IT’S 7PM ON Friday evening and the sun is slowly going down over Bydgoszcz. Pockets of friends cluster around the small cafes and bars that line the periphery of the main square, sharing a glass or two of local lager and watching as group of teenagers get set for an impromptu street dance performance.
It’s quiet now but there are signs that it’s all about to change. In one corner, the beginnings of a temporary five-a-side football pitch are marked out while in front of it, a pop-up stage and screens appear and disappear with frightening precision.
Even for a busy Friday night, there’s an extra bit of buzz. Next week, Poland’s eighth-largest city expects to welcome upwards of 1,000 football fans — the majority of them Irish — when the European Championships kick off.
Though it is set back slightly from Poland’s main tournament hubs, Bydgoszcz is making a virtue of its location for the next four weeks; an ideal base for Irish fans, two hours south of Gdansk and two hours north of Poznan by car. Close enough that supporters can travel to and from games without too much difficulty, far enough removed that they won’t be ripped off by jacked-up prices for beer, food and drink.
(On average, the price of a hotel room has been marked up by about 20% for the duration of the championships, officials say, a tame amount in comparison to some of the grossly inflated figures being quoted elsewhere.)
But if Bydgoszcz’s location and the luck of the Euro 2012 draw has gifted them an open goal, the city’s politicians and businesses know they still need to stick the ball into the net. And so the preparations are meticulous, making sure that all who visit are made to feel at home, entertained, and filled with food and drink.
Football fans — especially the boys in green on tour — don’t need an invitation to party but Bydgoszcz is extending one anyway.
City of sport
Once a vibrant trading stop, now a bustling university hub brimming with youthful energy, sport is hardwired into the city’s DNA. Last weekend the local football team Zawisza Bydgoszcz — the club where Polish icon (and friend of Giovanni Trapattoni) Zbigniew Boniek spent his youth career — faced into their final game of the domestic season on the brink on a second successive promotion and a long-awaited return to the top flight Ekstraklasa, only to lose 3-0.
Sebastian Chmara, now the city’s deputy mayor, was one of the world’s top decathletes not so long ago, following his European indoor gold in 1998 with a world title at the 1999 Indoor Championships in Maebashi, Japan, where he joined Maurice Greene, Haile Gebrselassie and Colin Jackson on the honour roll.
Bydgoszcz could even be the scene of an important Irish success before Trap’s army come to occupy it next week. On Sunday, the city hosts the 12th European Athletics Festival where Ireland’s 4x400m women’s relay team will be hoping to hit the “A” standard time needed for a place at the London Olympics this summer.
But there’s more to the city than sport and the anticipation enveloping Bydgoszcz as it nears the Euro kick-off stems as much from the opportunity to showcase their city as it does from the football. Gothic cathedrals stand side-by-side with 19th-century granaries in the city’s old town, a short walk from the peaceful Mill Island, a pocket of greenery amid the bustle where frisbees fly into the late evening hours.
Old meets new where Karol Slowinski, head of one of the city’s local tourism boards, spends his free time pottering about the small little hobby shop where he stores his assorted city memorabilia, leafing through old black and white photographs while friends and visitors sip espresso on the front steps and listen to records played on an old gramophone.
Slowinski, like the rest of Bydgoszcz’s inhabitants, is intensely proud of this place and its charms. They know that if they can nail the guest experience over the next four weeks, their hometown will no longer be a hidden gem but an attractive destination for weekend breaks down the line. They’re confident that they can pull it off and are already putting the finishing touches on promotional offers for half-price hotel rooms the next time their Euro 2012 visitors return.
Such an opportunity naturally brings its own anxieties with it and, bubbling underneath the surface, there is a latent self-consciousness that the city — and Poland in general — might not measure up to the lofty expectations which visitors will have during the tournament. Questions abound about the standard of facilities which journalists will need to do their work and about the shortcomings which fans might pick up on, rather than the pleasant surprises they might well find within.
This is their moment and they’re desperate to make the most of it. And as the daylight faded away over the main square that Friday evening, it wasn’t all that difficult to picture the swathes of green, white and orange and hear the distant chorus of “Olé Olé Olé.”