Found in Poland: Katowice
At first glance it can appear quite a grey and gloomy place, with no shortage of concrete towers and communist-era architecture, factory chimneys, mineshafts and multi-lane highways ploughing almost through the centre.
With a population of 300,000 it’s only Poland’s 11th city. However Katowice is at the centre of a far larger metropolitan area with over 3 million people – the largest urban area in Poland and among the biggest in Europe. The history helps to explain why it’s such an urban area and the fantastic Silesia Museum is a great place to get an introduction to this history. It is housed in a modern renovation of an old coal mine building and lift shaft overlooking the city. There’s both an impressive collection of regional art and a permanent exhibition tracking the complex history of the highly industrialised region. In summer you can take a lift up to the top of the renovated mineshaft, with great views across the city and surroundings (photo above).
The city’s history could fill reams of books, but in summary it’s a region that experienced relentless change and upheaval during the 20th century. Under Prussian (German) control in the 18th and 19th centuries it was renamed ‘Kattowitz’ and developed as a highly successful centre of commerce and industry, particularly in the steel and coal sectors. Sitting in Cafe Kattowitz – opened in 1897 and still popular – you can imagine the mine owner elites of the early 20th century, meeting to make business deals and eating the still popular, regional specialities such as ‘rolada śląska’ – a beef roulade served with potato gnocchi and gravy.
After the First World War, the Silesia region was a great sticking point in Versaille discussions. With its huge coal wealth and further potential, the stakes were high. France was in favour of being more ‘generous’ to newly-independent Polish Republic in the division of Silesia, whereas Britain sided with Germany. In a famous referendum (‘plebiscite’) 85% of Katowice’s mainly German-speaking population voted to remain in Germany, while the majority of the surrounding region voted in favour of a return to Poland. When rumours spread of Britain’s plan to support Germany, a huge, armed uprising took place, resulting in the region separating from Germany to join the Polish Republic. Most of the German-speaking city elites were pushed westwards into Germany.
This newly found ‘freedom’ didn’t last long, however, because barely 15 years later Nazi Germany invaded, streets were renamed and Polish language banned. Great atrocities were carried out by the Nazs in the city, including public executions of ethnic Poles and Jews. Many historic buildings including synagogues were destroyed. The city was ‘liberated’ in 1945 by the Red Army, from when four decades of communist rule began – not quite the freedom that the local population initially anticipated. Though (unsurprisingly) never properly accepted by the local population and now rarely mentioned, the city was even formally renamed Stalinogród (Stalin Garden) in the 1950s, although this was quickly abandoned.
With its continuing industrial strength, the city was ‘rewarded’ with great investments from communist leaders. Opened in 1971, the country-famous and instantly recognisable Spodek (“saucer”) area continues to host music festivals and has more recently become a world-renowned centre for esports (video game) events and competitions.
Today it’s also a buzzing student city – home to many well-known public universities including those that specialise in medicine, economics and science. There’s no shortage of independent bars and restaurants of all cuisines, music venues and a huge shopping centre that’s equipped with three story towers of coal. Some young students of mine – proud residents of Katowice – are always keen to point out to me that Katowice has some of the largest green, urban spaces in Poland, including the enormous (620 hectare) Silesia park (“twice the size of New York’s Central Park!”). It’s hard to describe the city centre as green, though.
If you’re planning to visit Krakow, have a think abouts a side day trip to Katowice, leaving the crowds and tourist restaurants behind to discover a very different side of Poland. Don’t miss the doughnuts at Stara Pączkarnia too.. From next year a rail electrification scheme should cut the journey time to under an hour and even now frequent coaches make the journey in not much more. I see a bright future for Katowice, with its young and educated population, cheap office space, good transport links and entrepreneurial atmosphere.
All photos: Matthew Richard Carson
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About Matthew: Born in French Canada to an English mother and Northern Irish father, I was introduced to exploration and adventure at a young age.vI went to school in the east and then the north west of England and studied in Durham and Marseille. I then spent spent eight years working as an economist in London. I've been lucky enough to visit over 60 countries across Europe, the Americas, Asia and Africa.