Those looking to trace the birth of the Polish nation should make it in their interests to follow the Piast Route, a tourist trail specifically designed to take in the key sights associated with Poland’s formative years. Consisting of dozens of castles, churches, cathedrals and museums the route encompasses a vast variety of sights, some relevant to Poland’s beginnings, others whose inclusion is a little baffling. Below are our favourites:
In 1933 an eagle-eyed school master spotted wooden stakes sticking out of some lakeside reeds and like a conscientious citizen went to investigate. What he had inadvertently stumbled on was to become known as the Polish Pompeii: a Lusatian fortified settlement dating from the early Iron Age. Excavation work was launched the following year, and carried on under the request of Himmler once Poland fell to Germany. Situated 90km north east of Poznań Biskupin has since become a popular symbol of patriotism, proof to many that Poland has always proudly defended its borders against the Germans. Today the wooden fortress has been fully reconstructed and is open throughout the year as an open air museum. Although not connected with the Piast dynasty it is seen as a vital part of the route that traces Poland’s early origins. Without a doubt Biskupin rates as one of the great wonders of Poland, but that doesn’t mean tourists will find it easy to get there. Your best bet is to either hire a car or hijack a helicopter. If you’re travelling from Poznań using public transport you’ll be left with no choice but spending a night in the local town of Żnin. For more info check the comprehensive English language website at www.biskupin.pl.
Found on the banks of Lake Gopło this is a historic market town that became one of the first fortified settlements in the region. Your camera lens is going to primarily be zooming in on the Mouse Tower (Mysia Wieża), a 32 metre structure sitting on the Rzępowski Peninsula. Apparently built during the reign of Kazimierz the Great the tower was awarded its name after a plague of rodents allegedly ate Prince Popiel – a devious chap who had poisoned some rivals.
Found between Poznań and Gniezno a trip to Lake Lednickie allows the opportunity to visit the Museum of the First Piasts – Poland’s largest open-air museum. Situated on an island tourists get to wander around the 10th century ruins of a castle and church once used by both Mieszko I and his son. Once connected to the mainland by a pair of bridges the fortress is thought to have played its part during in repelling the Czech invasion of 1038 and archaeological relics that have been recovered since include weaponry, cutlery and the skeleton of a fallen Czech warrior.
Although a tiny town of just 12,000 Strzelno is one of the most important points on the trail of the Piasts. Visit St. Adalbert’s Hill to view the Church of St. Prokopus, a rotund house of worship whose history allegedly goes back to the 12th century. Next to it is the Basilica, and though it was retouched in Baroque style its history goes way beyond those times; in 1946 routine restoration work by professor Zdzisław Kępiński revealed a set of Romanesque columns which had been hidden from view for over 200 years. These columns are thought to be over 800 years old, and the only similar ones on record are to be found in Venice and Santiago de Compostella.
Before St. Adalbert’s corpse made it to Gniezno it was originally laid to rest in this town. Apparently founded in the 10th century Trzemeszno features a baroque church dating from the 18th century, as well as a monument to the local-born hero Jan Kiliński. A cobbler by trade he went on to become the unlikely hero of the 1794 Kościuszko Uprising. Despite being wounded twice Kiliński led his men to capture the Russian Ambassador’s Warsaw residence, and he is said to embody the Polish virtues of bravery and patriotism.
Five kilometers south of Żnin, Wenecja (Venice) is a small settlement whose name alludes to its picturesque location tucked between three lakes. Known as the ‘Pearl of Pałuki’ the town is home to a Narrow Gauge Railway Museum, with its collection featuring a number of steam locomotives (the oldest dating back to 1900), various detritus recovered from the age of steam and a working line that takes captivated visitors all the way to Żnin (stopping at Biskupin). But the real point of interest here are the skeletal ruins of a former Piast stronghold. A leftover from the 14th century the castle once came under the ownership of Mikołaj Nałęcz, a nasty judge who originated from Kalisz. Nicknamed the ‘devil of Wenecja’ his ghost is said to stalk the ruins at night.
Founded in 1358 – right at the tail end of King Kazimierz’s rule – the town of Wylatowo has the most tenuous connections with the Piasts, however you’ll find it included in all the bumph related to the Piast Route because of two factors. Firstly, it’s home to the only triple-aisled wooden church in Poland (built 1761). Secondly, it’s famous for extra-terrestrial activity. We kid you not. It’s in this backwater a strange cigar shaped object was photographed floating in the skies 2007, with lab tests since confirming that there were no camera tricks or other such jiggery pokery involved. But that’s not the only peculiar happening; since 2000 when crop circles first started appearing in the neighbouring fields Wylatowo has established itself as a mecca for Polski ufologists. While some claim the circles are the work of savvy farmers looking to make a quick buck science geeks and X-Files style investigations have yet to determine the cause of this annual summer phenomena. For more info, including live transmissions from the affected areas visit www.januszzagórski.pl.