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Surrounded by the mountains and filled with the early 20th century architecture, immersed in lush vegetation, and abundantly sprinkled with rains, Bielsko-Biata reveals itself as a wealthy and friendly town, only a hundred years ago it was still a melting pot of the proverbial Galician poverty and exploding industry. An old guidebook about the Polish border towns described it as follows: ,,/n a sophisticated way, it has been able to cover up hundreds of factory chimneys, puffing out their black smoke amongst the rich green of the trees, blooming lilacs, and jasmine and magnolia flowers, amongst tran-quil orchards and gardens abounding in a variety of blossom so the hideous monsters of the pulsating life of the industry at times take on the shapes of exotic mosques..."
The town looks very much the same today, especially when it is viewed from the thousand metre summit of its highest mountain Klimczok. At its foot, on a hundred and twenty square kilometres spread over twenty hills lies the seven-hundred-year-old capital of the region. Today's homeland of two hundred inhabitants, it used to be the seat of weavers and clothiers, as well as wealthy citizens and businessmen. A Polish town, which lies closer to Vienna than Warsaw, Bielsko belonged in turn to Poland, Czechs, Austrian monarchy, German Reich and again to Poland. It has often been called Polish Manchester on account of its cloth, renowned and appreciated al over the world. At the same time, it has also been referred to as Small Vienna, because of this architecture, resembling the great Hapsburgs' metropolis, or Small Berlin, on account of the German language dominating in the factory offices and suburban villas. And last but not least, it has recently been dubbed Little Torino since it is here that Italian giant Fiat has set up its Eastern headquarters. With nearby Czech and Slovak borders, even now Bielsko enjoys the status of a truly European city.
Bielsko-Biata as a city has had its name since the first of January 1951 when officialy two places merged together which were located on opposite banks of the river Biata that was also theborder between Slaisk and Matopolska. Coming before this is a long process of history. In the nineteenth century, two cities from different backgrounds were lead to the establishment of one integrated economy because they were from the same region. To understand this history and culture, we must remember the situation of the river, which from 1457, through many centuries, was a national border. Bielsko, the older city (from the 14th century), was a part of the Czech Kingdom, and later, from 1526, it became a part of the Franco-Habsburg Dynasty. Matopolska Biata at the beginning was a small hamlet, part of the village Lipnik; it was situated on the west frontier of Poland. After the First Partition in 1772, Biata was also situated in Austria, in a newly established province - Galicia. Just in 1918 both cities came back into the re¬formed Republic of Poland. Bielsko having been removed from Polish authority in for six centuries.
The Protestant denomination had a strong influence on this region which from j one side was dividing the local people and from another side was creating a very | strong belief in the power of thought and the ethics of work which contributed to j the economical strength of this city on the Biata. In the nineteenth century, the Catholic and Protestant churches were joined by Jewish synagogues and houses of prayer.
The character of the city decided the development of the production of materials for makingclothing that started in Bielsko in the sixteenth century. One hundred f years later, guilds came together on the Polish side in Biala. From the beginning of the nineteenth century, these guilds declined until they no longer existed because of the initiation of factories. They were completely discontinuedfrom the end of the last century. Until the time after World War II, the wool industry that belonged to the Bielsko-Biata region, was the biggest in this area of Europe.
In spite of a strong economical connection with the Polish region of centuries, the social and political conditions of Bielsko were influenced by the culture under the authority of Czech and Austria. After 1772, it was a characteristic phenomenon for Biata (Galicia Region) as well. This process wasespecially stronger in the second half of the nineteenth century when cultural patterns were broughtfrom the capital of Austria, Vienna. Evidence of this period can be found to this day in the architecture and the specific atmosphere of the cities, which was the same as those found in the ancient Austria - Hungarian monarchy.
The Second World War mainly changed the foundamental appearance of the city, and cancelled completely the multinational environment, also breaking many centuries of cultural connections as well as blotting out the background of its history.
As one roams across this double town, which was unified only half a century ago, with its crowded, metropolitan city, its old market squares and narrow streets, under the arcades and around the yard of the Castle, one cannot fail to notice how fortunate both Bielsko and Biata have been in their joint history. Although the cosy mood of a once quiet Galician town was shattered - along with the local streetcars - by the invasion of heavy industry in the seventies, the soul of Bielsko has never been really altered.
While rather rich, it certainly cannot be called nouveau riche. Even before the World War II, it was considered to have the highest standard of living and now it also counts among the most prosperous Polish towns.
It is a cultural centre in a most palpable sense. Its theatre still stands where it was erected over a hundred years ago and it is here that the national cartoon heroes Bolek and Lolek were born, while the local highlanders still dance and sing in the same way as their grandfathers and grandmothers used to do while they were going down to work in Bielsko's textile plants.
It is green, but not because of meagre lawns set in the urban concrete. It is green because it is surrounded by primordial forests still teeming with deer, hares and lynches. And of course there is the River Biata, with its increasing number of trout, although it is still far from being as clear as when the clothiers used to rinse their cloth in it.
Although Duchess and Duke Sutkowskis no longer look down on the urban traffic of the city Hill from the windows of their Castle and some tenant houses have not survived the storms of wars and periods of peace; although the tram rails have been dug out and trams sold, and the guild of weavers is inevitably fading away, the traditional idyllic Galician spirit lingers on. It is because of this unique nostalgic feelings, albeit seasoned with the signs of modernity, such as concrete and neon lights, that no one in his right mind ever leaves this town. Unless one has to return to one's own self.
And finally, owing to its multilingual, multicultural and multidenomi-national history, Bielsko is a friendly town, where everyone, regardless of their race and beliefs, is welcome and can feel at home.
City council Bielsko-Biata
Ratuszowy Square 1,
43-300 Bielsko-Biata
Tel: +48 33 4971 800, +48 33 4971 497
Fax: +48 33 4971 786
um@um.bielsko.pl
www.um.bielsko.pl

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