Originally published by the now-defunct WiK English Edition, part of Poland’s reputed Wprost publishing house, in May 2007
Bydgoszcz: Where the Bikes Roar
In Bydgoszcz – so I was told by a citizen of the town – even the grannies say “yo!”, or rather “jo!”. They use it as an alternative to the more common “tak”, meaning ‘yes’. With strong historical links to Germany – Bydgoszcz was until 1919 called Bromberg and was part of the German Empire – the city’s version of Polish, as with other areas nearby, has incorporated elements of the neighbour’s language, then mutated them according to local taste.
Much of the city’s architecture is also strong in German influence and is often bigger and brasher than the ‘kamenica’ style of building you find in cities such as Krakow and Warsaw. But with a name like Bydgoszcz, with all those consonants crammed together, you can tell at first glance that it is unmistakably Polish as well and at 700 years of age it is also one of the country’s oldest cities.
The Old Town may not be one of the country’s most spectacular but it does have charm with its cobbled streets and large, Old Market Square, though the statue given centre stage in that – the Monument to Struggle and Martyrdom, which was erected to pay respect to the many Bydgoszcz citizens who were executed by the Nazis during the World War II occupation – looks like a ungainly hulk from a certain angle. Up close, it improves slightly but the council should probably get someone in to clean away the bird droppings that have besmeared it with such a lack of reverence.
The weird thing when I went there was that despite the place being soaked in brilliant sunshine with a perfect blue sky up above, there was no bar or cafe with outside seating where you go to could take it all in, and a number of drinking establishments in the area are dimly-lit basement bars, so finding somewhere where you could avoid the physical and psychological shock of descending to the bowels of the earth from the glorious weather up above, only to return to it blinking and fuzzy-headed a few hours later, wasn’t easy. It seemed local government sloth was again the culprit because after asking a bar-maid, I was told that none of the drinking-holes had yet been given the green light to provide their customers with the alfresco experience that is the whole point of being in a Polish Old Town when the sun is shining. The best we could do was sit down in a bar that was situated at street level, where imagining the sunny day outside was a lot easier than it would have been if we had taken the plunge into a ‘piwnica’.
Bydgoszcz proved that it had a lot more to offer on the entertainment front later on that evening, when a group of us congregated in El-Jazz, which is smack in the centre of the Old Town, boasts a cool interior and is packed until late with a very trendy-looking crowd. Although the city does look quite provincial in many ways – particularly when you get out to the suburbs, where the blocks of flats look a bit run-down – in other respects it does seem as if it is on the way up and a few of the bars, cafes and restaurants would not look out of place in Warsaw, given their decor, ambience and quality of food and service, though the prices are a lot lower, of course. El-Jazz is certainly among one of those.
Another sign that Bydgoszcz may be about to leave its status of a ‘second-tier’ city behind it is all the cranes that are busy at work in the town. A salient example of this is the Focus Park retail centre, which is being developed by the British company Parkridge. While I am not much of a fan of the rate at which soulless shopping centres have sprouted up all over Poland, given that they all seem to encourage mindless rushing about in the pursuit of very little, when all is said and done, if they allow for some cities to pull themselves away from mass unemployment and halt the tide of emigration to some extent, then maybe they do have a limited role to play in rejuvenating local economies.
But entertainment and retail aside, if Bydgoszcz can claim to be the leader in Poland it is in the sport of ‘speedway’, or at least for now, because local team Polonia Bydgoszcz is currently top of the elite domestic division, the Ekstraliga, and when I was there they beat CKM Zlomrex Wlokniarza Czestochowa 48-42 in a match that had the 15,000 fans present in the stadium in raptures.
As a native of Birmingham in the UK, I would always come across speedway matches being shown on the regional TV stations, but although it had a fanatical following in the West Midlands – and still does – the numbers paled in comparison with those drawn to football matches. But in Bydgoszcz and neighbouring Torun, the opposite is the case. In both cities, speedway is the King. To put the sport’s popularity into perspective, a crowd of 15,000 would be considered good for a home Legia Warszawa game, that club being one of the best-supported football teams in the country.
I had always thought speedway a weird sport, mainly because each individual race lasts around a minute, but as is often the case it is easy to be won over when you watch it in the flesh.
What’s clear is that it is the high intensity of the action that is central to its appeal. Waiting for the riders to line up just adds to the excitement, with the spectators’ voices growing louder as the racers rev up their bikes to their own crescendo, which comes when they unleash themselves onto the track. Then, with the wheels turning themselves inside out as they negotiate bends and spurt up a storm of dust, the noise of the engines – sounding like a gang of bumble bees after a testosterone fix - blends in with that of the crowd’s collective larynx to create a deafening and exhilarating cacophony. That it lasts only 60 seconds, or thereabouts, is a relief, but once it is over you want to hear it all over again.
I would also reckon that Bydgoszcz as a whole has the potential to grow on those who give it a chance. Your first impressions after you step off the train and walk toward the Old Town may not bowl you over, but when the place is lit up by sunshine, the bar-owners manage to put up a few parasols outside on the cobblestones and you get to see the raw passion that speedway induces in the population, then as a break from the bustle of Warsaw, you could do worse than choose Bydgoszcz.