Żyrardów: Europe's Old Linen Capital
The Mrs. and I make it a point to get out and explore Poland as much as possible, even if it's just day tips out of Warsaw. There's just too much interesting history here to stay put. Plus, our general FOMO-ness pushes us out to places we've never been before. Case in point, a Sunday day trip to Żyrardów, a small town an 30 minutes east of Warsaw by train. Why Żyrardów? I'm sure you knew the town is one of Poland's official national historic monuments. No? That's ok, we didn't either.
Its claim to fame being that it's one of, if not the only, wholly-preserved 19th century-factory town in all of Europe. What that translates into today is a ton of nicely preserved (and some not so preserved) red brick buildings, ranging from factories, to churches, to the president's mansion, and worker housing all nicely laid out along gridded streets complete with town squares, tree-lined boulevards and plenty of parks. All of which makes for a nice little walk.
I find Żyrardów's story interesting, as it physically manifests almost two centuries of continental European history. It started with a Frenchman, Phillipe de Girard. A Thomas Edison-type, constantly working on inventions for the then happening Industrial Revolution. Everything from chemicals, soap, lamps to steam engines. In 1810, Napoleon offered a prize to the best new machinery for spinning yarn out of flax (to combat English cotton textile production). Girard quickly patented two methods of making the yarn, but Napoleon never awarded him the prize. Bankrupt from the effort, he took his invention to Austria, then England, then back to France, setting up a textile mill each time, all of which failed.
Not giving up, he went to Poland (much of which was then part of the Russian empire), where in 1833 he built a textile factory in a village named Ruda Guzowska. Finally, success! So much so, that the village even changed its name to Żyrardów, which is the polonised spelling of "Girard" (you'll have to trust me that "Zyrard" said out loud sounds exactly like how a French speaker would say "Girard").
Żyrardów really took off after the factory was bought by two German industrialists in late 1800s. They were responsible for further expanding the factories and building the "garden city" that Żyrardów is famous for today. Żyrardów's textiles were sold throughout the Russian empire and the city was a teeming manufacturing center - in Poland, ruled by the Russians, run by the Germans, with workers running the full gamut from Poles, to Germans, to Czechs, to Jews, to English, to Scots, and even the Irish. Everything went swimmingly right up until 1914. Post-WWI, the world around the factory changed. Poland got its own country back, but the factory lost its biggest market as Russia went all Bolshevik on itself. The factory struggled on, but fell on hard times, which became even harder with the onset of WWII. Polish communism kept Żyrardów's factories churning out textiles for the next few decades, but once Communism fell and Asia took such things over, the factories closed down, the last one struggling on through the late 90's.
Today, at least from what I can tell from my quick walk around, Żyrardów looks to be transitioning comfortably into that post-industrialist retail/commuter type of town I'm familiar with in the US. While there's still an occasional ruin around, the factory buildings have been restored and converted into a lofts/hotel/retail center. The former workers housing is still lived in and looks pretty nice by Polish standards (much nicer than many of the old buildings in Warsaw). It's clean, nice-looking, very green and even has some trendy restaurants near the center. I have no idea what people there do for work, but it's only 30 minutes by train to Warsaw.
Żyrardów definitely makes for a nice Sunday afternoon trip (the town wants you to come, they even have a nice walking tour laid out on their website).