The man who would not be king: Webber recalls a rural retreat of magic and madness
It’s a sentiment that I’m pretty sure everyone involved in this writing racket would express – it’s kicking-off a column from scratch that’s always the biggest challenge.
So with that in mind, thank heavens for Facebook.
Just as I was pondering poisoning myself as a viable exit strategy from having to hit this deadline, up popped one of those Facebook memories on my timeline.
Posted four years back, and featuring pictures of me holding muskets and eyeballing bison (not at the same time, I hasten to add), the photos in the album told the simplified story of a weekend to remember.
Good times indeed.
Of course, at this point, you’re entitled to an explanation as to what Kiermusy is – the problem is, all these years on, I’m still not entirely sure I’ve figured that myself.
You could call it a small hamlet in the north-east of Poland, but doing so would fail to recognize the curious oddities that await.
A stone’s throw from Tykocin – a town occasionally billed as the ‘Kazimierz Dolny of the North’ – it was while writing a travel feature on the latter that I found myself taking lodgings in Kiermusy’s Dworek nad Łąkami, a creaky manor house that would serve as my base.
What I didn’t anticipate, was that in itself it would turn into a story.
Dworek nad Łąkami, you see, is not your typical hotel. Framed around an unevenly cobbled courtyard, it would better be described as a village within a village: the ivy-clad Rzym tavern on one flank, and at its head, accommodation filled with dusty gramophones and sepia images of Addams Family style characters (and yep, come darkness, you really DO feel their eyes tailing as you squeak over the floorboards).
With its musty smells and deep long shadows, it is not a pampering experience, but it is a place of character.
This much becomes clear once you begin a deeper investigation: across a dusty, bumpy road, a line of timber cottages belonging to the hotel – their window frames painted in bright, primary colours – sit on the fringe of a forest doubling as a bison reserve.
Having clambered up the viewing platforms, it takes minutes for these grunting creatures to emerge from the tangled undergrowth to lumber right beneath. A little nervously, you find yourself checking the strength of the scaffolds before realizing, erm, actually, better not put their stability to the test.
A reserve it might be, but it’s easy to forget this when silently poised under the forest’s immaculate green canopy: it’s a beautiful moment in which you feel close to nature.
And no matter how busy Dworek nad Łąkami might get (its popularity crests at the beginning of each month when a regional flea market takes place on every first Sunday), there’s a sense of isolation that follows as obediently as the lodge’s resident dogs.
Quirks abound, and while taken individually they feel inconsequential and irrelevant, added together they weave a picture of a place that feels unflinchingly unique: down an avenue of trees planted by half-famous Poles, a winding, boarded pathway takes visitors past eccentricities such as a creepy lakeside hut filled with images of Rasputin; a pile of rocks said to contain ‘magic’ properties; and a signpost delineating the former border with the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.
You quickly learn to expect the unexpected, and that proves yet truer when stumbling across a reconstructed fortress that’s unlocked each weekend to expose an array of torture devices (complete with mannequins twisted in screaming agony), Ye Olde weaponry, religious icons and sinister bits and pieces relating to the past – you wouldn’t like to be locked in at night.
But back at the lodge, there are some people who pay to do so. Of Dworek nad Łąkami’s more hidden features, a member of staff shows me the ‘gorzelnia’, a cramped, cobwebbed cellar that can be hired as a men-only drinking cavern.
Candle-lit and festooned with vintage tankards and historic drinking apparatus, the heaps of empty bottles tell their own story.
“Guys turn up here with crates of vodka and basically stay bolted down here until it’s all drunk,” explains my guide while jangling the kind of rusty keys more befitting of a haunted castle.
Choosing, instead, to see in the evening on ground level, it’s on the shaded terrace of the Rzym inn that both the magic and madness of Kiermusy really comes to focus.
Over (jugs and jugs) of wine, myself and the photographer – still soaked and squelching from being thrown into a marsh via an electric fence – meet an endless line of characters passing through for the night: it’s a Poirot-style line-up of big personalities with secrets to share.
Falling in with an elderly, exiled Pole who could pass as Donald Trump’s more likeable double, we listen with respect as he describes his childhood: “I’ll never forget the bodies hanging from the lampposts,” he recalls of the Warsaw Uprising.
Long is the night, and some of the stories even longer, only a crimson daybreak signalling its conclusion. It’s been wonderful. And for these memories alone I owe Facebook a thank you.