I just called to say I love... Łódź
After months of dreaming, it finally happened. I boarded a train and left Warsaw behind. And to which exotic world did I arrive?
Though perhaps not the far-flung destination I had in mind whilst pondering ambitious escapes during the height of the lockdown, there can be few cities in the country that capture the overall dynamism that serves to define modern Poland: if it’s happening, then it’s happening in Łódź.
Of course, that’s not always been the case. Once a general conduit for horror stories, my first visit at the turn on the millennium revealed a city that was burnt-out not just spiritually but, rather alarmingly, physically as well. The place looked lethal. When a work colleague heard I was headed there, he urged me to leave a note for my next of kin – scanning his face, I realized he wasn’t horsing around.
Played out to a gloomy backdrop of unemployment and general dereliction, had the city been a person you’d have simply stuck it in jail and let it rot in isolation. It’s recovery, therefore, has been as miraculous as it has been unexpected.
Arguably, beginning with the 2006 launch of the multi-purpose Manufaktura project, the revival of this former giant cotton mill was just about the first piece of positive news to come out of the city for years. It put it back on the map – and in a good way.
Thereafter, developments landed in rapid succession, and not just in the commercial sense. Culturally, the city has flourished, something underscored by the local outbreak of mural-osis.
Born from the Urban Forms Festival, the initiative saw the city’s once bleak walls bestowed with dozens of radical and outsized wall murals that lent the town a vibrant energy in tune with its rough, raw look. At a stroke, Łódź had leapt from glum to glam, albeit in a way that played on its industrial decline and gritty street credentials.
And speaking of streets, the one you simply can’t escape is the gigantic python running through the middle that is ul. Piotrkowska. Famed as being one of the longest thoroughfares in Europe, it’s to the pedestrianized chunk most visitors naturally head and rarely subsequently leave for the duration of their stay.
I’m here to tell you to avoid it. To find the soul of the city, it’s the streets just beyond that have the essence of Łódź bottled to a tee.
You learn that just arriving at Fabryczna train station. Once a shady den of atrocious smells and creeping vagabonds, it announces the city’s intentions from the start. Though criticized as a white elephant, its near complete lack of users serves to only emphasize its vast dimensions and squeaky cleanliness. Capped with a glass and steel roof that arcs over lilywhite mock townhouse facades, the feeling of walking where no man has walked before ends swiftly as one steps outside to ul. Traugutta.
Greeted by a triple large mural of a hallucinogenic Einstein, it’s a walk that takes you onto the most famous woonerf in Poland. What’s a woonerf? That’s a Dutch word, one ascribed to roads turned into people-friendly organisms on which pedestrians, bikes and motorists flow as one in a continual motion that places an accent on slow living.
Where once stood an ugly, decaying street, today sits a place of social activity, one defined by the presence of Owoce I Warzywa, a café serving specialty coffee from within a former fruit and veg store. Did the city’s hipster revolution begin here back many moons ago? For certain. You can still feel that spirit, not least by way of a design that melds retro aesthetics with weird, local art and graffiti clad toilets that are a chaos of scribbled messages that are as mysterious as they are meaningless.
Beyond, other branching streets are as alluring in their style. For example, 6 Sierpnia, with its flower-potted window sills and busy outdoor scene: on the pavement terraces craft beer nerds gather to drink ‘of the moment’ beers from Poland’s maverick breweries whilst families sit in neighbouring restaurants selling Łódź-style renditions of traditional Jewish food. And is there any better Japanese restaurant in the country than Ato on the corner?
So it carries on. These side streets are a charm.
At Pasaż Róży, in the courtyard at Piotrkowska 3, one is treated to a dizzying display of art that sees an entire block of back buildings splashed in a mosaic of mirrored glass shards. From the same artist behind the artificial palm tree that stands in the centre of Warsaw, it’s a beguiling work that shifts moods with the weather.
Spectacular as it is, it becomes a little poignant on learning that it was designed as a tribute to the doctors that saved the author’s daughter from blindness.
On a lighter note, who can forget Off Piotrkowska itself. Rated as the hippest micro-scene in Europe by CNN last year, this collection of fall-down factory buildings have seen a new lease of life since being reinvented as the kind of food and drinks hub the capital just wishes it could call its own: a place where barber shops turn into cocktail dens at night, it’s the very definition of the bright new Poland that we’ve grown to know. Gentrification?
I like it!