Sandomierz, a magical town full of beauty and mystery
As condescending as it may sound, I feel a bit sorry for the Świętokrzyskie region – I’m certain I’m not the only one that often thinks of it as little more than a no-man’s land to be traversed when travelling from Warsaw to Kraków and back again.
With next to zilch to look at from the train window, it whizzes by in a blur of anonymous flat fields that glimmer yellow in the sun. Life does not exist.
For years, I allowed myself to be fooled by this apparent nothingness, with little consideration for what gems might lie beyond: Sandomierz, for instance.
A worthy rival to the more publicised magnificence of Kazimierz Dolny (which sits just ninety minutes up the road), visiting for the first time felt like unearthing a secret little treasure. Touting the kind of timeless quality found in the historic, small towns of Central Eastern Europe, it transpired to be a magical town full of mystery and stories. At first glance, the modern world had barely touched this perfect little bubble.
It wasn’t always that way. In the Middle Ages Sandomierz stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Kraków and Wrocław in terms of its importance and size, and it was on the blessing of a bloke called Bolesław the Wry Mouth that the town gained the title of regional capital.
Positioned on a key trading route, it blossomed and thrived but this strategic importance wasn’t lost on envious invaders – over the following centuries, it found itself persistently bludgeoned by hordes of Tartars, Lithuanians, Swedes and Hungarians. When Poland was partitioned for a third time, Sandomierz sank into an extended period of bleak depression.
For all these knockdowns and bloodied noses, the town made it through and today it is a beauty to explore. Entering via the 14th century Opatów Gate, you step into a pocket-sized Old Town rife with curious odds and ends.
Those prone to hyperbole can sometimes be found calling the town Little Rome, but whilst this is commonly understood to be a reference to the seven hills that Sandomierz is built on, it could just as easily be a nod to the dark subterranean world that lies beneath your sneakers.
Sandomierz, you see, has a fixation with cellars. Back when this was a centre of commerce, merchants looking to safeguard their goods within the sanctuary of the Old Town walls had one choice alone: right below where you’re standing.
For this reason, the town found itself honeycombed with a maze of tunnels and underground chambers – reputedly winding their way all the way under the river that sweeps south of the town, it’s these that are credited with saving the town from Tartar terror.
In accordance with the town’s favourite legend, in 1260 Halina Krępianka selflessly sacrificed herself by fooling the Tartar garrison besieging the town into following her into the blackness of the tunnels. Once inside, the townspeople walled up the entrances thereby rescuing Sandomierz from conquest.
Nowadays, a 470-metre section of these tunnels is open to visitors and stands out as one of the town’s star attractions. Navigating through chambers and routes titled Desperado’s Path and the Corridor of Bachelors, it’s a little creepy and disorienting with its dank, shivery confines presenting macabre details such as an executioner’s block and the occasional skull.
Exiting this shadowy interlude, you emerge into the Rynek half-blinded by the sun – and it’s really quite a sight. Fringed by attractive tenements that once belonged to such figures as the Renaissance composer Mikołaj Gomółka (a.k.a. the King’s flutist and trumpeter) and Łazarczyk the Brewer, these alone make for a good photo op. Principally though, it’s the town hall that steals the show.
Built in the wake of a Lithuanian raid in 1349, its position in the centre of the square makes it the focal point of everything. Built from red brick, and with a white clock tower slapped on its side, it’s as stunning to look at in the summer’s morning haze as it is when illuminated at night.
The modest size of Sandomierz makes it extremely digestible, and having ticked off the Rynek its natural to find yourself ambling to a castle which, after the correct amount of hallucinogens, could easily be mistaken for a miniature Wawel.
Used by the Austrians as a prison for over a century, its exhibitions are of particular value if you enjoy poring over scrolls and silverware and Ducal portraits – for those less culturally inclined, visit if nothing else than for the views of the river.
For many Poles, however, Sandomierz is inexorably linked with Ojciec Mateusz, a fictional TV detective juggling the dual duties of a Catholic priest and a genius sleuth. That the show is set here is no coincidence, for this is a town festooned with ecclesiastical glories.
For example, a 14th century cathedral whose most notable feature is a series of 18th century paintings depicting martyrs being martyred in ingeniously gruesome ways. Allegedly the oldest brick basilica in Poland, Kościół Św. Jakuba is another highlight with points of interest being the saved bones of friars massacred by the Tartars.
This sense of Olde World history follows you relentlessly, and the modest tourist numbers make it all the easier to tune into the past. Come dusk, walk up the Needle’s Eye, a tight, narrow stairwell through which late arrivals to town were once ushered up after the other gates had been bolted. Doing so, you feel yourself treading in the footsteps of sneaky vagabonds and medieval brigands.
And talking of following in someone else’s footsteps, you can follow in Queen Jadwiga’s by exploring a trail she was once fond of using. Fittingly known as Queen Jadwiga’s Ravine, it’s a remarkable forest path carved into the earth by centuries of rainwater.
With the gnarled trees forming a green ceiling overhead, and the earth embankments on each side reaching ten-metres in height, it’s a fairy tale experience that can feel out-of-body: almost like waking up inside a story by the Brothers Grimm. Stunning? Yes it is.
But what point is there in all of this if you return to a hotel that sucks the joy out of life? That’s not a problem in Sandomierz, least not if you’ve booked into the boutique Widnokrąg. Offering the kind of design-forward luxury that the city has long lacked, find a small selection of rooms that emphasize Poland’s lifestyle revolution.
Beautifully appointed, finish the day in the restaurant by taking an unexpected foxtrot through the wines of the region and the local tinctures. A microcosm of Sandomierz itself, disappointments are unheard of.