My day job takes me all around the world in search of new, exciting products. I often travel alone and to places one might not consider for a holiday. Being someone who hates to follow the crowd, I find the opportunity to see untouristed places both liberating and fascinating. That they are not as immediately lovely as the ‘must see’ destinations matters not one jot. In fact it’s a bonus. Never has this been clearer to me than during a recent trip to the Czech Republic and Poland. In Prague I had a beastly time battling the plague of tourists that now blights the city. (The issues created by ‘over-tourism’ are now so severe that the Czech authorities are having to take action to preserve the city’s integrity.) Meanwhile I had a perfectly delightful time in a series of little-known towns and villages scattered across Eastern Poland. Here, in a largely agricultural and forested landscape, I encountered only Poles going about everyday life.
One of my favourite overnight stays is at Kurozwęki, a small village near the town of Staszów on the Czarna (Black) River. Founded in the 13th century, Kurozwęki rose to prominence and was awarded city rights from 1400 until 1870. These days the long, low-slung village is home to a population of fewer than 800.
Nowadays Kurozwęki’s main attraction is its 14th Century palace set in an English-style landscape park. The palace’s imposing, shrimp-pink façade suggests enduring wealth and grandeur, but behind it lies evidence of a chequered past.
Kurozwęki started out as a simple knight’s castle constructed of wood, positioned in the centre of an oval island in the Czarna River’s flood plain. By the 15th Century most of castle’s wooden parts had been replaced by stonework, some of which survives today in the basement and buttresses. Later owners were either not rich enough, or insufficiently ambitious to demolish the old building and start again. For the next 300 years they proceeded to gentrify their home by bolting bits on and modifying others. In the middle of the 18th Century a ballroom was added on the first floor, followed by a fine Baroque façade complete with extravagant Rococo details. Kurozwęki’s elevation to ‘palace’ was well underway. Shortly afterwards, two elegant pavilions were added, one a teahouse and the other an orangery. The transformation from defensive castle to stately home was complete.
What is so striking about Kurozwęki is how little attention was paid to anything other than the front of the building. The side and rear elevations are a charmingly rustic mismatch of different building materials with later windows punched through. Money was spent where important visitors to the palace might most easily be dazzled, but imagine their surprise if they ever ventured to wander around the back!
At the end of WWII Kurozwęki was commandeered from the owners, the Popiel family, and utilised for various communist-era offices and institutions. When plans to covert the palace into a psychiatric hospital failed, the building was abandoned. Thirty five years later, bearing the scars of war and neglect, the façade stripped of every scrap of colour, Kurozwęki was reclaimed by the Popiels. From their modest home in the grounds the family continue their valiant efforts to restore the palace to its pre-war glory.
Even between last year’s visit and this one, I have noticed quite a few changes. An old brewery has been restored and is once again producing excellent beer. The style of the new bar reminded me very much of a British pub. There are plans to line and re-flood the moat, restoring Kurozwęki to its original position on an island in Czarna River. To see the façade reflected in the broad pool in front of it would be quite a special event.
There is some evidence of the English-style landscape park that originally surrounded the palace. Over the centuries it’s become cluttered and dissected so that it no longer flows seamlessly into the surrounding countryside. Old paintings depict a much broader Czarna River passing in front of the palace in a manner that Capability Brown might have specified. The park is now home to a large herd of American bison, Arabian horses and a small zoo. A collection of tender trees, including paulownia, catalpa and some venerable London planes is flourishing. These trees would once have been considered terribly exotic in this part of Europe where winters can be much colder than in England.
As one approaches the elevated entrance to the castle one passes several robust, healthy roses, one planted between each white post. They are a sight for sore eyes when one has been on the road all day, and that is usually the case when I arrive at Kurozwęki. The hotel rooms are to be found in the shingled roof of the building (see the window at the far top right, below) and are so old fashioned as to be almost Victorian. I don’t imagine they get a huge amount of use, but perhaps I am mistaken. Kurozwęki is a gem and in many ways I hope it doesn’t get polished too soon. Surely, having survived 700 years, there need not be too much of a hurry? As Prague and countless other ‘attractions’ have discovered, beauty and popularity have their downsides. TFG.