Putting on my life jacket, I gingerly climbed into the bright orange canoe and nearly fell head first into the deep green waters of the river Brda. I hadn’t been canoeing since my teens, when the prospect of performing a capsize roll put me off for life. So it was with some trepidation that I set out on a three-hour trip through the waterways of Bydgoszcz. As it turns out, I needn’t have worried. Our guide led the way and I soon settled into the steady rhythm of paddling. It was a slightly unconventional but fun way of viewing the city.
This was my first time in Poland and I suspect I’m not alone in being unfamiliar with the region of Bydgoszcz. Apart from racking up a nifty score on Scrabble, and confounding people with its pronunciation, this is a city that few tourists will know much about.
So, let’s tackle the most important thing first – how the heck do you pronounce it? Bid-gosh – that’s how.
And secondly, what’s there to do in this little known region, compared to the more famous cities of Warsaw or Kraków? With a mixture of gothic and Art Nouveau architecture, charming rivers and canals, dense forests populated with pine trees and a lively cafe culture, there’s plenty to see and do.
Canoeing might not necessarily float your boat (sorry), but taking a trip on the waterways really is the best way to see all the sights of this stunning city. I began my trip in Smukaia on the outskirts of the city and paddled my way past rows of willow, birch and pine trees. Dozens of bright blue dragonflies skipped and danced around me, while kingfishers, cormorants and herons flew overhead. There were several other eye-popping sights to be seen along the way, as a number of the locals took to the waters in hair-raisingly skimpy swimwear. Polish men seem to like their swimming trunks to be as small and snug as possible. Perhaps the unusually hot 32 degree weather had something to do with it.
As we headed towards the city, the trees, rushes and wildlife began to change into a more urban landscape of buildings and bridges, including the University Bridge with its distinctive green looped design. Arriving in the city centre, I was struck by its resemblance to Copenhagen’s Nyhavn, with its waterways flanked by 19th century buildings. There’s even an iconic statue – “Man Crossing the River” – in the form of a precariously balanced silver statue perched on a wire across the water. This was created in 2004 to mark the date that Poland joined the EU.
With arms that were beginning to ache from hours of paddling, I glided past the restored 18th century granaries that are an integral part of the history of Bydgoszcz and even form part of the city’s logo. On the other side of the river I noted the impressive gothic red brick facade of the post office, while ahead of me sat the 1970s style Opera Nova opera house.
I disembarked on the banks of Mill Island in search of sustenance. Formerly the industrial heart of the city, Mill Island is now a lively green space surrounded by 19th century mills that have been converted into museums. Festivals and fairs take place on the island and it’s a popular place for the locals to hang out and enjoy the sunshine. Stopping off for lunch, I was keen to try some pierogi (dumplings filled with cheese, meat or spinach). Polish food tends to be quite hearty and the fare I was given was no exception. I was soon in danger of nodding off, due to the carb overload and the sweltering heat.
A walk around the city was definitely in order. My guide for the afternoon was Karol Słowiński, the owner of a tiny curiosity shop called Pro Bydgostia. Karol’s love and enthusiasm for his city was infectious and his shop was a goldmine of artifacts and memorabilia, from 19th century maps of the city to photographs from the turn of the century. During our walking tour we strolled through the old market square with its colourful 19th and 20th century town houses and its Monument to Struggle and Martyrdom. Walking through the cobbled streets we crossed bridges decorated with padlocks bearing the initials of couples in love. There are many stunning buildings to be enjoyed, from the gothic cathedral of St Martin and St Nicholas to the District Court with its octahedral tower and baroque cupola.
As the evening drew in, Bydgoszcz took on a magical quality. The spires and cupolas of the city’s many churches were silhouetted against a fiery orange sunset while the opera house glowed bright white and scattered its reflection onto the river. The local people are extremely proud of their city and I could certainly see why. “We are crazy about Bydgoszcz,” said Karol, as we ended our tour. “We wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.” I was rather inclined to agree with him.