Over the last few years I have spent a lot of my non-working time wandering around and through picturesque villages, working villages, small towns, large towns, small cities and capital cities around Europe. Getting to the place I want to be wandering has involved taking planes, or long-distance coaches, regional trains or long-distance intercity trains depending on my starting point and destination. I have wandered around St Petersburg in Russia, Kiev in Ukraine, Tallinn in Estonia, France, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Hungary, Bulgaria, Czech Republic and Poland.
Each time I set off on my wandering with a small day pack filled with a camera (sometimes film, sometimes digital and sometimes both), paper maps, notebook, pens, Kindle, passport, hand wipes, a plastic cutlery set and a water bottle. If I have been to a tourist information office I might have some local leaflets and a city guide. I wear good walking boots, comfortable socks, jeans, t-shirts and whatever outwear the weather requires. Sometimes, just sometimes, I take my Nordic Walking sticks but only if I know I am going to be in deep snow. In my head I have lots of ideas of where to go and what to do. In my heart I have a spirit of adventure.
The current series of city walks began when I left my job in London at the beginning of November 2017 to travel to St Petersburg via Tallinn, Estonia. I had a few days with a friend exploring the newly emerging arty and retro cultural scenes in off beat parts of the city and then set off on the long coach journey across Estonia to St Petersburg. The first snows had started and it was a grand time to be exploring the most westernised of Russian cities. I had to teach Monday to Friday for the three weeks I was there but on weekends I headed down to the local metro station and set off exploring. I visited metro stations, wandering around housing estates, snuck behind grand buildings and meandered around the city. Just me, my Pentax and Patti Smith’s book M Train.
Then I took a train back to Tallinn and at the start of winter proper revisited old haunts from earlier visits. I took comfort in places I knew and delighted in the ways they had changed.
After a week, I landed a job in Krakow, Poland. So began the Poland and Ukraine adventures
On rare occasions I have a companion for some of the trips but generally I go alone. This seems to bemuse and confuse many Polish people who find wandering around alone a strange thing to do as. they are pack animals. I much prefer to have the sort of companion who will come to a destination and be prepared to go off and do things on their own before meeting up to share discoveries.
When I set out I just set out. I get off a train and start walking or step out of a hotel and look around to see what catches my eye. I might have a glance at the map to get my bearings but generally I just walk. I can walk in a straight line. I can walk in circles. It doesn’t matter as there is always something interesting to see.
If I end up in a tourist hot spot it is purely by accident. I do not intentionally intend to find myself in such places though they may be a starting point. A highly success wander took place in the Krakow district of Kazimierz, known to tourists who are attracted to the faux hipsterishness of the place. I was there to accompany a student to an exam. I took off for 90 minutes on a day when there were hardly any tour groups about and did a little exploring. I came across some fascinating street art.
In a country like Poland, which I am currently exploring, the main starting point of my travels is always the Rynek. The old market squares were the centre of trading in olden times and is where the brightest, wealthiest buildings tend to be found. A Polish market square is a fascinating place – I particularly recommend Poznan, Łodz, Katowice, Warsaw, Wrocław, Lublin and the Cięzkowice. The German cities tended to have merchant’s houses in their squares adding a splash of colour and elegance.
In Poznan I was struck by the amazing art works to be found on private and public buildings close to the main market square. Wandering around them gave me an insight into how the modern culture is beginning to take shape there as it moves out from the galleries, libraries, cultural centres and into the places where young people hang out. In Cięzkowice and Sanok I experienced an older Poland but even there experimentalism is showing its face.
Even in my base of Tarnów (a small city between Kraków and Rzeszów), a new artistic and cultural Poland is emerging. It is obvious in the arrival of the first hipster bar but there is also interesting works to be found in arts galleries and on the walls. This search for a new, vibrant Poland, is the theme of my next set of wanderings.