Zamość: Shortlisted as one of the seven wonders of Poland
The last time I was let out of my box I chose to lecture you all about the glories of Lublin.
“Under-the-radar”, I called it, before opting for other grandstanding phrases aimed at highlighting its status as a little-known gem. Who was I kidding?
Sure, it lacks the profile of Kraków or Wrocław and Poland’s other A-list names, but compare it to Zamość and the place feels like Vegas. Yep, you want “under-the-radar”, it’s to Zamość you must head.
Granted, that might strike you as an odd way to describe a town that’s often shortlisted as being one of the seven wonders of Poland, but just ask any Pole when they last visited and the silence will be telling. In fact, have they ever even been there? Have they hell.
Buried in the country’s deep, south-easterly corner, its geography alone is something of a deterrent. Even from the capital, getting there by train involves changes at Lublin and about five hours of your time. And God forbid you choose the bus.
That’s the mistake I made in “the year before covid”. Reasoning I’d avert faffing around train stations, I found myself contorted inside a converted van, sitting with my knees around my ears next to crisp-munching students and sweaty old men dressed in mustard-stained vests.
Squeezed in among this rabble, and half-cooked in temperatures approaching Gas Mark 6, I arrived in foul spirits and cursing mankind – but the tougher the journey, I always like to say, then the better the destination.
Founded in 1580 by Jan Zamoyski, a local duke of immense resources, Zamość was built from scratch to a disciplined grid-like layout. Headhunting some of the finest Italian architects of the time, Zamoyski’s vision saw the birth of a town of such beauty that it soon earned the nickname as “the Padova of the North”.
Hemmed in by stout red brick bastions and military fortifications, the renaissance pearl that is the Old Town remains as striking and fresh as the day it was finished: a place of colonnaded passageways and shaded, leafy courtyards, it all leads to a mesmerizing square that stops you in your tracks.
Framed by rainbow coloured burgher houses, and dominated by a 52-metre town hall tower that wouldn’t be out of place on a wedding cake, it’s nothing if not a feast for the eyes.
Well-known for his military prowess and economic brain, the sabre-toting Zamoyski granted numerous concessions to ethnic groups like Armenians and Jews, and under his patronage the new-born town soon prospered into a thriving, multi-cultural trade hub.
Elements of this past remain in evidence. In the square, eyes are naturally drawn to the north west corner, where ornate facades painted in gold and blue point to the glory days when this quarter was inhabited by wealthy Armenian merchants.
Close by, the area once occupied by the town’s Jews also now sparkles after a sensitive restoration. Unloved for decades, the synagogue is a case in point, revived as it has been as a beautiful exhibition hall dedicated to preserving Jewish memory.
As with all towns in this part of Poland, it is impossible to overlook this part of the region’s heritage. Accounting for 43 percent of the town’s pre-war population, Zamość was once a hive of Jewish life and a reminder of this can be had walking amid the charming, low-level butchery stalls that once served the Jews of the city. Wiped out during the Holocaust, mostly in the gas chambers of Bełżec, today a scattering of memorials pay tribute to this past.
However, the occupation was equally brutal for Poles, as well. Enamoured by the city, the Germans planned on turning it into an Eastern bulwark of the Reich exclusively repopulated by waves of pioneering Germans. First renamed Himmlerstadt, it was on Himmler’s own intervention that it was subsequently titled Pflugstadt.
Over the next few years approximately 110,000 people were expelled from the region, their number including 30,000 children, many of whom were sent to designated camps where they were ‘Aryanized’ before being placed in the custody of German families.
In turn, the Poles responded with a two-year campaign of armed resistance, launching a series of bold partisan actions now commonly referred to as the Zamość Uprising.
The recriminations were bloody, with much of the Nazi fury channelled inside the Rotunda, a 19th century stronghold that was transformed into a prison and execution site. Today, its grassy perimeters and quiet, chilly corridors serve a new role as a museum of martyrdom, one in which the silence and stillness will unsettle you to the core.
The Rotunda, though, is just one of many defensive placements that ring the historic centre – and so effective were these, Zamość became one of the few places that didn’t fall during the Swedish Deluge that swept across Poland in the 17th century.
Largely restored thanks to wads of EU cash, ticking these forts off makes for a satisfying walk that culminates by crossing over a modern, dipping footbridge encrusted with lovelocks. Soppy as these may be, it’s easy to fall in love when walking here in Zamość.
Back in the Old Town, more culture awaits: chalk off, perhaps, plaques that commemorate the visit of Marshal Pilsudski or the birthplace of Marxist agitator Rosa Luxemburg, or maybe stand in awe in front of the miracle-working image of Virgin Mary inside the magnificent cathedral. And nearby, pay heed to the Zamoyski Palace, a slightly stern looking residence that once reputedly housed a chamber specially reserved for the duke’s boozy orgies.
Of course, it’s hard to imagine such improprieties occurring in the present – sedate in its pace, at first glance you’d say social life comes just about rock bottom in the town’s list of priorities.
That said, Café Mazagran would easily flourish in any big city with its minimal interior and selection of specialty coffees, hipster colas and bottled craft beers, whilst the more traditional Corner Pub, with its little secretive side garden, is as fine a place as any to settle for the night.
For me, however, it’s all about bunkering down on the square with a pint on the Rynek and the town hall in front. Armed with a frosty lager, there’s no better place in which to feel the hours drift by as the skies dim down; it’s a bewitching sight, the kind that leaves you feeling pleased with the world, and all the better for being whistling distance from the hotel of my choice.
Should you ask, then that’s the Arte – the kind of hotel I’ve always dreamed of happening upon, it’s an intimate little place with tastefully appointed rooms designed in a modern, boutique manner that never clashes with the setting.
Harmonious in its design, it’s topped off nicely by the hospitality of its staff – in fact, such was the gliding grace of the manageress, I came within a whisker of jacking in the day job to offer my services as a chubby, little bellboy. Thinking back to it all now, maybe I still should.