Just when you think a Polish feast is over, the next course arrives. I said no to ebony-colored blood sausages but found the potato sausages, a local specialty, divine.
The rest of the meal was a blur of overabundance: baked potatoes, a savory corn pudding, apples. Taking a break, I sneaked behind a wall to the row of narrow window slits that allowed castle archers to rain arrows on their attackers. The lights of Nidzica glimmered calmly below. I smiled. My kingdom was at peace.
Following their dream
The next day, Barbara's husband, Krzysztof, and I ventured 10 miles northeast from Nidzica to see a small, exclusive resort that opened late last spring. My first glimpse of Lemany Estate was a field of grazing horses. Then I spied a stable, with two graceful carriages and a painted sleigh parked beneath its eaves. Beyond a gentle rise, a scattering of half-timbered houses appeared.
Owner Marlena Liczmanska strode out to greet us. She and her husband, Janusz Studzinski, are former brewery executives who left Warsaw to realize a dream that includes four two-story guesthouses, furnished with antiques, fireplaces and saunas (but no kitchens).
Liczmanska spent years collecting the furnishings, from as far away as France. The beautiful 18th to 20th century pieces are so skillfully renovated that they look almost new. Each house is more than 1,000 square feet, with two bedrooms (plus a living room sofa bed) and two spacious baths; most have views down to pristine lakes, Kownatki and Katy, where beaches await swimmers, kayakers, windsurfers and fishermen. A main building holds a restaurant, disco and children's playroom plus three bilevel suites. Liczmanska has lured two foreign-trained Polish chefs who buy many of their all-natural ingredients from local producers.
Lemany Estate figures to be a boon to the area's limping economy, already employing a local architect and craftspeople to re-create the ancient regional Mazurian half-timbered style, which features dark crisscrossed exterior timbers supporting white stucco walls. Liczmanska even recycled old clay roof tiles from local buildings to add character to the new construction.
"Our friends were shocked," she said, at her preference for using old tiles rather than new ones.
A 36-mile journey north of Nidzica took us to Olsztyn, the largest city in the Warmia/Mazuria region. Parts of its old town were heavily damaged in World War II, and many of the buildings have been reconstructed. The pedestrian area is guarded by an original towering brick gate, part of the ancient defenses. A 14th century castle, a short stroll from the main square, houses the Museum of Warmia and Mazuria, but was home to Nicolaus Copernicus, astronomer and scholar, from 1516 to 1521.
There Copernicus worked on his treatise postulating that Earth is not the center of the universe, or, as a well-known Polish saying goes, Copernicus "stopped the sun and moved the Earth." High on one wall, remnants of his 20-foot-long astronomical table, painted in red and black, chart the spring and fall equinoxes. In the castle's refectory is a small display about the astronomer, with reproductions of his simple instruments. Equally fascinating is the room's intricate crystalline vaulting, also found in the Cathedral of St. Jacob (Katedra sw. Jakuba) across the town square.
We strolled across the square, passing up a tempting flea market to look at the cathedral. Staring up at the vaulting was like gazing into the depths of a huge diamond, a series of delicate geometric facets dancing together with mathematical precision. Senses dazzled and stomachs growling, we hit the road again, heading a few miles south to the hamlet of Stawiguda.
Inside an unassuming former school with a generic sign that merely proclaims "Hotel" resides one of the hippest establishments I've encountered. We never would have found it without a tip from a local design aficionado.
Hotel Galery69 was conceived by an architect couple, Malgorzata Zoltowska and Wojciech Zoltowski, as a gallery for their designs. Every piece of furniture in the hotel and every plate of food in the restaurant bears their distinctive touch. The look is light and airy, thanks to an abundance of natural wood, even though some of their furniture forms are massive.
We settled in at a restaurant table where we could take in the lake through picture windows. It was a contest between watching the light play off the "Scandinavian Zen" interiors or observing a pair of wild swans (the area is known for them) feeding just offshore.
The food was as clean and fresh as the design. The eclectic menu offers a modern take on traditional Polish foods, plus such diverse items as pasta and pizzas, even fondue.
We started with seafood chowder thick with salmon, shrimp and mussels, and a tomato soup laced with tiny half-moon-shaped pasta pierogi stuffed with mushrooms. The flavors were vibrant. We followed with grilled chicken breast kebabs that arrived with a subtle yogurt-based dipping sauce and an artful scattering of vegetables. Ultra-fresh Greek salads topped off the meal.
The upstairs accommodations echo the restaurant's serenity and creativity. There are seven double rooms and three suites, some with kitchenettes; the nicest have terraces or views of the lake. Furnishings include sinuous sofas, rice paper lamps and a chunky wooden headboard evoking a silhouetted city bordered by rolling countryside.
Although the couple's sensibilities would be at home in the world's trendiest enclaves, their style was relaxed and welcoming. The one small downside: They spoke very little English, and we spoke very little Polish.
After surveying 700 years' worth of sights, I'd ended up squarely back in the 21st century. And after all the Polish feasting, I hustled back home to a modern-day StairMaster.