Neon Nostalgia: alternative journeys in Central Europe with Piotrek Gawliński7 min read

 In Central Europe, Culture, Interview
In recent months, @lostfoundEurope has become more and more popular on Twitter as the pandemic ground tourism to a halt. The page shares photos of a lost and forgotten Central Europe which have resonated with nostalgic and adventurous armchair travellers. A typical post might show fluorescent curlicues hanging above a darkened Krucza Street in Warsaw, Polish People’s Republic. Or an empty, rain-soaked street in 1960s Ljubljana, reflecting the burning red of an illuminated tourist office sign. Pedestrians, pictured frozen in time, wait to embark on a shiny yellow tram in Budapest after dark.

The man behind the account, Prague-based tour guide and Polish native Piotrek Gawliński (@altPRAGUEguide), carefully chooses historical images for his growing collection of followers. Below, Gawliński elaborates on the concept behind Lost Found Europe, his approach to being a Prague tour guide and what we can expect from both his Twitter account and travelling post-pandemic. 

Curating Lost Found Europe 

Gawliński independently set up @lostfoundEurope in April 2020 during the pandemic. The account, posting nostalgic snapshots of twentieth-century Central Europe, recently reached 9000 followers. Gawliński never expected the page to receive the reception that it has. “Maybe it’s a matter of people not being able to travel during the pandemic and looking for content on social media that will somehow take them to other places…Also in the form of time travel”, he says. 

“Neon nights of Somogy, Lake Balaton, Hungary…” / @lostfoundEurope

The account’s distinctive name, evoking images of a bygone era, came from a popular blog Gawliński used to run of historical photos of Prague, called “Lost & Found in Prague”. He recently created a Twitter account after moving away from the blogosphere for some time to focus on “experiencing reality”. The word “lost” has particular significance for Gawliński as “discovering what has been lost is the job of every guide and history buff”. 

Gawliński’s choice of photos provides insight into the golden era of Central European cities. Neon night scenes in particular capture Gawliński’s imagination. “Neon signs contribute to the definition of a modern, busy, often sinful city”, says the tour guide. “Movement, speed of life, a kind of sleepless endurance”. Gawliński finds inspiration in noir and neo-noir films, including the work of post-war French filmmaker Jean-Pierre Melville. 

“This is Opole, Polish People’s Republic…for Twitter night shift” / @lostfoundEurope

Gawliński often chooses photos from Central Europe, where he was born and where he now works. “Photos from Central and Eastern Europe have even more darkness, a sinister atmosphere”, he explains. 

The bio of @lostfoundEurope says, “photos from good old Europe”. According to Gawliński, “good old Europe” refers to his own private map of his favourite European cities. “We all have these maps. They are not necessarily understandable to others”, says the tour guide. Rather than “atlases or navigation”, these are “more like maps of inner experiences, memories, joys and fears”. 

Alternative Adventures in Prague 

Gawliński calls himself an “alternative tour guide”. In practice, this means “establishing bonds between himself, people, and most of all, with the city” through personal, inspirational tours that don’t just repeat information from guidebooks. Gawliński gets to know his guests before they arrive in the city and tries to tailor his tours to their particular interests. “I’ve always thought that the guide is not only a storyteller but also a bit of an actor, comedian, psychologist”, he says about his own personal style of tour guiding. 

Gawliński does not shy away from taking tourists to the popular attractions in the Czech capital. “There is nothing worse than thinking that an alternative, off-the-beaten-path, hipster place is better than a touristy evergreen”, he asserts. He enjoys taking tourists to Prague’s tourist hotspots such as Wenceslas Square or Old Town Square, but endeavours to show his guests what is hidden in these much-trodden tourist routes. 

“This is Zakopane, Krupówki Street, winter capital of Poland, Polish People’s Republic in case of this pic…” / @lostfoundEurope

Gawliński was born in Elbląg, Poland and grew up in Poland. After visiting Prague for the first time in 2005, he moved there just three years later. He studied political science and journalism but always had a strong interest in history. Prior to becoming a tour guide, Gawliński says he never had any “serious” career. “I decided [to become a tour guide] because I like to tell stories, the city fascinates me more and more, and I can get to know its history on my own, so why not?”, he says on his choice of career. 

Now Gawliński caters to Polish and English-speaking clients from all over the world, who come to him to experience a unique perspective on the city. 

Post-Pandemic Adventures 

Both Gawliński’s online and professional activities have been altered by the Covid- 19 pandemic. Before the pandemic, he found content for his Prague historical blog “literally everywhere”. “On the shelves in cafes, where someone leaves old, unwanted publications. In the waiting rooms of train or bus stations, theatres and cinemas. In the collections of friends”. He describes trawling through Prague’s libraries and archives for anything that could be useful. 

Finding content became an obsession. “I carried dozens of kilos of photo books, scanning them carefully at home”, he recounts, calling this a “collector’s frenzy”. However, he was often able to find what he was looking for. “When you earnestly and maniacally search for something, things fall into your hands”, Gawliński says on his good fortune and keen eye. 

Rákóczi út, Budapest / @lostfoundEurope

For Gawliński, this was a “golden age of openness and accessibility before the pandemic”. Now, unable to roam the city as he did before, he must rely on his own collections and “the abyss of the internet” for Lost Found Europe. 

Living in Prague during recent years, Gawliński describes two extremes in his professional life working with tourists. First came the “unbearable” summers when tourists would visit Prague’s Old Town in such numbers that they would completely block the narrow streets. In Gawliński’s experience, locals found their neighbourhoods completely changed as tourists visited the city in greater and greater numbers. 

Then when the pandemic hit, central Prague was empty for the first time in many years. “There was no movement, complete silence like in a story by Franz Kafka. “Disturbing daydream or reality?”, asks Gawliński. According to the Prague resident, locals started to enjoy living in such a historic city once more, meandering through the city centre and taking photos. 

“The pandemic was and is a very tragic event, but it also showed us many of our shortcomings, in many areas”, muses Gawliński. “People travel too often and to too many places. How can you establish some connection with a place you visit when you have a different eurotrip every weekend?” Before the pandemic, Gawliński says tourists visiting Prague collected travel destinations “like luxury items or partners”. 

What’s next for Prague, and indeed European, tourism? Gawliński hopes that people will start visiting maybe one place a year, staying longer in order to understand more. He recommends returning to places you have visited before in order to truly build a relationship with that particular locale. 

As for Lost Found Europe, Gawliński says that the account and the philosophy behind it will continue to evolve on a daily basis. Having reached such popularity in just over a year, there is evidently an appetite for Gawliński’s vignettes of a lost time in European history. 

Gawliński may soon have access to the resources he once had as the Czech Republic cautiously re-opens. Once again, “Lost Found” would refer to the content lost in the Central European metropolis and then found by a loving curator of forgotten history. 

Featured image: “My favorite pics from neon Katowice by night in the past” / @lostfoundEurope

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