We had two reasons for spending two nights in Olstzyn, which Arthur insisted in calling Allenstein, famous mainly because of its association with Copernicus. Firstly, because it was convenient for the canal. Secondly, because it has just renovated its tram system. Trams are Arthur’s great love and, as a result, we had to see the whole network. This, thankfully, is only two lines. The new trams are convenient to enter even if, according to the engineers we spoke to, the acres of plastic with which they are built conceal weak structure, dodgy technology and too much of it. Whilst delighted that any city council had decided to renew its tramways, Arthur was far happier when we were ensconced in the solid steel circa 1960 carriages of the tram system in Grudziadz which, apparently, any fool can fix with the right spanner. If anything goes wrong with the plastic trams they have to go back to the factory. This, I discovered later, is true of Warsaw’s new trams.
16 years in Poland and I had never heard of Grudziadz. Arthur had ‘heard’ from his tram friends in England that this was an interesting town, hence the long detour from Olstzyn. The first impression was very positive. The river is wide and fast and exciting. There is a newly constructed marina, empty at present and perhaps likely to remain so, becoming nothing more than an EU infrastructural project destined to rot, bu there nonetheless. Rising from the banks of the Vistula and flowing skywards is a well restored line of ancient fortified walls. Once inside, the town seems like a forgotten place. It was badly damaged in both wars and changed hands on numerous occasions. It was given to Poland as a condition of the Treaty of Versailles. The newly appointed Polish mayor found it “very modern but too German.” A huge influx of Poles displaced the German population and by 1939 the town was almost completely polonised. With the outbreak of the Second World War the Germans retook the city and, through a ruthless ethnic cleansing programme, quickly restored the status quo in their favour. When the Russians captured the city at the end of the war, it was deserted and ruined after heavy fighting. Such was the city in which displaced Poles from the east had to make their homes.
This unfortunate heritage has only been worsened by the neglect of the river which was once a great thoroughfare for trade but is now unnavigable even to Warsaw or Gdansk, which Arthur called Danzig. There were few signs of prosperity, no elegant shops, no inviting restaurants. I almost despaired of finding an hotel but, as luck would have it, we found one. Not only was it more than adequate, void of the net curtains, brown paint and nasty lavatories typical of hotels held in the thrall of Communism, but it was owned and managed by a two-stroke motorcycle enthusiast. This explained the presence of a finely restored Polish motorcycle from the 1960s which stands strategically in the entrance hall of the hotel. Arthur, who has held various high offices in the Two Stroke Club of Great Britain, was overwhelmed with excitment. Without delay he inspected the machine. He assured me that the bike’s restored state was far superior to the original. The work of a craftsman. Fortunately, the receptionist was not only charming but also able to speak some English. She called her boss. Much to Arthur’s delight, he told us how he had lived in Warsaw during the 1980s when bikes of this sort were no longer wanted. People even paid him to remove them for their front paths, gardens or sheds. He had accumulated more than 50, though few have been restored. The amount of time required is prohibitive. Arthur commiserated. He has just as many bikes himself in similar condition for just the same reason. Here was a kindred spirit.
Although it was seven in the evening, Arthur was determined to have a tram ride before dusk and dinner. I was more inclined to dine first and delay the thrill of the tram ride until the morning. As always, Arthur had his way.
We made our way to the terminus of the first of the two lines. Suddenly a tram came into view. Camera at the ready, instantly Arthur hurled himself towards the line with surprising agility. Though not exactly on the line when he was snapping, he was close enough for two passing patrol men to slow down on their motorbikes partly in bewilderment, partly, no doubt, wondering whether they were about to witness a messy end.
By now, I had become used to Arthur’s reaction to passing trams and I had grown somewhat indifferent to his risk taking in the path of oncoming machines. Arthur has a remarkable capacity for self-preservation and despite his incapacities is able to cut it finely in order to get the photograph he wants. If misfortune should befall him I doubt he would wish for a better end.
The tram driver’s young and chubby granddaughter spends her Sundays accompanying her grandfather on his rounds. A friendly girl, she found Arthur’s interest in the tram a source of amusement, so much so that she offered us a boiled sweet and was delighted when we accepted. In contrast to the modern trams in Olstzyn, this tram was built of sturdy material, even though it was not quite as comfortable. It had the feeling of a miniature train set.The seats were rather cramped and the carriages were much smaller than modern trams with steep steps. If trams are anything to go by, people have grown considerably over the last 50 years, probably due to better nutrition and not just boiled sweets.
Many of the technical details of the tram Arthur told me about were fascinating, at the time. Now I cannot remember any of them, except it has a narrower gauge and fewer wheels than modern trams in order to turn more easily.
The following morning Arthur decided that we should try to get into the engine sheds. At the gate to the 19th century German built sheds was the new office block of the tram company’s administration and control centre. I went in to ask whether we could visit the sheds. The response was overwhelming. The director was delighted that we were interested. He sent one of his managers to accompany us.
The most fascinating piece of equipment was the 1905 German lathe for filing and smoothing the steel tyres which surround the wheels. The manager started it up using the 1912 engine. Both these pieces of equipment not only survived a major fire some twenty years ago but were too heavy to be removed when the Russians stripped the city at the end of the Second World War.
Even if trams are not high on your list of priorities, Grudziadz is well worth the time of day. Although poor, the people are friendly and noticeably more polite than most other Poles.