My friend and I arrive at Warszawa Centralna - Warsaw's central station - at just after 6am. The sun has yet to rise and the cold hangs in the air of the dark rabbit warren of underground tunnels that makes up the bulk of the station. It's a bizarre world of eternal night down here; even when the sun does rise, there's little chance for it to reach this far and the dark, seedy atmosphere remains.
The main station building was designed by Arseniusz Romanowicz and was completed in December 1975. The construction had been rushed, so that it would be finished in time for a visit by Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev. The building was clearly a source of great pride for the city's leaders. Built with the help of western loans, the station was a shining beacon of modernity when it opened. A shining beacon which started to fall apart soon afterwards, as the consequences of the rushed construction began to set in; it ended up under constant repair for the next 10 years. A shining beacon which...well...up on street level, it shone. Down in the depths, it's all black and grey granite with fluorescent strip lighting.
We head for the platforms to find an indicator board. The train's due to leave at 6:40, but after finding the platform and waiting a while, it turns out the train's delayed. Gradually, as we wait, the estimated delay gets longer and longer - first, it's 20 minutes, then after 10 minutes, the estimate changes to 30 minutes. We go outside for my friend to have a smoke. I'd rather not be away from the information screens for too long, but as they seem to be lengthening the estimate all the time, it doesn't look like too risky a thing to do.
When we return 5 minutes later, all signs of the Berlin train have disappeared from the indicator screens, while other, more significantly delayed trains, are still showing. I have to say I'd reckoned with problems and aren't as bothered by the prospect of having to change plans as I might have been at other times, but still the idea of putting my friend's cigarettes in a place which sees even less sunlight than the station platforms does briefly flash through my mind.
It turns out they've just decided to remove all evidence of the train from the screens, for some reason known only to themselves. Announcements confirm that the train is still coming, just further delayed - an unspecified technical fault. Still, it means I'll get to Berlin today after all, and my friend escapes receiving a tobacco suppository.
And so we find ourselves waiting in the only place there seems to be to sit down here: a kebab shop. At just gone 7am, still surfacing from the depths of a night of too little sleep, I have to say that the idea of a kebab breakfast doesn't appeal. My friend has no such reservations, though, and the shop owner dutifully scoops up a heap of chicken doner meat, pops it in the microwave, then hands it over to my friend, steaming in its flatbread wrap.
While I know the shops under here aren't all identical to what was there 35 years ago, something about the place feels like not much has changed. There are also some unexpected things - while I'm quite used to seeing things like tobacconists and bakers in stations, I think this is the first one I've seen that has a butcher's.
The building doesn't seem to be exactly universally loved and it's not hard to see why. The platforms and tunnels, buried below the city streets, are the complete opposite of the light, airy stations which are currently in fashion. After standing around in it for close to 2 hours, I have to say it's also really not a particularly fun place to wait for a train in either. And yet...and yet...I have to admit it: the place fascinates me.
It's the product of a different time, a relic of a bygone age and one which still manages to be free of the likes of Marks & Spencer, NEXT and Body Shop (all of which have branches into the smart Złote Tarasy shopping centre next door and none of which would, I imagine, want to be seen setting up business here instead). It's not pretty, but it has personality.
There's also the main hall to be considered, which is currently undergoing refurbishment. Unlike the underground bulk of the station, the main hall is light and airy, with a huge barrel vault ceiling. Really, from a sensible "making it a nice station" point of view, I have to say it's a shame that some of that light couldn't have been allowed down to the platform level, as is the case with the redevelopment of the undercroft at London St Pancras International. From a "loving the oppressive dark atmosphere" point of view, of course, it would be a shame if they had.
The refurbishment of the station is due to be completed in time for Poland's co-hosting (with Ukraine) of the Euro 2012 football championship. After that, who knows what fate awaits the station. There's certainly still talk of pulling the whole thing down and I do get the feeling that, as Warsaw continues to undergo economic growth, it's a building which will increasingly be seen by many as out of place in the city.
With this thought to ponder, it's time for my train to leave, 2 hours later than scheduled, but better late than never!