Otwock: A living museum, a town generously sprinkled with architectural gems and little hidden treasures
Writing a travel column such as this, there’s an in-built temptation to either hit the big A-list cities or the very furthest points on the Polish map – and because of that, the things on my doorstep are frequently overlooked. Places like Otwock.
Set a stone’s throw south-east of Warsaw, never before had I thought to explore the town and I’m guessing neither have many that live in the capital. And damn right that’s an oversight that demands to be corrected.
True, looking at Trip Advisor pickings seemed slim on the sightseeing front – listed under ‘things to do’ sat a measly-looking rundown of a glum four options: I kid you not, No. 2 was a taxi firm and No. 4 was a church.
Sounds fun, yeah? But despite these unpromising beginnings, what I found was a living museum, a town generously sprinkled with architectural gems and little hidden treasures.
And stop right there, for it’s the architecture that’s the principal attraction.
Commonly referred to as the Świdermajer style, this type of design was originally coined by the painter and architect Michał Elwiro Andriolli, and has served to become the signature of Otwock.
Inspired by both existing trends and those born at the 1873 World Fair in Vienna, it was a look that paid tribute to the wooden architecture of Podhale as well as the aesthetics adorning your traditional Russian dachas, the farms of rural Mazovia, and Austrian Alpine cottages.
Famous for providing illustrations for the first editions of such heavy tomes as Pan Tadeusz and Konrad Wallenrod, Andriolli lived a true life of swashbuckling adventure – imprisoned for anti-Tsarist activities, he was pardoned in 1880 and returned to Poland whereupon he settled by the Świder River that gently burbles along the border of Otwock.
Here he designed not only a house for himself, but also a dozen or so others to which figures such as Władysław Reymont, Julian Tuwim and Janusz Korczak would later head to on holiday.
Noted for their ornate decorations, porches and lace-like exterior patterning, the style of these buildings captured the imagination and a flush of copycat residences bloomed all around.
Mostly, these served as summer homes for Warsaw’s middle class, but many also fulfilled functions as sanatoriums for Poland’s pottering elderly.
In fact, such was its popularity as a spa destination, by the inter-war period Otwock was able to welcome and host 40,000 visitors at a time in a total of two hotels, 40 guesthouses and approximately 1,300 villas and retreats.
Though nothing survives of Andriolli’s own home, others of its ilk have stood the test of time – albeit some better than others.
Often found nestled in the pine forests that characterize the area, many stand in a sorry state of disrepair and yet others as burned-out husks filled with charred, blackened timber and soiled, old mattresses.
Taken on their own, these defiled residences are ripe for adventure and exploration, but they do not tell the whole story of Otwock.
There are some that have been beautifully revived, and on this point there can be no finer example than the Gurewicz sanatorium on Armii Krajowej 8.
Left derelict for over quarter of a century, it’s benefited from a recent facelift involving wheelbarrows of cash.
Completed in 1921, and financed by the Jewish entrepreneur Abram Gurewicz, it became known as ‘the pearl of Otwock’, a luxurious wellness resort that featured verandas for sunbathing, English-style gardens, a tennis court, reading room, and an in-house hairdresser to preen and prune the rich and wealthy.
Later used as a military hospital by the Nazis, and then by the NKVD for the same purposes, it eventually fell into something approaching ruin – regardless, its fairytale charms were not lost on songstress Mela Koteluk who recorded the video of Melodia Ulotna in the grounds of the villa.
Now spectacularly revived, you miss it at your peril – touting a lovely restaurant and a sprawling sun-kissed terrace, here just an afternoon coffee becomes a fantastical pleasure.
Beyond, and that the town is finally in the process of embracing its Świdermajer heritage is evidenced by the flurry of new bus stops that follow this motif.
Of course, there is much more, and for additional visual thrills one should head to the crossroads of Kościelna and Kościuszki. Presenting an abundance of Świdermajer structures, many of these have a lived-in look that feels curiously magnetic.
Clad with cheap rusting signs advertising dog grooming services and television repair, they exude a sense of faded, smalltown magic.
Equally intriguing, no visit should ignore Willa Julia. Commissioned by construction magnate Maurycy Karstens, and finished in 1893, this remarkable landmark remains chiefly noted for a Gothic-style red brick tower left shattered by time.
Serene and slightly ethereal, it wouldn’t be out of place in the works of Lewis Carroll. Endearingly quaint, it’s impossible to imagine bad things happening in Otwock, but yes, they most certainly have – and there’s no prizes for guessing just who was involved.
The German occupation was no less brutal here than it was anywhere else, and it’s on Kościuszki 18 you’ll find the former residence of the head of the local branch of the Kripo (criminal police), SS-Sturmscharfuehrer Walter Schlicht.
During the night of April 12th, 1941, his house was pelted with stones. A local teenager residing at Kościuszki 8, Sławek Lewiński, was identified as the culprit and sent to Auschwitz along with his father in reprisal. Neither survived.
The town’s habitants, meanwhile, were ordered to pay PLN 20,000 as a compensatory gesture. But this was not the only cruelty that Otwock was to suffer.
Jews comprised approximately 55% of the town’s population, and from the outset the occupying Germans made their presence felt through general torments and humiliations: beards were cut, stores looted and synagogues ravaged.
It was to get worse.
On November 4th, 1940, a Ghetto holding 12,000 Jews was established, and many of these were later deported to the gas chambers of Treblinka from the town’s idyllic-looking station.
Closely entwined with the town’s growth and prosperity, the train station – notable for its soaring tower and lavish wooden ceilings – provides silent testimony to these darkest of days.
This pales though in comparison to the abandoned remains of Zofiówka, a sanatorium buried in the forests on the outskirts of town.
Founded in 1908 under the patronage of Zofia Endelman, a Jewish benefactor hailing from nearby Warsaw, it specialized in caring for Jews with both nervous and psychiatric conditions. Embracing state-of-the-art technologies such as electroshock therapy, sources claim that at its inter-war peak up to 1,000 staff were employed in the treatment of 370 patients both young and old.
Under the Germans, it became the only Jewish mental health facility in Nazi-controlled Poland – in essence, a dumping ground for psychiatrically troubled Jews. Sealed off in 1941, those inside endured starvation, overcrowding and next to nothing by way of medicine and heating. The death rate soared.
Liquidated on August 19th, 1942, its patients were shot outside, though evidence suggests scores killed themselves here the night before after being forewarned of their fate.
Next, it became a birth centre for ‘racially pure’ children, as well as a ‘reeducation camp’ for kidnapped Polish children that the Nazis saw as candidates for ‘German-ization’.
When peace came, authorities used it as a tuberculosis hospital, an asylum and a rehab facility for drug users and drinkers.
Later emptied, today it is a hotspot for ghosthunters, urban explorers, teenage drinkers, paintballers and, judging by the graffiti, complete and utter weirdoes in the grip of ungodly possession.
Heavy in its atmosphere, and disorientating with its labyrinthine layout, it’s a place swirling with eerie residual energy – a place that leaves you awestruck and silent. Like Otwock itself, it’s a living history lesson that challenges all the senses with its enigmatic mystery.