To visit a new country and only see one town would be a bit like going to a wine-tasting and only sampling one wine. So, although I only had a few days in Kraków, I was keen to take a day trip, to travel through the countryside and explore a different place. There seemed to be several options if you hired a car or took a coach trip, but we wanted to go on the train. The obvious choice was Tarnów, a small town packed with history and architecture, just 80 km from Kraków.
The Historic Town of Tarnów
The hardest part of getting to Tarnów was working out the train times (even Google Maps had incomplete information; the best source was the Central Station’s own website). And when we arrived at the wonderfully old-fashioned Tarnów station it was just over a mile to walk to the town centre. Don’t let this put you off: Tarnów is a bit like Kraków in miniature, a formerly walled town with lots of old buildings and several museums. But minus the tourists (it was deserted when we went on a Saturday in July, although the number of almost empty restaurants around the town square suggested it must sometimes be busier).
Tarnów’s origins are medieval and, unusually, it was privately owned by one family until the 18th century. Situated on the road between Kraków and Pilzno, it became a major trading centre and attracted a large Jewish population. Tragically, something else that Tarnów has in common with Kraków is the fate of its Jewish community. In 1939 there were 20,000 Jews in Tarnów (around half of its population); every single one was murdered or driven out of the town.
The Buildings and Town Walls of Tarnów
Tarnów is sometimes, rather fancifully, called the “Pearl of the Renaissance”. The architecture is certainly one of the pleasures of a visit, with a surprising variety of building styles in a small area. The place to start is the Main Square, which is surrounded by grand Renaissance houses with the Gothic Town Hall (now a museum) at its centre. Nearby is the red brick cathedral (largely rebuilt built in the 19th century on the site of the earlier Gothic structure). But for me the main pleasure was in just wandering around the old medieval streets.
There are old buildings wherever you go in Tarnów, but the most interesting streets are inside the old town walls. The walls themselves have mostly disappeared, but pavement plaques indicate a route around the remaining sections. In fact, some parts of the remains are inaccessible, having been built into private houses, and we gave up when the route directed us through a locked gate!
Some of the most visible parts of the wall were near the former Jewish quarter and the ruined synagogue. This area is also worth visiting for the detailed information boards telling the story of the Tarnów Jewish community from the Middle Ages to the Second World War.
Wooden Churches and a Pilgrim Route
This part of Poland is famous for its wooden churches. There are two in Tarnów, a little way from the town centre, and we stopped to look at the 15th century St Mary’s Church on our way back to the station. Unfortunately we couldn’t go inside, as a christening was taking place. Which was a pity, as the church is described as having a painted ceiling and fragments of old wall paintings.
And an old pilgrim route goes through the town. This is the Via Regia, the historic road from Kraków to Pilzno, and a part of the Way of St James, the network of routes that took pilgrims to Santiago de Compostela, the shrine of St James in northern Spain. These pilgrimages go back to the 9th century; it seems that Tarnów has always been outward looking, even when it was privately owned.
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