A Visit to Toruń

Andy and I had heard good things about Toruń and decided to visit. We left Gdańsk on an early morning train Friday morning, with a ticket to return on a late train Saturday night. The train ride took about 2-1/2 hours.

Toruń is a charming town, famous for gingerbread and as the birthplace of Nicolas Copernicus. Our hotel was the 1231 Hotel, named after the year that Toruń was founded! We spent most of our time in the Stare Miasto (Old Town). Here are some pictures of our hotel and that area including the “Leaning Tower of Toruń” –which my picture doesn’t capture too well.

Toruń is known in Poland, and maybe throughout Europe, for its gingerbread. I highly recommend visiting the gingerbread museum (Muzeum Piernika) to learn the history of this tasty snack and its manufacturing in Toruń. Andy was especially interested in the complicated oven machinery which had an excellent audio-visual display. The museum includes a workshop where you can make your own non-edible gingerbread decoration. You also get a free little edible “Little Kate” gingerbread at the final exhibit in the museum.

Would it surprise you to know that a town known for gingerbread has a brewery that makes gingerbread beer? We stopped at the Jan Obracht Browar (brewery) and restaurant twice. Once, for dinner and a gingerbread beer and the second time to warm up with a mulled gingerbread beer. Both were delicious!

You can’t visit Toruń without noticing that Nicolaus Copernicus (Mikołaj Kopernika) is a big deal here. If you can’t remember who he is, here is a biography. We visited the home where he was born which is now a museum. His family was of the wealthy merchant class, trading in a variety of things including copper (see copper pots in picture). His father died when he was young, and an uncle who was a bishop helped raise and educate him. The museum doesn’t take too long to go through and is interesting, including lots of information about his time period and the science, religion and daily life of the middle ages.

Another fun thing to do in Toruń is a statue scavenger hunt. There is the “torture donkey” which represents a former wooden donkey that was used as a means of torture (read about that here). Filius is a puppy with a hat from a from a popular Polish comic strip: picture missing! I know I took one, but it isn’t on my phone <sad face>. Here is a photo of the puppy, mis-tagged as being from a Charlie Chaplin film. There is a statue of a violist playing to a circle of frogs. In warmer months, I believe this is a fountain. There is a cute little dragon hidden along the side of an alley. And, finally, you’ll need to find at least one statue of Nicolaus Copernicus.

We were lucky to meet up with Fulbrighter Molly, who is teaching English at the MKU (Mikołaj Kopernika Uniwersytet) in Toruń. We had a delicious meal at a Manekin restaurant, our first although they are a chain. Manekin specializes in every kind of pancake you can imagine. Yum! Molly then showed us around her university. The weather was cold, snowy/slushy with a biting wind. It was nice of her to brave the elements for us.

Our evening train left Toruń a little after 8pm and by the time we reached home it was nearly midnight. In a sleepy daze, I walked down the sidewalk to our apartment when Andy grabbed my elbow. The wild boars we had heard about were scavenging nuts and grass along our street. I’d almost walked right into one! Andy’s picture isn’t the best, but it was dark and we were both caught off guard.

Luckily, we made it to our apartment safely. It was nice to be “home” and warm and able to sleep in. I start teaching again on Monday.

I hope you are all warm and safe, too, my friends.

A Day Trip to Malbork Castle

The town of Malbork and Malbork Castle (the largest castle in the world) are an easy, 30-minute train ride from Gdansk.

The castle was established by the Grand Master of the Teutonic Order in the early 1300s. There are three parts to the castle. The High Castle, surrounded by moats and high walls is where the Grand Master lived and also housed the church of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The Middle Castle housed monks, knights, guests, a hospital, and the Grand Refectory, for large feasts and ceremonies. The Low Castle housed the granary, an armory, a brewery, stables, a chapel, blacksmiths, and other outbuildings and service-type work places, all surrounded by moats, walls, towers, and defensive constructions. In all its history, the castle was never over-taken in battle. However, several sieges did cause the castle to be surrendered or sold. For more history, visit the Malbork Castle Museum website.

We started our day by stopping by a post office and mailing our absentee ballots for the U.S. November election. (Vote!) We’d heard bad things about the Polish postal system, that we might have to wait in line for a long time, so we set out early. The rumors were wrong. It didn’t take more than five minutes to buy stamps and send our ballots on their way. That gave us extra time before our train left. We spent it in an Ukrainian Cafe. The “smoking train” was the train before our train.

Admission to the castle included an audio tour that lasted about 3 hours. It was informative and enjoyable and offered times to take breaks. We ate apples in one of the courtyards about half-way through. Although I have fatigue issues, I had good energy this day. It was so much fun walking through all the small passageways, over drawbridges, under portcullises, through inner gardens.

The Great Refectory was impressively large. The holes on the floor allowed hot air from fires below to heat upper rooms.

Parts of the castle were destroyed during WWII and then reconstructed with great care. An exhibit explained in great detail with many photographs and plans of how the reconstruction took place. Other areas in the castle included museum-type exhibitions on amber, weapons and armory, tapestry and sashes, famous guests of the castle, and more.

After all that walking, we were exhausted. Malbork has an easy self-guided tour of its Old Town, which we we too tired to explore. As we still had a couple of hours before our return train, we found a nice restaurant in town, Panorama, at the top of a sort of vertical mall. It had a view of the castle and town, and because it was about 2:30, we had the place to ourselves. A great way to end our visit.

Krakow

We took a short trip to Krakow. Short because it was only 2 days. We bought inexpensive tickets, so the actual train ride from Gdansk was 8 hours and went through Warsaw. I enjoyed watching the countryside fly by. Poland looks a lot like Wisconsin, so it is easy to see why so many Poles settled in Wisconsin. Here’s a little map of Poland to show our route:

We stayed at the Atlantis Hostel a great location, walking distance from the train station, the old town square, Jagiellonian University, and the Jewish quarter. We rented a private room with bath at the hostel, which was inexpensive and afforded us a beautiful view of a garden and the city. We got that view because we were on the 4th floor (5th to an American), and there wasn’t an elevator. It’s a good thing we didn’t have a lot of luggage!

Having arrived in the evening, we went out the next morning to explore. Andy had downloaded an audio tour to his phone using the Voicemap app. We each put an earbud in an ear and held hands (so as not to wander too far from each other and pull out the earbuds) and started our tour at the Old Town Square. This was a perfect way for me to do a tour. I have fatigue issues, so with a live tour guide, I’d feel pushed to keep going with the group, even when I was worn out. The audio tour can be paused so I can rest. It can also be paused if you want to spend more time in an area. The Voicemap uses the GPS on your phone, so it knows where you are and presents the appropriate tour information at the right time. I recommend it!

I won’t pretend to remember all the details of the city and tour. At the top of a tower on St. Mary’s Cathedral in the Old Town Square, a trumpeter plays every hour on the a hour. You can read the history and legends about the trumpeter and the song, as well as a reference to Newbery Award-winning children’s novel The Trumpeter of Krakow. I read it as a child and need a re-read. St. Mary’s has two towers and faces the main square. Here is one of the towers from a side street. I snapped the picture quickly when the trumpeter began his song.

One of St. Mary’s Cathedral towers where the trumpeter plays. Krakow, Poland

Again, I’m no historian, but I learned that one of the reasons Krakow is so beautiful is that its buildings weren’t destroyed by war. In 1939, when Germany was invading Poland, the leader of Krakow realized the town could not protect itself against the German armies and surrendered before an attack began, in an attempt to save its citizens and buildings. From Jagiellonian University’s website:

During the Second World War, on 6th November 1939, Nazi German authorities deceived nearly 180 scholars and staff members of the Jagiellonian University into gathering in Collegium Novum, then brutally arrested and deported them to concentration camps, where several of them have met their death. Another group of scholars, captured as military officers by the Soviets (who invaded Poland on 17 September 1939), was executed by the order of Joseph Stalin in Katyn (1940). The Nazi Germans closed the University. As a result, clandestine education commenced in 1942 for approximately 800 students. One of them was Karol Wojtyła, who later became pope John Paul II.

https://en.uj.edu.pl/en_GB/about-university/history

There is a courtyard at the university that has signs about this moment in history as well as other things the university is famous for, such as the vacuum sphere. We also found a park bench where Andy was able to discuss math with Stefan Banach and Otton Nikodym.

We climbed up to the city’s castle and learned things I no longer remember. There is a legend about a dragon and a cool statue. Here are the pictures I took about that part of the tour:

After walking around all morning in a drizzly rain, we stopped for lunch at a kind of touristy pierogie place, but the soup was warm and delicious.

By the time we climbed the many steps to our room, we were exhausted. I didn’t think I’d want to go out again, but the clouds cleared and the day was beautiful, so we decided to sit outside at a cafe or bar and have a drink. We ended up, accidentally, in the Jewish quarter which had good signage for doing a self-tour, so that’s what we did. I don’t have any good pictures because I’m terrible at remembering to take pictures.

The next day our train for Warsaw left in the afternoon. Because I was so worn out, we decided to just walk along the Vistula River and hunt for geocaches. (See Andy’s post about geocaching for more info.) It was a nice, low-key way to spend our last morning in Krakow. Here are some pictures of that excursion:

The final, weird and funny, part of our trip to Krakow was all the men in kilts. When you think about Krakow, you don’t think about “men in kilts.” It seems that on the evening we left Krakow, the Scottish national football team was playing Ukraine in Krakow. Andy and I discussed how interesting it is that we, as Americans, try to hide our nationality when we travel. We want to fit in. It’s obviously the opposite for these Scotsmen. Everywhere they walked in Krakow, they were basically shouting, “Scotsman here! Scotsman here!”