Visiting Poland, 2002-2004
By Mark Wegierski
Mark Wegierski revives memories of a mostly happier time in East-Central Europe, twenty years ago.
Born in Toronto, Ontario, Canada of Polish immigrant parents, I have had, over the decades, a deep relation with the land of my forebears. Having visited Poland a number of times as a child and adolescent in earlier decades, I returned over four fairly extensive visits from 2002 to 2004.
The places I stayed at during those more recent visits included Ciechocinek, Nieszawa, Torun, Czestochowa, and Grudziadz, among others. I always flew in to Warsaw from Toronto on a direct flight on Polish LOT airlines, which usually takes about nine hours. When one travels in the direction of Torun from Warsaw by car, one normally goes by the Wislostrada (the Vistula Highway). Looking to the west, one can see the various landmarks of Old Warsaw, such as the Royal Castle, the Old Town, and the so-called New Town (dating from the eighteenth century).
During my first trip of the recent time, in May 2002, my relatives travelled to Torun not by the Wislostrada, but by a more circuitous route that led along a two-lane road through various picturesque villages. I still remember the look and aroma of the acacia that bloomed prodigiously by the side of the road.
Ciechocinek lies about 200 kilometers northwest of Warsaw near Torun, the birthplace of Nicolaus Copernicus, in the Kujawy-Pomorze (Kuyavia-Pomerania) region. It is a spa and resort town of about 14,000 permanent residents, known for its unique titration towers – large wooden structures with thick layers of bramble, through which water from nearby salt springs is filtered, producing a healthy microclimate, which approximates that of sea-air. In Ciechocinek, I mostly stayed at a large, elegant spa known as “Pod Tezniami” (By the Titration Towers), which has won awards as one of the best such resorts in Poland.
Nieszawa, which is about 10 kilometers southeast of Ciechocinek, is a picturesque small town of about 2,200 inhabitants, which lies on a few hillsides above the Vistula River. Standing at the top of the hillside, one can see clear across the broad river to the verdant forests on the other side.
Nieszawa has existed on its current site since the fifteenth century, and has a beautiful church dating back to that era, known especially for its original frescoes.
Grudziadz is a town of close to a hundred thousand inhabitants, further north along the Vistula, where I recall attending a funeral in 2004. My father’s eldest sister had passed away. The town dates back to the Early Middle Ages, and contains a variety of architectural styles. It was known as a fortress throughout much of its history.
The funeral ceremony was carried out with full formality. There were extensive prayers by the open coffin in the basement of the church; then a long funeral mass in the church above, to which the closed coffin had been carried; and then the coffin was conveyed by hearse, for interment at the gravesite, in a large historic cemetery in another part of the town, where the son of the deceased also gave a short eulogy. Obviously, the persons attending the funeral travelled in cars, in a quite impressive motorcade. This was followed by the wake or stypa-- which had been arranged at a particularly elegant restaurant in the town.
I also stayed at a few small places to the northeast of Torun, notably a tiny hotel on a lake near Brodnica, and a renovated manor-house itself called Owieczkowo. I had also traversed by car the route from Torun to Bydgoszcz, as well as from Torun to Warsaw, a considerable number of times.
On occasion, I was driven from Torun southwest to Lodz and then to Czestochowa. Some of the places I saw along the way included Piotrkow Trybunalski, which was the seat of Poland’s Royal Tribunal for hundreds of years (hence the second part of the name), and Zarnow, a small town that has a church, the oldest parts of which date back to the tenth century. In one of my most notable trips to Czestochowa, I attended a 60th Wedding Anniversary, including a commemorative ceremony at the famous Jasna Gora monastery, with its glorious image of the Virgin Mary.
Mark Wegierski is a Toronto-based writer and historical researcher. He was born in Toronto of Polish immigrant parents.