Szczecin: Beautiful and Forgotten
Author: Simon Roman
Editor: Hazal Senkoyuncu
For those who do not know that a city called Szczecin even exists–, We will jump into a little history lesson along with helpful geographical facts to get you up to speed. Szczecin is a city located in Northern Poland with access to the Baltic Sea.* To its West, Berlin stands 138 km away from Szczecin, and to its East, a port city called Gdansk is located 333 km apart. With a population of over half a million citizens, Szczecin is the capital of the West Pomeranian voivodeship (or region). It is ranked to be the third city that occupies the largest land area (in square meters) in Poland.
The city was founded in 1243, thanks to Prince Barnim I. However, there is information about various tribes settling in the once-abandoned area, dating back to the early middle ages, approx. around 700 A.C. From the middle ages to the modern-day, Szczecin belonged to the Pomeranian Princedom. It was the capital that housed the ruling dynasty, an independent army, and the fleet. The Pomeranian Griffith dynasty ruled for 500 years. The ruling families had children, who later became kings of neighboring countries like Denmark and Sweden.
Indeed, Szczecin did not belong to Poland for a long while. It has been a Polish city only for 74 years now. Before the Second World War, the city called Stettin was a part of the Third Reich. After Germany capitulated its Allies, they decided to transfer several German cities inside the new borders of Poland. Thus, Stettin took a Polish name, Szczecin. It only took a few days after this settlement, and the lives of the once-residents were forever changed. Several hundred thousands of Germans were interned by the Russians off of the city. The whole community was replaced by Polish citizens.
The Paris of the North
The current shape of the town comes to our day from the XIX century. Most of the housing units are richly encrusted tenement houses built before the First World War. When the city belonged to Germany, it was referred to as the “Paris of the North”. One must admit, there is truth to this statement. The historical frontages are blessed with wide streets, allowing for astonishingly well-organized traffic (Hat tip to the XIX century German urbanists!)**. With every hundred meters, you can find a park, accompanied by great coffee shops in each corner.
Let’s not forget to mention the places you must visit:
White Eagle Square showcasing its baroque fountain, Globus Palace where the Russian Tzar Pawel I’s wife was born; Jasne Blonia Park with its astonishing alleys of old trees. You ought to spend hours in the Central Cemetery or the biggest city necropolis in Europe; in fact, it is bigger than Père-Lachaise in Paris. Then, there is the Breakthrough Museum, a building disguised as a public square that holds a collection of changes in the 20th century Poland. Let’s not forget Szczecin’s infamous port and shipyard… with a bloody history. The dock saw the unarmed workers strike against the communist party until the police shot many, and killed them in the 70s. Lastly, the Karłowicz Philharmonic, a.k.a. my favorite place in this town (Jump to “Szczecin in the Current Day” for detailed information).
Fingerprints of the Communist Party remain
The city of Szczecin is as beautiful as it is forgotten. During their stay in Szczecin, anyone can notice that the place is underfunded; not because of bad governing, but due to the decade long history of communism. The Communist Party was afraid that Germany would not be staying silent upon its loss in WWII– That sooner or later, Germany would want Szczecin back. The solution was simple! They would spend only a small amount of money for the town. And, they did for the next 60 years. Funds were sent to the shipyard and port maintenance, only some worker housing in the new suburbs and other essential expenses to keep a large city functioning. The era of poverty ended with the collapse of the Iron Curtain as well as the end of Communism in the 90s.
Fingerprints of this era remain on the face of Szczecin– Tenement houses have not been renovated since the war. Some of them were deconstructed to their bricks in 1946. The bricks were then sent to Warsaw for the rebuilding of the town, while the deconstructed houses were left undone. Oddly enough, Szczecin maintained better communication with Berlin than it did with Warsaw to this day. Hence, Berlin is more accessible via transportation; you can find a way to get to Berlin any minute! ***
Szczecin in the Current Day
Historically, Szczecin had been a neglected town. However, there was a line of tremendous success after the year 2000. The funding from the European Union (EU) helped the city to regain most of its former beauty. Following this, many investments, ideas, and companies came to town– The most important one was the European Union Prize for Modern Architecture (Mies van der Rohe Award) was granted to Szczecin’s Karłowicz Philharmonic in May 2015 (This prize granted by the EU is equivalent to a Nobel Prize in Architecture). The Philharmonic is a building that stands tall with its elegant white glass. Comparable to its exterior, the inside of the building is designed to attract the eye with a grey to white scale. However, this is only the opening for a music sonata that flourishes upon the entrance to the gold and blue concert hall. Visit the Philharmonic. It is worth every effort to get there.
If you ask me to give you a reason to visit Szczecin, I cannot give you one; because, there are hundreds! From great architecture to a fascinating history, great people to incomparable tranquil– Szczecin has a refined personality. We can pass on this hidden nest’s story to those who have never heard about Szczecin, and make this city as well known as it is beautiful! ****
*Szczecin does not have a river that opens into the sea and it is not located directly next to the sea. What it does have, however, is a harbor.
**Historical frontages welcome 3 traffic lanes for each direction, a tram, trees on both sides of the street as well as trees within the middle tram lane. There is room for everything and everyone.
*** To note, Szczecin is 140 km away from Berlin, and 565 km away from Warsaw.
**** Hidden Nest here is a reference to the coat of arms and emblem of the city, the Gryffin’s Nest.
***** Please note that the photo credits belong to the rightful owners.
Editor’s Note: Simon is a native to Bialystok, Poland. He is also a long-time, wonderful friend. He provides insightful commentary on the city, Szczecin, that endured various historical events. The brainstorming phase of this article resulted in a decision to write up a Szczecin travel guide. However, it soon turned into a passion project as well as a lament from its author.
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