Art and free-thinking run deep in Kazimierz Dolny, a small, picturesque town nestled in the heart of Poland. A popular haunt for the arty day-visiting crowd as well as summer residents, painters also flock here to paint and sell their work. Galleries grace just about every street selling sculptures, stained-glass, folk art and fine art, while the cobbled market square at the town’s heart hosts higgledy-piggledy houses and the elegant façades of Renaissance mansions – most people can’t resist the multitude of photo opportunities.
Significant too, is the town’s rich Jewish history: prior to the Second World War, half Kazimierz Dolny’s population was Jewish but the synagogue was destroyed during the conflict. It was rebuilt in the 1950s and since 2008, it has been depicting the city’s Jewish history through a collection of vivid photographs. In the early 20th century, Kazimierz Dolny began attracting artists and well-heeled Warsaw residents looking for a fashionable weekend getaway.
Once you’ve bought an artistic memento or two, there’s more to see and do in this lovely town:
The Natural History Museum
Housed in a beautifully restored 1591 granary, the museum hosts a good selection of animals, including insects and birds, along with an interesting video explaining the process of taxidermy (which is far less gruesome than you might expect). You will also find a busy, living beehive colony whose occupants are blissfully unaware of their spectators. Don’t miss the intricate wooden structure which supports the roof – an exquisite example of 16th-century building techniques when beams were joined with pegs, not nails.
The Celej family home
This 17th century Celej family home is now the town’s main museum, showcasing art in several rooms on its upper floor. Many of the artists are residents of Kazimierz Dolny, and their works beautifully demonstrate the town’s role in Poland’s artistic heritage.
The ruins of Kazimierz Dolny’s castle lie just above the parish church on ul Zamkowa. Built in 1341 to protect the town from the Tatar incursion, the castle was extended in the 16th century and elaborately embellished during the Renaissance period. The remaining fragments of the castle offer a picturesque place to enjoy the views over the town and the River Vistula. (Open May to October)
If you don’t mind a bit of a climb, then the watchtower, 100 metres above the castle, is well worth the effort. It dates back to the end of the 13th century and is one of the oldest defences of its kind in the entire nation. The watchtower protected an important river crossing in this area and today it’s a magnificent place to take in the sweeping views across the valley and river (Open May to October).
The Hill of Three Crosses
Another moderate climb takes you up the path to the right of the parish church, leading to the Hill of Three Crosses. Three large crosses stand to commemorate victims of the plague that swept through Kazimierz Dolny in the 18th century – yet another place to enjoy this area’s sensational views.
With so much creativity in town, it’s only natural that Kazimierz Dolny should be filled with music too. In fact, it is famed for the annual Festival of Folk Bands and Singers (Festiwal Kapel i Piewakow Ludowych), a summer event that has been running for half a century.
Klezmer music is a feature of the event, along with traditional bands of other genres from across Poland. It’s a big event: the concerts are recorded for Polish radio and musicians compete on the main square in front of specialist judges.
“It’s one of the few places you can get a taste of the traditional music and rural culture of Poland – from the Baltic Sea in the north to the Tatra Mountains in the south,” says Mateusz Dobrowolski, president of the Warsaw ethnic arts association, Transetnika.
Wining and dining
If you’re looking for the “best” restaurant, not only in Kazimierz Dolny but in all of Poland, make your way to the highly acclaimed Kuchnia i Wino. The menu is created by the Warsaw chef, Wojciech Modest Amaro, who won Poland’s first Michelin star in 2012. Here you can savour Polish specialities with a special artistic twist, such as chilled red cabbage soup with yoghurt, and rolled beef with bison grass and flower petals.
For something less high-brow, the creaking, rustic Zielona Tawerna (ul Nadwiślańska 4) is a homely venue with mismatched antique furniture, art laden walls, rugs and candles. Meals vary from the meaty mains to vegetable platters, all lovingly created. If you’re not too hungry, you might like to order half a dish at 70 per cent of the full price. Alternatively, Bar Galeria (ul Plebanka 7a) is a curious hole-in-the-wall hidden away from the tourist throngs, and serving up traditional Polish pierogi domowe (homemade dumplings). Smacznego! (Bon appetit!)