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Chelmno - the city of tourist celibacy

17 of May '23

Today, as part of the continuation of the announced series on Polish cities, which I began with a rather optimistic piece on Leszno, we will go on a passionate visit to a city that proves that even without an idea, but with one's consistency and commitment, and with small forces, one can do little and achieve very little in this country without pursuing any tangible goals. Welcome to Chelmno, Poland's most historic city, which, thanks to the use of clever marketing „stealth” technology, is trudging strenuously through life beyond the radar of any tourism that could lift this city from its current "non-existence" to the status of one of our country's major attractions. Unfortunately, today I'm going to have to grumble a bit, but I hope that the ordeals we are about to go through, delving more and more into the unpleasant meanderings of Chelmno's local politics, will leave us, and above all the Chelmno authorities, with hope and motivation for a new better job, because the opportunities and expectations are great for this city.

In my profile I have already mentioned this city a couple of times, in fact I have visited it several times myself, and each time I was accompanied by one thought that, having already understood what we have here, must come to mind. Namely, what an extremely powerful curse someone has cast on this city, that in a country where at the same time we are able to sell "the longest plank in the world" as a super attraction, we are unable to promote such a city as Chelmno.

But let's perhaps start with where it is located at all and what it has at its disposal. Because maybe I'm wrong or, maybe there are dozens of such cities in this country? Judge for yourself.

Fragment panoramy Chełmna

fragment of Chelmno panorama

Photo: Jerzy Strzelecki | Wikimedia Commons © CC BY 3.0

So Chelmno is unique because it has a Gothic church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary... yawn. Eh there. Goodbye. What's unusual about it? Just kidding, it has six Gothic churches. This should already trigger some surprise in you. Let's remind you that we're not talking about a city the size of Poznan, but a town with a population of only 18,000, and the count keeps dropping. To put it more vividly, this city has more Gothic churches than the super-touristy and nationally known Sandomierz on the Vistula River, and they are concentrated in a smaller area. Ba! It even has more medieval churches than nearby Torun or Bydgoszcz, which are much larger and yet equally historic.

Chełmno, Miasto Zakochanych

Chelmno, City of Lovers, Roman Catholic Church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Photo: Pawel Mrozek

Chełmno, Miasto Zakochanych

Chelmno, City of Lovers, Roman Catholic Church of St. James the Elder and St. Nicholas

photo:: Pawel Mrozek

In fact, Chelmno ranks in the top 10 in terms of Gothic architecture among Polish cities, effortlessly and with hands down, by the way, its historicity does not end with churches. It is surrounded by a full ring of defensive walls, with a valuable set of gates and, as a rough count, with nearly eighteen, better or worse preserved towers. It is worth mentioning that one of the churches mentioned (dedicated to John the Baptist and John the Evangelist), together with the monastery buildings, constituted a castle woven into the line of defensive walls that defended the entire city. This is a sure clue to understanding why this city is so unusual, but more on that later. This church is also unusual for another reason—it is probably one of the least photographed monuments in this country, and to get to it you have to solve an absolutely incredible rebus.

Chełmno - Miasto zakochanych

Chelmno, City of Lovers, Church of St. John the Evangelist and John the Baptist

Photo: Pko | Wikimedia Commons © CC BY 2.5

Chełmno - Miasto Zakochany

Chelmno, City of Lovers, the complex of the former Cistercian and Benedictine monastery, now the Congregation of the Sisters of Mercy; fortified monastery with the Church of St. John the Evangelist and St. John the Baptist

Photo: Pawel Mrozek

Aaa... did I mention that Chelmno is located on top of a mountain? Hence, in fact, its name, which emphatically shows what scenic qualities it has. To be more precise, Chelmno is located on a hill, on the slope of the Vistula escarpment. The fact that the city is surrounded on almost all sides by steep slopes can be seen for oneself, as a large part of the castle's defensive walls can be circumnavigated during a very picturesque tour of the park surrounding the city.

Chełmno - Miasto Zakochanych

Chelmno, City of Lovers, Old Town Square with the town hall

photo: Pawel Mrozek

Chełmno - Miasto Zakochanych

Currently there are about 10 times more eateries in Chelmno than when I was here a few years ago, by the way, it is easy to count, because then there was one

photo: Pawel Mrozek

In addition, and perhaps most importantly, Chelmno has a market square where the authorities from time to time organize a festival, gathering all the residents together and simulating what it might look like on a daily basis if some tourists came here one day. On this market square is a well-preserved Renaissance town hall, with an appearance typical of southern Poland, but absolutely unheard of in the north. To top it all off, as if someone couldn't get enough, Chelmno has (just on the other side of the Vistula River) a neighbor in the form of Swiecie, which has, just for fun, its own not inconsiderable castle and a defensive Gothic church, basically fortified in the same way as the castle, so if someone is crazy about castles and medieval fortresses, nowhere else in this country will you see such a plethora of fortifications from that period in such a small area.

Chełmno - Miasto Zakochanych

In the foreground: St. Martin's Chapel and walls, in the far background: the Roman Catholic Church of the Holy Spirit; the romantic mist in the air adding to the mystical charm is the burning of garbage in the stoves

Photo: Pawel Mrozek

Chełmno - Miasto ZakochanychWalking route around fortified walls

photo: Pawel Mrozek

And all this is basically untouched by the teeth of time and wars. It stands there as if it landed straight from some parallel dimension in which these areas were not plowed by countless wars. These, in turn, in our world have swept from north to south and east to west, making the rest of northern Poland into ballast for roadbeds. However, they never touched this city in its entire history. This is because it was a private town belonging to the church estates. It was in the Middle Ages, when the wars between Poland and the Teutonic Order rolled over here, that it acted as a force field for both armies. In this conflict, neither side was going to go easy on the Pope, as this would have been a shot in the foot, despite the fact that the city had outstanding defensive conditions and would have been a gluttonous morsel giving local advantage in the area. Such political protection, however, was already of no importance during the wars with Protestant Sweden, and on the contrary , a fat church town for an invader must have been tempting loot. However, this was not the case, as the Swedes underestimated the strength of the medieval fortifications on top of the mountain and the determination of its defenders. Despite besieging the city for several months, they walked away with nothing, which is excellent news for us, considering what ruin they left behind all over the country.

The times of partition for Chelmno as a city were successful but for the Polish population somewhat less so. Despite the great industrialization that took place during this period, the city survived these changes with basically little damage. During this period, some gates that impeded entry into the city were demolished.

However, the most remarkable event in the history of Chelmno took place at the end of World War II. Like a steamroller, the Second Belorussian Front rolled through northern Poland on its march to Berlin, directly decimating all the historic sites it reached, leaving behind mostly rubble for the future rebuilding of Warsaw. It rolled through everywhere, except one place. Except for Chelmno, where the front stopped and the local Soviet army commander waited until the Germans left the city and occupied it without fighting. Then, to make things even more bizarre, the Red Army didn't do what it usually did, which was to go in, pee and cart away everything that could be stolen, but—for a change—didn't touch anyone or anything. Instead, the Polish clergy returned to Chelmno, shook hands with the Germans, and the latter left them all the keys and left.

Thus an event historically—probable as one in a million—happened, and everything passed painlessly into Polish hands and converted. As always, moreover, in the history of this city and as almost never in the history of the cities around it. All this makes Chelmno stand today like a lonely rocky outcrop in Arizona that has resisted the erosion of time.

Chełmno - Miasto Zakochanych

Grudziądz Gate

Photo: Pawel Mrozek

Chełmno - Miasto Zakochanych

Dworcowa Street, Chelmno City Hall

photo: Pawel Mrozek

Of course, before you rush off to admire this Polish Carcassonne, I must mention that probably the most damage to this city was done by a few dozen population changes and several decades of communism with the post-war era at the forefront. Moreover, it was very difficult to maintain such a large number of monuments in such a small city and with such great needs for reconstruction of the whole country. However, even if many of them need a bit of care today, it's all just there and continues to stand.

I'll frankly admit that I didn't get down to this text sooner, mainly because when I was there the first time the city, presented itself with such sleaze and resignation that I preferred to wait to see if this patient would survive at all. In addition, I was completely blown away and straightened out my folds on my cerebral cortex by his brilliant marketing strategy. Knowing now what Chelmno has at its disposal, you will never guess in your lifetime what its advertising slogan is.

First, however, a little experiment. I asked GPT Chat to create its five advertising slogans based on my description of Chelmno. Here they are.

"Chelmno—discover the magic of the Gothic.„
"Chelmno—an extraordinary town that will take you back in time!”.
"Welcome to Chelmno—a city full of history and legends!".
"Welcome to Chelmno—Gothic treasures in the heart of Poland!".
"Chelmno—a place where time has stopped and history has kept its splendor!".

If these slogans seem stale to you, how about „Chelmno—City of Lovers"? Yes this city with its random slogan taken out of the textbook "Local Government for the reluctant” says more about the degree of ignorance of local administrators than looking at its sleepy streets and monuments closed to the public.

Chełmno - Miasto Zakochanych

The spoils of 30 years of promoting the city with a misguided campaign can be capitalized today on scrap metal for a few dozen zlotys.

photo:: Pawel Mrozek

This also shows another phenomenon. It's how much one can become blind and indifferent to the treasures on which one is directly sitting. I can imagine this blush years ago in the office. The pastor, the mayor, the commander and the president of the local housing cooperative sit around the table and think hard while twirling their mustaches and sipping loose coffee from glasses in wicker baskets.

- Well, there's no denying, gentlemen, that our town is quite poor, and on top of that Balcerowicz. We must do something to change this fate of ours. I immediately point out that it must not cost us too much.
- And how much do we have for it?
- After subtracting fixed costs, more or less nothing.
- Well, here's an idea. We can come up with a promotional slogan for the city. Such our keynote, which will emphasize the character of this city and attract money.
- He says well. Only that we still know what that character is. Let's think about what we actually have....
- Well, there is a jail... but it's er... well, and we have a military and ok. Well, there's also the market and the escarpment, and the Vistula, the Vistula is a bit next door.
- Vistula no, because the Vistula stinks from the pulp mill in Swiecie.
- Well, then we still have a hospital and a cemetery....
- Enough! Mercy! Enough is enough. This is for nothing. Well, unfortunately, gentlemen, it needs to be said clearly and explicitly. Paris, unfortunately, we are not.
- Brilliant!!!
- What? „Chelmno—Paris we are not?”
- No. Paris the city of lovers. Chelmno the city of lovers. Simple? Simple. We'll be like Paris, and tourists will pound on us with doors and windows.
- Perfect. Write it down, quickly, quickly, before it flies out of your head. Chelmno city... how did it go? Aa... love... no.... I mean in love... hey, how about love better?
- No, because it is associated with sex.
- Well, okay it's in love. Well, snap and there it is. And what do you think, gentlemen? Was that so difficult it was?

The upshot of all this promotion after three decades is one park bench hung with rusty padlocks and the consolidation of its position as a „white spot” on the map of recognizable, attractive local governments. Congratulations.
And after all this actually, one could now lower the curtain back here, turn off the lights and forget about this city. And Chelmno in this standby mode of its own would last for centuries to come without the need for intervention, which, by the way, for the preservation of its historic character and spatial layout, might even be beneficial. And I would be able to laugh about the bench and rusty padlocks again in another few years. This, however, will not happen because such times are over. Poland is developing economically, the economy is growing, and the cogs of the principles of sustainable development laboriously permeating the economy have slowly but inexorably begun to pump money down the Polish pyramid to all local governments, even those that, like Chelmno, have denied it hand and foot. The city of lovers, although it would probably prefer to make the biggest heart of roses in the universe, unexpectedly got money for revitalization and so it began. Street by street, house by house, it began to beautify and get on its feet, and with this development we are inevitably approaching the typical associated opportunities and threats facing Chelmno today.

This opportunity and threat is named after the "Former Military Unit" and the plans to skesh the most attractive real estate in a radius of at least 50 kilometers. To understand what I am talking about, we need to look at the spatial layout of Chelmno.

Chełmno - Miasto Zakochanych

illustrative spatial layout of the city divided into the most important areas

© Pawel Mrozek

The hill, on which the city is located and where the lion's share of its residents live, consists of three main parts. New Chelmno growing naturally out of the old suburbs along the road leading to the main entrance gate, the Old Town lying behind it (on the highest part of the hill), and—on the farthest part of the hill and at the same time in the most scenically exposed part of it—the former military unit, which is located on the site of the pre-war barracks.

I must admit to you that when I read such reports as the fact that the city has signed a contract with the winner of the tender—"Agricultural Services Company Zbigniew Nogalski"—for the task to be carried out under the „design and build” formula in the most attractive area in the city, and that this is the first such large and serious investment in a hundred years, I reflexively get goosebumps. This sounds like the beginning of one of the many investment thrillers, of which there are already countless in my chronicles of Sto Lat Planowania. Reviewing city documents, including those on revitalization in search of swallows of hope and good intentions, does not reassure me at all. The diagnosis of the state of the city makes it clear that Chelmno is one big welfare home, social capital is an unexplored black hole and an extrapolation of provincial data. There is almost nothing about functional and spatial structures, and the word „environment” appears three times in this diagnosis in the context of „community care”.

The city's development strategy is no better, in addition, it ended in 2020, but there is no point in looking at it anyway, since it refers to actions and ideas from the beginning of the century. In the description of the formation of spatial order, which is a severely atrophic literary form, instead of about order we read some tedium that is an optical filler about average annual precipitation, which was there only as a result of the authors' belief that no one will ever read this document. In the skimpy thread that should be the heart of the strategy, „Vision and Mission,” we read that the city's priority is to attract a strategic investor who could influence the city's vision. Sorry, but I shudder when I read something like that. It is not the investor who is supposed to have an idea for Chelmno. It's Chelmno that has to have an idea for itself. But you know what? Why should I be catatonic about it. Let's ask ChatGPT what it thinks about this document. After all, it is first and foremost a language model and analyzing texts is its primary job.

Co myśli sztuczna inteligencja o administracyjnych płodach inteligencji naturalnej

What does artificial intelligence think about the administrative fetuses of natural intelligence?

© Pawel Mrozek

Ufff. What doesn't? It's not light, you'll admit.

It's really not pleasant let me tell you. On the one hand, seeing the development opportunities facing Chelmno, I want so terribly to believe that they will succeed. At the same time, however, I know that playing with an area like the barracks, an area that is even more of a treasure for the economy of this city than all these monuments, is, in the absence of investment experience and familiarity of the authorities with developers, playing with fire over a powder keg. The panorama of Chelmno can be screwed up once and for all with one stupid shot. All it takes is for the negative demographics to turn around for a while, for the city's promotion to kick in, and for the excellent location to do its job, because with real estate prices in this city, the pool of investors willing to bear some risk need not be small at all. I'm also afraid that in such a small city, the potential of the area could be completely squandered in a sense of euphoria accompanying residents that the city is suddenly starting to develop after years of stagnation.

Bearing in mind the previous documents and the peculiarities of this type of development in our country, I will admit that I approached the reading of the local plan that the city drew up for part of the barracks with my soul on my shoulder. Perhaps that's why I didn't get a shock. Reviewing the plan, I even breathed a little sigh of relief. Fortunately, I don't see in it some clear shortcomings that should have already set off an alarm siren in my head, something that would definitely doom this city's chances once the investment is made. But the plan is also, for now, mainly concerned with the historic, densely built-up part of the barracks, where, fortunately, no dramatic spatial transformations will take place.

Rysunek Miejscowego Planu Zagospodarowania części obszaru dawnych koszar.

drawing of the Local Development Plan for part of the former barracks area

© Chełmno City Hall

However, the development vision contained in this plan is somewhat disappointing. The plan is dictated by the need to find new municipal housing mainly by adding new blocks of apartments, and to realize social services in the historic barracks buildings, which is very important and needed, but there is nothing more. Only enough has been cut from the entire former military unit to meet current revitalization needs, instead of considering a comprehensive vision for the entire area. This somewhat betrays the lack of awareness on the part of the authorities of how important the site is and how crucial it is from the point of view of that mythical strategic investor they are supposedly seeking. Instead of treating the whole area as a new future district of the city, which could already be planned now, and using this coherent vision to tempt investors until it comes to fruition, even if the implementation would take decades, the area is being treated a bit like a loaf of bread, from which slices are slowly being cut for the hungry according to the needs of the moment. Looking at this plan, one wants to wail to the moon „A hotel with a conference center would come in handy!!!”. The city is even perfect for this. It's beautiful, compact and picturesquely located, and a stone's throw from the thriving Bydgoszcz-Torun agglomeration, which has a population of almost 900,000 and can easily, even with a yawn, fill the sails of a city like Chelmno. I am not discovering America with this, because it is enough to look at quite close to Gniew, where such a solution has worked like a dream. Compared to one of the most depressed cities on the Vistula River, which it was just a dozen years ago, today it gushes with health and optimism. In Chelmno, the city of lovers, love for one's own space is blind, and should be pragmatic. Developers who will come here someday will count cash, not kisses and hugs. Their love for this city will be calculating, and their relationship with it will be a relationship of convenience. The city should also finally mature and plan its future.

I have an appeal to the Chelmno authorities. You have a golden horn of plenty. Monuments that no one in this part of Poland has, a stone's throw to the S5 road and the A1 highway, and a fabulous property with the potential of a small neighborhood in the center of the city, which, if well developed, could be a tourist Eldorado and become the driving force of the city and its source of wealth for all its residents up to the fifth generation forward. Chelmno is on combat readiness like a Patriot missile on a launch pad, but it behaves as if it is completely unaware of this. I'm even sure that someone will come along one day and skewer this capital with one shot, because he will have a vision for his business that you guys don't have, and the city will only be left with a plate to lick after this feast. But it could also be different if the city already feels the role of host, inviting this money to play by its own rules of a well-thought-out public-private partnership. Looking only through the prism of residents' social needs or only through the prism of investors' ideas, there is no chance of creating something here that will benefit the city. In order to develop new value, you need to find areas of common interest among all the players, but in order to do that, you need to completely change your thinking from „waiting for a miracle” to „looking for miracles.” In order to do this one probably needs to go back to the beginning and the marketing slogan that doesn't give me a break.

People! Uniqueness, great, innovative, gigantic uniqueness!!! In extolling its virtues, every municipality in this country is shouting this word while banging a drum and shaking a tambourine. Everything in this country is unique, the regions are unique, unique environment, unique culture, unique architecture, unique location, unique recreational advantages, unique folklore, unique history. Meanwhile, the brutal truth is that everything in this country most often looks like Kutno „City of XD roses," and unique in all this is really only the approach to promoting one's own municipality. Unlike practices in the civilized world, it is focused on activities aimed at its own residents instead of outside, where they would make sense and could have some effect. Chelmno's "City of Lovers” is just such an „Inward” slogan, a marketing placebo that won't help anything, and its only sense is that the patient in this hospice is supposed to feel better and not think about hopelessness. It is not unique. Every city in this country is a city of lovers in love, even Kutno—the city of roses.

Typowe polskie Kutno

Typical Polish Kutno—all of Poland in one picture

© Google Maps

Meanwhile, Chelmno, for a change, really is unique, only despite its obvious historical and monumental qualities this uniqueness is not at all well identified, which I will try to explain in a moment. First of all, Chelmno is not able to find itself on the map of historical and cultural regions of the country. This is a similar problem to whether Gdansk is Kashubia or whether Warsaw is Mazovia. The division into historical ethnic regions based on village culture, forged by academics after the war, bends like space-time in a black hole when it comes to classifying cities, which often scarcely belonged to this culture. However, the fact that cities most often do not form cultural regions by themselves, and it is impossible to cover the entire map with such regions, makes such an idea unattractive from a methodological point of view. Meanwhile, Chelmno is not Kuyavia or Kociewie, let alone Zulawy or Mazovia. Because of this, it is also overlooked in the promotion of these regions as their value because it does not bring out the interesting and characteristic features of these regions. And there is nothing wrong with that. There is another club to which Chelmno belongs. Its former affluence and its very location already tell directly to which „unique region” Chelmno belongs. It is a region that was not formed by areas. This region is the lower course of the Vistula River and all its Hanseatic cities that sit above it on steep escarpments, erecting their monumental medieval fortifications and granaries. These cities had more contact with each other and with the world than with the regions on the periphery of which they lay. Wyszogród, Płock, Włocławek, Toruń, Bydgoszcz, Chelmno, Świecie, Grudziądz, Nowe, Gniew and Tczew. Even without counting Gdansk and Elblag, this was a region that concentrated an enormous amount of wealth and cultural life of the Republic. Taken individually, these cities may not seem very interesting. It is difficult to associate them with anything. This is not just a problem of Chelmno, moreover. Tczew. Has anyone visited anything in it, except possibly to take a photo of the bridge while passing through? Most of the residents of the Tri-city, of which Tczew feels a part, don't even know that there is any Old Town, market square and defensive walls there. All these cities and towns without the Vistula on which they are threaded are devoid of plot, sense, uninteresting, and thus completely forgotten. Almost no one follows the route of the Polish Hanseatic League like the route of the Castles of Lower Silesia, Teutonic Castles, architectural pearls in the Lublin region, in the area of the Ojcowski National Park or the Bieszczady churches. Baaa... the average Zakopane hut with oscypek has a higher turnover from tourism than Chelmno, which could afford more Gothic churches than many large cities in this country. How is this possible? We in this country don't have to figure out how to create a tourist attraction from the world's longest plank or an inflatable church in Leba. That's no way to build a respectable image and recognition. This is some kind of wilderness from the US. At most, it can be used to fight for customers along the highway who will stop for a pee. Instead, we have real treasures that no one knows about, while memes circulate somewhere in China and the antipodes about a Polish cottage standing upside down.

Odwrócony Dom w Szymbarku

The upside-down House in Szymbark

Photo: Tomasz Sienicki | Wikimedia Commons © CC BY 3.0

I'm not saying to prostitute yourself as much to tourism, God forbid, but a little sex with business and commercialism would go a long way in this Chelmno—the „City of Lovers"- would nevertheless come in handy. As brutal as it may sound, your profession is a "tourist attraction”, and you have almost 20% unemployment sleeping on a tourist treasure. Here there is nothing to think about. Here you need to pull Youtubers and carry them on your arms, let them make videos about you and proclaim your glory. You have a festival of art. Brilliant idea of washing your car in the fountain. Without that, no one would know about it. Give a bonus to whoever came up with it. Carol in Torun and Bydgoszcz to have your flyers lying around in their tourist information, let these local governments promote you, let them also promote you to investors. A strong region is also their business. Make some kind of meaningful spatial information system in the city. Now a tourist comes, sees the market, maybe one or two churches, and will go on, because he doesn't even know how to get to the walls or most of the monuments. Make sure to keep it all open. Maybe some kind of project for community guides? Get along with the nuns so that tours of this defensive monastery, which is the main attraction of the city, are done in some informed and thoughtful way. Today, it's a puzzle. You have to guess that there's a door somewhere, which you have to ring a bell and maybe someone will open it, and it's not until you're inside that „Oh oooo look, a castle.” Can you imagine if Malbork worked like that? XD. An uninformed tourist will just fly through your city, eating his sandwiches and won't leave a penny in it. At most, Żabka will make money. Well, and besides, pull the cash for revitalization. Just don't concretize, that's not the kind of publicity we want. Tips and tricksif you note the existence of something like nature in the revitalization program, then there are many more sources of funding. Make a local plan for the entire barracks, and let the beautiful colorful pictures of what you dream about follow. No investor will ever guess what this city is all about just by looking at the documents on your website, especially since they are flimsy. And if he sees one visualization, he will immediately stop, because his wallet will start vibrating. I repeat—images! Without them you are not promoting anything and no investor is being sought. You are only fooling yourself. Well, and you need to enter into some constructive partnership with other cities on the Vistula River like you do. Someone visits one city, they immediately need to know about all of them. About making it a fascinating adventure for a few days, not a stop for five minutes. Make it a game that triggers serotonin in people, and they won't be able to stop because they'll want more.

Take advantage of it, please. Get to work.

Chełmno - miasto z pomysłem

A festival for residents in Chelmno, an exercise in simulating ordinary tourist traffic in another city

Photo: Pawel Mrozek

Paweł Mrozek

The vote has already been cast

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