Visiting Torun, birthplace of Nicolaus Copernicus, in 2004
By Mark Wegierski
Mark Wegierski recalls a happier time in East-Central Europe, eighteen years ago.
The venerable city of Torun is located within easy driving distance of Ciechocinek, the spa and resort town at which I was mostly staying, in the summer of 2004. Torun is known especially for its very well-preserved medieval Old Town, which includes the historic medieval walls of the city. One of the city’s tourist slogans is “Gotyk na dotyk” which can be loosely translated as – “where the Gothic comes alive.” Staying mostly at Ciechocinek, I was frequently driven in to Torun when my female relative travelled there.
The Main Square of the Old Town is especially lovely, with its magnificent Gothic City Hall, in front of which stands the statue of Nicolaus Copernicus (Mikolaj Kopernik) the famous Polish astronomer who was born in the town in 1473. The house in which he was born still stands, and is now a museum. There is a frequently cited verse in Polish about Nicolaus Copernicus, which, in approximate translation, says: “He stopped the Sun, he moved the Earth, the Polish nation gave him birth.” Copernicus challenged the received ideas of his day (which claimed that the Sun revolved around the Earth), and advanced a carefully elaborated and documented thesis that the Earth moves around the Sun. The Copernican theory is the grounding of all subsequent astronomical science. It’s possible to argue that the atmosphere of reflective tolerance and liberty that existed in Renaissance Poland under the humane Jagiellonian Kings – in marked contrast to most other European countries of that time -- contributed to his willingness to enunciate those views. It takes tremendous intellect, courage and fortitude to be among the very first to arrive at and advance highly unconventional views, especially those that could result in severe censure and punishment (as seen in the later Trial of Galileo).
Torun also has the very well-regarded Nicolaus Copernicus University (Uniwersytet Mikolaja Kopernika) (UMK). Among the university’s more prominent scholars is Miroslaw Supruniuk, the head of the extensive Polish Emigration Archive (Archiwum Emigracji). The Polish Emigration Archive has, indeed, received a Turzanski Foundation award, for its contributions to documentation of the Polish-Canadian community. The awards of the Turzanski Foundation were the only major literary and cultural prizes of the Polish-Canadian community. They had been instituted as a result of a helpful individual initiative – but are no longer awarded.
There are also some very exclusive shops in the Main Square of Torun and the surrounding cobblestone streets, including an especially elegant boutique mall that has been built into one of the Old Town’s oldest burgher-houses. Also to be recommended is the very finely stocked eMPiK (a magazine, book, and music store) in the Old Town area. In my searching for different Polish popular periodicals, I was guided by the general principle that if a certain publication could not be found in a popular outlet like the eMPiK, then its profile in the country was very low, indeed. Nevertheless, I was able to find in that eMPiK a number of periodicals I had never seen or heard of before, such as the Wroclaw-based Opcja na Prawo (The Option on the Right).
The Old Town area also has a mini-multiplex cinema, as well as a fairly good planetarium. There are some prominent antique shops that are full of items that are usually far more interesting than anything to be found in Canada. There are also a number of elegant jewelry stores, and fashion and perfume boutiques, on the streets around the Main Square. Most of those streets are now reserved for pedestrians only, so a highly pleasant and unhurried feeling is created.
As far as dining in the Old Town area of Torun, I could recommend the restaurant of the Gromada hotel (a smaller hotel). I had some very tasty meals there in the Old Polish cuisine style, such as clear beet-soup with meat-filled pastry on the side (barszcz z pasztecikiem), as well as pork cutlets with spicy roasted potatoes and salad on the side.
The town of Nieszawa, which is about 10 kilometers to the south-east of Ciechocinek, is known especially for its church, which dates back to the fifteenth century, and has a unique set of frescoes. At most times of the year, it is a brief, pleasant drive to Nieszawa along a two-lane, properly-paved road surrounded by the green countryside, usually with very little traffic.
I still recall a private reception at the Mayor’s ranch-style house in Nieszawa, where I drank champagne and nibbled on canapés, while looking at the Vistula below, and the verdant forests across the river, in the sun of the late afternoon. I had been invited to celebrate the imminent appearance of an article of mine in a smaller U.S. cultural and political affairs magazine in which I had tried to appear for at least fifteen years. I had written the article right on the trip on a laptop computer, and submitted it through the Internet. That article about my trip to Poland and Nieszawa had been the breakthrough piece for me with that magazine.
(An earlier version of this article has appeared in Polonez: Canadian-Polish News (16-30 September 2007), p. 13.)
Mark Wegierski is a Toronto-based writer and historical researcher. He was born in Toronto of Polish immigrant parents.