From our campsite, Camping Browarny, set in the grounds of Karpiński Manor, it was a swift yet energetic walk into Sandomierz old town, up a steep flight of more than one-hundred stone stairs.
The city is a medieval delight. Built on seven hills, it is sometimes known as ‘Poland’s little Rome’.
To see the sights without crowds, we went in early for breakfast. As we stepped into the Rynek (market square), Mark and I exclaimed in unison,
The 14th Century red brick Town Hall dominated the scene. It had a stunning crenelated attic (a decorative low wall around the rooftop) and an impressive white clock tower with a shapely Verdigris top. Characterful Baroque buildings bordered the square. Many were street cafés with sunshades and umbrellas, which tempted us in from the early morning sunshine.
Mark urged me to pick one, so I chose 2 Okna.
“Based on the music, I wouldn’t have stopped here,” Mark opined, referring to the strangulated modern jazz that accompanied our croissant and scrambled eggs. “But the coffee is one of the best of the trip!”
Halfway through breakfast, a selection of whingeing children joined us at the next table. They made the modern jazz sound harmonious and soothing.
As we hastily paid up, the waiter said,
“Your dogs are very well behaved!”
I gave him a wan smile. If they had barked once, I’m sure we would have got complaints, but everyone seems to tolerate rowdy offspring.
In most historic cities we’d visited so far, gracious horsedrawn carriages conveyed tourists. Perhaps because of the hills, Sandomierz boasted an eclectic selection of electric cars, whose retro shapes and rainbow colours were straight from Wacky Races. Each was piloted by its very own Penelope Pitstop.
At two minutes to ten, the Tourist Office kicked me out,
“We don’t open until 10am.”
“It’s two-minutes-to, and the door was open. I only want a map.”
“You must wait outside.”
Two minutes and thirty seconds later, map in hand, Mark and I embarked on a lovely meander through the steep cobbled streets to admire the 120 historic buildings within the old town. Sandomierz was once a royal municipality on a par with Kraków and Wrocław. On a bluff above the confluence of the Vistula and San rivers, it was a staging post on important trade routes. Unfortunately, it seems to be the Unlucky Alf of Polish cities.
In the early medieval period, the Mongols, Tatars and Lithuanians repeatedly sacked and burned down its wooden buildings. In the 14th Century, Casimir the Great founded the basis of today’s Sandomierz in stone, although Poland’s turbulent history eventually crushed its splendour and prosperity.
Hot on the heels of the invasion known as the Swedish Deluge in 1655 came a Hungarian incursion, then The Plague. Partition and annexation of the country followed the Great Fire in 1757. As a frontier town, Sandomierz lost its administrative importance and so its fortunes waned. WWI ravaged the city, although when Poland regained its independence, the authorities earmarked Sandomierz as the capital of the proposed Central Industrial Region. However, the onset of WWII halted this renaissance for good.
Our wanderings through this blissful backwater took us to cathedral hill, where the 14th century Gothic basilica is famed for its Byzantine murals.
Opposite the cathedral, the castle sits atop its own summit, which has been home to a stronghold since the 10th century. Casimir The Great built the stone fortress, which was much altered over the years. The biggest change came in 1656 when the retreating Swedes blew it up, leaving nothing standing but the west wing. The building limped on as a prison until 1959, but most of what’s there today is a restoration that took place between the 1960s and 1980s.
One of the more unusual features of Sandomierz is what lies beneath. Go underground and you find a multi-storey labyrinth of subterranean passages. These were used by merchants as storage cellars, and by the population as a refuge in times of war. Legend mentions three tunnels which led from the castle, although these have never been found. In keeping with the Unlucky Alf theme, the vaults caused many buildings in the town to collapse.
I do love an enigmatic underground. There is a tourist route through a 400m section, but I was conscious of crowding in close confines. A flare up of Coronavirus in Lower Silesia had hit the headlines. Although it was some distance away, it underlined the need for caution. In any case, once they finally let me in, the Tourist Information Officer barked at me,
“Underground tours are Polish language only and no dogs allowed.”
Near the 30m high Opatów Gate, one of the few remaining parts of Casimir’s old fortifications, Mark and I spotted a nice-looking restaurant with an outdoor terrace. We strolled back in the evening, but every table was reserved.
Randomly, we selected a pavement café in the square. As we sat down, we asked for a beer, which was not forthcoming. After ten minutes or so, a waitress shoved a menu at us. In common with so many tourist traps, the serving staff consider their contract fulfilled by turning up for work. Anything else is an imposition delivered with surly resentment.
After a further quarter of an hour, nothing had happened, other than repeated visits from a monster child intent on aggravating The Fab Four.
Despite the language barrier, we made it very clear we wanted him to get lost, but he remained undeterred. His parents were oblivious. Like everyone else, they were glued to their mobile phones. Perhaps they were relieved at the peace, now that we were providing both childcare and entertainment. I wondered if their family tree led to the Devil Children of Łańcut, who took over from the Devil and Devil Woman (their parents) who terrorised everyone at our previous destination.
It seemed unfair to admonish the dogs for barking when they were being provoked. The Devil Child of Sandomierz prodded at Lani and distressed her to the point that she growled and snapped towards him. Later, she grumbled at a child who bent down to stroke her in the square. This is something she has never done, and certainly not behaviour we want to encourage. One of the joys of The Fab Four is that we can take them anywhere to meet anyone and not worry.
Mark explained to the waitress why we were leaving. It was hard to pin down the level of disinterest, but on a scale of couldn’t give a … to couldn’t give a flying … I think she was marginally less troubled at losing a customer. At least it saved her from having to serve.
By now, 2 Okna was full, so we settled on a wooden deck outside a traditional Polish fast-food place. The picnic tables were laid out like an American Diner, with a corridor down the middle. Beer arrived within our fifteen-minute tolerance span, and the burgery-things-with-chips were tasty. The buzz of bonhomie in the square accompanied dinner, while a soft peachy sunset blushed across the Town Hall.
Ordering a second drink proved a challenge, but we gave up instantly when another flock of horror children joined us. Six parents squidged their vast bulk into the bench seats directly opposite us, ordered a lake of alcohol, and abandoned their offspring to go feral. The little cherubs amused the entire restaurant with a thorough exploration of the acoustic effects achievable by stamping up and down past every table, while yelling and screaming.
Since we’d finished our beer and found ourselves in the fortunate position of being unable to get another, we left.
When you’ve toured in France and Italy, where youngsters have manners and dine out like mini-adults, it’s a shock to encounter juveniles doing a wall of death around a restaurant. As we wandered back, Mark observed,
“The only kids as badly behaved as the Polish are the British!”
Ah. A small reminder of home!
We were sanguine and agreed; it was mostly a nice evening, spoiled by swarms of youths and a few mosquitos.
Unfortunately, Sandomierz is losing its ‘hidden gem’ status. It’s unsurprising that a destination a couple of hours from Kraków and Lublin is gaining popularity, particularly with the pandemic-induced travel bans and trend towards staycations. The city is also on the radar as the location for a long-running Polish TV detective series, Ojciec Mateusz – Father Matthew.
There was plenty to see and do in the area. Góry Pieprzowe – The Pepper Hills promised panoramic views over ‘little Rome’ and its rivers. Wąwóz Królowej Jadwigi – Queen Jadwig’s Ravine is a gulley carved by rainwater and lined with tree roots. Sandomierz is also a rising star of Poland’s winemaking scene. Further afield, a few people had recommended the two-hour drive to Zamość, the ‘Polish Pearl of the Renaissance’, set in beautiful unspoilt nature.
Crowded places in the height of tourist season are never our favourite. Between the bugs, kids, coronavirus on our tail and the number of unscheduled stops we’d already made, we decided to push on.
Sandomierz is not a working town and is all a bit Disney, but if you can miss the crowds (and the Devil Children!) it’s well worth a visit.
Join us next time as we go in search of Cow Flan.