Though it is mid morning, the light is still grey and the dark brick Gothic buildings of Torun, about 200km northwest of Warsaw, appear enigmatic. It is the cusp of winter and the air is nippy. Summer crowds have long gone and the cobblestone streets of the medieval Polish town are silent, except for the occasional sound of shoes or cycle tyres.
Just outside the towering medieval walls, in a gentle valley, the winding Vistula river flows languidly. Inside the walled city, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the lanes and alleys are cobble-stoned, flanked by astonishingly well-preserved medieval brick houses with original Gothic facades. The interiors of those that have been converted into shops or museums reveal beautifully decorated walls, stucco ceilings and vaulted cellars. The town’s medieval layout, surrounded by towering defensive walls is still intact. Within it are two market squares, churches and townhouses, the Teutonic castle and town hall—but more interestingly, Torun is the birthplace of 15th-century astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus, and he remains an enduring presence in the town.
Torun has a tumultuous history, says my guide Krzysztof. Founded in 1233 by the Teutonic Order, a martial religious group, the medieval town was plunged into several wars over the centuries, its buildings destroyed and rebuilt. During World War II Germany occupied the town and inflicted atrocities upon the locals but the town itself was neither bombed or damaged, which explains why so much of the Old Town including the fort wall are well preserved.
But before plunging headlong into the town’s sights, we skirt along the fort wall from the Monastery Gate towards the western corner and pause at a strange structure. Set against the fort wall is a squat tower leaning precariously inwards, like a bit of a riff on famous one in Pisa. “According to local legend, one of the Teutonic Knights while building the town fell in love with a local nun or it could be a rich man’s daughter. He was punished and single-handedly built the tower as penance. But so strong was his love that the tower started leaning in towards where the nun’s/daughter’s building,” Krzysztof deadpanned. Fascinatingly, people believe spending time, even a few seconds under it, clears one’s conscience. So during spring and summer there are long lines of people but now there are just a few teenagers hanging around.
We let them be and head towards the town centre, walking through deserted streets, passing beautiful buildings, arched doorways, and elegant facades. A cold wind blows through some of the narrower ones and I am happy to arrive at the Market Square and gape at the Gothic town hall - Ratusz Staromiejski. Originally from around the 13th and 14th centuries but subsequently rebuilt a few times, it is massive and mesmerizing. The square is deserted so its presence has a brooding quality.
There is a constant leitmotif through the town—its close association with Copernicus, its most illustrious resident. He was born in February 1473 in a narrow two-storey house with an elegant façade on St Anna Street. The street is now named after him and his birth home is now the House of Nicolaus Copernicus, a museum to showcase his life and times.
Stepping through a low doorway, the inside feels cramped and small. The walls are covered in decorative motif and the house is dominated by the kitchen. As a boy Copernicus is supposed to have used a room, both as a study and to sleep, on the first floor. This is more airy and has a lovely view of the street. The room is furnished to look the way it might have been in his time. To stare at the place where the astronomer came up with his ground-breaking theories—that the Sun, and not the Earth, is the centre around which planets orbit, and that the Earth not only orbits the sun but also revolves on its own axis, going against Church-held beliefs and influencing generations of scientists after him—is a bit overwhelming for a moment.
Despite his overarching presence, there are no definitive records about where or till what age he stayed in Torun. It is generally accepted that he lived and studied in town till he went to Krakow University at the age of 18. Other associations abound. A few minutes from the museum is the Torun Cathedral dedicated to St. John. It is Torun’s oldest and largest church, also Gothic in style and from around the 13th century. Here too Copernicus is not far: a stone font commemorates the place where he was baptized. The church’s highlight is the magnificent tower whose 200 steps lead to the staggering tuba dei (God’s trumpet), a seven-tonne bell that chimes just four times a year as well as on extraordinary occasions such as the death of a Pope or the anointment of a new one.
My wanderings take me past Torun’s famous gingerbread museum, also named after Copernicus and the smell is seductive. Torun prides itself on inventing gingerbread and has a museum dedicated to its history and demonstrations of ancient techniques by bakers dressed in medieval costumes. Round a corner, I see banners advertising a sporting event at Nicolaus Copernicus University, the town’s largest institute of higher education.
I end up at the market square, realising it is almost impossible to escape Copernicus. In a clearing, people are milling around, posing and taking photographs. A closer look they’re in front of a lovely bronze statue of Copernicus on a pedestal with an astrolabe in his hand. I come away a bit amused: Copernicus might have postulated it is the sun and not the earth that is at the centre of the universe, but in the limited universe of Torun, he is very much the centre.
Anita Rao Kashi is an independent journalist based in Bengaluru