Take a plunge into Poland’s best secret – the spellbinding magic of Przemyśl
It wasn’t long back that you found The First News alighting at Tarnów only to be instantly boggled by the beauty of its station.
Singing its praises in high-pitched reverence, readers would have been left in little doubt that standing before them was Poland’s grandest station.
Thinking this, mind you, doesn’t fall far from folly. After all, what can compete against the greatest of them all: Przemyśl.
Completed in 1860 to serve travellers journeying from Kraków to Lviv, find its neo Baroque splendour firmly emphasized by its terracotta tiled floors, gilded stucco details and lamps cast in iron by the Viennese firm Wagner. Capped with gloriously whimsical reliefs by fin-de-siecle figures such as Jan Talaga and Feliks Wygrzywalski, there is nothing ahead that doesn’t leave you breathless.
If the voluminous halls of Tarnów wouldn’t look amiss in a five-star hotel, then Przemyśl’s flurry of bling could have been created by Gianni Versace. Bringing to mind the palatial residences of the Habsburg Emperors, it’s little surprise to find first-time arrivals taking a time out to catch it on their phones. You’d be advised to do the same.
Not that many actually do – buried in the deepest south-easterly recess of Poland, Przemyśl’s geography has determined that it goes largely unnoticed: not just by foreigners but also by Poles themselves. There are times when the city can feel like your own private fiefdom.
Now, admittedly, both Poland and the wider region is pitted with towns that instantly lose heart once you exit the station. Przemyśl is not one of these.
Thought to have been founded in the 8th century, and subsequently passed between rulers with such names as Vladimir I and Bolesław II The Generous (who couldn’t have been that generous given his other nicknames included Bolesław II The Cruel), for centuries it was a bulwark of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth before being absorbed into the Austrian Empire as part of the 1772 partitions.
The subject of long and bitter territorial disputes, this often violent history today manifests itself by way of a slew of fortifications that have somehow survived the challenges of the past: particularly impressive in this respect is the Italian-designed Renaissance era Krasiczyn Castle whose arcaded courtyard and conical towers come haunted by a lovelorn girl by the name of Zosieńka.
Finished by the same architect – Galleazzo Appiani – is Przemyśl Castle itself; generously remodelled in the 18th century by the mayor of the time, Stanisław Poniatowski, if the name sounds familiar, then so it really should, for this was the same gentleman that would later come to note as Poland’s last monarch.
With much of Europe’s map resembling a game of Risk throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, more modern structures also stand, among them hulking, hollow bunkers and the redbrick remnants of Przemyśl Fortress.
It was here that the fictional Good Soldier Svejk spent time during WWI and his associations with this city of 60,000 are remembered by a jolly-looking statue that envisages the protagonist perched on an ammo box with a pipe and a beer.
While military history is part of the very fabric of Przemyśl, a more genteel side to the town presents itself by way of a string of religious landmarks that include a pair of cathedrals: one, dedicated to Greek Catholics, and the other, a 15th century bastion rich in both Gothic and Baroque details.
Of course, as in all parts of Eastern Poland, it is impossible and irresponsible to ignore the region’s Jewish connections, and these come best represented by a peeling synagogue that now houses a library and a remarkable 19th century cemetery positioned on a steep slope long overrun by unruly, knotted vines and thick vegetation; stepping into the dark shadows, explorers zig zag among half-shattered tombs and splintered memorials.
In finer years – that is, ones not defined by a global pandemic – visitors would have had further sites to enjoy, not least wacky curiosities such as a nuclear shelter, medieval underground tunnels and the bizarre Museum of Bells & Pipes, but even with Closed for Business signs dominating visits to Przemyśl rarely disappoint.
Tangled like spaghetti, the dipping streets of the historic centre come seeped in shadow and tightly flanked by tenements in varying states of general upkeep. The effect weaves a spellbinding magic, and just prowling the cobbles brings immense satisfaction – to do so, after all, is to take a plunge into Poland’s best secret; and let's face it, just who doesn't love unraveling a secret.
To reach Przemyśl there is no more efficient way than to travel on PKP Intercity. Rzeszów lies just over an hour away while journey time from Kraków is approximately three hours. December 13th, 2020 will see the new PKP Intercity come into force, and it promises even faster connections to Katowice with journeys taking around four hours. Przemyśl can also be reached from Prague and Budapest. For connections, see: intercity.pl.
This article was sponsored by PKP Intercity.