Torun: from Astronomy to Gastronomy
Why is Poland off the tourism radar?
I have been visiting Poland regularly for decades now, and while I do enjoy the relative lack of tourist crush, I do sometimes wonder why it is that the country is a little bit off the tourism radar. I don’t mean that nobody visits; of course they do. ‘Cheeky weekend’ city breaks to Krakow have been advertised for years, usually mentioning the price of beer (low). And the lakes and castles of western Poland see a fair share of visitors, as do the Baltic beaches. But what’s not so well-known is that Poland is an incredible place to be an Art Traveller.
My most recent trip was to Toruń, in the north of Poland, in November. I went for the annual Camerimage film festival but to be perfectly honest, going to Toruń was well worth the trip in itself. While the city in November was very hygge – lots of coffee, gingerbread and cozy nooks on offer – I’m looking forward to going back in summer to enjoy the beautiful streets and the magnificent Vistula river walk.
So what is there to do in this magnificent, mediaeval UNESCO world-heritage city? Plenty. And everything is within walking distance. It’s the birthplace of astronomer Nicolas Copernicus (1473 – 1543), so you can visit his monument and his house – and all the streets and squares of the Old Town which, aside from what’s now inside the buildings, have not appreciably changed since he was strolling around them. You can buy Baltic amber, gorgeous handicrafts and beautifully-wrapped gingerbread and chocolates, as well as anything you night just happened to need, or want. There are some chain stores there but most of the shops are independent; I noticed some particularly good shoe shops.
In terms of sights, there are two Museums of Gingerbread, and many mediaeval buildings, such as churches, the Teutonic Knights’ castle remains, the Copernicus University and the Old Town Hall which are all rendered in distinctive bright red brickwork.
Perhaps surprisingly, contemporary art stands out in Toruń ; the superb Centrum Sztuki Współczesnej Znaki Czasu W Toruniu – Toruń Centre for Contemporary Art – is a magnificent space hosting excellent exhibitions. The show Artumm Mobile by filmmaker Peter Greenaway and artists Saskia Boddeke, which opened when I was in Toruń , is on until 1 March – so be quick if you want to see it. The presentation of the show was absolutely immaculate and did justice to the work. But I think the museum would be worth visiting, whatever the exhibition.
After Copernicus’s house, I went to visit the small and charming Museum of Toys and Tales (Muzeum Zabawek I Bajek) and happened upon the Galeria ZPAP, which shares the building. The artist Magdalena Gryska was opening a tremendous exhibition of contemporary painting.
I spent the better part of the day at the Museum of Ethnography, because not only is it a good museum stuffed with fascinating things from Polish living culture, but there’s also an outdoor ‘village’ made up of real wooden buildings brought from all over the region, about a dozen in total: houses, a mill, a smithy, a fire-station and a windmill – all real, functional and fully equipped – and you can go inside. The crafts of Polish folk culture are very beautiful, and many of them are on display here, from complex lacemaking to painting and carving in wood.
Finally, let’s talk about what simply must be one of the main draws of any trip to Poland: gastronomy. Delicious food, crystalline vodkas, tasty beer, well-made coffee. I won’t list the many places I ate and drank except to say I did not have anything sub-par; even the train station coffee was good. I will shout out to Bar Miś for the delicious bigos (sauerkraut stew); Pierogarnia Stary Toruń for amazing pierogi stuffed with black pudding and a lot of very good vodka, and the several branches of the Manekin Toruń which welcomed me so often I felt I just about lived there. Favourite coffee house: the café of the Wilam Horzyca Theatre.
Toruń is a jewel of a small city, an almost perfectly-preserved nugget of Old World charm and beauty in a modern, warm and welcoming culture.
Toruń is well worth a three or four-day visit, either a city break (fly to Bydgoszcz and take a short train journey) or as part of a longer tour around the region, taking in Bydgoszcz and Poznan or maybe Gdansk and Gdynia, or combine Toruń with a spa break.
I stayed at the Hotel Kopernik which was comfortable and very clean; I will stay there again. It’s just on the edge of the Old Town, very quiet and convenient. http://hotelkopernik.com.pl/english/
Galeria ZPAP https://www.facebook.com/zpaptorun
The Ethnographic Museum in Toruń building http://www.etnomuzeum.pl
Teatr im. Wilam Horzyca, pl. Teatralny 1, 87-100 Toruń http://www.teatr.torun.pl I regret I did not see any live theate in Torun this time, maybe next visit.
Camerimage is a festival of cinematography so it’s not as focused on stars (though they are there, playing second fiddle to the camera operators) and red carpets. The city’s well-appointed cinema spaces host a huge number of truly splendid films – from mainstream crowd-pleasers to art-house fare – all chosen because the camera work is distinctive and impressive. And it is very reasonably-priced.