There are countries where it is easy to be a tourist, and countries where enjoying oneself takes a bit of extra effort. Despite my long association with Poland, I must concede that it falls into the latter camp, although not for wholly obvious reasons. It isn’t simply that the communist-era hotels are not up to scratch or that food is indifferent: while sometimes true, that is no longer universally the case. These days, you can stay in country-house hotels or in refurbished farm houses if you don’t like what the old state-run hotel chains have to offer, and in major cities you can even eat over-priced Italian food which is indistinguishable from over-priced Italian food anywhere else.
Effort is required, however, in order to understand what it is you are seeing, when you are not sleeping or eating. In part, this is because the destruction wrought by the war and by the subsequent half-century of de facto Russian occupation have re-arranged the landscape. This is obviously true of Warsaw, which was completely destroyed, but even to enjoy a drive around the countryside, you need to have not merely the eye of an aesthete, but the imagination of an archaeologist. Follow a tree-lined cobblestone road through what appears to have once been the park of an estate, and you might well come upon a small, recently restored country house, or a long-ruined country house, or a small cluster of concrete blocks built in the place of the country house, which later became the headquarters of a collective farm. In any case, it is impossible to understand why Polish country houses look the way they do unless you understand the history of the country.
But the history of Poland is a touch different from the history of other European countries that the average, well-travelled tourist is likely to visit. As Adam Zamoyski writes in the introduction to this ‘travellers’ gazetteer’ to Poland, ‘the fact remains that Poland feels somehow different from its neighbours, and there are reasons for this.’ He explains:
The area it occupies was by-passed by some of the strongest influences that shaped the rest of mediaeval Europe. The Romans stopped just short in the south, the Celts never quite made it from the west. Even the Vikings, who penetrated every country as far as Sicily in a great westward arc and at the same time moulded the early shape of what was to be Russia in the east, never penetrated significantly into Poland.
Add to that the fact that the Poles, although perfectly au courant with pan-European architectural fashions, were also capable of ignoring them: they built Renaissance buildings as early as 1502, but then went on building them until the 1670s. Simply because they liked the style, they were still putting up wooden Gothic churches until the 1750s, which was, as Zamoyski points out, ‘about the time that the Gothick revival was beginning in England’. The picture is further confused by the partitions of the 19th century, during which the Polish state ceased to exist. The architecture of what used to be the German partition is very different from the architecture of what used to be the Russian and Austrian partitions, so unless you know which bit you are standing in, you won’t really know what it is that you are seeing either.
Generally speaking, your average guide book, with its narrow focus on Warsaw and Krakow, and its desperation to summarise all of this history as fast as possible, won’t help you much. Zamoyski’s Gazetteer, on the other hand, not only provides an elegant and relevant summary of Polish art history, but an alphabetical listing of more than 1,600 towns and villages, mentioning more than 8,000 castles, churches, palaces, monuments and museums, precisely the objects of interest you might well find by meandering down an old cobblestone road. Zamoyski, the scion of an extremely old and grand Polish family, not only knows the country well, but has strong opinions about it. He concedes that Radzymin, the birthplace of Isaac Bashevis Singer, is a ‘mean little market town’. He explains that Zakopane, Poland’s winter resort town, became fashionable in the 1880s among the artistic set who came there to ‘paint the scenery, to marvel at the music and folklore of the local highlanders (or have affairs with them)’. With particular pleasure, I noted that he accurately describes Biskupin, a stultifyingly boring but extremely significant neolithic archaeological site (which happens to be near my own Polish country house) as ‘pretty dull, unless you like that kind of thing’.
And so on. Travelling through Poland with this book must be like travelling through Poland with an intelligent, amusing friend who also happens to be well-versed in Poland’s idiosyncrasies. Don’t depart for Warsaw without it.