The forests have the upper hand in northwest Poland. Driving west into the setting sun, the forests evidently stretch beyond the horizon. Birch slipping to pine and back again. Occasionally there are little Pomeranian townships, gritty pock-marked places like I?sko and Chociwel. I?sko has made the most of its location on the shore of a lake to develop a modest crayfish industry. Chociwel has a huge red brick church, playfully Gothic, which looks distinctly German in demeanour — as well it might for until 1945 Chociwel was in Germany and was called Freienwalde. At Chociwel railway station, a fading sign reminds passengers that Berlin is just a couple of hundred kilometres away. But no longer do the trains run to the German capital. The regional centre and one-time Pomeranian capital of Szczecin is nowadays the end of the line for trains from Chociwel.
First glimpse of Szczecin arriving from the east, whether by car or by train, is of the city’s shipyards. History was made in these shipyards. In the late nineteenth century, some of the world’s great ocean liners were built in this great industrial complex, among them the steamship Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse which in 1898 snatched from Cunard the Blue Riband for the fastest crossing of the Atlantic Ocean. When the Kaiser Wilhelm lost the title, it was to another liner from the same shipyard, the magnificent four-funnelled SS Deutschland.
“Welcome to Szczecin” proclaims a sign by the side of the highway, curiously accompanied by a rendering in the International Phonetic Alphabet that affects to show precisely how the name of the Polish city should correctly be pronounced. “Just a conceit of the city council,” explains Szymon, a student at the local university, when we meet him on the riverfront in Szczecin the next morning. “They’ve put those signs up all over town. Some experts at the uni say they haven’t even got the phonetic symbols correct.”
Capital of Pomerania
Szczecin is certainly a tongue-twister, as much of a challenge for outsiders as the convoluted history of the city. Once part of Swedish Pomerania, the city was ceded to Prussia in 1720. Over the ensuing two centuries, the city — called Stettin in German — developed into Germany’s premier Baltic port. It was a city that built ships, and the busy quays and docks of Stettin sustained Berlin. Cheap freight rates on the railways linking Pomerania with Berlin meant that Stettin merchants had the edge over their rivals in Hamburg when it came to supplying the German capital. Berliners came by train to Stettin to board the steamers that took them to Baltic resorts on the islands of Usedom, Rügen and Wolin.