They say love don't come easy - but it does in Bielsko-Biała!
On this day, twenty-three years ago, the final Fiat 126p rolled-off the production line at a factory in Bielsko-Biała, in the process pulling the curtain closed on twenty-eight years of history.
Fondly nicknamed the Maluch (‘the little un’), over four million units were produced, many in the car’s spiritual home of Bielsko-Biała. Known for it’s throaty roar and snappy Italian colour palate, the pint-sized vehicle did more than just motorise Polish society, it served to become an icon of an era.
In fact, such has been its lasting cultural impact that celebrity fans have included none other than Tom Hanks (who, incidentally, auctioned his off earlier in the year for an eye-watering USD 85,000).
Yet whilst this Mighty Mouse of a car has all but disappeared from many of the streets of modern Poland, it still casts a latent presence over Bielsko-Biała – open by prior appointment, a museum dedicated to the Maluch acts as one of the city’s principal curiosities, presenting as it does a fleet of oddities incongruously pimped up as ambulances, police cars, sporty convertibles and, even, military vehicles.
On the streets, too, no weekend in this town feels truly complete without seeing a parade of these vehicles tootling past adoring pedestrians. Pausing as if to allow the passing of a royal cortege, the reaction that such appearances elicit from the public says much for the imprint that this modest car has left.
But why do I say all of this? Well, that’s simple enough. In the last month, life has conspired to lead me twice to Bielsko-Biała. And although I was well aware of the city’s connections to the Maluch, little did I know that BB had so much more to pride itself upon.
Actually, I don’t think I’m alone in being surprised by the place – traditionally seen as a gateway to the mountains down south, I get the idea that the majority of people use it a pit-stop and springboard before continuing on their journey. “Drink up, let’s go,” I imagine them saying.
In itself, I find that profoundly alarming for I can’t remember the last time that I was so enchanted by a town. Or should that be towns?
Separated by a meandering, thin river (you get the idea you can almost leap across it), Bielsko-Biała was only formally merged together in 1951 – prior to that, you had the town of Bielsko on the left and then Biała on the right.
Yet whilst Bielsko traces its history to the 13th century and Biała to the 16th, what really causes them to stand from the crowd are influences more recent. Sometimes known as ‘Little Vienna’, it is its eclectic Art Nouveau architecture that leaves the lasting impact.
Just leaving the station one is met by the sight of teetering tenements once owned by industry magnates, and this glorious vision becomes only more pronounced when crossing the river.
A feast for the senses, the Town Hall stops you in your tracks – were it in Warsaw or Kraków, you get the idea there’d be jillions of tourists gawking upwards in its shadow. Here, you savour it all alone.
To a lesser extent, the same proves true of the Biała’s defining feature, an ornate building with a half-timbered tower and a bas-relief of two reclining frogs – with one playing the mandolin, and the other smoking a pipe, these are not some random homage to Kermit, rather a reference to the building’s historic owner, a wine merchant named Rudolf Nahowski.
With his winery always falling foul of complaints from the nearby church, it was Nahowski’s idea to embellish his building with carousing frogs (a symbol, I’m told, of religious intolerance).
Today, of course, they have become a much-cherished sight, so much so that the nearby fountain has also been decorated with models of these fun-loving creatures.
Indeed, the city has taken a distinct liking to cheerful miniatures, and it only takes a skin-deep look about the town before you are faced with statuettes honouring PRL era cartoon figures such as Reksio the Dog and Bolek & Lolek – it wasn’t just the Maluch that provided copious employment to the local workforce, but also the city’s cartoon film studio.
Nowadays, the film industry still flirts with Bielsko-Biała, and in ways that can sometimes sound surprising: coming to cinema screens soon is No Means No, a long-awaited Bollywood blockbuster starring Dhruv Verma (known by some as ‘the Indian James Bond’) that was largely shot in and around the town.
As numerous as the attractions of Bielsko-Biała are, I must disclose that my trip(s) saw me largely forego museums in favour of simply ambling around the place – not short on surprising bursts of giant wall art, not to mention stunning modern landmarks such as the Cavatina Hall (a world class cultural and commercial hub that looks like it landed from outer space), it’s a city that shrieks and surprises at every turn.
That applies to the older Bielsko section as well – up the sloping streets of the historic centre, budding explorers happen upon secretive stairwells and shaded courtyards.
Better still, unlike many cities in Poland, new touches combine well with the old – in Bielsko’s square, for instance, a glass humpbacked bridge straddling a fountain sits in perfect rhythm with the merchant houses that frame it.
Close by, a modern set of steps have been smartly angled towards the domineering castle ahead, whilst at the furthest end of Old Town soars the Cathedral of St Nicholas. Remodelled in the early 20th century, it looks more like a cross between an M.C. Escher sketch and a building from Gotham. Staggering.
And stagger you most certainly shall if you visit the wonderful Środek, a craft beer bar set deep within the bowels of a 19th century theatre whose façade has been decorated with cavorting, dancing nymphs.
Equally atmospheric is Browar Miejski, a jolly brewpub filled with beer-hoisting locals. For me though, the prime pick for an evening is Celna 10, a place of creaking floorboards and vaulted ceilings. When the weather is kind, little beats sitting in its shaded, cobbled courtyard to consider what you’ve seen.
A little less happily, BB’s portfolio of hotels has yet to truly level-up with many instead offering anonymous facilities the kind of which will only appeal to the travelling salesman.
That said, I can certainly endorse my lodgings of choice. Smuggled down an Old Town street, the Ventus Rosa is a smart, privately-run endeavour that feels fully tuned to the engaging atmosphere of its immediate surroundings.
In advance, I must apologise if this column is not the academic or historical discourse that this city so richly deserves, but it is the Bielsko-Biała that revealed itself to me – it’s also the Bielsko-Biała that I fell desperately in love with. I’m pretty sure, you will as well.