About an hour’s drive South East of Lublin lies the old city of Zamość, a nearly perfectly preserved example of an ‘ideal’ renaissance town.
A UNESCO World Heritage Centre, Zamość was modelled on the Italian concepts of the ‘perfect’ city, and was founded in the 16th Century by Jan Zamoyski, a Polish nobleman and magnate. He wanted to create new town from scratch, one that would become a centre for trade, culture and academia.
Zamość has a distinct chessboard layout of streets, with a main square in its centre and two small markets situated on each side. An anthropomorphic plan was also used in the city’s design, with Zamoyski’s home being the head, or brain, the church being the lungs, the town hall the heart, and the main street the spine.
To protect its inhabitants, fortress walls were built around the private town, and over the years these have evolved and expanded to become the ‘open fortress’ it is known as today. Zamość is renowned for the fact that even though it was attacked many times over the centuries, it has never been conquered as no one was able to penetrate its impressive defences.
I had never heard of this place before coming to Lublin, but having now visited, I’m truly surprised that it isn’t talked about more. Why you ask? Well it’s a truly beautiful town with an amazing history. It may be tiny, but it has so much to offer visitors!
Being shown around by a 16th century noble
Small, but perfectly formed, exploring the city is like stepping back in time – even more so when you have a guide like Grzegorz, who showed us around his hometown dressed as a 16th century noble, complete with decorative sword, thick fur cape and jangling chains. It was a bit embarrassing at first, but we quickly got used to his garb, eventually not even noticing it, well, until people would come and ask to have a photograph with him!
As special guests (we’d won a competition to visit) we were given the VIP treatment during our tour and even had the opportunity to go up the town hall tower; the city’s centrepiece. Although it was a very tough climb for me, I’m glad I made the effort as we were graced with amazing views of the main square and beyond.
Rynek Wielki – The Great Market Square of Zamość
Understandably so, the Rynek Wielki is still known to this day as one of Poland’s most beautiful squares.
It’s here you’ll see the best of Zamość’s beauty in the pretty arcades and amazing town houses, many built by Armenian traders that made the city their home. These guys liked to show off their wealth and so decorated their homes extrovertly with sculptures and bright colours.
The square is also home to the town hall, with its amazing architecture and gorgeous fan steps. It’s well worth coming into the square in the evening, to see these lit up.
Stories from Zamość
Grzegorz really brought the city’s history to life, sharing many great, and often funny, anecdotes about the people and the city itself. One of my favourites was discovering why Zamość has a centuries old dislike of Kraków. Apparently Zamoyski had trained to be a lawyer and went to teach in the city but was declined a job there as the people there disagreed with open forwarding-thinking renaissance views. Ever since the locals have shunned Kraków, even refusing to play ceremonial trumpets in the direction of the city on special occasions.
Then there’s the tale of the haunted house. Look for the building with two busts in the walls. Supposedly the story goes that when the house was discovered to be haunted, the owner called in a priest to do an exorcism. This didn’t solve the problem, so he worked his way up the church’s hierarchy. However, even the bishop couldn’t rid the house of its spooky occupant. In a last ditch attempt to free himself from the ghouls within, the owner decided to try the gods themselves, and had two busts of Greek gods added to the building’s frontage. I wonder if brought this haunting to an end?
Walking Zamość’s streets and exploring its buildings its well worth keeping your eyes open for surprise little features hidden all over the old town.
For example, down one side street you’ll find a cannonball still embedded in a wall. Then, hidden away at the back of a shoe shop off the main square, look up and you’ll see the building’s original ceiling beams, covered in writing from the time when it was home to an Armenian trader.
Head down a short corridor off one of the arcades you’ll find the tiniest photography museum, essentially a one man venture by a gentleman who clearly adores photography. From floor to ceiling, every inch of space is covered with old cameras or photographs and it was a pleasure peering through all the knick-knacks, with the owner kindly showing us some of his favourite old cameras and even some black and white family photos.
Seriously, it’s a tiny town of hidden gems. But at the other end of the scale, our tour also showed us the grand side of Zamość, which includes everything from a palace, cathedral and fortress gates through to its many churches, museums and green spaces.
In full, the Cathedral of the Resurrection and St. Thomas the Apostle, although quite ‘bland’ outside, walk through the doors and you’ll find Zamość Cathedral is full of ‘bling’, overflowing with gold and silver. This is because the city was never ransacked, meaning the over the top decorations throughout the cathedral still remain to this day.
Hidden away amongst all the glitz, you’ll find an image of the Mother Mary with a rather quirky origin story. Supposedly this was painted onto a cell door by a prisoner wrongly jailed by the Russians. After it was completed miracles began to happen across Zamość, which were attributed to his painting. Over time the locals rose up to help him, one day dressing him up and smuggling him out of the prison. The image was later cut from the prison door and eventually hung in the cathedral.
One of the most interesting and fun places to visit in the city is the fortress itself. It’s best to start your tour at the Armoury Museum, where you can watch an immersive video about the city’s history, the many attacks it faced and how its defences evolved.
The museum houses weapons from across the ages; some of the earliest snipers through to weaponry from the World Wars and a section dedicated to modern warfare. Not so much my kind of thing, but I found the historical stuff very interesting and of course I also made a beeline to the virtual reality game where you can play with a tank. I’m always a gamer at heart!
Tourist Route Bastion No 7 – traipsing through the tunnels of Zamość
Then – my personal highlight – was taking a trip through the Bastion VII tourist route. Basically visitors can access a small section of the fortress’ tunnels, moving underground between two of Zamość’s bastions, getting a real feel for how the city was defended, and the tools they had to do so. Larger underground rooms even had fireplaces and a bread oven, so if under siege the soldiers had places to sleep and eat.
As you exit the tunnels and reacclimatise to the light, for those who’ve really got into the spirit there’s a chance to practice your own soldiering skills by firing a cannon. I was a bit of a scaredy cat at first, but after a little cajoling I gave it a go.
A butch 16th century soldier shows you how to clean, pack and light the cannon and then it’s over to you. Yes I quickly scampered a safe distance away after lighting the fuse, but to be fair, it’s quite loud you know?! All in all a hilarious and cheesy experience, but good fun nonetheless!
For my bravery I was declared a defender of Zamość in a short ceremony. I was even given my own certificate that states I can be called up to defend the city if it’s ever attacked in the future. Let’s hope not, eh?!
How long do you need in Zamość?
In all honesty you can see the highlights of Zamość easily in just one day, and explore everything it has to offer fully in two.
It’s pretty easy to make a day trip from Lublin, however, many people actually use Zamość as a base and then go on to explore the local countryside outside the fortress walls. The area is known for its cycling, walking and off-roading and there’s also some beautiful farm stays on offer if after you’ve had your fill of history you want to get back to nature.
However you decide to visit Zamość, do take the time to come here. It’s well worth a visit, not just to explore its vibrant history and beautiful design, but also to enjoy the city’s relaxing ambience and spend time with its friendly people, all strongly passionate about their home.