Word of mouth is a great way to learn about new places to go -- particularly places "off the beaten path," as they say. As an example, I learned about Trencin, Slovakia by asking the morning desk clerk in my Bratislava hotel, "Where should I go?" The result was my finding one of my favorite small town locations among all my travels.
Well, history has a way of repeating itself. Upon a similar inquiry to folks in Warsaw, I was told that the southeast Pomeranian city of Toruń was a must-see spot. I boarded an early-morning train in Warsaw and found it packed -- and nearly all of them got off with me at this pleasant little city. Yes, the Poles were right, Toruń is a wonderful place, well worth your attention if you have a day to spare in Poland.
Like Warsaw, Toruń sits on the Vistula River. But unlike Warsaw, it survived the wars of the 20th century largely intact, and its compact but history-rich old city provides an umblemished view of Poland's medieval past.
The best bet for a visitor is to head directly to the Tourist Information Center and procure its "Plan Centrum," the guide to the old city. It is one of the best downtown maps I've encountered -- easy to read and written in multiple languanges (Polish, German, English). The Center is located in the main square, in the ground floor of the Old Town Hall. I found that the best circuit to follow is to go around the outside first, following the river, then go through the city street by street once the people have fully migrated inside.
The value of starting at the river is the ability to marvel at the red brick city wall. The city wall and its five riverside gates are well preserved. The Monastery Gate, in the second photo, sits toward the town square. This one is the most picturesque. At the eastern end is the Bridge Gate which leads to the Burgher's Court and the ruins of a medieval Teutonic Castle. The Burgher's Court looks like a huge moat that cuts toward the interior of the city, while the Teutonic Castle ruins is a mountain of red-brick rubble. However, the surrounding architecture, with its many surviving towers and arches,
The city wall continues up river to a major roadway (Warszawska Road) leading back inland, and from here you will encounter several churches, all red brick. Some of these churches, like the Garrison Church that sits outside the old city perimeter, look practically brand new. But the one you must visit is St. John's Cathedral, just inside the perimeter on Szpitalna Road adjacent to the New Market Square (Rynek Nowomiejski).
St. John's Cathedral shows a lot of wear and tear, but has a special charm. While the other churches have plain red-brick facades, St. John's has a row of concrete trim, upon which is painted Latin verse. The interior of St. John's is very colorful, but not heavily renovated -- the faded frescoes look original (what's left of them, that is).
The inland perimeter contains more modern structures, such as an Italian-style opera house, but the older architecture returns as you reach the University to the northwest. There are several large round lookout towers that appear to have been consumed by the city, just another odd building among residences. Then, completing the circuit, you will reach the very beautiful and ornate white entrance known as Caesar's Arch. This arch leads you down the main street toward the City Market Square, shown in the third photo.
The main street (a combination of several 'streets' -- Różana, Szeroka, and Król. Jadwigi) contains most of the shopping and restaurants, and Toruń has plenty of both to offer, both budget and sophisticated.
There are several sights within the city interior as well. The fourth photo shows the Artus House (or Dwór Artusa), while the various side streets have a number of 'palaces'. Mind you, a 'palace' in this town is nothing like the capital-P Palaces you'll see in Germany, these are just very fancy houses -- but the decor is still worth seeking out. The entire city interior can be reasonably combed in a couple of hours, and I do suggest combing all of it if you can. Each street has something worthwhile on it.
If you decide not to comb the whole city, then you must ensure you save time to visit the Copernicus House, shown in the final photo. Yes, indeed, this was the house that the famous medieval scientists grew up in. This House is now a museum that recreates life in 16th Century Poland and recounts all of Copernicus' achievements as a scientist (especially his run-ins with the Catholic Church about his controversial refutation of the geocentric universe).
You will find some references to Copernicus throughout the town, but even more prevalent are the references to zodiac symbols. For example, one traffic circle in Toruń bears a spherical sculpture upon which the twelve symbols are engraved. Souvenirs with zodiac symbols are common (as are those with Copernican likenesses).
Quite honestly, once you've seen the old city, you've seen it all. There is not much to see elsewhere, so after your walkabout, I'd suggest heading riverside and relaxing among the various floating cafes or taking a tour boat for a couple hour cruise on the Vistula.
Toruń wears its age well. Walking through the old city made me feel like I was walking through Polish history. And the hundreds upon hundreds of Poles accompanying me definitely indicated that Toruń was the place to go if one wanted to go where the locals went.
Trip taken 4-5 July 2002 -- Page last updated 01 September 2006 -- (C) 2002 Tom Galvin