Summer in Mazowsze
#travel in poland
default, Urzecze at the River Wisła, photo: Jacek Marczewski / AG, center, nadwislanskie_urzecze-ag.jpg
Mazowsze, a region famous for its nature, has many interesting holiday destinations. Here, Culture.pl presents you with five spots (aside from the big cities of Warsaw, Płock and Radom) that are just perfect for a day trip – or longer. Follow us along routes that combine stops at places of historical, cultural and ethnographic interest with outdoor relaxation and fun.
Urzecze on the River Wisła & surrounds
A once-forgotten ethnographic micro-region, and the rich culture of Urzecze is being rediscovered only as of late. It consists of numerous villages along narrow areas on both sides of the River Wisła, not far from Warsaw. In the north, it reaches the southern districts of Warsaw, Saska Kępa and Siekierki, and it extends as far south as the former mouths of the Pilica and Wilga rivers.
Historically, the proximity of Warsaw has been both a blessing and a curse for Urzecze: at first, the capital helped the region prosper, but it ultimately absorbed it, piece by piece. This is how Łukasz Maurycy Stanaszek, the author of the monograph Nadwiślańskie Urzecze (Urzecze on the River Wisła) describes the development of the region’s identity:
First and foremost, it was determined by the presence of the Wisła, a kind of ‘a window to the world’ for the people living on its banks, who called themselves ‘Zawiślacy’. Thanks to many studies of this region, we were able to determine that Urzecze was connected to three cultural traditions: mazurska (or mazowiecka), orylska (flisacka – raftsmen’s) and olęderska, typical to people who came to the Wisła region from Frisia, Kujawy and Pomorze. The relative geographical isolation of the Wisła valley (oxbow lakes, a very high bank near Warsaw), a specific type of settlement (with the Olędrzy, Oryle and Mazurzy as the dominating groups), a suitable trading distance and quick access to a conveniently located Warsaw market (maximum distance of 40 km along the river) all contributed to the creation of a unique community, which manifested in a distinct riverside economy (connected to the irrigation and drainage of the terrain, specialised fishing and wide presence of osiers) and a traditional style of dress known as wilanowski.
Today, regional boating traditions are cultivated by the Flis Festival organised in Gassy. There are also yearly Pentecost celebrations in Urzecze – there is no other river procession like it in Europe. Boats full of flowers float from Góra Kalwaria to Warsaw, stopping along the way at various Urzecze towns.
The surrounding area is full of nature reserves: Skarpa Oborska, Łyczyńskie Olszyny, Świderskie Islands. There are also picturesque villages in Urzecze, such as Cieciszew and Gassy. These are perfect for bike treks – there is even a Wisła Bike Route, stretching from Warsaw’s district of Kabaty to Czersk over 32 km.
While visiting the region, it would be a mistake not to stop in Kostancin, a former ‘bourgeois’ summer resort. It is famous for its ‘szwajcarki’ – brick manors with wooden, Swiss-style decorations – as well as its modernist villas from the Interwar period.
Water Under the Bridge: The River Wisła in Literature, Music & Art
Further south is Góra Kalwaria. After it was destroyed by fire during the Deluge, the Poznań bishop Stefan Wierzbowski founded a centre for worshipping the Passion of Christ there. It was reconstructed upon the planes of the Latin cross, and there were numerous churches and monasteries located alongside the crossing roads. This meant that visitors entering the town would necessarily have to pass by a house of worship. The sacred buildings also served the function of stations of the Way of the Cross. In total, there were 35 chapels, six churches and five monasteries built in the town, which gained it the nickname of ‘New Jerusalem’.
In the 19th century, Góra Kalwaria also became one of the most important centres of Hasidism. It all started with the rabbi Issac Meyer Alter, who settled there in 1859. He was the first of a dynasty of Hasidic rabbis there (the dynasty was named Ger after the Yiddish name of the town), who were visited by Jews from all across Central and Eastern Europe. When a railway between Warsaw and Góra Kalwaria was opened, it earned the nickname of ‘the Rebbe train’.
Czersk, the former capital of Mazovian princes, is located not far from Góra Kalwaria. Its castle, built at the turn of the 15th century, is a great reminder of the city’s golden age. After Mazowsze became part of the Crown, the castle was transferred to the royal family. It was, for example, the private residence of Queen Bona, the wife of Zygmunt Stary. She created vineyards and gardens there, and according to some, was also responsible for the development of fruit growing in the area between Grójec and Warka – often referred to as ‘the biggest orchard in Europe’.
The apple route doesn’t lie in Urzecze, but it would be wrong not to mention it here. The old train that runs to the region along the Piaseczno-Tarczyn-Grójec route makes for a perfect tourist attraction. Kayaking enthusiasts will find great challenges at the River Jeziorka near Piaseczno and at the River Pilica near Warka.
The boatmen’s trail
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Another region worth visiting is also located near the River Wisła, but further north. It would be best to reach it in a wooden raft, stopping freely along the banks – but that might not be for everyone. If you drove a car from Warsaw, you would pass next to the Kampinos Forest, a rare example of a national park located right next to a metropolis. The natural diversity of the forest is so great that it would serve as a good topic for another article.
Between the forest and Vistula lies tiny Leoncin, the birthplace of the Nobel Prize-winning author Isaac Bashevis Singer. Nearby Nowy Secymin is a home to a beautiful wooden chapel, an old Mennonite house of worship which was turned into a Catholic church. These are just some of the highlights of the Olęderski Tourist Trail near the middle of the River Wisła, stretching over more than a hundred kilometres across the counties of Nowy Dwór, Sochaczew and Płock. The Olędrzy, or settlers who reached Mazowsze from Frisia and the Netherlands, had a great influence on the cultural landscape of the region.
The above destinations are located on the left bank of the river. Should you decide to drive on the right side, you’ll pass through Czerwińsk. This is where Władysław Jagiełło crossed the Vistula before the Battle of Grunwald. Atop the high riverbank towers a 12th century church-and-monastery complex, which houses the painting of Mother Mary of Czerwińsk – considered miraculous by many worshippers. Below the bank lies a charming marketplace with small-town, partly wooden buildings.
Next stop: Wyszogród. There, you can climb the Castle Mountain, which offers a great view of the river, but, unfortunately, is no longer home to a castle. It was demolished in 1798, and all that remains are the ruined castle walls and a paved courtyard. A wooden bridge, which was once the biggest in Europe, also counts among the town’s former attractions. It was created as a temporary construction for the German army in 1916 and served until 1999.
There is also the Vistula Museum in Wyszogród, where you can find some knowledge necessary for later parts of the expedition. The exhibition introduces visitors to the history of Wisła boating and the people of the Wyszogród region: boatmen, fishermen, olęderski settlers, Jews and inhabitants of the surrounding villages. The next destination on this folklore trail (and the newest, operating since 2018) is the Open-Air Museum of Vistula Settlement in Wiączemin.
The River Wisła: Does It Connect or Divide?
Following the river past Płock, you will reach the tiny village of Murzynowo, located right on the riverbank next to the Brudzieński Landscape Park. Its name comes from the word ‘murzyć’, meaning ‘to darken’ and ‘to blacken’ – so, ‘Murzynowo’ could refer to a dark place, one that is not suitable for farming, an inaccessible marsh. There, in a wooden cottage built at the start of the 20th century, the ethnographer Jacek Olędzki has for many years managed the Stanisław Murzynowski Museum. Its exhibits document daily life in the longstanding village and its religious objects. Interestingly, the 1970 film Rejs (The Cruise) was shot in Murzynowo, in a harbour which no longer exists today.
This area has even more to offer. Pojezierze Gostyńskie, located nearby on the opposite bank of the Wisła, is a paradise for water sports enthusiasts. There, you can feel like you’re in the famous lake district of Mazury – without even leaving the Mazowieckie Voivodeship. The rich variety of the local terrain gave the surrounding area the nickname ‘Mazovian Switzerland’. The River Skrwa flows there, which presents quite a challenge for experienced kayakers. The route is surrounded by many wooden mills, some of which have been destroyed.
Not far away lies Sikorz, home to a park-and-palace complex. Its last pre-war owners, the Piwnicki family, had many friends in Warsaw’s literary circles. The Skamander poets spent their holidays in Sikorz, and this is where Julian Tuwim wrote his long poem Ball at the Opera (he also made some references to the town in Polish Flowers). Tadeusz Dołęga-Mostowicz also invited a film crew here to turn his novel The Quack into a film.
From the Brudzień district, you can continue towards Sierpc, where the Museum of Mazovian Villages will make for our last stop. It is famous for its 18th-century wooden church (moved from the town of Drążdżewo), a reconstructed manor and an inn. The museum’s collection of folk art is also quite impressive.
Żyrardów, the city of linen
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Here it is – the Polish capital of linen! Żyrardów is the child of the industrial revolution in Congress Poland. It was created around a factory in 1829, and for the next century and a half, the history of the city and of the factory were tied together, for better and for worse.
As one of the biggest linen factories in the world (the stores of Żyrardów Plants were located all over the Russian Empire), the factory in Żyrardów attracted workers from the surrounding villages, but also people from across Europe: including Germans, Jews, Czechs, Russians, Frenchmen and Scots. The factory was surrounded by a modern garden-city. The urban design was strictly connected to the functions of the city’s zones – living, working and resting. Żyrardów became a city in 1916 and at the time, it was the third biggest settlement in Mazowsze, after Warsaw and Płock.
One of the most important events in the history of the city was the 1883 strike of women workers. It was the first general strike in Congress Poland and one of the first strikes organised by women. Since then, Żyrardów was sometimes called a ‘red’ city – both because of the ubiquitous red brick and the activities of the workers’ movements. In 2014, a Linen Work Museum was constructed in the former factory district of Bielnik in order to document the industrial heritage of the city. The historic strike is featured on a mural painted on the building and even re-enacted each year by local citizens.
Walking from Bielnik towards the centre of Żyrardów, you’ll pass through the picturesque Karol Dittrich Park, named after the Shareholders Association of the Żyrardów Plant. Today’s patron of the park was once its owner – he built his impressive palace in the centre of the park, which now houses the Museum of Western Mazowsze. There is also a river, Pisia Gągolina, flowing through the park, crossed by several little bridges. This green enclave in an industrial city is memorable also for its many trees and more than a dozen natural monuments.
A couple of steps away lies the Resursa, a gallery and a community centre created in a former club for factory elites. Right behind it, in the old bowling alley, there is a permanent exhibition dealing with the history of the city. The workers also had their entertainment centre here. The so-called ‘Ludowiec’ is located at the central John Paul II Square and today houses the City Community Centre. At the same square, the Church of Mother Mary of Consolation can also be found. It was designed by Józef Pius Dziekoński, and the stained-glass windows are believed to have been created by Józef Mehoffer. In total, there are around 200 historical buildings in the former industrial town. Żyrardów was named a Monument to History in 2012.
Right next to industrial Żyrardów, on the border between the Łódzkie and the Mazowieckie Voivodeship, you will find the Bolimowski Landscape Park. The local River Rawka is one of the most interesting rivers for kayaking in central Poland, and not only because of the rich nature of the area –it resembles a mountain river in some parts. Those looking for a less active way of spending their time may visit the Mszczonów baths.
The Otwock line: ‘Świder’’ & świdermajer’
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When it comes to Świder, Konstanty Ildefons Gałczyński is widely agreed to have put it best:
Jest willowa miejscowość,
nazywa się groźnie Świder,
rzeczka tej samej nazwy
lśni za willami w tyle [...]
There is a town full of villas
With the threating name of Świder.
A river of the same name
Flows behind villas there.
These villas, ‘according to the village head, were built in the style of świdermajer’, as the poet put it in the poem Wycieczka do Świdra (A Trip to Świder, with the name ‘świdermajer’ being a play on the words ‘Świder’ and ‘Biedermeier’).
Świdermajer refers to a style of wooden architecture popular in summer destinations surrounding Warsaw. The characteristic style was described by Bolesław Prus: ‘These villas are wonders which Warsaw has had yet to see in such volume and variety’. The charming wooden houses can be found alongside the entire Otwock line: in Anin, Międzylesie, Radość, Miedzeszyn, Falenica, Michalin, Józefów, Świder and Śródborowo. Otwock itself boasts around 300 of them. The creation of the Vistula Railway in 1877 made this area a popular tourist destination.
A Guide to the Wooden Villas of Otwock
It all started with Michał Elwiro Andriollu, a painter and an illustrator known for his illustrations of books by Adam Mickiewicz. In 1879, he built himself a villa and around a dozen houses to rent in the Anielin manor near Świder. The Bojarzy manor (near Świdry Wielkie) was probably home to the first Polish vegan health resort. It was founded in the second half of the 19th century by a great promoter of a plant-based diet, Konstanty Moes-Oskragiełło.
Otwock was officially named a health resort in 1916. It quickly filled up with hotels and sanatoria. It was also particularly popular among Warsaw’s Jewish community. There are many famous buildings in the city: Abram Gurewicz’s guesthouse, Reymontówka (a villa in which the Nobel-Prize winning writer Władysław Reymont wrote his novel Chłopi [The Peasants]) and the childhood home of Irena Sendlerowa.
It should be a crime to visit the area and not spend some time at the riverbank. Świder (which means ‘drill’ in Polish) twists, meanders and is full of obstacles such as suspended branches, fallen trees and rocky cascades – this makes it perfect for kayaking. At the same time, it is quite shallow and easy to cross on foot, especially in the summer. Forest-grown banks, creeks and tiny islands turn Świder into a great place for picnicking. There are also many vast, sandy beaches at the mouth of the river.
The Radom region: folk culture & modern art
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Centre for Polish Sculpture in Orońsko, photo: Piotr Polak/PAP
Historically, the Radom region is part of Małopolska, but nowadays it lies within the administrative borders of the Mazowieckie Voivodeship. The first stop on our route is the Wsola village, located 90 km away from Warsaw and 10 km away from Radom. Its name comes from ‘wszoł’, an ‘Old Polish term for a cattle louse or a derogatory term for a poor person.’ This interestingly named village houses a palace built at the beginning of the 20th century and surrounded by a six-hectare park.
After the war, the palace was turned into a precinct of Milicja Obywatelska. It later became a home for the elderly, and since 2009, it has served as the Gombrowicz Museum. Witold Gombrowicz’s older brother, Jerzy, has been the palace’s owner since 1926, and the writer lived there until his departure from Poland in 1939. His former room was turned into the Ferdydurke Café. The family’s coachman, Michał Romanow, said in Joanna Siedlecka’s book that Witold’s room ‘was always full of papers and cigarette ends – he never did anything, except for writing all night.’ Other than housing exhibitions devoted to the writer, the Museum also organises literary meetings, lectures, concerts and theatre productions.
Fifteen kilometres away from Radom lies Orońsko – a village that needs little introduction for anyone interested in contemporary art. It all started in 1965, when a group of 13 artists decided to display the results of their sculpture work in a park surrounding the local palace. In 1981, the Centre for Polish Sculpture was established there.
The Centre’s collection consists of sculptures by Magdalena Abakanowicz, Paweł Althamer, Mirosław Bałka, Barbara Falender, Wojciech Fangor, Jerzy Jarnuszkiewicz and dozens of other great artists. The sculptures are displayed in the 13-hectare park, as well as the orangery, chapel and new building of the Museum of Contemporary Sculpture.
Other Orońsko cultural traditions are 100 years older. The palace was once owned by Helena Pruszakowa, the wife of the painter Józef Brandt. His students and friends, including Juliusz Kossak, Władysław Wankie and Tadeusz Ajdukiewicz, visited the residence, and this artistic colony earned the name of the Free Academy of Orońsko. Today, the Brandt Palace exhibits 19th-century interiors – they have been meticulously reconstructed, because the turbulent events of the 20th century destroyed everything except for two fireplaces.
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The Radom region is famous also for the richness of its folk culture and its multicultural heritage. The father of Polish ethnography, Oskar Kolberg, wrote:
I was born in the town of Przysucha, […] near the Polish market. The town has three markets: one Polish, one German and one Jewish.
Today, Przysucha houses the Oskar Kolberg Museum. The Radom region, especially the area surrounding Przysucha, is famous for its folk music traditions. Andrzej Bieńkowski, a painter and ethnographer engaged in folk-music collection since the 1970s, wrote:
‘Kajocy’. This mysterious word needs some explanation. I first heard it in the Radom region in 1979. I was approached by a shepherd who was bored with loneliness. He said, pointing to Rdzuchów, a village on the horizon: ‘Mister, that’s where the Kajocy live. They play such contortions on the violin that you can’t help but dance.’ […] The name ‘Kajocy’ comes from the local expression ‘kaj byłeś?’, meaning ‘where were you?’ […] The ‘Kajok’ [singular for Kajocy – ed.] microregion consists of around a dozen villages located north of Przysucha. […] Kajocy played extremely expressive, trance-like music, much different than that of their neighbours.
Many local villages organise dance parties in their Village Dancing Clubs. The following clip from the ‘Muzyka Zakorzeniona’ website shows how a shop in the village of Nieznamierowice was turned into a dance hall.
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Piotr Gaca / kapela Lipców / Wiejski Klub Tańca Nieznamierowice
contemporary polish sculpture
The region’s music can be heard in the cities thanks to the Radom Oberek Initiative. Dance parties in the Radom region are also visited by people from far and wide. Szydłowiec, located at the South of the Voivodeship, is an important destination for any folk music enthusiast. It houses the Museum of Folk Instruments, which was created in 1975 – the first institution of its kind in the entire world.