Torun, Poland. 29th May 2014.
Torun is a town that has a very famous son. Nicolas Copernicus was born here. If you now say ‘Who?’ then shame on you! He wrote a book called On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres in which he propounded new and, at that time, heretical theories about the construction of the universe and also proved that the planets circulated the sun.
Fittingly, I arrived in Torun on a nice sunny day. I’d booked a hostel in the town centre, very convenient for all the sights. What I hadn’t realised was that it was in a pedestrianised area. Not so convenient. It was late in the afternoon when I arrived and there were a few cars and vans in there so I crept in, parked up and unloaded. It was clear I couldn’t leave my bike there but the reception people told me of a couple of nearby car parks where I’d be able to leave Doris safe and sound. I found one, left the bike next to the 24hr manned kiosk and walked back. I’d no idea what it would cost but was hoping not too much. I also covered Doris up. One piece of advice I’d give to anyone contemplating a similar trip to mine is to buy a lightweight cover. It won’t make your bike invisible but it will make it uninteresting, which is almost the same thing.
Back at the hostel I found I was sharing a room with a young guy and two young women. One was Chinese and spoke very little English. Kai is from Yorkshire but lives and works in Docklands and was doing a mini Euro tour. Aggie is Polish, speaks excellent English and was seeing some of her own country for a change. The three of us decided to team up and go to find something to eat. We had a great meal, chatted alot and after we got back to the hostel Kai and Aggie went off to look at a fountain. I got on with blogging.
Next day Kai was off on his travels so Aggie and I decided to team up for the day and look around the town. I love spending time with people I meet in hostels. It’s always good to hear their stories and to tell them yours. Aggie had worked in England for a couple of years, in Tesco’s at Stoke-on-Trent and also in Macclesfield. She’d had a bit of a tough time because she was promoted to supervisor after three months and really had to earn her spurs. She’s now an accountant back in Poland and has to understand lots of different EU legislation in order to do her job.
First place to visit was the house of Copernicus. This is a museum to his life and work and is also an excellent example of a Gothic era merchant’s house. It has a model of the town with and audio visual presentation and some of his original manuscripts. The story of his life was quite well told but I felt there wasn’t quite enough information in English. We did latch onto a group that had an English speaking guide and I learned a bit more.
Copernicus was, above all, part of the establishment. He had a doctorate in Canon Law but was also a physician, classics scholar, translator, governor, diplomat, and economist who in 1517 set down a quantity theory of money, a principal concept in economics used to the present day. Clever man. And clearly one with an enquiring mind who worked out how the planets and sun related to each other. His book, although not published until just before his death in 1543, had been started thirty years earlier. He developed the theories over many years fitting this work in around his other duties. It is puzzling as to why he waited so long before publishing his book but it is reckoned he was afraid of criticism. Even the Pope was keen to learn about his theories and in fact the religious criticism came from protestant sources. However, the book, when published became one of the cornerstones of the scientific revolution.
Copernicus done and dusted we moved on to have a look around the old Town Hall, a nice Gothic building, and its collection of Polish and Gothic art. We also went up the tower for a nice view of the Old Town area, something I always like to do if I can.
Time for a coffee and Aggie was telling me something of her back story. Six months previously she’d come out of a six year relationship with an Englishman which had turned very sour. I won’t reveal details, suffice to say that he let her down badly. This holiday was her first go at trying to put the past behind her. We got on very well and were chatting and flirting gently all day long. There was a great moment when she told me that today was the first time since her break up that she’d felt relaxed enough to enjoy herself and that it was my company that was the reason. What a nice thing to be told.
So we wandered around the town, enjoying the sunshine and the sights. Torun has various nice buildings, street cafes and shops and was a nice place to spend a day with a nice young woman.
One sight that didn’t please me was that of a guy handing leaflets to people criticising homosexuality. Of course, it was on a religious basis and I queried his point of view. He spoke good English so we had a good set to. No clear winner of course, neither of our minds were about to be changed, but I just can’t let myself walk past these people and say nothing.
Possibly in honour of Copernicus, Torun has a Planetarium so we visited that and enjoyed the show. It was mostly wasted on me as it was in Polish but Aggie said she learned a lot from it so it was worth doing.
Torun was also a base for the Teutonic Knights but the castle they built was torn down in 1454 during an uprising of the towns people and is now just a ruin. One thing we did do was to go and look at a fountain, just outside of the old town. Nothing special about a fountain is there? Well this one is pretty spectacular. It is laid out over a flat area with multiple small water jets. There’s seats all around so we took one. At 21.00 the fountain changes from a chidrens’ play area to a music and light spectacular. The jets of water are illuminated by different coloured LED’s and they rise and fall in perfect time with the music. At one point the water hitting the ground as the jets were turned off acted as a perfect drumbeat to the music. A fantastic sight. I’ve uploaded a short video of it here: http://youtu.be/0AJJoMO4Oi4
As the evening got chillier I was happy to put my arm around Aggie while we enjoyed the show. Walking back to the hostel we decided that it would be nice to meet up again when our respective paths crossed. We’d had a great day and both felt it would be nice to do it again. We were both due to leave Torun next day but I was happy to change my plans so that we could meet up again in Krakow.
And that my friends was that. No further contact except for a text message. No meeting in Krakow. No explanation as to why she’d changed her mind although she was perfectly entitled to of course. Most importantly, nothing to tell me that she HAD changed her mind. So Aggie, if you’re reading this, what happened?
Next day took me to Walbrzych where my ‘agenda’ recommended Ksiez Castle. First I had to get the bike out of the car park. 72 zloty (about £14) for the 36 hours Doris was in there. I paid up, muttering under my breath about the amount, but It was worth it for the peace of mind.
Aggie had helped me book into a hostel, just about the only one in the town, so at least I had a bed for the night. It was clearly the large home of an elderly couple who had converted the downstairs part into accommodation. No English was spoken, the owner tried to explain the wi-fi to me but it didn’t get through. So I did some washing and some writing. Yep, life on the road can be very mundane at times.
I headed off to the castle, stopping at a McDonalds en route for breakfast and free internet. A guy in there helped me to order my meal. You’d think that pointing at a picture and saying what was written under it would do the trick but clearly not always. Having eaten and booked a hostel in Krakow I headed out to the castle.
The town of Walbrzych is in the Silesian mining area of Poland and is very run down. Many of the buildings are in quite poor condition, as is the road, reflecting the economic hard times that had affected the area. But the park the castle is in is very nice and when I got to the castle car park a very helpful attendant got me parked right close up to the building. Thanks mate, I appreciated that.
The castle itself has an interesting history. Built in the 13th century by the Piast Prince Bolko the Crude to protect the trade routes between Silesia and Bohemia, it had many owners over the centuries until it came into the Prussian family of Konrad von Hochberg, where it remained until WWII. It had two major reconstructions, the first in the early 18th century in the Baroque style; the second in the early 20th century where extra wings were added. The cost of this actually bankrupted the family. So far so Central European.
But here the story gets more interesting and it’s more to do with the family than the castle. The owner at that time, John Henry XV, married a famous English aristocratic beauty named Duchess maria Teresa Olivia, also known as Daisy. She bore him three sons. The castle is full of photographs of the family and she was indeed a beautiful woman.
They eventually divorced and John Henry married a Spanish Beauty. Before very long the eldest son started an affair with her. John Henry found them out, divorced the woman and insisted that his son marry her. The son died soon afterwards, reasons unstated. I speculated that it may have been a surfeit of sex, but who knows. At least it would be apt.
Where this castle definitely differs is in its WWII history, which I thought was far more fascinating than the earlier years. It was taken over by the Nazis TODT organisation. Concentration camp labour was used to dig 3.2km of tunnels under the castle for reasons not fully understood even now. It is thought they were for weapons factories or chemical weapons laboratories but no-one is sure.
In the meantime the castle itself was taken over and many of the original decorations were removed in preparation, it is thought, for conversion into a local HQ for Hitler. Nazi officers lived here in the meantime and destruction or removal of the original decorations continued. When the Red Army liberated Poland they took over the castle and further destroyed the interior. I had the slightly bizarre experience of walking round a 400 room castle where most of the decorations had gone and all there was to see was photographs of how it used to be. Very strange.
A definite oddity was the display of sculpture whose origin wasn’t stated and whose inspiration wasn’t revealed. It certainly looked odd, but I liked it.
The castle was huge and there were various other buildings in the grounds too, which I didn’t have time to visit.
But back to those tunnels. A local researcher believes that the Nazis were planning to set up a secret document storage centre. There was a small railway running into the tunnels and he is convinced there’s a hidden cache of documents behind a concrete wall somewhere. But he’s never going to be allowed to go knocking walls down any time soon. Why? Because the site is used as a centre for some very important scientific instruments. Firstly there’s some extremely sensitive seismographs, which register activity from right across the world. Secondly there’s a very special instrument that checks the horizontality of the earth. It consists of two tubes of chemically pure water which meet at right angles. The instrument uses the water’s natural propensity to level out as a way of accurately pinpointing the horizontal It seems this helps to keep satellites in the correct position. So some bloke knocking through walls down in underground passages might knock your GPS off course. And we don’t want that do we?
Back on the bike, and using my undisrupted GPS, I headed off to Krakow, reckoned to be one of the jewels of Poland in terms of it’s history and beauty. I’ll let you know when I get there.