Born in 1473 in present day Poland, Copernicus, the man who stopped the Sun and moved the Earth, is very much claimed as Polish property. Once, at a party, I recklessly suggested that Copernicus wasn’t Polish since national ID was demarcated differently back in those days. I almost got thrown out of the party. Luckily, it was my party and I wasn’t booted out for my blasphemy.
Toruń, the astronomer’s birthplace is a quaint little town, good for a day or weekend trip. Below is a travel piece I wrote a while back when my son had shorter legs and I had to think of ways to entertain him why checking out the place. It was, obviously, a play on/parody of a famous (mis)adventure.
The Copernicus Code (Warsaw Insider, June 2006)
“Find the clues at these places. They are worth a brownie point each,” I said to my budding sightseer.
“Tuba Dei!” Alex yelled triumphantly, unperturbed that the instrument that hung overhead in the belfry of St. John’s Cathedral looked nothing like a trumpet. I staggered up from behind, out-of-breath. We’d just twirled up a claustrophobic stairwell. The ‘God’s Trumpet’ was Alex’s third brownie point.
I wanted to wallow in architecture and history. He wanted to prance about and terrorize the local pigeons. So I hatched a treasure hunt and named it ‘the Copernicus Code’. Then, I sketched a map and called it ‘Gingerbread City’. I marked ‘X’s’ on spots of interest and invented quizzes. And so the quest began.
“Tuba Dei is silent except at Easter, on New Year’s Day and on special occasions,” a priest explained to a group of jostling school kids. This grand old bell is more than 500 years old and the biggest gothic bell in Poland. It’s one of the 11 historic bells in Toruń that has survived looting and recasting into weaponry. Its peal heralded the arrival of Popes and Polish Kings. These days, the routine tolling is done by a newer and smaller bell that hangs diagonally above it.
We trailed the vociferous youngsters up a flight of stairs. In the attic of the belfry, we used a compass (a prop to add to the sense of adventure) to locate the southern dormer window and waited for our turn to peer out. The school excursion tapered off.
“Looks like a postcard,” Alex marveled as he tiptoed to glimpse at the stretch along River Wisła. We then rumbled on the wooden beam floor to the opposite window for the bird-eye view of the Old Town’s architectural wonders. Time has treated this UNESCO Heritage site quite kindly. Relatively unravaged by power plays, except for a few incidents, it is dotted with historical treasures from the last millennium.
By the time our feet returned to the cathedral’s uneven flagstones, the school kids were seated on the pews. “During the Reformation, the interior was white-washed,” the priest continued. The interior felt surprisingly small, though the building dominates the Old Town’s skyline. The frescos, ornate woodwork and stained glass had an air of antiquity I felt in a church we’d just visited.
Clue number one was in St. Mary’s church. A guidebook mentioned the ‘monastic modesty’ of the Franciscan founders during the church’s construction. The worn concave flagstones, unpainted walls and the simple pew benches may be modest, but its gothic verticality was simply breath-taking. The stained glass lancet windows raced to the heavens above. We craned our necks to study the vaulted ceilings. I could lose myself in brown study of the craftsmanship in the chancel. But my seven-year old was tugging my hands. He’d located the clue: the cartouche with the inscription ‘Virtuti Speculu’.
From St. Mary’s, we gravitated towards the planetarium. Toruń is Copernicus’s birthplace. Quiz no.2: Which astronomer did Toruń name the planetarium after? Easy-peasy.
“Władysław Dziewulski,” Alex read the name off the plaque on the wall and ready to propel on.
“W. Dziewulski was your grandmother’s granduncle,” I baited Alex. “A crater on the dark side of the moon is named after him,” I reeled him in.
“Let’s go inside,” Alex said. But at 10 a.m., the doors were impenetrable. Stargazers are night owls, not early birds.
Outside St. John’s, Alex pondered over which ‘X’ to tackle. The old city, comprises of the Old Town and the New Town, is compact. Even with zigzagging and doubling-back, it’s light work for little legs.
Alex chose to uncover the origin of ‘Katarzynka’. Not ‘who’, but ‘what’. Imagine a six-petal daisy. Grab two petals with each hand, then stretch the flower into a rectangular. What you get is the shape of a piernik (gingerbread) named ‘Katarzynka’. In gingerbread town, you don’t have to go far to find a gingerbread shop. We sailed into one with the goods in all sizes, shapes and flavours. You can buy pre-packaged ones or by weight. Piernik are often glazed or chocolate-coated and filled with fruity mush. The ensemble is so sweet that cavities develop in your molars just by looking at them. The rock-hard types with decorative motifs will also leave your chompers quivering in fear.
“Steep them in tea first,” the shopkeeper advised.
We tendered the quiz to the shopkeeper. She answered with a box of Katarzynka sporting a Tytus (a Polish cartoon character) comic strip on the packaging. Tytus spun a yarn on the Katie’s origin. Utterly unconvincing. We took Tytus home anyway along with some toffee piernik.
Toddling into the Old Town Square, we found tourists orbiting the statue of Copernicus for photo opportunities. Copernicus is our man in the Renaissance era. Though famed for ‘moving the earth and stopping the sun’, he was also a cleric, economist and medical practitioner. Alex weaved in to read the plaque on the pedestal and hazarded a guess for his next clue: the Latin word for ‘sun’.
This reminded me of our rendezvous with De revolutionibus at Copernicus House. We double-backed into ul. Kopernika. The street was deserted, the buildings greyer and run-down. For a moment, I thought we’d fallen off the beaten path. A grandmother leaned out of her second storey window to survey the street. And that’s the charm of the old city: it belongs to its people. It’s not a tourist trap crammed with tacky souvenirs, over-priced coffees and cut-throat restaurants. The Hanseatic buildings are now occupied by modern day merchants serving local needs.
We soon arrived the astronomer’s home, now a museum. Amongst its careworn neighbors, the museum’s spruced up facade looked like a misfit piece of jigsaw puzzle. Inside, Alex whirred me from one exhibition chamber to the next. I barely caught glimpses of portraits depicting Copernicus in the prime of his life. Alex considered two exhibits as worthy of pit-stops: models of a granary house and a heliocentric system. Quiz number whatever: how many planets were there in Copernicus’ galaxy?
Ul. Szeroka connects the Old Town to the New Town. Along this shopping street, we played ‘I spy with my little eyes something beginning with the letter D’. Alex spied the dragon immediately. We passed Empik and into ul. Wielkie Garbary. Abruptly the high street sheen took on a backstreet slant. I hesitated but the ice cream parlour was in sight. Any day is a good day for a few scopes of krówka.
Quiz number whatever + 1: how many points are there on the star of Pod Gwiadzą (the Star House)? For that, we backtracked to the Old Town Square. Pod Gwiadzą is a museum of Asiatic crafts. The richly embellished facade is a museum piece in its own rights. Alex counted the star’s tips and arrived at eight. That makes it an octacle.
Tomorrow, our quest would continue along the river to see the Crooked Tower, the granary house, the city gates and the ruins of the Teutonic castle. For now, we set up camp in the beer garden of Piwnica Ratusz. It’s the perfect vantage point for soaking in the grandeur of the Town Hall and Artus Court. And for people-watching the folks milling around Flisak, the Pied Piper of Toruń. It’s a legend I’d tell Alex once he’s done ambushing the feathery flocks.
Getting there from Warsaw: By car: Our preferred scenic route is via Płock and Włocławek. Another route is via Płonsk. By train: Trains run from Warsaw to Toruń Główny. http://www.intercity.pkp.pl
Miś, ul. Różana (a few doors from Artus Court) – An eatery fashioned after a Polish cult movie that parodied life during the communist era.
Gingerbread: aside from the Kopernik outlets, try Pierniczek (ul. Żeglarska 25), Emporium (ul. Piekary 28)
Ice Cream breaks: Lenkiewicz (ul. Wielkie Garbary 14)