An Offer They Can’t Refuse: Przemysl, Poland, The European Union & Ukraine

The Polish city of Przemysl, a place with an unpronounceable name (at least to English speakers), is located in the far southeastern corner of Poland, only 20 kilometers from the border with Ukraine. It is famous for having been at the center of one of the largest fortress complexes in Europe that saw ferocious fighting during World War I. Because of this, the city became the setting for what is now known to history as the Siege of Przemysl. This was a months-long ordeal that occurred exactly a century ago. The siege ended in the surrender of 120,000 Austro-Hungarian soldiers to Russia. The Russian victory was pyrrhic. They would be forced to abandon the city several months later in the face of a German led offensive. This being the one hundredth anniversary of the siege, it seemed like a good time to visit the city to see remnants of one or more of the fortress complexes. What I found left of the First World War was interesting, but what I discovered about the city was even more illuminating. Przemysl is a beacon for both Poland and the European Union. This small border city is casting an alluring glow eastward into western Ukraine. Any Ukrainian who crosses the border to visit the city is bound to come away saying, that’s what I want.

Interior of Przemysl Railway Station (Credit: Pawel Zemetka)

Interior of Przemysl Railway Station (Credit: Pawel Zemetka)

Revelations At The Railway Station – Marketing Reality
Crossing the border from Ukraine to Poland, on the way to Przemysl is instructive. One expects to find long queues, nasty border guards and seedy smuggler types lurking everywhere. Actually, the entire process is quite orderly and well done. Albeit, I would not want to be crossing in an automobile, as the lines on the roadways were long. (though on this mid-December day not inordinately so)  Arriving on the Ukrainian side of the border by bus, it took less than 15 minutes to clear border controls for both sides at the walk through area. Astonishingly, this was done with a non-EU passport. The Ukrainian border control was just as efficiently run as the Polish. In retrospect, it is hard to even think of a difference between the two. Once in Poland, it costs the equivalent of a dollar and a half to take a bus to the heart of the city. It was just a stone’s throw from Przemysl’s bus terminal to its railway station and this was where the city began to reveal itself.

I have been in a lot of railway stations in my life, largely in Central and Eastern Europe. I like to say that the ones in Vienna, are some of the cleanest, most pleasant public spaces I have ever had the pleasure of visiting. Believe me, Vienna’s stations have nothing on Przemysl’s main one. In all honesty, one could eat off the floor. The place literally gleamed. It looked as though, it had just opened yesterday. The place put even Teutonic efficiency and cleanliness to shame. Yet as new as it looked, the station still had a belle époque aesthetic, as though the place was still part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. I would not have been surprised if railways officials with twirling mustaches and aristocratic ladies with parasols had strolled past in the waiting room. It really was that historic and pristine. Then there was the tourist information center, in a word: professional. A helpful lady produced an array of colorful brochures that soon made it apparent that Przemysl was very proud of itself. Everything was free and several of the publications looked more like the kind of things people would buy, rather than give away. The brochures delineated historic walking routes that tourists could follow. There were beautiful parks, stately buildings and an old town stuffed with atmospheric churches.  Incredibly, the brochures all turned out to be true. This was not just good marketing, this was reality.

There is a wealth of religious architecture to be found in Przemysl's Stare Miesto (Old Town)

There is a wealth of religious architecture to be found in Przemysl’s Stare Miesto (Old Town)

The City Model – Przemysl Hedges Its History
Strolling through the town, one could not help but notice the cleanliness of the streets, the well-kept storefronts, the orderly traffic and ample directional signage. The city looked to be doing quite well. I came here thinking the place would be worse for wear, a downtrodden border town well past its prime with a few mildly interesting attractions. Przemysl was anything but. You could explore the many churches, which this being Poland, were of course all open. There was a restored hilltop castle. From what I saw, whatever great noble once called the place home, never had it as good as the present. There was nary a scrap of rubbish anywhere to be seen. Przemysl had a surfeit of museums, one for the history of the city, one for the history of the region, one for the history of the battle and one for bells and pipes The latter it seemed, they were especially proud of. I was disappointed this was only a day trip. One could have spent a good three or four days here and never grown bored.

Fort XVIc Trzy Krzyze from the Przemysl complex - found in Zamkowy Park im. Maraiana Stronskiego

Fort XVIc Trzy Krzyze from the Przemysl complex – found in Zamkowy Park im. Maraiana Stronskiego

Then there were the forts. Only a couple were easily accessible from the center of the city, but these had new or improved trails, so tidy that it looked as though a permanent grounds keeping staff was employed to perform trail maintenance. There were remnants of old pillboxes and brick fortifications pockmarked with bullet holes. There were trenches and berms, there were signs warning to watch your where you walked due to unexploded ordinance. The fortifications were just a taste of what could be found in the surrounding vicinity. After all, the complex was made up of some twenty-one forts.

A person could rent a bike and cycle through and around several on a historic route the city has mapped out. Exercise your body and your mind, was this place real? Przemysl’s infrastructure, especially regarding tourism, was some of the best developed I have ever experienced. Talk about hedging the past for the sake of present and future prosperity. This place looked like a model city, not just for Poland, but for the oft criticized European Union.  I got the sense that Poland and the European Union had deliberately made the city a showpiece for what could be done to advance post-Communist countries. Here was a border city, in both a Polish and European backwater, on the very eastern fringe of the EU, looking for all the world like it had enjoyed peace and prosperity since time immemorial.

View from the Stare Miesto (Old Town) in Przemysl

View from the Stare Miesto (Old Town) in Przemysl

An Eastern Opening – The Road To Prosperity
Everyday hundreds and sometimes thousands of Ukrainian cross the border into southeastern Poland. They make their way to Przemysl, probably not for tourism, but to shop or work. Each one of them experiences first-hand the progression of Poland, from a post-Communist economic basket case to a shining example of European integration and innovation. In 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed and Ukraine became independent, it had roughly the same average income as Poland. Now just twenty-three years later, Poland has an average income three times greater than Ukraine’s. This remarkable economic progress has occurred in a single generation. If it can happen in far flung Przemysl, it can happen anywhere else in Europe and that included the nation just 20 kilometers to the east, where Ukraine begins and the European Union, for now ends. Poland and the EU are making their eastern neighbor an offer they cannot refuse. The question is will they decide to take it.

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