Tarnów: exquisite, unexpected and utterly beguiling
Broadly speaking, it’s a rule that works: if airports are uniformly bland and leave you guessing what may lie beyond, then train stations, on the other hand, often serve as a miniature snapshot of the city they represent.
In that respect, Tarnów’s station presents an accurate portrayal of what you can expect. Completed in 1910 in spectacular Austro-Hungarian Secessionist style, it instantly seduces with its unrestrained majesty. Harking to the kind of era depicted in Agatha Christie’s works (and, actually, the Orient Express is no stranger to these platforms), it could have been built with intrigue in mind.
Across chessboard-patterned floors composed of English tiles, travellers cross into interiors trimmed with early 20th century paintings of Tatra landscapes and underneath elaborate lights that dangle from heaven-reaching ceilings. To be here is to wallow in the nostalgic glow of bygone times.
Of course, outside the expected line-up of lavishly moustached cab drivers await, but if you’re travelling light then there’s no better suggestion than to make the easy walk north east to Old Town.
Doing so takes you past the rickety but charming home of Tarnovia, one of the nation’s oldest football clubs, as well as an 18th century former tavern that’s since been converted into the city’s Ethnographic Museum. Though currently closed because of you-know-what, it’s to here one should usually head to view what is commonly labelled as Europe’s most important exhibition dedicated to Roma culture.
Continuing to climb gently uphill, attractions fall steadily at first before reaching a crescendo as Old Town approaches; the Cathedral, ensconced inside a cobbled, horseshoe-shaped alley that curves tightly around it, is the first such sight that causes visitors to pause, and its voluminous interiors bristle with stately tombs and glimmering stained glass.
Though small when compared to Poland’s other great squares, the pert dimensions of the Rynek nearby – you could, one suspects, almost fit it into your pocket – add heavily to its charm. Ringed by arcaded townhouses, these stare onto the square’s centrepiece, a Renaissance town hall crowned with 14 grotesque stone faces and a hand-cranked clock that has, reputedly, only stopped twice since the 17th century: once, to mark the death of Pope John Paul II in 2005, and other time, three years later for some token repairs.
Were it open, a snoop inside the Regional Museum opposite would be enough to learn the importance the town attaches to its favourite son, General Józef Bem. A patriotic military hero that fought for both Napoleon and Polish independence, his status is such that relics like a wisp of his hair and a fragment of his finger bone (once stolen in the 1920s but later returned by the thief) are awarded almost reverential importance.
Saving these curiosities for a time not falling within the brackets of a pandemic, instead seek outdoor pleasures. These, Tarnów has in abundance, not least contained inside the Old Town’s tight tangle of streets; narrow passages, dipping stairwells, shaded courtyards and leaning defensive walls act as one to paint a vivid picture of the past: on nights thick with fog, one half expects lantern-wielding body snatchers to loom from out of the mists.
In this regard, particularly atmospheric is the former Jewish Quarter, features of which include a former 17th century bimah on ul. Żydowska; the only surviving element of a synagogue that was torched by the Nazis in 1939, today it stands as a skeletal, haunting reminder of the past.
On this eastern flank of Old Town, deeper explorations in divergent directions reveal a former Mikveh building on Konarskiego 2, as well as a Jewish cemetery crowded with sunken tombstones long twisted to angles set by the elements of nature.
Once comprising around a half of the city’s population, Tarnów’s absent Jewish population is not the only modern tragedy that finds itself remembered. Pertinently, on June 14th, 1940, 748 Poles – many of whom were members of the Underground or intelligentsia – found themselves herded up and sent to Auschwitz. Notoriously, history would remember this as the first mass transit to what would become the world’s most infamous site of slaughter.
But despite the city’s obvious trauma, it is wrong to think of Tarnów’s tale as one that just follows a tragic script. Copious beauty abounds, not least on Wałowa, a pedestrian promenade that arcs over the north of Old Town and comes richly lined with smart fin-de-siecle buildings.
A stone’s throw from here, the elegant, English-style Strzelecki Park also offers a bounty of sights, among them a mausoleum dedicated to the aforementioned General Bem. Marked by six Corinthian columns that soar from a pond, inscriptions in Polish, Hungarian and Turkish remind visitors of the multinational impact this local lad had.
Yet it is Tarnów’s architecture that blows you bandy. A fascinating patchwork of often ill-fitting oddities, here spectacular wooden churches compete for attention against Renaissance era merchant’s houses and sumptuous tenements from the age of Art Nouveau.
And when you think you’ve seen it all, along comes Koci Zamek on Batorego 12. Enshrined as one of the region’s quirkiest sights, and dating from 1893, the redbrick Castle of Cats is a joy of gargoyles and turrets and strange ornamentations. What it is – and what it was – no-one really knows beyond the fact that it was built by a prolific public architect by the name of Szczęsny Zaremba. Clearly inspired by the work of “the Polish Gaudi”, Teodor Talewski, much like the train station, it serves to capture Tarnów in a nutshell: exquisite, unexpected and utterly beguiling.
There are a number of ways of getting to Tarnów by PKP Intercity trains. The Pendolino ride from Krakow will take less than an hour, while the journey between Tarnów and nearby Rzeszów will take about 40 minutes. To get there from Przemyśl, plan about 2 hours, and about an hour more from Katowice. You can also reach Tarnów from Warsaw in less than 3.5 hours by choosing the afternoon Pendolino connection. Detailed information on connections is available at https://www.intercity.pl/pl/
This article was sponsored by PKP Intercity.