Friday, 13 March 2015

Berlin to Łódź 2013: Day 4

world-map krakow


This week’s post sees me visit one of the more unfashionable cities in Poland, Łódź. Not many people make it there and for good reason, as it doesn’t compare with the glories of Poznań or Kraków. However, I recommend going to such places, the Birmingham, Liege or Dusseldorf of Poland. The fact is, whilst not pretty, such cities as Łódź are the ones that helped build the modern world and in them some of our greatest successes – and tragedies – have taken place. For every York, Jerusalem or Kraków, there’s a Stoke-on-Trent, Beersheva and Łódź and what they lack in architectural joys, they also lack in tourists so you, like Mike and I, will have the place to yourself and will doubtless learn more in a few hours about the country you’re in than in several days at the beauty spot. Think about it. As someone from an English Łódź I kind of have to most days.

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Flickr album of this trip

Links to all parts of this travelogue

Day 1

Day 2

Day 3

Day 4

Day 5

Lodz_PolandI found this amazing hand-drawn map of Łódź by one Madzia Bryll on her website, here. Please visit her site and check out her cool pictures!

germany-poland-map 2


I like long train journeys which is a good thing since when I woke up early that morning, I knew that I was destined to spend a very large proportion of the coming day riding the rails. For starters, Mike and I had to reach Łódź, the final of our three cities and around a hundred miles from Poznań, a trip that involved changing trains and waiting around at a place called Kutno. But once there, whilst Mike would get off, I was to continue on for another two hours or more to Częstochowa, a place which I would later return from that same evening, back to Łódź, a total of almost ten hours in and around trains. Like I said, it's a good thing that I like them so much.

And the reason for that mammoth bout of rail riding was that I had a duty to fulfil. A month or so before our trip, one of my former students at the institution where Mike and I teach had committed suicide. He was just twenty-four. The reasons behind his decision to take his own life were tragically clear. S was a Polish national with mental health issues whose father he had never known and whose mother had cut all contact with him. He had moved to the UK presumably to escape the thoroughly miserable existence mapped out for him in Łódź. However, soon after his arrival he'd ended up serving a short prison term and then was arrested for a more major offence and handed an indefinite spell in gaol. When he'd arrived with us he was hyperactive, aggressive and badly behaved. But in the ESOL and Art classes – S had a passion for graffiti art – he'd been accepted, valued and included as part of the group and had begun to thrive. He was safe and well. So much did he progress in fact, that he was moved to a Category C prison to further work towards his parole, but there, alas, his support was gone. Sharing a cell with another inmate, they had an altercation and he attacked the other man with a razor. Now S was looking at another, more serious indefinite sentence and his chances of ever leaving gaol must have seemed remote. And even if he did, what did the world outside have to offer him? What chance did he have? So he chose death. At twenty-four.

Understandably I and the lads in the class were all rather upset by this and some suggested raising money in his memory and sending it with a card to his family. But for a man with no family, what can you do? Then, talking with one of the other Polish students, I had an idea: S had no blood mother that wanted him, but he was a Pole and the Mother of Poland is Our Lady of Częstochowa. I'd been to her shrine the year before on our Kraków trip and so why not go again and ask her to look after S? All agreed that it was an excellent idea so we got a rosary from the prison chapel where S had worshipped and the other Poles wrote a message in S's memory and I promised to deliver it as they could not. Whatever the travel time entailed, Częstochowa was the one stop that I could not omit on this trip.

One reason why I so like long train journeys is because they give you a chance to see a country outside of its city centres, to experience how it evolves from region to region. Alas, in those four and a half hours to Łódź and the subsequent two and a half to Częstochowa, I saw very little evolution at all. For the entire journey, Poland remained stubbornly flat, nondescript and scenically dull, as it had done the day before and also, a few minor rolling hills aside, on the previous trip. Historically fascinating the Land of the White Eagle may be, and gorgeous her ancient cities, but rural Poland ranks amongst the blandest places that I've ever travelled through.

We alighted at Kutno where we had to change trains. I decided to wander around a little in the hour or so between them and found myself walking through a rather dilapidated little town with old tramlines embedded in the cobbles before they were obliterated by a layer of tarmac. It could have been anywhere between the Oder and the Lena and its half-forgotten air reminded me of Konotop, Dobrich, Bolgrad and a score of other Post-Soviet provincial towns that I've visited.

An hour or so further down the line and I waved goodbye to Mike on the dreary platform of Łódź Kaliska and then continued on through the featureless countryside alone, using the opportunity to complete my travelogue 'Across the Sound' recounting my walking pilgrimage to Bardsey Island a month or so earlier. Then, after hours of passive inactivity, as we rolled into Częstochowa, I spurred into action, for my time in town was limited and I had a job to do. No leisurely walking up to the monastery today, instead I hailed at taxi which dropped me off at the gates and then made my way in.

The Monastery of Jasna Góra is a magical, powerful place that I was very much taken with the year before. This time though, I had no time to favour its aura but instead made my way straight to the shrine office where, after a degree of difficultly, I managed to explain my unusual pilgrimage to the assistant and I was shown to the shrine itself. And the timing was perfect, for just as we entered, the fanfare sounded and the sacred image was unveiled for daily adoration. I crossed myself but then moved onto the room behind where I donated the prison rosary and message, entrusted S to Our Lady's care and safe-keeping and then watched as the priest entered the proceedings into the shrine's logbook and handed me a card as evidence to show to the class. It was a small gesture perhaps, silly to some no doubt, but for me it made coming to Poland worthwhile and I I knelt before the sacred image of Our Lady afterwards, I was glad. True, this was a rushed pilgrimage, but it had meaning and it gave S that innate respect as a human being made in the image of God that he had rarely been afforded whilst living on this earth.

When I arrived in Łódź evening was beginning to set in and the streets were damp from recent rain. A quick glance at my map informed me that our lodgings for the night, Hotelik Na Zdrowiu (PLN90 p/n) was only just around the corner from the unbelievably dismal Kaliska station.

Only just around the corner on the map that is, but I never looked at the scale. After a trek of almost a mile through one of the dreariest-looking cities in Eastern Europe, (no small achievement that one), I eventually arrived and found Mike who was already happily ensconced therein.

Mike had had a pleasant afternoon wandering the streets of Łódź, (which he had to admit, wasn't really up to the high standards set by Poznań and Kraków), and what was more, he'd worked out the local tram system and picked up a couple of copies of the free and informative Łódź in your pocket guide.[1] So, we strolled across to the tram stop, pleasantly situated in the middle of the park – it was rather strange seeing the trams sneaking through the trees towards us – and then took a ride into the centre of town, alighting at plac Wolności, the square at the head of ulica Piotrkowska.

B2L23Trams in the park

Łódź is a strange place since despite it being home to almost three quarters of a million souls, it is very much a one street town. That street however, is ulica Piotrkowska, a ram-rod straight artery that is almost 5km long and holds the honour of being the longest pedestrianised street in Europe. So, when exploring Łódź, there was only one place to go and so we started at its head and began to walk downhill.

Unlike Poznań or Kraków, Łódź is not an old city. Back in 1793 there were only 190 people listed as living there, (Poznań by contrast had 12,500). Back then, only two hundred years ago, Łódź was hardly even a village. But like Manchester and Birmingham, it mushroomed as a result of the Industrial Revolution, textiles being the industry that caused it to grow with workers flocking in from all over Europe. The first cotton mill was opened in 1825 and in 1839 the first steam-powered factory in all Russia and Poland.[2] By 1850, the population was 15,800 (Poznań 47,000), and less than a century later it had exploded to 338,600 (Poznań now far behind with 220,023). It reached its height in 1990 with a population of 850,000, but since then due to a combination of low birthrates and high emigration – Mike's next-door neighbours hail from Łódź and were the main reason why we chose to check the city out – it has dropped to around 730,000.

Ulica Piotrkowska is evidence written large of Łódź's 19th century development. The city is not historic and so it has no historic core but instead grew up as a linear development along the sides of the main thoroughfare through the area. And all the great millowners competed to build grand residences along that street including one belonging to the greatest entrepreneur of them all, Izrael Poznanski (more on him later).

B2L24Ulica Piotrkowska

Our enjoyment of it all however, was somewhat marred by the fact that the street was being dug up as part of a beautification effort and so we found ourselves trudging through mud and negotiating potholes. Well, that and the fact that we were both by now rather hungry, but this latter problem was solved by turning off ulica Piotrkovska after about half a kilometre and heading into Anatewka.

I am often puzzled and exasperated by the amount of people, (not just Brits, but New Worlders as well as other West Europeans), whose concept of Europe still finishes where the Berlin Wall once stood and who rarely, if ever, consider passing over into that Slavic terra incognita beyond it. “Well, the food's good in France and Italy” they'll say or perhaps, “There's nothing there which you can't find in the West.” Both statements have a degree of truth and falsehood in them, but even if we took both to be gospel, then there is still one crucial factor unconsidered: cost and it astonishes me that folk who, when back at home, watch pennies so carefully, as soon as they cross the national border, seem to leave their financial sense back home with the cat and will pay extravagant amounts for, well, nothing particularly special. Now I am not exactly on the breadline, but conversely, I am not so far from it as I'd like and certainly not a rich man and so Western European levels of expenditure do significantly impact on my enjoyment of a holiday. Take for example my trip to France in 2007 when they were asking €5 for a beer and a main course started at €12, or perhaps Ireland in 2009 when a beer in a cheap pub was a frightening €4 per pint, or, scariest of all, my 2008 weekend in Stockholm when the budget restaurant that the TIC directed me to wanted the equivalent of £13 for a plate of meatballs and mashed potatoes! With prices like those, I have to consider first whether I have the funds or not before going out for a meal or a night's drinking. And it's not just about decisions like those either. In Western Europe one cannot just alter one's plans at the last moment and roll up unexpected in a town because there may well be only one hotel in town and it could quite easily be demanding you fork over €100 for the privilege of a bed, shower and complimentary bar of soap. So you see, one of the reasons why people like Mike and I like Eastern Europe so much is that whilst it has what the West has, and like the West it also has great food and is safe – don't even get me on the common myth that Eastern Europe is some mob-dominated badlands, it was never that bad even in the nineties and it certainly isn't now – it comes at a significantly reduced cost. Ok, so it ain't the absurdly good bargain that it was when the wall fell and you could dine in a five-star hotel for the price of a bag of chips back home, but it is cheap to the extent that you can go there without worrying or feel like you're being robbed every time you buy something. Which brings me back to Anatewka which was the name of the restaurant that Mike and I stepped into that evening. Anatewka is Łódź's Jewish restaurant and arguably the finest eatery in the entire city. Its equivalent in Manchester or Birmingham I could never dream of eating in, instead I'd be stood outside in the rain like the little match girl, but the thing is, the beautiful, glorious thing about that brave new world across the Spree is that there, plebs like Mike and I can just walk right in and order whatever the hell we wanted off the menu without any fear of bankruptcy or re-mortgaging the house.

And it was worth it. Mike and I enjoyed the goose speciality and were amused by the paper bibs with bow-ties on them that we were given as well as the little model Hassidic men that come free with every meal. But I was also a tad confused: Hitler murdered virtually all the Jews of Łódź so did the restaurant represent a rebirth of the community that had in 1913 formed a whopping 34% of the city's population?[3] I asked the waitress but, alas, it seemed, no. all the staff were Poles except the chef who had to be Jewish for the food to be kosher, and of course, the owner was a Jew as well.

B2L25Dining in Anatewka

And then from desirable dining to dive. Mike and I decided that a beer or two was in order on our last night in Poland, so off we went to find a suitable drinking establishment, but unlike Poznań, they were thin on the ground in Łódź. We tried on ulica Piotrkowska but the one place there was terribly noisy and smoky and so we headed away from the main drag and came across a little place on ulica Legionów. It was everything that Anatewka was not: cheap, the décor very early nineties proletarian with mock brick, mirrors aplenty and neon lights, and the clientele were... dubious. Street workers downed a beer between jobs and the local dealer popped outside every ten minutes or so whenever his phone rang. If we wanted the “real” Poland, then, by God, we had found it. Problem was, like “gritty reality” everywhere, it was shit.

We did not stay out for long.

Next part: Day 5

[1]In Your Pocket guides were started in 1991 when some German and Belgian ex-pats produced a guide to Vilnius. They now cover 75 cities across Europe and are distributed locally in shops, hotels and restaurants as well as electronically as webpages and phone apps. The guides often cover off-the-beaten-track destinations (like Łódź) so, for example, in Ireland (London)Derry has a guide but Dublin and Belfast do not. I have used the guides to Shkodra, Pristina, Riga, Poznań and Kraków as well as Łódź and have always found them to be excellent. In Your Pocket represent East European destinations far more comprehensively than those in the west of the continent.

[2]Back then, Łódź was situated in the Russian Empire, (we'd crossed the border from Prussia/Germany in our trip from Poznań), and one of the main reasons cited for the city's industrial success was that it was the first city that one hit in Russia and so benefited from easy access to European technologies and expertise as well as the huge captive market that the Russian Empire could provide.

[3]For the record, the Poles constituted 49.7%, the Germans 14.8% and the other couple of percent a variety of other groups such as Russians and Roma.


  1. Other parts of Kutno don't look so bad (e.g. ), but the vincinity of the railway station is in fact horrible.

  2. Thanks for your comment an you're right, Kutno looks quite nice there. Such a shame there was no indication of this around the railway station, (which is where many, maybe most, guests arrive.