On Saturday night, Lublin is rocking – more even than Krakow. The old town – a few cobbled streets and a medieval square – is jammed with people partying out loud in sweltering heat. A punk band blasts cacophony from an upstairs window, and in front of the town hall a group of old men are playing trad Polish music. The next day there are buskers all over, fiddlers and pipers and guitarists and jugglers; an old greyhair belts out Layla, in Polish. Two people dressed as blueberry muffins, each with whipped cream and a cherry on top, wander around the square; teenage girls delight in taking each others’ photos with them. No-one would guess that this is Europe in recession – except that Poland is the one EU country that didn’t get a recession, even in 2008, and continues to thrive.
In the morning, the same streets fill up with older folk erecting tables and laying down mats: selling used jewelry, books, bags, crockery, clocks, shoes, paintings, glass jars, empty beer bottles, walking sticks, you name it.
Some of the gorgeously painted houses around the town square are empty above their ground floor cafes, but their windows have been covered with giant photos of people’s ancestors:
This may be partly to do with the question of ownership. I am staying by the Jewish gate; Lublin was known for its scholarship as the Jewish Oxford, and until the 1940s 40% of the population was Jewish, but they can now be counted on fingers and toes. There are plenty of plaques to commemorate this, but nobody quite knows who now owns their property, and without a clear title, nothing can be done with it.
Lublin castle is not the original, rather a nineteenth century fort, but within it there is a chapel covered with beautiful 15th century frescoes; for some reason the local ruler pulled in some Russian painters and went Byzantine:
Here in the heart of Europe, those cherubim, all the way from Constantinople…
100 kilometres further east is Zamość, a town built in the 16th century as a Renaissance set piece – the square is exactly 100 metres square – to cover a trade route between the Baltic and the Black Sea.
As time went by it became militarized, and battles were fought around here, hence the fortifications:
It had a lucky escape during World War Two: it was to be razed and replaced with a city embodying German architectural principles named – the thought brings on a shudder – Himmlerstadt. The local German commander, who was fonder of Renaissance planning and design than his masters, raised questions (exactly what kind of German architecture was required?) for just long enough that the Red Army made the matter moot.
Lucky escape for the buildings, that is. In 1939 half the city’s population was Jewish. Latest figure for number of Jews here: three.
Outside the town centre there is tattiness and relative poverty – even a few traditional wooden houses interspersed with the concrete blocks. The whole place – as far east as the Baltic Republics, close to the Black Sea drainage – feels way out there: on the edge of Poland, of the European Union, of what Europe, from the western view, is understood to be. Beyond this edge lies Ukraine, Russia: some vast steppe stretching all the way to the Caspian and the Urals where people have lived in the anonymity of small communities for thousands of years, periodically rolled over by some army from Moscow, Kiev, Warsaw, Vienna, Berlin, even Paris, with a claim to their nominal allegiance and taxation; while in reality their allegiance has been to their traditions, their families, their few possessions, their religion and their very survival.
Under this enormous sky, the thought of all that space is enough to induce agoraphobia…