Twenty years ago former T&C editor Jim Stewart joined a borough council party on a fact-finding trip to the city of Włocławek in Poland.
Bedford was thinking of twinning with Włocławek. That never came to pass, although there is still a ‘friendship link’ between the two communities.
This summer, as Poland marked 25 years of freedom since the fall of communism, Jim revisited the city two hours from Warsaw to see what had changed.
I have several overriding impressions of Włocławek in 1994.
Firstly, it was bitingly cold. Well, it was February, the thermometer tumbled to -20C in daytime and the fountains were frozen. It was pretty chilly.
Secondly, I remember the buffets and the vodka. I’ve never been confused with a buffet dodger but even my noshing abilities were pushed to the limit as the touring party was astonishingly well fed and watered. And, in a country that was still very poor at the time, perhaps embarrassingly so.
But aside from the weather, the toasts and the tripe soup, memories were of a provincial city still very much grey and overcast, just starting to break off the shackles of 40 years of communism. It was a city in transition, and at times painfully so.
Arriving at Włocławek train station in June 2014, I must admit first impressions weren’t great. The stern, cold railway station looked from the outside like it hasn’t had a lick of paint in 30 years and is straight out of a communist architect’s manual. Had the city really changed?
But I need not have worried. I strolled just 400 yards and stumbled headlong into 21st Century Poland, which is a lot more like 21st Century Britain than many of you may possibly imagine.
Here is Wzorcownia, the city’s modern, clean and most definitely western-looking new indoor shopping and entertainment complex complete with multi-screen cinema and chains familiar to us all - Pizza Hut, KFC, H&M, C&A and more. It was not exactly packed, but then where is on a wet Monday morning?
If that’s the totally new side of Włocławek, then further into the city centre it’s more of a mix. I recall the square having a handful of small, independent shops 20 years ago - I’m pleased to say it still does, and actually many more of them. If England is renowned as a nation of shopkeepers, Poland may not be too far behind.
Back in 1994 the nearby market square (Rynek) housed an indoor market and a few further stalls outside selling wares including the odd live chicken. The indoor market’s still there, albeit tarted up. No live chickens for sale this time. Perhaps there’s no call, with the city now also home to a Tesco hypermarket.
On the corner of the Rynek still stands the communist-era city hall, austere home of the town president - and opposite is the equally functional hotel that housed Bedford’s first visiting party.
On that first visit Włocławek had just opened its first fast food restaurant - dishing up a rather interesting burger and a slice of bread on a plate - and its first nightclub. Now there are food outlets galore, many serving surely Poland’s favourite dish of pizza, and there’s a club and bar or two as well although like other Polish cities away from the tourist hotspots, stil surprisingly few of them.
The city’s main Plac Wolnosci - Liberation Square - has been given a facelift recently. The square, and buildings surrounding it, some classic and beautiful, some 1950s and downright ugly, are brightened up by some stunning flora displays around a central monument.
Włocławek centre could never claim to be a ‘chocolate box’ Central European city, but it does have a handful of stunning buildings dating back through the centuries, many towards the River Wisla. The pick of the bunch is probably the cathedral, once visited by the Polish Pope John Paul II, which overlooks the impressive town park and gardens.
Indeed Włocławek’s big pulling powers are its countryside and waterside pursuits - sailing on the river, and the many acres of the Wloclawek Gostynin Landscape Park.
Overall this city, known for its chemical and food processing industries, has developed dramatically over the past two decades, and I hope Włocławek, population 120,000, has a prosperous future.
It is a pity that the twinning adventure perhaps came too early to be successful, a decade before the borough’s Polish population grew dramatically as the borders came down and we could see how closely our countries would be linked. Having a twinning link could have been of benefit to both sides. Still, at least we’re still friends.