South of Warsaw and bordered by the Vistula River from the west side and Ukraine from the east side, Poland’s Lublin region is an utterly unspoilt and unexplored tract of virgin land mostly unchanged by time and unaffected by human activity. The Vistula is one of Europe’s widest rivers and its numerous web-like branches spread out into the region to form sandbanks of unadulterated natural beauty. Old river courses, parched and dry but still enshrouded with reedy vegetation provide footpaths along their crumbling embankments ideal for hiking. Several gorges, some deep, steep and fertile with overgrown grass, others rocky and alive with flowing water provide charming zones of natural beauty where the prevalence of wildlife (mostly birds but forest mammals show up as well) is considered to be the largest in the country. Most of the Lublin region is covered with tracts of beech and pine forest, most of which form part of the Polish network of landscape parks known as parki krajobrazowe. Dotting these forested sweeps of natural terrain are sunlit hillsides covered with flowery meadows and marshy hollows overspread with bog plants and water lilies.
The lack of development in the region and consequently the ensuing conservation (oh, what a relief!) of Poland’s easternmost environment can be attributed to at least two reasons. Most post-war funds necessary for regeneration, rebuilding and restoration were assigned to Warsaw and other major towns where quick industrialization was considered vital. In this respect, the Lublin region was not considered a candidate for revival and industrial reawakening, the place having been viewed as more appropriate for agriculture rather than production and business. The second reason is a demographic issue related to the number of inhabitants in the region. This is Poland’s most scarcely populated quarter and so public transport in the area between towns and villages is in most cases inexistent or restricted to a couple of connections per day, making remote villages out of reach and small towns only accessible with difficulty. This lack of transport facilities have kept people away from forested tracts and secluded places, the region having thus been conserved to an extent that its natural environment is in most cases still untouched and intact.
Transport to lesser towns and hamlets is still a problem; however, with careful planning, a good map of the region and some extra time allotted for travelling (trains and buses here are utterly slow and there are no motorways), one can visit the most interesting locations of the region and allow as well time for exercising one’s feet along the walking trails of the region’s undulating terrain and forested parks.
The only sizable settlement in the area is Lublin, a town that since World War II developed and spread out along its suburban western periphery to become one of Poland’s most important cities. Several daily trains connect Lublin with Warsaw, taking about three hours to complete the trip, making their way through scenic landscape for most of the time but particularly where the train tracks pass close to the banks of the Vistula (the area near the town of Deblin and north of Pulawy is remarkably impressive). Less frequent trains (count on at least two daily) reach Lublin from Krakow, covering the hundred-seventy-mile distance in almost five hours. Lublin-bound trains from Krakow may either pass through Tarnow or Kielce, the latter route affording great views of the Holy Cross Mountains (Gory Swietokrzyskie) and the Swietokrzyski National Park.
Frequent buses from Warsaw to Lublin (at least six daily) operated by the Polski Express bus company can be boarded from the appropriate bus stop on Al Jana Pawla II, next to Dworzec Warszawa Centralna. There’s only one daily bus from Krakow, departing from the PKS Dworzec Autobusowy. Buses to Lublin, both from Warsaw and Krakow are cheaper than trains and they come with the additional benefit of arriving at Lublin’s central bus station, located conveniently at the foot of the Old Town. However buses take much longer to reach their final destination since they break off the journey at various stops along the way.
For reasons of accessibility, Lublin is definitely the base from which any visit to the Lublin region ought to start. Arriving by bus, one is deposited on Al Tysiaclecia right behind the Billa food store and the daily open-air market. Looking at the top of the hill south of the bus station, one is faced with a length of the city’s medieval stone bastions that watch over Lublin’s Castle. Plac Zamkowy, the huge parking space right in front of the open market on the opposite side of Al Tysiaclecia provides staircase access to the castle and the adjoining Old Town quarter.
Arriving by train at the train station almost two miles south of the centre, one has to take a local bus to reach the historic quarter. Buses 13 and 17 both ply along Ul Zamojska continuing through Ul Wysynskiego before they approach the city’s majestic Cathedral. The next bus stop right in front of the Krakowska Gate should be your first port of call. You are now exactly in the centre of Lublin, the Old Town quarter on the hill to the east and the New Town stretching to the west.
To savour the historic aspect and authenticity of Lublin’s Old Town, it is advisable to wander around aimlessly, peeping into its narrow winding streets and quaint corners to discover in the process a crumbling building, a faded wall fresco neglected for ages, a monastery façade that still echoes sixteenth-century Renaissance extravagance or a wall niche minus the statue. Lublin’s historic centre, small and compact is only partly restored, and what remains unrestored is perhaps more interesting and impressive.
Ul Grodzka cuts diagonally across the historic centre, connecting the castle area with the Rynek (old market square) and the Krakowska Gate. This pedestrianized walkway (all the Old Town is pedestrianized) is a real gem, embracing fine architecture, albeit plain and devoid of ornamentation. Most of the houses on the street are now converted into restaurants, their cosy atmospheric interior taking in most cases priority over the food. Piwnica u Biesow is one such establishment, the charming ambience of the cellar having been solely for me when I visited in April.
Steps away from the southernmost edge of Ul Grodzka is the Rynek. Huge but centrally filled up with an oversized Old Town Hall, this is not an ordinary square. Lined with nineteenth-century Renaissance houses, this is an architectural showplace of harmony, elegance and graciousness. To savour the true ambience of the Rynek, consider stopping for an evening drink at one of the beer halls that line the west side of the square. All have seating outside making it possible to enjoy the candlelit ambience in an atmosphere of magic and charm.
Right behind the Rynek, hidden on the east edge of the Old Town stands the Dominican Church and its adjoining monastery. While the monastery seems to have been worn out by time, the same cannot be said for the church which is definitely the finest place of worship in the city. Carpeted with gaudy baroque decorations, it contains no less than eleven chapels, all crammed with remarkable fittings and works of art.
The remodelled neo-Gothic castle reachable from the extreme north end of Ul Grodzka via a footbridge seems to be a modern affair and its external architecture is absolutely at variance with the plain and sober buildings on Ul Grodzka. Most of its interior is occupied by the Lublin Museum, a multi-section stock house that contains a range of collections as wide as the number of rooms in the castle. The redeeming factor (and what a redeeming factor!) is the Chapel of the Holy Trinity, a mystical place covered from floor to ceiling (and ceiling included) with colourful murals that seem to be always on show for that special occasion although they date back to the fifteenth century.
The Krakowska Gate on the extreme south edge of Ul Grodzka is obviously a gateway that gives access to the Old Town. But it houses as well inside its additional sixteenth-century octagonal structure the interesting Lublin History Museum.
A stone’s throw away is the Cathedral of St John the Baptist and St John the Evangelist. The double-spire colonnaded façade is apparently sombre and architecturally bland but on getting inside, one is faced with an interior completely covered with ostentatious illusive murals that are a delight to look at and examine at leisure. The acoustic chapel on the extreme edge of the right nave is a masterpiece of more wall paintings and… as indicated by its pseudonym, proper sound amplification without the use of any sound equipment.
Before bidding goodbye to Lublin’s long-standing structures and well-seasoned Old Town, I climbed to the top of the Trinitarian Tower (the lofty building on the left side of the Cathedral) from where the views stretch out as far as the Kozlowiecki Landscape Park, twenty-five miles north.