Palace-hopping in Poland
About 2,800 palaces are scattered through Poland, and some have been turned into enchanting museums.
The New York Times
When I was a little girl living in Texas and visited my family in Poland, my grandfather would always take us to palaces. He had been an art historian and curator of a couple of the palaces around Warsaw during some of Poland's bleakest years of Communism, and even though I was too young to understand that era, or much of Poland's complicated history, I knew that through these palaces, something about Poland and its once-luxurious glory had been preserved. My imagination conjured images of princesses running through lavishly decorated hallways and grand, echoing rooms.
There are about 250 palaces in the province that surrounds Warsaw and about 2,800 throughout all of Poland. Most were built for kings or aristocrats in the 17th and 18th centuries; since then, government ministries have restored many of them, which now serve as museums.
Palaces outside the city make great day trip destinations, and most are accessible by bus or train. Last summer I spent a week palace-hopping in and around Warsaw, revisiting some of the palaces I'd seen when I was little. Here are five where I felt most transported to other eras of Polish history.
A pocket of opulence in a small, rural village about two hours west of Warsaw, the Nieborow Palace has changed very little since the aristocratic Radziwill family obtained it in the late 1700s. Built in 1694 for a cardinal, it exemplifies Polish Baroque architecture. It also has a frozen-in-time quality: the paths in the surrounding park remain unpaved; silver tableware is brought out for holidays. On New Year's Eve, guests staying at the palace write down wishes for the coming year, burn them in the library and drop the ashes into their Champagne — just as the Radziwills had.
"Time moves slowly here, and the palace is the same as it was 200 years ago — same park, same rooms, same traditions," Jan Prokopowicz, the palace archivist, told me.
Over many centuries, the Radziwills were one of the most prominent families in Poland. In 1959, Stanislaw Radziwill married Lee Bouvier, Jackie Kennedy's sister, bringing the name into American consciousness. During the World War II occupation, the family lived in the palace together with high-ranking Nazi officers, while actively fighting against them in the underground movement, according to past curators. Against all odds, the Radziwills — and the palace — survived. After the war Nieborow became a museum; my grandfather later became its curator for 25 years. Many times we walked through the 10 rooms that constitute the museum, looking at expensive furniture, tiled furnaces and a library of centuries-old books. We walked around the park, which encompasses wheat fields, rose bushes and ancient linden trees.
But the palace is more than a museum. In 1945, Stanislaw Lorentz, a friend of the Radziwills' and the wartime director of the National Museum in Warsaw, turned it into a creative haven for artists fleeing war-torn — and later Communist — Warsaw. Well-known writers like Ryszard Kapuscinski and Tadeusz Borowski, the filmmaker Andrzej Wajda and foreign artists like Pablo Neruda were among Nieborow's many rotating artists in residence.
A version of this artists' colony still functions — guests dine together at a mahogany table adorned with vases of fresh flowers and stay in the third-floor guest rooms. (The guest rooms are mostly word-of-mouth — mainly for invited artists.)
The Royal Castle (Zamek Krolewski)
In the heart of Warsaw lies the Old Town, a network of cobbled streets, churches and colorful houses spreading out from the Royal Castle. Odd juxtapositions are not unusual. During our visit, horse-drawn carriages in front of the castle shared the stage with mohawked teenagers drumming on paint cans, suitcases and milk jugs. A man in folkloric dress sold roses near a modern dancer moving in the shadow of the castle tower.
The castle has been a focal point of the city since it was the primary residence of Polish kings, who ruled into the 18th century, and the seat of government. But just as the country has continually rebounded after centuries of partitions, wars and political upheaval, so has the Royal Castle. Time and again it was destroyed by fires and invading armies, and each time, it, too, was optimistically rebuilt.
During World War II, 85 percent of Warsaw was burned to the ground, the Royal Castle included. Photographs at the entrance to the castle's museum show the castle reduced to piles of rubble — but even then it was faithfully reconstructed. Using photographs and old blueprints, conservationists recreated everything: art (some of which had been hidden in basements before the worst of the war), rooms, moldings, intricate parquets and the 86 Polish eagles that stud the royal throne.
Outside the Wilanow Palace, on the outskirts of Warsaw, I heard a girl tell her brother, "Look, this is where the carriages pull up, and all the ladies-in-waiting get out to go inside the palace." In fact, this palace, too, now functions as a museum, but seeing it, you can easily forgive the girl her fanciful description.
The structure's yellow exterior looks like a carefully decorated birthday cake, studded with stone cherubs and statues of the ancient Greek muses. The 17th-century king Jan III Sobieski built Wilanow as a summer home for his French queen. And indeed, with its low, long structure and two perpendicular wings enclosing a courtyard, it resembles western European palaces more than any of the others I visited.
The sprawling interior museum focuses primarily on the rooms the royal couple kept, including a chapel, a marble library paying homage to Greek thinkers, and a huge statue Sobieski erected of himself trampling Turks (whom he fought in 1683). It's easy to imagine the palace filled with ladies in gowns and powdered wigs, sitting on delicate furniture and promenading through long marble hallways or the lush park that disguises the city beyond.
The Palace on the Isle and Myslewicki Palace
In the middle of the huge Lazienki Gardens in Warsaw's center, past a statue of Chopin and peacocks that amble freely through the park, is the Palace on the Isle. True to its name, it sits surreally on a lake, on an island barely larger than the building. Nearby are other, smaller palaces, including the charming White House, with a room filled with delicate paintings of animals, and the Myslewicki Palace. I met with the palace's curator, Iwona Zarebska, who showed me around the three buildings, all built by Poland's last king, Stanislaw August Poniatowski.
"Most of this palace was also ruined during World War II," Zarebska told me, as we walked through the Palace on the Isle, once the park's primary residence. "Only some of the foundations and lower walls and a few artifacts stayed intact." The building has been exquisitely restored and now drips with crystal chandeliers and gold accents.
It also has a robust political heritage. Zarebska showed me the room in the Myslewicki Palace where the ambassadors of the United States and China met for the first time in 1958. They drew the curtains in the room and communicated only by passing notes to each other, afraid of being spied on. The palace has also hosted Napoleon and Richard Nixon, and provided a private residence last year for the Polish president, Bronislaw Komorowski, during the months when Poland held the European Union presidency.
Otwock Wielki Palace
About 20 miles south of Warsaw sits the sleepy Otwock Wielki Palace, once a popular site for kings and presidents to visit and host guests. Maybe it was the relatively out-of-the-way location that drew Poland's leaders here — or perhaps it was something about the palace's visually arresting white facade and red roof, or its window-lined ballroom.
Miroslaw Budzynski, the curator, plied me with anecdotes about presidents, portraits and pianos, his words echoing through large rooms decorated with Baroque furniture and elaborate frescoes. But more recent history is represented too. "This room is interesting — here you have Jozef Pilsudski's office furniture," Budzynski said, referring to the statesman who led Poland to independence in 1918. "His desk, paintings from his office, the bed he died in. The history here is simply palpable."
Outside, we drank tea with Budzynski's family, then went for a walk as his daughter picked wildflowers from the side of the road.