Travel to Poland: Toruń for gingerbread, Copernicus and memories
Wanda Hennig blogs about her month-long ‘roots’ trip to Poland.
Positively Poland: Days Seven and Eight
A version of this article first appeared in the Sunday Tribune travel section.
Toruń, on the Vistula River, is famous for its Gothic buildings, for being the birthplace of astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus and for having more watering holes per capita than any other Polish city, according to a friend who studied there (at the city’s Nicolaus Copernicus University) and spent a goodly time trying them out.
“And have you eaten the gingerbread?” she asked on Facebook when she saw I had made a stop in Toruń, for a couple of days — which turned out to be far too short a time.
“Time in Toruń is for sightseeing beautiful Gothic old town, inter alia Old Town square with town hall, the cathedral, house of Nicolaus Copernicus (and yes, they have a beer named for him), Vistula boulevards and Teutonic Castle,” our guide has noted on our itinerary.
We will in fact have two nights here.
This being a “roots” trip in that we all have Polish ancestry and back-stories, we will have tea the first afternoon with our guide’s uncle whose dad was a fatality of the 1940 Katyn massacre. The elderly man we visit lived through to adulthood hoping his father, a Polish officer who disappeared in the early days of WWll — among an estimated 22,000 captured then secretly executed by the Soviets — would come home one day.
He and his wife were subsequently among the first group of Poles to visit the Katyn war cemetery when it was opened in Russian in 2000. On an afternoon where angst was tempered by warmth and hospitality, our host cum informal historian told us stories and showed us a grainy video of their memorial trip while his wife poured us tea and more tea and brought out yet more Polish cakes.
Unlike many other historic cities in Poland, Toruń, which is about 200km by road west of Warsaw, escaped substantial physical destruction in World War II.
Most notably, left intact was the Old Town, where all important architectural monuments are originals. (Warsaw, of course, was flattened and had to be totally reconstructed. The Teutonic castle in Toruń was flattened: but that was back in 1454 by the local population of the time who didn’t want the Teutonic garrison there.)
I learned within minutes of arriving and strolling across to the tourist info center from one of the many outdoor cafes that line the central square of the medieval “old town” that the city was designated a Unesco World Heritage Site in in 1997 (exactly 10 years before it was named one of the Seven Wonders of Poland) and that gingerbread is one of their claims to fame.
All things gingerbread
They have gingerbread shops, gingerbread demonstrations and even a gingerbread museum.
Back to the present and the fact that Poland is busy making culinary travel an art form — check out the Poland Culinary Vacations website if you want to join a group to check this out for yourself — we managed to fit in just one “Top 100” Polish restaurant — the Szeroka 9 — and not nearly enough Wyborowa (the vodka apparently best-liked by locals). For lunch at Szeroka 9 (check them out on Facebook) one of our group had a fish soup that was among the most gorgeously presented I’ve seen. Also a pretty Caesar salad he said was excellent.
My two double cappuccinos did the trick after having brekker at our hotel and knowing there would be dinner.
In fact, a late dinner — at Toruń’s Gessler restaurant where the meat-eater among us had the deer loin, I had the blintz with wild mushrooms, and the vegetarian in our group had the spinach and feta crepe. Both of them ordered the meringue dessert — that I ate the most of.
Given that it seemed gingerbread had to be on the agenda, the next morning I found myself joining a group of schoolchildren on the 11am tour — a tour that would be in Polish, but they’d give me some instant translations given that I’d be on the road by the English one at 4pm. (They run tours on the hours, the last one at 4pm.)
Carolina Sarmow, who introduced herself as “The Witch”, gathered her group of young bakers around a table where, after they were told to put their hands on their hearts to swear an oath — which included keeping gingerbread utensils clean and not nibbling on the dough — introduced us all to said ingredients, including the dough with its rice and wheat flour and a liberal dose of honey.
You have to smile
I am not excused from hands-on task, despite notebook and camera. “You must,” Witch Carolina declares. “And if you want the gingerbread to be sweet, you have to smile all the time you’re making it.” Well, okay!
Bartholemu Krol introduces himself as the Master of the gingerbread. He’s in charge of the “living” museum, which means they’re bringing alive the processes and traditions that started in the city in the 14th century and peaked in 15th century Toruń.
“It wasn’t that we were the first to make gingerbread,” he says. “It dates back to the early Egyptians. But it was then that it became popular in Europe. Toruń, being on the Vistula, had good access to spices and there must have been someone with a keen marketing sense because politicians were encouraged to take Toruń gingerbread, often decorative more than edible, as gifts when they traveled.”
So it was that this Polish city’s gingerbread became famous not only in Toruń but around the world.
Before I leave I select several packages of gingerbread from the museum’s store. These are made in the small commercial factory upstairs, and continue on my journey around the city — munching and in search of a coffee shop. See more on Toruń’s Gingerbread Museum on their website.