Restored and revived, Pałac Wąsowo promises a stay to remember
Have you heard of Wąsowo? I’ll forgive you if you haven’t. This time last month, neither had I, but fast-track to the present and you’ll find me already mulling a near instant return.
As has now become the norm, I was in this neck of the woods for a football match – this time around, one featuring a small town team by the name of Sokół Pniewy.
Having once miraculously reached the top-flight of Polish football, the team’s varied (mis)fortunes had since seen the club plummet down the league ladders and into soccer’s darkest dungeon.
All that remained of their fleeting moment of glory was a wacky triple-tiered stand built from cobwebs and rust. As a stadium nerd, I simply had to visit.
But where on earth would I stay? It was this conundrum that led me to the discovery of nearby Wąsowo.
Allegedly derived from the word for moustache (which alone, is surely reason enough to pay a visit?), the village was founded 700-years back and a century later the nobility moved in.
Subsequently home to a revolving roster of magnates such as the Rogowskis, Zakrzewskis, Raczyńskis and Sczanieckis, it would, however, not be until the 19th century that the commune would be landed with its defining feature: a Neo Gothic palace of striking dimensions.
With many of Poland’s traditional powerbrokers bankrupted, exiled or imprisoned as a consequence of the partitions and the rebellions that subsequently followed, a Berlin banker by the name of Richard von Hardt bought the estate from Ludwik Lewinka at a rock-bottom price.
Fuelled by the trends of the time, he commissioned the construction of a red brick palace on the grounds that he’d purchased. Completed in 1872, Hardt enjoyed the results for just over quarter of a century before bequeathing it to his son, Friedrich.
Motivated by the forthcoming visit of Kaiser Wilhelm II, an architect by the name of Gustav Erdmann was drafted in to expand the residence in 1900 and it was he that endowed it with its signature feature: a soaring turret embellished with intricate gargoyles of fantastical beasts.
Of course, the palace would not stay forever German. With WWII reaching its apocalyptic climax, its final German owner, a retired colonel by the name of Richard von Hardt, died in the final weeks of the conflict.
Subject to differing accounts, some claim he died leading a Volkssturm unit into Soviet fire, others that he simply shot himself in the palace the moment Red Army troops entered his lifelong home.
Thereafter turned over to the Polish state, the palace in Wąsowo functioned as the site of a state farm before being sold in 1995 to a private investor.
All good from there, you’d assume. Not so. In 2011 a huge fire ripped through the building damaging approximately 70 percent of its mass. Left a charred skeleton, at this point, some would have given up entirely, so it’s a credit to the owners that this wasn’t considered.
Restored and revived, today it functions anew as a hotel that promises a stay to remember.
Driving in, it is hard not to be wowed. Emerging from autumn’s milky mists, the palace sits clothed in a cape of cool, still shadows. Brooding silently, it could have come from the imagination of Lovecraft or Poe.
Inside, meanwhile, you’d never have guessed that the restoration was so recent. Filled with creaks and musty smells, you explore its deepest recesses with a sense of fascinated foreboding as if expecting to see the ghost of Colonel Hardt himself.
True, having stayed in zillions of palaces, this one does not fulfil its quite copious potential. Rooms are gloomy, the fittings wobbly and the bathrooms aromatic in a non-pleasing way.
But the atmosphere, oooh, that’s delicious.
Creeping over squeaking floorboards, I pass under the gazed of hunted animals nailed, their heads long nailed to decorative plinths; in the distance, an unseen clock ticks and chimes. I feel like I’ve assumed a starring role in a Victorian horror – and I do not mean that negatively for that’s a feeling I love.
I love, also, the food – a lavish steak served up in a dining room humming with activity. Less welcome, though, is a piano bafflingly positioned right outside my room – in a few hours, those that take turns to hammer its keys will become the repeated subject of my mounting irritation.
Waking, my mood lifts. It’s an exquisite day of brilliant blue skies – ready to explore, I do so with vigour.
First, the English-style park that fringes the palace. Past braying horses and marching files of geese, I circle an inky black lake whose placid waters can be crossed via a humpbacked bridge.
It’s achingly romantic, and not even the startling discovery of an animal skull can throw me off my stride. Were I artistically inclined, I’d set up an easel and not move for months.
But it’s not just the palace and its grounds that tick the picturesque. The village too, isn’t short of sights, and seen in October’s hazy half-light there’s much to be said about ulica Lipowa.
Lined with chestnut trees and 19th century cottages and cross-beamed villas, this leafy, cobbled street is the very definition of backwater bliss.
Not everything, mind you, stands frozen in time. If the palace feels a throwback, then the neighbouring Folwark Wąsowo is anything but. The work of a couple of Poznan-based architects, this former farmstead has been reinvented as a beautiful refuge espousing the philosophies on which ‘slow travel’ is based.
Inside converted barns and stables, find rustic but modern lodgings that have been thoughtfully appointed, not to mention a restaurant of note featuring garden-fresh ingredients sourced directly outside.
Unexpectedly vast, it’s a complex whose ambition reflects the passion of its owners – not content with creating a magical little kingdom, plans are afoot to build a craft brewery in the forthcoming years. Hand on heart, I won’t wait for that before heading back here.