I leave Piecki behind on a fine motorcycle morning, cool and sunny, riding along a road with curves and hills (much to be desired in this rather flat country) and one of the worse pavements ever: so wrinkled and pot-holed you feel your limbs and junctures at the edge of dislocation.
When going past Novy Miasto Lubawskie I stop for a quick lunch in an inn. The waitress behind the bar doesn’t pay me any attention for more than five minutes, and doesn’t even bother to say “hello, I’ll be with you in a minute”. Oh, shadows of Poland!: despite better manners having arrived to the main cities’ fine quarters and touristic destinations, this people are yet to learn almost everything about customer treat, and in most of the country you still can breath that soviet republic atmosphere. Waiters, tenders and attendants suffer from selective vision syndrom, a bad habit that makes the customer feel truly invisible: it’s not just that you are seen and ignored, but worse: they don’t see you at all! It would be an interesting experiment to stand right in their way: would they, like ghosts across a wall, pass you through?
After lunch, the day begins to turn dull: grey and windy; though as to the wind, maybe it’s a matter of this region, since there are many eolian generators around here. A land not too nice not too ugly, but rather boring, soulless, like some areas of my home Castile: small scattered groves, large agricultural tracts and a few factories, seemingly dating from the industrial revolution.
Hometown to the astronomer Nicolas Copernicus, Torun is an old acquaintance of mine, and used to be my favourite city during the time I lived in Poland. The old town was founded in the early middle ages by Teuton knights, built in massive red brick Germanic style of the epoch, with its thick walls and its castle now in ruins. When I first came here, the town still preserved that medieval flavour characteristic of places that haven’t changed for decades: non renovated buildings, coarsely cobbled streets — when not simply pebbled, old-style shops, and so on. But, unfortunately, for the past two lustrums the ambitious tourism-focused urban planning has distorted — and in a way depreciated the old Torun, almost turning it into caricature of itself. Despite having been declared world heritage site, the city council didn’t hesitate –for instance– in replacing the main street old flagstones (in perfect shape, by the way) for new ones more “in keeping with the times”, so to say, and large sums have been invested for turning the old town into a theatrical scenery, like Riga or Tallinn. Or perhaps the planning came from above and it was the Polish government who wanted to make Torun a “Cracow of the north”. Avant-garde buildings, unnecessary renovation of the riverbanks, a marina without boats, redeveloping of the Jewish quarter and intense promotion — presumedly cultural — of performances, concerts and festivals, are among the elements that have (and will continue to) transformed the city.
I go out for lunch with my good friend Artur, and for desserts we sit at the terrace of a recently opened, presumedly original and modern local, though it rather looks like Kubrik’s Clockwork Orange, an out-of-tune note in old town’s pretty New Square: psychodelic chairs, bottle boxes instead of real tables, much plastic, mobile-operator style colours… well, outlandish.
So, perhaps the best of these days I’m spending in Torun is the hotel where I stay: one of the most genuines and less known in town, right across the rail tracks at a secondary station, very near the centre yet not easily accesible. Hotel Przystanek (which means “stop”) is a quiet place with a local clientele, and except for some wedding party or the occasional hubbub of the students lodged here, it’s rather silent despite the rail traffic: not many trains pass by Torun Miasto station; and when they do, I like their muffled clatter: somehow I find sedating that noise of steel and wood in brotherhood –so evoking– the trains carry along with them, like a flower carries her aroma.
Lastly, there is café Relaks: an old family restaurant, home-made food, speciality in dumplings and icecreams, whose outdated decoration and socialist-country style is in tune only with the twobusty ladies running it for lustrums: mother and daughter, widow and spinster, who seem to have just stepped out a daguerreotype. I don’t know how longer this local, that hasn’t changed at all probably since it was opened, will stand fast the push of new commerce; but what I do know is: the day café Relaks closes down, the old Torun will be gone forever.
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