectar of the Polish tsars, indeed.
Later, Biale Vino late bar (conveniently located in both Sopot and Poznan) offered a shoestring schtick of 4 Zloty drinks and 8 Zlotys food. It's currently a 4:1 conversion rate.
June should make for quite the party.