While many visitors to Poland gravitate towards the more well-known cities of Warsaw, Kraców and Gdansk, in the north there lies a cultural gem that deserves more recognition.
The city of Bydgoszcz offers a charming combination of gothic and Art Nouveau architecture, characterful waterways and bridges, forests thick with pine trees and cosy cafes selling delicious iced coffee. It’s just an hour and 45 minutes’ flight time from the UK and with a one-way ticket costing from £22, it’s a great option for a weekend break in Europe.
Located on the Brda and Vistula rivers, and with an 18th century canal, Bydgoszcz has earned itself the nickname of the Venice of Poland. Although it lends itself well to being explored on foot, I was offered the chance to experience the city in a more relaxed way, via a motorised boat. This turned out to be the perfect way to enjoy both the countryside and the city while enjoying the unusually hot weather - a scorching 32 degrees when I visited at the beginning of August.
We began our trip from Mill Island, a lively area of parkland dotted with 19th century mills and granaries that have been converted into museums. Festivals and fairs take place on the six-hectare site and it’s a popular venue for picnics and sunbathing.
Fact file: The author travelled to Bydgoszcz with Ryan Air (www.ryanair.com) and stayed at City Hotel (www.city-hotel.pl).
For more information on Poland, contact The Polish National Tourist Office on 020 8991 7073 or visit www.poland.travel
I was accompanied on my voyage by local guide Karol Słowinski, the owner of a tiny curiosity shop called Pro Bydgostia, which is filled to the rafters with memorabilia associated with the city. “People know that I am crazy about Bydgoszcz,” he laughed. “They are always bringing me old photographs, maps and artefacts.”
As we chugged along the river Brda, Karol pointed out the city’s major landmarks. Ancient and modern buildings sit side by side on the water’s edge, from the modern glass frontage of the Lloyds Palace to the restored 18th century granaries and the red brick neo-gothic complex of the Post Office. Other buildings of note include the gothic church of Saints Martin and Nicholas, with its towering cupola, and the modern Opera Nova opera house with its distinctive curved shape.
Passing under the Staromiejski bridge we saw perched above us the iconic statue Man Crossing the River. This silver figure of a man is balanced on a wire stretching across the river and was installed in 2004 to commemorate the day that Poland joined the EU.
Karol explained that, with a population of just over 360,000, Bydgoszcz is Poland’s eighth largest city. It has undergone intense renovation in the last few years and the locals are justifiably proud of their home town. “I would not live anywhere else,” Karol said proudly.
The city has had its fair share of blows, suffering repeated invasions and devastations, most notably during the middle of the 17th century when it was nearly destroyed by a Swedish invasion. However, Bydgoszcz has risen, phoenix-like, from its various troubles and is now an important centre of commerce and trade.
As we left the city behind us, I was struck by how quickly we found ourselves immersed in forest. Dense patches of pine, birch and willow trees bordered the river on either side and we spotted kingfishers, herons and cormorants hiding in the rushes or flying overhead. Local families sat on the riverbank, sunbathing or fishing, and gave us a friendly wave as we motored past.
Returning to the city, we landed back at Mill Island, where it was time to try out some of the local delicacies. Borscht (hot beetroot soup) was a tasty but slightly unusual choice for such a hot day. Pierogi – dumplings stuffed with potato, sauerkraut, ground meat or cheese – was another traditional dish we sampled. It’s certainly hearty fare, and you won’t be left feeling hungry.
We continued our sightseeing on foot in the afternoon as we wandered along the quaint cobbled streets and over bridges decorated with padlocks left by loved-up couples. Strolling through the Old Town market square, we admired its pastel-coloured Art Nouveau tenement houses which date back to the turn of the 20th century.
Bydgoszcz has a lively arts community and we enjoyed spotting some unusual artworks on our walk, from a series of brightly-coloured chairs and tables nailed to a wall to a sculpture of a melted ice cream. Art fans might also like to take a look around the Museum of Modern Art, which is home to one of the most important collections of Polish modern art in the world.
If you time your visit right, you can visit Bydgoszcz during one of its many festivals, such as the Prapremieres Festival of theatre in September or the water festival in June, which combines song, dance and sports.
While there is a myriad things to do during the day in this cultural gem of a city, it is at night that it really takes on a magical air. Lights sparkle along the bridges and the opera house casts a bright glow over the waters of the river. The spires of the many churches create a romantic silhouette over the city as dusk falls. It is a city that captured my heart.
Images courtesy of the Polish National Tourist Office