The European Council Selects Culture Trails around Poland
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The European Council’s Cultural Routes are guideposts in the search for the common history, heritage, and identity of the Old Continent. There are more than thirty of them, and we have selected six of the most interesting ones which are partly located in Poland. Ready for a journey through time and space?
Tracing the pirates of the North
A cruel warrior, hungry for loot and fame, dressed in armour and a horned helmet; or a courageous discoverer, excellent merchant and craftsman, and a talented poet? Inspired by various folk tales and legends, our imagination tends to present the Viking as a maritime villain. Meanwhile, Scandinavians argue that their ancestors were excellent sailors and administrators who farmed crops, bred cattle, and traded in various goods. As for the horned helmet, it would only be worn by the leader at important ceremonies, and the axes simply turned out to be cheaper weapons than swords.
Germanic peoples from Northern Europe dominated the European seas for some three hundred years, beginning in the 8th century. They reached as far as Iceland, Greenland and the coasts of North America, as well as the borders of the Byzantine Empire. Following in their footsteps today, we pass through 50 different locations with reconstructed early Medieval towns, fortresses, Viking ships, and various everyday objects. The map of the European Vikings’ Route includes the Polish island of Wolin.
A ‘large and strong maritime castle’ was raised on Jom [Wolin] island, and it was henceforth called Jomsborg, the Viking stronghold, the city of Wolin. It had a ‘harbour so large that three hundred long boats could stay in it at once’, according to the Jómsvikingasaga, an old Nordic narrative dated for the 12th century. The Vikings praised their various conquests and travels in sagas, and their poems and songs were recorded on rune stones. One such stone, praising the Dutch king who was the founder and ruler of the Wolin camp, can be viewed on the island of Wolin. The story of this king, Harald Blåtand, who united Scandinavia, inspired the creators of Bluetooth technology. The idea of a wireless connection between devices was named after his moniker – Blåtand means Bluetooth, and the Bluetooth logo is made up of the runic equivalents of his initials, HB. Blåtand’s daughter-in-law and the wife of his son Sweyn Forkbeard was Świętosława, the legendary daughter of Poland’s first Christian ruler, Mieszko I. Jom's Vikings were to protect the borders of his county.
Although truth is at times hard to separate from fantasy, archaeological research points unambiguously to the Nordic people’s presence on Polish territory. Various preserved objects are proof of this in Wolin (objects which are solely masculine possessions, in accordance with the Nordic tradition), and there are traces of Scandinavian artwork which was developing at the time, too. These artefacts can be viewed in a local museum, and from April through to October, tourists can also visit an open-air museum replica of the old fortress. The annual Slavs and Vikings’ Festival attracts those passionate about their culture from across the entire Old Continent.
From the sea to the cities
By the 11th century, Wolin started to lose its significance as the most important city of the Baltic Sea region. Cities like Gdańsk, Kołobrzeg, and Szczecin started competing for the position of international trade and sailing centres. The first communities of maritime merchants began to form in the Netherlands as early as the 12th century. The Hanseatic League played a growingly important role. It was created in 1356 at a gathering in Lubeck, with representatives from the Prussian territories around Toruń and Elbląg. Soon, the league spread out to encompass a territory stretching from the Dutch cities all the way up to the Russian Novgorod, bringing together up to 160 of the most important seacoast as well as inland settlements. This commercial and defensive confederation survived up to the early modern era.
As a bridge connecting the markets of Western and Eastern Europe, the Hanse excluded any exterior competition in trade in the Northern and Baltic Sea regions. Among the goods that were traded there was Flemish cloth, salt, fish, grains, wood, wax, and wine. Merchants who wished to stand out created social Patrician family groups. There were Brotherhoods of St. George who would feast at the Artus Courts in Toruń, Elbląg and Gdańsk. The latter city also saw the appearance of the Blackheads Society – a community of unmarried merchants who enjoyed a respected position in society.
The biggest economic entity which existed prior to the founding of the European Union shared a common language, Christian faith, a legal system, and cultural heritage. Far away from their families, merchants would spend their evenings on storytelling (their main protagonist was the trickster figure of Till Eulenspiegel, Dyl Sowizdrzał in Polish) or poetry readings (with many a ribald verse), and they enjoyed performances of theatrical sketches, as well as sailor’s songs. During the period of the war between the Hanseatic League and England, the Gdańsk fleet contributed to the 1473 victory. One of the conquered ships carried Hans Memling’s Final Judgement. The cities which once formed part of the Hanseatic trade route can be recognised from afar thanks to the high towers of their Gothic cathedrals, which also cemented the cities’ high rank. Many of the shrines share identical patrons: the Virgin Mary (St. Mary’s Basilicas) and St. Nicolas – patron saint of merchants and sailors.
By the third stone
The walls of various monasteries were a mute witness of the transformation and shaping of European culture, not only in its spiritual dimension. This can be clearly observed on the European Cysterian Route, which starts on the Iberian peninsula, going across France and Germany, all the way through to Poland. Monikered ‘white monks’ due to the colour of their frocks, brothers of the Cysterian Order arrived on Polish territories in around 1153 from Clairvaux and Morimond. Together with La Ferte and Potigny, these French abbeys were named the Four Daughters of Citeaux, which was the first Cysterian monastery. Its latin name, Cisterum, supposedly points to the location: cis tertium lapidem, meaning ‘by the third stone’ on the ancient Roman route between Chalons and Langres.
As a faction of the Benedictine order, the Cysterians emphasised the severity of their customs. This was also reflected in their architecture: it was simple, lapidary, and did not allow towers or interior decorations. The constructions’ functional character resulted in numerous modern solutions, such as the cross-rib ceilings and pointed-arch arcades which were soon spread across all of Europe. On modern-day Polish territory, a majority of the surviving 13th-century Romanist buildings are located in the Małopolska region (in Jędrzejów and Sulejów), while the Pomerania region has numerous examples of red-brick Gothic architecture (in Gdańsk-Oliwa, Pelplin and in Bierzwnik). Baroque abbeys can be found in the Wielkopolska region, but the most splendid ones are located in Silesia, such as the abbey in Lubiąż.
Apart from prayer, the monks also engaged in sheep and cattle farming, as well as mining for precious metals. They are known for their wine production and breweries, as well as milling and weaving. In Poland, it was the Cysterian monks who were pioneers in setting up iron forges, and some of the cloisters in the Małopolska region had permission to cast their own coins. The Blessed Wincenty Kadłubek was connected with one of Poland’s oldest abbeys in Jędrzejów. Inside its cells, he created the fourth volume of the Polish Chronicle, commissioned by the count Kazimierz Sprawiedliwy (Casimir the Just).
Journeys with the king
In the 14th century, another count, Władysław Jagiełło, came to the coronation ceremony from Vilnius to Kraków. The course of his journey was named the Jagiellonian Route. It is a branch of the Via Regia – the Royal Road which connects the East and the West of Europe. The oldest part of this course was built by the ancient Romans, for the transport of their army from Spanish Galicia towards the Elbe river. The road was then extended onto the central and eastern parts of the Old Continent, all the way up to present-day Belarus, Lithuania, and Ukraine. An original monument from 1584 commemorating the construction of the section between Brzeg and Oława stands to this day in the town of Brzezina in Lower Silesia. In was only in the 19th century that the important function of this route was taken over by railways.
For centuries, merchants also benefited from the Via Regia as they set up settlements and huge cities along its course. It also enjoyed royal protection as a trade route. It became a means of exchanging goods, but also an intersection of various cultures and aesthetic and artistic trends. The sculptures of Wit Stwosz were transported on the Via Regia, as well the Sachsenspiegel, a 13th-century law book and custumal of the Holy Roman Empire. It also served a means of transporting pilgrims headed for Santiago de Compostela in Spain. It is one of the main threads of St. Jacob’s Road, the first cultural route acknowledged by the European Council in 1987. Poland is working towards connecting the remaining parts of the road to the European route.
On the mystic path
Apart from Christianity, Jewish heritage also forms an integral part of European culture and history. Its palpable traces can be found in South-Eastern Poland along the Hasidic Trail. The term hasidic (meaning pious in Hebrew) denotes one of the most important currents of Judaism, which emerged in the 17th-century Polish Republic.
The Hasidic Trail runs across a road drawn out by the Foundation for Protecting Jewish Heritage, and it covers 28 towns in the Podkarpacie and Lubelskie regions. Zamość is its central point, with a 17th-century synagogue which houses a modern cultural centre devoted to depicting the life of the Jewish community. But in the past, it was the city of Lublin which was called the Polish Kingdom’s Jerusalem. To date, Jan Matejko’s painting from 1889 entitled The Reception of Jews hangs in Lublin Castle. Old synagogues have been preserved in Kraśnik and in Włodawa, but the most precious one is in Łańcut. From the outside, it looks rather modest, but this baroque temple surprises visitors with its interior decorations, such as wall paintings and prayers hanging in the arcades.
Tracing the Hasidic Trail, one cannot omit the city preserved by the Nobel-winning author Isaac Bavish Singer in his novel, The Fools of Chelm and Their History, wherein local Jews become the protagonists of various stories and jokes. According to legend, they were helped in their everyday tasks by a thoughtless golem, a giant made of clay and mud by Rabbi Elijah. One of the oldest Jewish cemeteries in Europe is also located in Chełm, and dates back to the 15th century. But Hasidic Jews travel to the city of Lizhensk (Leżajsk in Polish), where they visit the grave of their spiritual leader Elimelech, with the faith that he can help their prayers be heard, and their requests – which they write out on small pieces of paper – answered.
Onto the last journey
The muse Euterpe made of white marble leans down over a broken lyre, and a medallion with the portrait of Frederick Chopin can be seen on the pedestal below. The grave of the Polish composer and many other Poles can be found at the Parisian Père-Lachaise cemetery, one of the tens which are also part of the European Cultural Route. Two necropoles in Kraków are also part of the list which pays homage to melancholic manifestations of local history, and the craftsmanship of small-scale sacral art.
European cultural routes
old podgórski cemetery
The Lasota Hill is home to the Old Podgórski Cemetery (Stary Cmentarz Podgórski), which was founded between 1786 and 1792. After closing down in the late 19th century, it slowly fell into ruin. Many of the historic tombstones were destroyed by Germans who decided to lay down a new line of train tracks here during World War II. But the major damage was suffered during construction works of a nearby road in the 1970s. By way of commenting the historic value of Kraków’ oldest communal cemetery, people would say that ‘every tombstone is an encyclopaedia entry’. Among those buried at the cemetery are Edward Dembowski, the leader of the Kraków uprising; Elijah Radzikowski – the painter and his son, a sculptor; as well as Aleksander Kotsis, a painter of landscapes and genre scenes.
The New Podgórski Cemetery, founded in 1900, is located nearby, at the foot of the Krakus Mound. Even if there aren’t as many artists and people of merit for the city of Kraków, one’s sight is attracted by images of pondering angels and many other unique sculptures, such as figures of women sitting underneath a crucifix with rose wreaths, personifications of mourning and sadness.
Written by Agnieszka Warnke, August 2016; translated by Paulina Schlosser