Gingerly gothic

Gingerly gothic


Susheela nair walks us through the streets of the Polish town, Torun, the birth place of Copernicus. But perhaps, you might remember it for its gingerbread.

stunning A gothic  structure in Torun;  (below) the gingerbread museum. Photos by author

Entering Torun, a Polish town in north-central Poland, I was caught in a time warp. The tranquility of the place is striking.

The place resonates with history and abounds in several imposing heritage
edifices. Exploring the monumental red-brick churches, residences, fortifications, the family house, the never-ending city walls and gates, the ruins of the Teutonic castle and the Crooked Tower was like walking into the pages of history. These stunning examples of Gothic architecture scattered around the town has bequeathed a distinctive appearance to the town and its promotional tag: ‘Gotyk na dotyk’ (Touch Gothic).
Sitting astride both banks of the Vistula in Poland, the former Hanseatic Port was one of the few Polish cities which escaped major damage in World War II. Hence the layout of streets of Torunń Old Town remain unchanged for centuries. The beautifully preserved Old Town with the original urban layout finds a place in the UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site. Torun exudes a slow-paced country-town feel, sans commercial signage and tourist trappings. But we found the vicinity of the central square alive with bars, restaurants and music venues.

One cannot miss the striking Old Town Hall in the middle of the Old Town Square. Its courtyard is reminiscent of the gory bloodshed during the Torunń Mutiny in 1724. This historic building hosts a
surprisingly interesting museum, the regional museum which features a large collection of paintings, of many different artists, eras, styles and themes. Like all European towns, Torun has its own treasure trove of museums, historical buildings, legends, history and the like.

Monumental history
Strolling around in the Central Square of the town, the intriguing fountain-
monument with bronze-cast frogs on its rim, admiring a statue of a violin-playing boy caught my attention. The legend behind the monument transported me to the medieval ages. It is said that when a witch once visited the town she was shooed away by the locals. In revenge, she invoked a curse, and the town was invaded by frogs. The mayor offered a sack full of gold and his daughter to anyone who would rescue the town. But a raftsman playing the violin managed to lure thousands of frogs away from the city to the woods with his
enchanting melodies.

Thus the town was saved from a huge calamity. In honour of Torun’s Pied Piper, a monument of the raftsman was erected in Torunń in 1914.

Of the historical buildings, the largest and most impressive are the silent arches of  the enormous Gothic Cathedral of SS John the Baptist and John the Evangelist where Copernicus was baptised.Its
massive tower flaunts Poland’s second-largest historic bell. Cast in 1530, it weighs 7,238 kg and is rung for significant religious and national events. On the southern side of the tower, facing the Vistula, is a large 15th century clock; its original face and single hand are still in working order. The third great Gothic structure in the old town is St Mary’s Church, erected by the Franciscans at the end of the 13th century. Its interiors boast of tall, intricate stained-glass windows and a prominent golden altarpiece, framed by a wooden archway depicting a complete crucifixion scene.

Beyond architecture, Torunń is best known as the birthplace of Nicolaus Copernicus (1473–1543), the famous astronomer who managed to stop the sun by proving that the earth moved around the sun and not vice versa, 400 years ago. There’s a statue of Copernicus clad in a professor’s robe holding an armillary sphere in his left hand. A street and a university are also named after the famous son. The house where he was born is currently a great museum dedicated to all his work. The university has its own astronomical observatory and is one of the biggest in North Poland.

Gingerbread house
The native son’s name is all over town, and you can even buy gingerbread shaped in his image which is famous across Poland. One cannot leave Torun without tasting its pierniki (gingerbread) which is another trademark and pride of Torun. We stopped by the innovative hands-on Gingerbread Museum to have a peek into the arcane art of pierniki creation. We were guided by a costumed medieval townswoman. We watched her baking the gingerbread, mixing ingredients such as ginger, cloves, cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg, etc. The tradition of baking gingerbread in the town of Copernicus is almost as long as its history.

Some of these aromatic cookies are made from top quality flour, exceptional honey and oriental spicy flavouring.

Since the Middle Ages, visiting celebrities have been presented with gingerbread designed especially for them. It is believed that Pope John Paul II received gingerbread in the shape of the heliocentric system known from the work of Nicholas Copernicus’s De Revolutionibus... Shopping in Torun revolves around gingerbread. So before we left the town, we picked up these indispensable souvenirs available in the traditional shape of carriages, coats of arms, knights, townsmen and townswomen at work, and hearts.

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