Updated: Feb 27, 2020
Small town Poland is, by and large, a fairly unremarkable affair. Unlike neighbouring Czech Republic, say, Poland's provincial places don't really match the often impressive cities, and are generally a little lacklustre. There are few genuine gems to be found. Sandomierz, located in south east Poland almost equidistant between Krakow and Lublin (about two hours from both by road), and around three from Warsaw, is the exception that proves this rule. Similar to nearby Kazimierz Dolny, it has a huge amount of character for a small town, and packs in enough attractions to justify considering a weekend stay. Visitors to Krakow or Warsaw may find a day trip to be a bit excessive, but those with a bit more time on their hands would be well-advised to consider a stop here. It would even make a a good base in itself for about a week if you plan to visit any of the surrounding attractions. In the centre of a grape-growing region which is fast becoming one of Poland's premier viticultural areas, and surrounded by pretty countryside perfect for exploration, it's not only fans of popular TV series Ojciec Mateusz who are coming to Sandomierz now: it's becoming a town of international repute, as summer crowds attest to. Come outside the busy summer months though, and you're likely to have the place pretty much to yourself. Welcome to off-the-beaten-path Poland.
Best of the Beaten(ish) Path
This is a bit of a misnomer then, as you're not likely to be fighting the crowds except on a bank holiday weekend. Sandomierz is an ancient town perched on top of a hill which rises above the Vistula river, and its centre is a striking sloping Rynek (main square) which is surrounded by pastel-coloured baroque townhouses, and in the centre of which stands an impressive gothic red brick town hall. Narrow cobbled lanes lead off in all directions, and the whole place is very compact, taking no more than half a day to take in all the sights, or a day with visits to all of them. The 14th century Town Hall is the oldest building in the Rynek, and its ground floor houses the regional museum, which focuses on the town's history. The square itself is ringed by houses from different stylistic periods. One of the town's premier attractions is nearby - the Underground Tourist Route. This is a fascinating guided tour through a 500 metre section of 34 historic cellars beneath the Market Square. They were integral to the town's history, indeed the tour begins with a tale of how they saved it from a Tartar invasion in the Middle Ages. Over the next 30-40 minutes, you will learn about how Sandomierz grew in importance and influence over the centuries. Information, and indeed, guides, in English however are sadly lacking, so take a Polish speaker with you! Get a bird's eye view over the town by heading to Opatowska Gate.
Climb the 50m tower there to reach a viewing platform and get a 360 degree view and appreciate the stunning setting. Head to the Royal Castle, just down the hill, stopping on the way to admire the narrow Ucho Igielne (Eye of the Needle) Gate. The castle, the single most impressive structure in Sandomierz, was built in the 14th century by King Casimir the Great. It contains a regional museum with a modest collection of ethnographic, archaeological and art objects, but the best reason to come is to wonder around the impressive building itself and for the views it commands over the river. A better museum, and a great example of Sandomierz's under-rated assets, is the Długosz House (Dom Długosza), which contains a rich and impressive collection within a lavish and impressive interior. Of the several churches in Sandomierz, the Cathedral is of most interest - not so much for its architecture (though it's impressive) as for its unusual artwork inside. A series of twelve gruesome paintings by 18th century artist Karol de Prevot depict various unpleasant ways of dying; the twelve paintings represent the months of the year, and by each horribly maimed figure in each painting is a date 1-31. If you find the date that represents your birth, you apparently find out how you're going to die. Cheers. Finally, for die-hard fans of bicycle-riding priest-cum-detective Polish TV series Ojciec Mateusz (Father Matthew), there is a new museum in the town catering to visitors drawn to the town where the series is set. Grandly named The World of Father Mateusz, it features waxwork figures in various scenes from the series, pictures and memorabilia including the famous bicycle itself. This is one sight that non-fans might want to skip, especially as it's rather steeply-priced at 30zł (€7.50).
Away From the (small) Crowds
Away from the market square area and castle - the old part of town - there isn't a great deal to discover, and the new town beyond the river is best avoided completely. There is a nice short walk though which involves walking down the Gorge of Queen Jadwiga - a narrow gully formed by rain water which has exposed tree roots and looks stunning in autumn when carpeted by reds and yellows from the trees. Walk across the road at the bottom for a stroll along the river and good views up to the castle. Strolling back up to the town from the east side also affords good views. Nearby Góry Pieprzowe (Pepper Hills) are a fine place nearby for further walking opportunities, and you'll get fine views of the town and Vistula River from here. Further afield, there is Baranów Sandomierski Palace (25km), a magnificent pile and one of the most impressive manor houses in southern Poland. This renaissance palace was built at the end of the 16th century and has a definite Italianate feel about it - not surprising, since its stuccowork and architectural detail is thought to be the work of Santi Gucci and Giovanni Battista Palconi. Guided tours are in Polish only. You'll need a car to get here - public transport in this part of rural Poland is unreliable.
Another castle nearby is Krzyżtopór, near the village of Ujazd. This is truly one of the most romantic and atmospheric ruins in Poland - an evocative and beautiful place, best visited at dusk on a sunny day. Photo opportunities are fantastic, and wondering the remains of this fairy-tale place (again Italian designed) is as much fun for kids as it is for adults. Nearby Opatów is also a mildly diverting place to visit, with some pleasant city walls, an impressive Cathedral and quiet market square. Whilst you're in the area, why not visit one of the wineries? There are several agro-tourist places offering bed and breakfast, and they're a great way of learning about the nascent wine industry in Poland (and taste their wares). Although Polish wine is not a leading contender in world terms, it's rapidly improving and gaining recognition. Cycling around this area is a pleasant way to see the area, but if you don't have a bike, hiring a car is the best option.
Events and Experiences
Sandomierz has a pretty good reputation in the Polish film world for a town of its size. In addition to the regular screenings of independent films at Iluzjon Cafe (see above), 2019 sees the 17th Unusual Film Festival (Festiwal Niezwikły) hosted in the town. It aims to showcase up-and-coming independent Polish films by little-known directors, and is gaining a cult reputation among movie-buffs. The festival takes place May 1-5 this year. Those who enjoy non-commercial films and are willing to expand their knowledge about film can join a Film Discussion Club called Krutka at Sandomierz Cultural Centre. Polish language only though. The cinema not only shows films, but also organizes small concerts and recitals. The Lapidarium bar regularly puts on on rock and jazz concerts, and is the de facto centre of music culture in Sandomierz.
Hitting the Hay
Sandomierz has a pretty decent selection of accommodation, ranging from budget to quite high end, although it lacks any five (or even four) star hotels or hostels. There is plenty in between. At the lower end of the scale is Górka Literacka - a place which simply oozes character. Slap bang on the square, what it lacks in mod cons it makes for in cosiness. It feels like you've stepped into the 1950s staying here, in a good way. The bedroom has shelves lined with (slightly musty) books, antique furniture and guest books signed by famous creative writers who have stayed here such as Czesław Miłosz and Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz (see 'Further Reading'). 120zł a night (€30) gets you a double room overlooking the square - optimum value. Moving up the scale, Hotel Grodzki does a pretty good job of being a mid-range hotel at lower end prices. Although it's a kilometre or so from the centre, it's conveniently located near the bus station, and at around 180zł (€45) a double with unlimited breakfasts, you can't go far wrong. Clean, well-appointed rooms, a pleasant patio for summer drinking and on-site restaurant make this a decent option. Back in the centre, Hotel Pod Ciżemką is the grandest place in the old town. Set in a 400 year old pile, the stylish and comfortable rooms reflect a charming old-world elegance, and the restaurant serves up very decent Staropolska cuisine. All rooms have a mini-bar, are en suite and ooze style. All for 280zł (€70) a double. Another very good luxury option at a reasonable price is Hotel Sarmata Zespół Dwórski, just to the north of Opatów Gate. Despite being very central, it's surrounded by greenery and feels very secluded. Guests report outstanding restaurant service, friendly staff and fine facilities. A mini-spa with a sauna and a hot tub is even available, at the outstanding price of as little as 240zł (€60).
Sandomierz, it's fair to say, isn't the type of place most people come to party. That being said, for a small town it has a reasonable array of bars - mostly on the Market Square, so you won't have far to walk. They won't be open much beyond midnight, even at the weekends, so start early if you want more than a few swift halves. Ground Zero is Lapidarium pod Ratuszem, which is located in the cellars beneath the town hall. With a young crowd, a range of craft beers and a reasonable food menu including gourmet burgers and salads, there is an air of sophistication here rare for small town Poland. Occasional jazz and blues concerts also take place. Cafe Bar Kordegarda, just a few metres away, is equally hip and specialises in flavoured vodkas. A tray of eight shots of fruity oblivion can be had for about 20zł (€5). Another good spot on the square is Iluzjon Art Cafe. Attracting an artsy crowd, this place is a quiet cafe cum bar which gets busy at weekends only, but has the added attraction of a tiny 30 seat cinema in the back - not your average movie theatre, showing Polish and English language independent films. Finally, the newly-opened 2 Okna (2 Windows) caters to a slightly more hipster crowd, and with some chic decor, craft ales and range of gins and whiskeys, it may be the new 'in' place in town. Serves decent thin-crust pizza too.
Until recently, eating out in Sandomierz was a pretty hit and miss affair (mostly miss). But last year, Widnokrąg (Horizon) opened to change all that. This place is putting Sandomierz firmly on the map when it comes to fine dining, with a goose-themed restaurant which attempts adventurous dishes like goose-stuffed pierogi or goose breast marinated in cider. Wine pairings by an efficient somellier, excellent service and an air of cultured sophistication all mark this out as a restaurant rarely-found in provincial Poland. When you've finished eating, you can visit the on-site art gallery or have a drink at the comfortable bar. Another good eating option is Cafe Mała - especially for breakfast or lunch. This place specialises in pancakes, and it does them very well. Parma ham with gorgonzola is a personal favourite. Funky design and a breezy, friendly atmosphere. Another recently-opened place is W Starej Piekarni (In the Old Bakery), which offers up excellent farmhouse-style local cuisine. More of a daytime place (it closes early evening), this is the place to come in Sandomierz for home-made pierogi, gołąbki and żurek. Also bakes its own bread on the premises. Bistro Podwale also caters to the lunch-time crowd, with a light menu of soups, salads, burgers and the like. Set in the park below the town, it's nice to stop in if you're on a walk. Located in a converted tunnel-shaped apple-storage unit, it's unique, charming and relaxing - and also good for the kids, with a garden, playground and deck-chairs. For a more formal fine-dining experience, head to Pod Ciżemka for a meal in 16th century surrounds. Polish cuisine, done well and with bundles of atmosphere. The afore-mentioned Lapidarium, 2 Okna, Kordegarda and Iluzjon all double as eateries, though are chiefly bars or cafes.
Sandomierz isn't that easy to get to, it has to be said. For residents of Poland's two major cities, Warsaw and Krakow, it's about a two and a half hour drive. Lublin and Rzeszów are the closest cities, both 90 minutes distant, and both (modestly) served by international airlines, including Ryanair and Wizzair routes to London Stansted and Dublin. Far more flights to destinations all over Europe operate from both Kraków and Warsaw. Travel to Sandomierz by train is extremely slow and frustrating, and barely worth bothering with - it will involve several changes, wherever you are coming from. Bus services from Sandomierz are also a bit sketchy, so it really pays to have your own wheels if you're going to make the effort coming here.
Predictably, online info about Sandomierz in English is scant, to say the least. http://www.sandomierz.pl/en provides a good bit of background though, and plenty on cultural happenings. Other than that, https://en.wikivoyage.org/wiki/Sandomierz is your best bet, though it's far from extensive. The usual suspect travel guides, Lonely Planet and Rough Guides, both cover the town admirably. It would be remiss not to study a book a by an author who spent plenty of his time here, both writing and relaxing, often at Górka Literacka. Czesław Miłosz is one of Poland's most celebrated writers, and probably his most famous (and accessible) work is The Captive Mind. They say 'those not students of history are doomed to repeat it'. This brilliant prose work by the winner of the 1980 Nobel Prize for Literature examines the moral and intellectual conflicts faced by men and women living under totalitarianism of the left or right, with stunning insights into the human condition - essentially that of malleable political tool - and is as relevant in 2019 as when it was written in 1953.
For a couple of good books about travels around small-town provincial Poland, reach for A Country in the Moon by Michael Moran and There's an Egg in My Soup by Tom Galvin. The former, taking the form of memoir, mixes travelogue with history to give a balanced and sympathetic view of a country which at the time of writing was in transition to becoming a fully-fledged EU state. His journey through eastern Poland celebrates a valiant and richly cultured people, and makes one yearn to don a backpack and get off the beaten path. He paints a portrait of the unknown Poland, one of monumental castles, primeval forests, and of course, the Poles themselves. There's an Egg in my Soup is a more humorous account, telling the story of a young man thrust into a teaching position in a Polish village called Minsk Mazowiecki in the early 1990s without speaking a word of Polish - a country which more resembled, in his words, Ireland in the 1930s than a country on the verge of EU membership. The book captures a bygone time with affection, wit and irony - exploring with zest "areas of Poland that the Lonely Planet forgot."
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