Szczecin is an important shipbuilding centre and seaport base, located close to the German border. Although the city centre was severely destroyed during wartime, there are still some remaining magnificent monuments of architecture, reminiscent of the times when Szczecin, as part of Prussia, was considered the 'Paris of the North'. But Szczecin today is mostly about water and lush greenery.
Text by Michelle Smith
Located just 130km from Berlin and with a population of 425,000, Western Pomerania's capital remains a buzzing and bustling urban centre in the region. Its geographical location is a major strength for Szczecin now, but in the past, it caused the city a great deal of trouble. Its proximity to the German border made it a prime target for destruction during WWII, and its sea access made it an attractive target over decades of invasion. Everyone from the Prussians to the Danes to the Swedes had a crack at aggressively taking over the area, and between 967 and 1720, no less than five major shifts in rule and power took place in Szczecin – often called Stettin, its German name – many of them to the city's economic advantage. By the outbreak of WWII, the (then) Prussian city boasted over 300,000 occupants and was the main port for land-locked Berlin.
But it was the war that really had a major impact on the city, and changed it completely, in ways that are still seen and felt today. The war itself was destructive enough, but the role of the Soviet Red Army cannot be discounted: the army wreaked vengeance on any and all German dwellings in its march westwards to Berlin, and in April of 1945, the army left 60 percent of Stettin in ruins; after their departure, the city had fewer than 6,000 people left.
After WWII, the city was returned to the territory of Poland and was re-christened Szczecin – and the rebuilding began. Sadly, as the hold of Communism strengthened on the city, and the country as a whole, so did the typical Communist architecture known as 'social realism'. This mainly entails large, boxy blocks of flats made of cement, with small windows, many floors and little beauty.
Sights to see
As mentioned, Szczecin was once considered 'the Paris of the North', and appropriately, its city planning is often compared with the French city. This is due to the fact that the heart of the city is a star-shaped square, with diverging avenues, just like it is in Paris. Szczecin's architectural style is mainly influenced by that of the last half of the 19th century and the early 20th century, so an Art Nouveau vibe can be glimpsed here and there. But what really saves Szczecin from the horrors of social realism architecture is the urban planning of the city's green spaces: green areas abound with parks and wide avenues and roundabouts flanked by trees. As a result, a stroll along the city streets is a relaxing and refreshing experience for the visitor.
In terms of non-green sights, the city has plenty to offer. Lovers of organised tours should get themselves on the Red Tourist Route, which is a 7km walking tour around Szczecin. It is marked by red arrows sprayed on the ground and maps of the various sights and points can be picked up at the local tourist office. Once embarked upon, the tour will take you on a circuit of the 42 most important sights and buildings. This is an ideal option for those under time constraints, or those who wish to do as much as possible and do not know where to begin planning.
One of those 42 sights is the Castle of the Pomeranian Region, the largest city monument. It was originally built in the mid-14th century, but its current form was only attained in 1577. Since then, it has been remodelled, renovated and expanded, but the core architecture has not changed for over 400 years. Today, Szczecin's opera house is in the castle, as is the Marshall's Office, a restaurant and the Castle Museum (www.zamek.szczecin.pl). There is a permanent exhibition on display which highlights the castle's tumultuous history and includes six fantastic sarcophagi of the Pomeranian princes. The temporary exhibitions obviously change every few months, and are held in the various other rooms of the castle. In summer months, the castle courtyard hosts live music concerts and there are also many summer weddings here, thanks to the fact that the regional registry office is located on its grounds. In winter, however, Polish weddings are thin on the ground – as is live music outdoors – so do visit the exhibitions. And on the way out, those who want a panoramic view of the city should take their cameras up to the top of the castle's 58.6m Bell Tower.