For the vast majority of you this review will truly be about foreign territory. OK, hands up, who's heard of Sandomierz? Thank you Magda! I kind of expected that, but for the rest of you I do hope that this will prove a voyage of discovery and culture, if not indeed an adventure.
As those of you who have read some of my previous reviews will know, I am, and have been for the last four years, married to Polish lady who came from a village just to the north of the industrial town of Mielec in south eastern Poland. Thanks to what is nowadays referred to as an "international" marriage, rather than just merely "holidaying" in Poland we therefore have "roots" there, socialising and indeed living amongst family and friends for as much as four to five weeks of the year. We do certain business there, some things currently just make great financial sense - I'm talking about primarily health matters, opticians and dentists, for the two of us our two trips per year are paid for in the savings made on dental treatment alone. Partly through this, my wife has very much introduced me to the 'insiders' Poland - warts and all, you can read about that in my previous "Poland in General" review, there are no warts - you'll be glad to hear - in the following review!
Some of you have recently had your appetites wetted for Polish travels in my review on the fascinating Wieliczka Salt Mines, and the wonderful Oporow Castle, hopefully you will find enchanting Sandomierz as interesting.
Here I am going to attempt to do a whole town justice. I don't like to conclude a review before it truly begins, but I have to state here that there really is NO substitute for actually visiting Sandomierz. It is my favourite place (yes including Krakow!) in all of Poland and is situated less than an hours' drive from my wife's parents home.
How to get to Sandomierz? Well, there are three trains a day from Warsaw (about 170 miles away), from Krakow you would need to change at Kielce and it would take quite a long time, Polish trains not being exactly what you would call speedy! We went there by car on the good main road heading north from Mielec, through some glorious open countryside, then the modern sprawling town of Tarnobrzeg, ten minutes later crossing the Polish main river - the Vistula. If you do happen to drive this route you'll pass by Baranow Sandomierski - there is a superb castle there, you may want to stop and admire - again that is another review for another day.
Assuming that one way or another we have now reached the town of Sandomierz what are we expecting to do and see? Firstly this town is situated on the only hill in the whole area, when you get there its' historical origin will be obvious - it is a natural vantage point, overlooking a long reach of the very significant river Vistula.
This is a truly ancient town, tracing its history back well over ten centuries; it was at one time one of the three largest and most important cities in Poland, a prince's royal residence. Thanks primarily to the corn trade, an important and highly prosperous town, it formed part of a chain of towns along the ancient trading route from east to west, guarding the main fording point on the river which literally splits Poland in two. During the following centuries Sandomierz became more and more associated with religion and education, and in our current times is still thus renowned.
Indeed recently, in historical terms at least, on 12th June 1999 the late great Pope John Paul II stayed overnight in the Bishop's Palace here during the Papal tour of his homeland.
I am privileged in that my wife knows this particular town quite intimately, she spent a year living and studying (English language!) here, she is therefore the perfect guide.
It is possible to drive into and park right in the centre of this ancient town, but please don't! There are car parks at the bottom of the hill on the outskirts of the town centre, the hill is neither steep nor long. You will be doing everyone a favour by keeping the historic centre as car free and pleasant as possible.
One day undoubtedly the Polish will cotton on to the idea of "pedestrianisation" but for now here, as in Krakow, the car is king, step onto a Polish zebra crossing at your peril!
I have now visited this town on two occasions, in the summer of 2005(on a week day) and on a Saturday the previous June. On both occasions the temperature was in the low 30's which in some peculiar way seems to suit this place - under a bright blue baking hot Mediterranean sky - we're over 500 miles from the Med here though!
Many people are staggered to hear that summer temperatures in Poland are higher than here in the UK, there are still some who think that the country is permanently covered in snow and ice
sorry to disappoint you, but that is the NORTH POLE!
One day I look forward to returning to Sandomierz in the winter, with the temperature below freezing and hopefully snow on the ground, I'll lay money on it still being a stunningly beautiful town to visit though!
Back to June 2005, and as we get out of the car, a parking attendant appears as if from nowhere, he is laughing that the steering wheel on my car is on the wrong side, they do not see many right hand drive cars here. He writes Mrs R. a parking ticket - 5 zloty (just under £1), paid up front for the first hour, you then settle up at the end of your stay when the ticket is returned to him, the charge drops steeply after the first hour.
We are parked at the bottom of the little hill leading up to Sandomierz's tallest historical building, Opatowska Gateway which was built in the 14th century as part of the stronghold wall encircling the entire town within. This, the most interesting and historic part of the town is referred to as the "Old Town", Sabndomierz does not have what you could describe as sprawling suburbs, but the railway station and more modern area is adjacent to the river at the bottom of the hill.
A population totalling 27,000 people now live here.
Fittingly under the gateway itself, are a couple of young students playing instruments and quite literally singing for their supper This summer we had accompanying us our digital camera and where better to see and photograph the whole of Sandomierz and the surrounding countryside than from the very top of the tower? Up some steep wooden stairs under the archway and you enter into a square room, in the corner of which is the ticket kiosk. The tower is open during summer months from 10.00 to 18.00 hours. Here we buy (again for less than £1 each) tickets to climb up to the roof, we also purchase a simple (English) guide book to the town, which upon reaching the roof proved very useful in aiding us to identify the many churches and historic buildings.
It is slightly cooler at the top of the tower, as Mrs R takes photographs I am reading the introduction section of the guide book. Having visited and admired this town last year I had marvelled at how superbly well kept these ancient buildings were. Thanks to the book all is revealed.
There are in total 120 listed historic buildings in this town, most of which during the last two centuries had fallen into a state of progressive disrepair. In the period between the two world wars some efforts had been put into restoring the Old Town but these really did not amount to much and it was not until the 1960's and 70's that the Polish authorities lavished the care and attention that these buildings and indeed the town as a whole deserved.
Whilst these buildings are of ancient origin then, they are heavily restored, the beauty is though that the restoration was completed 30 years ago - the whole place has had time to "weather" gracefully and now looks authentically ancient and yet remarkably in tact. Having read all of this up there we descend the many wooden steps, place some coins in the student's violin case and enter a church through a very ordinary looking wooden door on our left.
It is only thanks to my wife's inside knowledge that I would have walked through this doorway. To all the world it looks like a wooden door in a continuous terraced street, abutting and leading some way from the tower that we had just left. With a whitewashed frontage there was nothing to inform my untrained eye that behind the door was to be found a church of such extraordinary beauty.
We had entered the Church of the Holy Spirit, part of a complex of old hospital and monastery buildings. Originating in 1292 the church was originally wood, burned to the ground in a Lithuanian raid in 1349. The body of the church we are now standing in dates from the end of the 14th century, the breathtakingly decorated vault is a later addition from the 18th century however.
Stepping back onto the street outside you are hit by the sheer heat and brightness of the afternoon sun, inside the church it had been cool and tranquil. Tranquil somehow sums up Sandomierz altogether, it is a place that has seen so much history, so many pilgrims, that its people and character have a wonderfully laid back, relaxing effect on the weary traveller.
One road back and adjacent to the one where the Gateway and Church of the Holy Spirit are situated is to be found the Synagogue. This town contained the biggest population of Jews in this (Malopolska) region of Poland. It once enjoyed the privilege of the Royal Protection of King Kazimierz Wielki. Even the non-Poles amongst you will not need me to explain the fortunes of this community in the middle of the last century, suffice to say that this building is no longer an active Synagogue and now houses part of the Polish State National Archives.
Back on the main street leading from the Gateway tower to the Rynek (Town Square), you will find some excellent small shops. Many are gift shops, selling incredibly reasonably priced hand made and unusual gifts and souvenirs. At the southern end, the street opens out into the superb Rynek, at the centre of which stands the magnificent four square and towered Town Hall. Those of you familiar with the Rynek Glowny and Cloth Hall (housing the market) in Krakow will see distinct similarities. The main brick part of the Town Hall dates from soon after the raid already referred to in 1349. The white, rendered, octagonal topped tower was added during the 17th century.
Facing the Town Hall on the west side of the square is quite the most beautiful post office (Poczta Polska) that I have ever seen. On the opposite side of the square is a terrace of smaller, but equally attractive, Flemmish style houses and tiny shops. As a whole these buildings make up the best town square that it has been my privilege to lay eyes upon.
As if your visual and architectural senses have not already had enough to feast upon, Sandomierz still has plenty to offer yet!
Walk a couple of paces down the right hand side of the post office building and you will be able to take a long walk under the Old Town. Billed in my original "Lonely Planet" Polish guide book as one of the towns "star attractions" again I would recommend visiting the "Underground Tourist Route" on a baking hot summers' day to enjoy a cool and interesting stroll through history.
What you are actually doing here is walking beneath the houses you have just been admiring above ground on the Rynek. This interconnecting cellar network - there are 30 cellars connected by passageways was dug out from the soft rock under the town in the prosperous 14th and 15th centuries. During the years immediately after the Second World War the whole town was nearly lost due to the land starting to slip away due to the crumbling state of this underground network. Thanks to a very thorough restoration programme carried out between 1964 and 1977 not only was the town saved but the underground network became safe to open to the public. There are boards on the walls explaining the history of the town and in particular these cellars, used by the merchants to store grain and alcohol. Many of the items, barrels etc, have been placed down here to give you a picture of how this network would have looked hundreds of years ago. You climb to street level to emerge, again blinded by the light, at the rear of the town hall.
The Underground Tourist Route is open from 10.00 to 17.00, every day except Mondays. My guide book tells me that you can only visit accompanied by a Polish guide, leaving on the hour. Not so! My wife and I entered on our own, to wander the system at leisure.
Back above ground and walking away from the Rynek by the bottom right corner, the whole square slopes to the south, you descend a fairly steep hill, passing a modern (and expensive!) hotel on your right and catch your first glimpse of the large castle through the trees.
Polish castles are not really comparable to English ones, being far more diverse, ranging from "French Chateau" type buildings like Baranow, to fortified and moated manor houses such as Oporow. Some are beautiful, the above mentioned indeed, others are less so and unfortunately, to my eyes at least, the castle at Sandomierz falls into the latter category. I did promise you no warts in this review and it would be too strong to describe their huge brick barn of a castle in this way. There has been a fortress on this site, above the river and slightly distanced to the south of the town since the 10th century. The current brick building which since 1821 served as a prison was only one wing of a huge square stone castle with a courtyard in the centre. The majority of the castle was destroyed by the Swedish army in 1656 - they blew it up!
The remaining part of the castle is open each day, apart from Mondays, from 10.00 until 17.00 hours.
Standing outside the castle you have a choice of routes, left and up the hill, taking you to the simply superb Cathedral or right and up another hill and to the fascinating Church of St James. We'll turn right first, of the two churches I actually preferred the more Spartan interior of St James'.
The day we visited, on the Saturday in June 2004, we were very lucky in finding an English speaking monk at the doorway. He was very young and refreshingly "of this world" taking an interest in where we came from and our English way of life. We were doubly lucky in that his secondment to this parish was finishing the following day, when he was due to return to his birthplace - Gdansk on Polands north coast. This he explained was one of the oldest brick churches in Poland, probably Europe. Built between 1226 and 1250 for the Dominican Monastary, it was only the second in Poland after that in Krakow. Whilst I described it of "Spartan" appearance, that term was not intended to deride its beauty in any manner. Unusual and superbly done is the Roman ceramic decorations on the outside gabled walls. Inside of outstanding beauty are the stained glass widows, dating from 1910 to 1918.
The Church of St James is open from 10.00 to 14.00 and 15.00 to 17.00 hours.
Back down into the valley past the castle once more and back up the hill the other side towards the centre you will find the splendid cathedral, almost matching the castle in size but far, far more attractive to look at. Nestling in the trees it is almost impossible to take a decent photograph of the outside of this building though.
Step inside (10.00 - 14.00 hours Tue - Sat, 15.00 - 17.00 Sun) and you are presented with such a riot of decoration and ornamentation that your eyes simply cannot find a natural place to rest. I am sure that there are many amongst you who would find this type of church architecture and adornment absolutely fascinating, and quite rightly so. I share with my wife however, the opinion that in order to worship, or maybe just to contemplate, the fewer distractions there are the better. The inside of this particular cathedral is so "busy" that no matter how many times you entered you would always find some new splendour to admire that you had previously missed.
Founded in 1148, the original building was destroyed in the Mongolian, then finally Lithuanian raid in 1349. The current church dates from 1360, becoming a cathedral in 1818. In architectural terms, it is a hall type gothic construction with a groin ribbed vault. I am no student of architecture and confess freely to having cribbed that description from the guide book. Again I have to urge you to go and see this place for yourselves - it is far too lavish and colourful for me to put into words here and certainly my wife's photograph below barely begins to do this unique cathedral justice.
If all this church architecture is starting to bore you somewhat, then briefly I will have to beg your indulgence, for our tour of Sandomierz is nearly complete, I have just three more historic buildings to tell you about.
Adjacent to the cathedral, heading back up to the Rynek, is what I consider, from the outside at least, to be one of the most attractive buildings in this town so full of them. It is the Bishop's Palace - Pope John Paul's overnight accommodation when here in 1999. Not a huge building by palatial standards and very recent too (built 1861 to 1863) compared to its neighbours. Largely rendered in white, with subtle green detailing, it has simple but beautiful stone ornamentation over the doors and windows. One of my favourite architectural features is also incorporated - a circular tower, housing the palace chapel on the first floor.
In the road behind the Bishop's Palace are to be found the last two and very contrasting buildings on our historical tour. The first, much smaller building is the House of Dlugosz, a mansion house constructed in 1476, this is another brick construction looking nothing like 530 years old! It now contains a museum, largely housing fine art work and sculptures, some dating from as early as the 13th century.
Last, but not least, neither in terms of size nor splendour, we come to the Collegium Gostomianum, a huge school building on six floors, which has only just completed a total renovation program. As you travel into the town from the south, after the castle, this is the first building that now draws your eye. My comment to my wife as we drove along the main road was "that wasn't there last year!" Of course it was, it is just that this large building is now resplendent in fresh paintwork, previously it merged into the hillside on which it is built. In fact you are looking at one of the oldest secondary schools in Poland, a Jesuit College dating from 1602.
You have just completed a historical culture tour which certainly I would suggest spreading over two (as we did) or three days. This is not a large town, a twenty minute walk in any direction would take you from one side to the other. However I would defy anyone new to this place to walk from one side to the other without stopping to take in even more sites than I have been able to describe here.
One natural feature that has to be mentioned is the locally famous gorge, Queen Jadwiga's Ravine which is to be found up the hill past The Church of St James. Through the gorge is a beautiful cool tree lined path leading down to the river below.
There are a couple of hotels in the Old Town, they will not be cheap by Polish standards, especially during the summer season. You would probably be better off staying nearby and travelling into Sandomierz. There are however, as is usual in Poland, a huge variety of eating places, from ice cream bars, through traditional Polish restaurants to a good (we tried it) but expensive Chinese Restaurant.
Yes Sandomierz gets Richada's unreserved recommendation! You'll have noticed that apart from the parking tip, I have steered clear of do's and don'ts, Sandomierz is that kind of place, all things to all men, and of course women. It is the ideal place to relax and soak up the atmosphere of a Poland long gone only perhaps ten minutes down the road in Tarnobrzeg.