Excerpt from the new book about visiting Poland and The Baltics.
The city of Torun lies on the Vistula River in northern Poland. The Old Town sustained little damage during World War II and is almost all original. The city was the birthplace of the great astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus, the first man in modern times to formulate the model of a heliocentric universe, presented in his book De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres), published just before his death in 1543.
I travelled to Torun on the train from Gdansk. The station is on the opposite side of the river from the town. I turned right out of the station and followed the tree-lined footpath by the road until I saw the bridge heading over the Vistula with the old town nestled within its own walls to the right. The hotel Petite Fleur was easy to find and close to the Main Square. This hotel has a fabulous breakfast buffet – salmon, rollmop herring, real cheeses, fruit, yoghourt, cereal, eggs, jams, preserves, honey – and I didn’t need any lunch.
Torun came under the influence of the Teutonic knights in 1233. They built the walls and the castle. The port flourished to the extent that Torun joined the Hanseatic League in the 1280s. The Thirteen Years War was concluded by the Treaty of Torun which returned large parts of the country to Poland in 1466. 300 years of prosperity ended with the wars with Sweden and Torun became part of Prussia in 1793 and then part of Germany until 1920 when at last Torun became part of Poland again.
I liked the statues in Torun. There’s one of a bronze donkey on the Rynek, which is very popular with the people passing through the area and the statue is well polished as a result of constant contact with visitor’s clothes. The donkey affords good views of the statue of Copernicus and the Town Hall. What people perhaps don’t appreciate is the sinister history of the donkey, which replaced a wooden one that people were tied to in the Middle Ages to be flogged as punishment for misdemeanours.
Also on Rynek is the frog fountain paying homage to a Pied Piper type story. The frogs are all looking at a young man called Janko Muzykant playing a fiddle. The tale is that a witch once came to Torun and was not welcomed in a nice enough way, so she inflicted a plague of frogs of biblical proportions on the town. The mayor offered a bag of gold and the hand of his daughter in marriage to the first person who could rid his town of the frogs.
A peasant boy came forward and played such a mellifluous tune on his fiddle that the frogs were enchanted following him as he headed into the woods, thus saving the town. What is interesting is how this fountain and the folk story have been interwoven with a novella Janko Muzykant by Polish writer and winner of 1905 Nobel Prize in Literature, Henryk Sienkiewicz, first published in the Kurier Warszawski in 1879.
This story focuses on the unfair treatment of a child, Janko, a peasant child, who becomes fascinated by the sounds of fiddles from a nearby manor house. He tries to sneak into the manor to touch them, but he is captured, sentenced to a whipping and dies from his injuries. This rather sad story of a peasant boy dying from a thrashing imposed by the authorities contrasts sharply with the hero of the folktale who becomes the saviour of a whole town.
On the northern side of the main square at ul Chelminska there’s a statue of the comic-strip dog Filuś with his owner Professor Filutek’s umbrella leaning against a lamppost. This comic strip was created by Zbigniew Lengren a Polish cartoonist and illustrator. He was awarded the “Order of Smile” an international award given by children to adults distinguished in their love, care, and aid for children. The idea of the Order of the Smile was established in 1968 by the Polish magazine Kurier Polski. In 1979 the Secretary-General of the United Nations Kurt Waldheim officially recognized the Order of the Smile as an international ‘order’. You will not be too surprised to read that JK Rowling has also been recognised by the Order of Smile.
Professor Filutek was Lengren’s most famous creation. The professor appeared once a week on the last page of Przekrój magazine, together with his dog Filuś, for over 50 years, a record run in Polish comics. Lengren was a Fine Arts student of the Nicolaus Copernicus University in Torun, which is why I believe the charming Filuś statue is found in the town.
Heading due north be sure not to miss the light-green Explorer’s House dedicated to the travels of Tony Halik including the suitcases and bags he took on his rambles around the world and some of the items he brought back, not all of which belonged to him. Other Polish explorers are covered too as well as some famous international explorers of previous centuries. Halik died in 1998 and his wife, Elżbieta Dzikowska, continued the family tradition of visiting various parts of the planet. Further along this same road are some brick buildings of the Copernicus University of Torun.
To the north of the medieval town is the Ethnographic Museum with its enthusiastic guides who were able to answer all my questions in English. The exhibits range from a roadside shrine of St John Nepomuk, to farm houses, peat coal presses, houseboats, ovens, and shepherd shelters. There is a complete watermill and windmill. This is a peaceful place where the birds tweet in the trees casting dappled light onto most of the buildings.
Torun is known throughout Poland as the place to buy gingerbread. Just to prove the importance of the sweet in the city, there are two museums dedicated to the stuff both of them in former gingerbread factories. The museum in the town is part of the Torun Regional Museums system whereas the other is a more commercial affair. I can also recommend the gingerbread beer brewed on the premises at Jan Olbracht.
The other highlights of Torun include the museum to Copernicus in the house where he might have been born, depending on whom you believe. There are some eclectic Oriental artefacts in the House under the Star on the main square. Slightly to the east of the medieval town is the castle of the Teutonic Knights, which was dismantled by the town’s people in 1454 presumably when the knights were away otherwise surely they would have decided to stop them? I would recommend visitors spend time admiring the Cathedral of St John the Baptist and St John the Evangelist. The clock on the south side has a big dent above the VIII caused by a Swedish cannonball in 1703. Inside the soaring arches are truly impressive as is the monochrome decoration.