Budget airlines have put some odd places on our radar. Take Szczecin in Poland. Tourists come here for cosmetic surgery. But if you strip away the artifice you'll find it's a real beauty, says Adrian Mourby

Ryanair can't get enough of Szczecin. In the past 12 months the low-cost airline has flown one million passengers to Poland, with four flights a week heading to the new Polish destination of Szczecin. As for the Germans, they're over most weekends, but then, from 1267 till 1945, this was a German city. When Stalin sent the Polish army in to appropriate Stettin at the end of the Second World War, the rest of Europe was too busy looking the other way. Renamed Szczecin (but still pronounced Stettin), the city was resettled with Polish refugees and got on with being a front-line state in the East-West stand-off.

Just how scary that stand-off was can be gleaned from Szczecin's latest tourist attraction, which opened last month. The Bunker is a vast railway station air-raid shelter that could hold 1,300 people. Under Communism it was supposed to be a refuge from atomic, biological and chemical warfare. On the walls you can still see posters showing what was expected when RAF Vulcans or American B52s rained mass destruction down on the city. It costs 12 zloty (£2.10) for a tour of rooms full of gas masks, chemical suits and rudimentary facilities for treating radiation burns.

To western eyes Szczecin has much better things to recommend it. The renaissance castle (formerly property of the Dukes of Pomerania) has been rebuilt after a British air raid demolished it in 1945. The old town square (which we also blew up) is being re-created, baroque brick by brick, replacing 1960s Soviet-style social housing.

The two city gates, all that remain of the old Prussian fortifications, are gorgeous islands of triumphal architecture amid four-lane highways, and the 1920s German new town to the north of the city is intact. As for those few houses of Hanseatic merchants that survived, they are stunning memorials to the phenomenal wealth of Szczecin in the centuries before the Second World War.

Unfortunately, most visitors ignore the city's architecturure, pouring in as they do from Germany and Scandinavia in search of cosmetic and dental surgery. Szczecin's surgeons work round the clock and charge less than half of what such operations cost in the West. There are, apparently, many J-Lo bottoms around London with Made in Poland stamped on them. My guide, Mathias Enger, was relieved when he discovered that I had every intention of retaining all my imperfections. Mathias runs one of the city's independent travel companies and despairs of the cosmetic tourists, who have no interest in the kind of story he has to tell. And quite a story it is.

Szczecin is in the middle of a very long identity crisis. After the Second World War the Poles did amazing things rebuilding cities such as Krakow and Warsaw, but not Szczecin. Three hundred thousand bricks from old Szczecin were sent to Warsaw and so was a number of fully grown trees from the city. "Why?" says Mathias. "Because the Poles wanted to rebuild Polish cities. They had no interest in restoring Szczecin because the buildings in this city were all German. Why wouldn't they be? At the beginning of the war, Szczecin was more than 60 miles to the west of Poland!"

Fortunately, enough of the old Hanseatic city remained - the Maritime Museum, the provincial HQ, the Gothic cathedral of St Jacob, the merchants' houses in White Horse Square - for the city not to entirely lose its German identity. But the Communist administrations of Bierut, Ochab and Jablonski rebuilt Szczecin along socialist lines. Street layouts were changed, existing street names altered, and houses were built without individual kitchens on the basis that adults would be fed at work and children at school. In short, an attempt to create a socialist Polish city in place of a capitalist German one.

"In the new town where I live they had a problem," said Mathias. "Rows of fine pre-war German housing. So they came up with a name for such buildings - Poriemiecki. 'After-German housing!'" He laughs. "There is a joke about a 16-year-old girl from Szczecin who goes to Berlin for the first time and when she returns her grandma asks what it was like. 'Strange,' says the girl. 'They have so much After-German housing there.'"

The problem for Szczecin at the moment is that it doesn't know what it is. In the past 50 years the city has gone from being fascist to socialist to a liberal democracy, from German to Polish to European. At the moment, the latest of these incarnations, membership of the EU, is what is funding the massive restoration work on the city and re-establishing the splendour of its German past.

"But the problem is that for so long we were not allowed to ask questions," says Mathias, as we stroll past the flower-strewn statue of John Paul II. "All the archives were locked away and no one has any memories of Szczecin. Just about everyone arrived here as refugees in 1945. This is why the bunker is important. Young people are keen to see it. All those years no one knew it was there. People need to dig down - literally - and find out who they are."

It's ironic that a city that is building a reputation for face-lifts is busy stripping away the artifice, trying to get back to what's real.



Adrian Mourby stayed at the Radisson SAS Hotel, Szczecin (00 48 91 359 5595; radissonsas.com), which offers double rooms from €79 (£53) per night. He flew with Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com), which offers return flights from about £51 per person.


Go to mtm.inet.pl