It’s not the sights that make Wschowa so special, it’s the atmosphere
How unusual – just recently I found myself travelling not for work but for pleasure, something that has come to mean retreating to ‘my happy place’ with a bag of books and the phone turned to mute.
Better known as the Palace at Osowa Sień, I’ve written at length about this fairy tale treasure several times before, but what I’ve yet to ever really expand on is the wider region that compliments it so well.
You see, you could easily never leave the palace and still feel utterly rewarded, but doing so would overlook what I’ve come to term as “the greatest town you’ve definitely never heard of”.
Filling that role, I present Wschowa. A town of 14,000 habitants, find it snuck west of Leszno where it sits largely forgotten by the rest of the nation.
This wasn’t always the case. First mentioned in a papal letter by Pope Innocent II in 1136, for centuries it often found itself the subject of a military version of pass-the-parcel. Set in territory traditionally disputed between the Poles and Germans, for four centuries it featured as part of the Kingdom of Poland before being absorbed into Prussia as a consequence of the Second Partition.
Going under the name of Fraustadt, it remained German even after the Treaty of Versailles and only returned to Polish rule when the borders were redrawn after the Nazi implosion.
As potted as this history is, it does little to suggest Wschowa’s relevance to Polish history: in the 17th century the country’s first dye factory was founded here by an Italian, whilst in the 18th century it was visited by King Augustus II and his successor Augustus III – in fact, the royal presence was so frequent that some took to referring to the town as “the unofficial capital of Poland”.
In later years, the immediate vicinity played another cameo in Polish history when it became the centre of Poland’s response to the 1939 invasion. Counter-attacking the Wehrmacht, Polish units fired upon Fraustadt and even captured the town of Geyersdorf (today, Dębowa Łęka).
Though ultimately their efforts were in vein, this pyrrhic victory demonstrated that the Nazi war machine was not invincible.
Anyhow, to the present day, and I found myself rediscovering Wschowa a couple of weeks ago when I broke off from my palatial idyll to head into the town for a football match – the last of the local side’s season and a must-win fixture if they were to earn promotion.
Worried I was running late for kick-off, it transpired I was actually 24-hours early. Arriving to the stadium (and I use that term loosely, it’s actually more of strip of cracked seats staring onto a balding patch of grass), I realized my mistake. Gargh.
But was this a bad thing? Not really, for it offered the opportunity to walk back into the centre and potter around this unsung little town. And what a town it is.
Untouched by mainstream tourism, a forewarning of its oddities lie just outside the town’s limits: sitting proudly on a plinth, find a hefty concrete statue of a bull. Occupying a slab that once supported a statue of Otto von Bismarck, he was removed after the war with the vacated gap finally filled in 1982 courtesy of the town’s tribute to a breeding prototype that had been introduced to the area a few years before.
And from there Wschowa’s captivating little treasures just continue to stack up: established in the 17th century by some dude called Waleriusz Herberger, the evangelical cemetery, for example, was among the first in Europe to be established outside the city walls and today feels splendidly spooky with its Neo Gothic details, mossy tombstones and vine encrusted walls.
Further on, the Franciscan monastery complex is a joy of Catholic bling and touts 18th century polychromes and a faithful copy of the Rubens painting ‘The Descent from the Cross’. Staggering as this overload of Baroque is, it is the colonnades outside, though, that are the highlight: after all, where else will you find a relief depicting motorcycling disciples?
Generously sprinkled with jutting church steeples, the skyline does much to indicate a town with a rich religious heritage, and that much is underscored by a town centre infilled with attractive ecclesiastical landmarks: a Jesuit college set on a curling cobbled alley and a parish church with a soaring 68-metre tower.
But for all that, if there is a defining feature of the town then it is a 19th century Neo Romanesque town hall that could easily be mistaken for a prissy palace. A stunning wonder, it overshadows the nearby castle (currently for sale for a cool PLN 2.8 mill) and is ably complimented by the baroque tenement houses that fringe the main square.
It’s in these you find the town’s museum, and that in itself is worth a little detour: in here, pad around chambers filled with ceramics produced in Delft and Meissen, weaponry from the workshop of Julius Radck, coins minted locally during the reign of Władysław Jagiełło and an array of portraits of po-faced aristocracy as well as the Kings that once stayed in the castle down the road.
Fundamentally though it is not these sights that make Wschowa so special, but its atmosphere. Lacking the human statues and bongo-playing buskers that are found in more high-profile little towns, you walk unmolested by the modern world down quiet little streets flanked by pre-war buildings many of whom still bear the faded traces of German lettering.
So sedate is it all, that perhaps the biggest source of noise is the sound of flapping laundry.
Of course, that is not to say that the town is completely devoid of life – for proof, consider it compulsory to visit Trzydzieści Trzy, a pokey pub hidden behind a spectacular tumble of ivy.
A place of screechy benches and randomized fittings (fake cobwebs, antlers, you name it), you arrive to drink through Polish craft beers whilst engaging in boozy debates with accidental tourists and local barflies. Frankly, it’s the sort of quirky little bar that every town needs.