Thursday, June 11, 2009

Open-Air Museum of Kashubian Culture in Szymbark

There are many things about Poland that I absolutely love – like for example goose schmaltz (smalec made from goose fat, as opposed to pork), which is simply divine, and from what I'm hearing - also an old folk remedy for asthma. But, on the other hand, there are many things about Poland that I absolutely hate – like the ever-present grand pomposity (or pompous grandiosity) and the need to mention the late pope, JPII, at every imaginable occasion.

The open-air museum in Szymbark (or as they write it in the Kashubian language – Szimbark) has plenty of both of my most and least favorite things. Except that instead of goose smalec, they serve very yummy, old-fashioned pig lard sandwiches, with drippings at that! (Yes, I actually eat this stuff, and no, I haven’t died yet, and my love of all things pig is one of the reasons why we’ll never move to Israel.)

However, I guess to compensate for all the noxious lardy stuff, they make those sandwiches with freshly baked whole wheat Kashubian bread. How’s that for yummy, huh?

But first things first.

I heard about this mysterious upside-down house somewhere in Kashubia and thought I’d check it out for myself. It’s not very far from Trojmiasto – less than an hour away by car. The village is called Szymbark and unfortunately, I can’t tell you how to get there by public transport. What’s even more unfortunate, the people working at the open-air museum, which by the way, is the only attraction worth mentioning in that village, couldn’t tell me either.

So, you’ll have to drive. And when you drive, you’ll have to park. And THAT may prove to be rather difficult, if you decide to visit the place on a sunny summer weekend.

The easiest way is to park in the long line of cars (very easy to notice) by the side of the road and have a pleasant walk.


Don't worry, it only looks like the line is stretching on forever, in reality it's about 1km long, at the very most.

The parking lot by the entrance to the museum will be full, so don’t even bother. Unless, of course, you are planning to be there very early, right at the opening time – 9AM on weekdays and 10AM on Sundays and public holidays, then you might have a chance of an empty parking spot right by the gate.

Since we came late, we parked by the side of the road, about 500 meters from the entrance, and simply followed the crowd.

When you finally reach the gate and buy a ticket (9PLN, children under 6 – free, no discounts for students and old folks), you’ll be surprised to learn that the official name of the place isn’t something easy and simple to remember, such as “Skansen in Szymbark”  or "Open-Air Museum in Szymbark", but the totally convoluted and grandiose “Center for the Education and Promotion of the Region”. Yeah, whatever. No wonder that many foreigners complain they can’t find any info on the museum on the internet! Especially since the webpage of the CEPR thingie doesn’t have an English version, either.

But hey, as I always say, it takes all kinds.

(By the way, what is it with this Polish love of long and incomprehensible names? Do people here think it sounds more sophisticated? More important? More grandiose? Do men in charge of these things think up those long names to compensate for their small penises? – Don’t smirk, this is Poland, ANYTHING is possible here!)

Once inside, the place is delightful, stupid name, or not.

The main attraction, of course, is the upside down house. And instead of advertising it for what it is, the managers of the museum chose instead to turn it into an allegory on communism. The description of the house mentions the valiant struggle for independence, the world turned upside-down (I guess this is the main theme), the evils of communism, and the pope. Of course it just wouldn’t be Poland, if a simple tourist attraction in the middle of Polish nowhere, didn’t mention JPII.

Upside down house

The line to enter the house is always rather long, but well worth the 45 minutes, or so, it takes to get inside.

The house is cool, though. You have to wait in a monstrous line to get inside, but trust me, it’s well worth it. Why? It’s amazing what a couple of slanted boards can do to that thingie in your inner ear that provides you with the sense of balance.

Upsidedown house inside 2

Yep, the furniture is bolted to the floor and you walk on the ceiling.

Upstairs in the house, there is a very mediocre (and I’m being generous here, OK?) art gallery, featuring, among others, a rather large painting of the late pope.

My favorite building in the whole museum was the bakery (right-side up). The smell alone was worth the visit. The bread is made right then and there using traditional recipes and methods. And it’s good. No, scratch that. It’s better than good. And mind you, I don’t normally say that about bread. I rather dislike the stuff, in general.

Kashubian bread

The signs in this photo are not in Polish, but in Kashubian.

If you don’t want to buy a whole loaf, you can stop by at one of the many feeding holes located on the property. They all serve more or less the same. We chose a small, dark hut to the left of the fishing pond (where you can fish your own fish and have it cleaned and grilled while you wait, fishing rods are provided). 


That's the grill your own sausage group session, just like therapy, but much more pleasant.

In the middle of the hut there was an open fire over which you could grill sausages yourself. But since I wasn’t in a sausage mood, we chose bread with lard. Freshly baked bread with salted, old lard with dripping and bacon bits. With a pickle on the side. Heaven! There were other items on the menu, but really, who cares, if you can have bread with smalec, right? I literally inhaled the stuff. It was so good it made me shake inside. Either that, or it was my arteries clogging.

Behind the lard place there was another attraction – an actual Siberian forced labor hut, complete with the hammer and sickle and a portrait of Uncle Joe above the door. But it was the photographs on the walls that made me want to cry.

Siberian hut

Those are beds, not shelves. Up to 50 people occupied a single hut. They had to huddle together on those beds not to freeze to death.

I had no idea that so many Kashubs had been sent to forced labor camps in Siberia. I had no idea they had been loaded onto cattle cars and shipped across the Soviet Union. The unlucky ones, who had survived the trip, were faced with something we can’t even begin to imagine. And yet, some of them survived that too, and either returned home, or found local wives (or husbands) and stayed in Siberia.

A photographer and adventurer from Sopot (or Gdansk, depending on whom you ask), Romuald Koperski, visited the descendants of those Polish Kashubians (or Kashubian Poles) still living in Siberia and the photos from this expedition can be seen at the museum, as well. Fascinating stuff, really.
There’s even an original locomotive used back then on exhibit, too. And can you believe that this thing was still in use in Russia (Kaliningrad, to be exact) in 1985? But not to send people to Siberia, of course.


This thing looks like something constructed a period film, but in fact is the real, Soviet deal.

Because I have a rather weak stomach, I can only take so much of gut wrenching images of Siberian labor camps, and so I sought refuge at the gift shop. If Kashubian kitsch is your thing, you’ll be in heaven. I know I was. I bought two t-shirts, one for me, and one for Mister in Japan, and seriously contemplated purchasing a complete folk costume, embroidered skirts and all. (Hey, Mr. could wear a kimono and I – a Kashubian folk outfit for our shrine ceremony, THAT would be a show to remember!) However, I eventually came to my senses and left the shop with my credit rating more or less intact – hand embroidered folk dresses don’t come cheap, even in Poland.

What else? There’s the Guinness Book of Records listed board – the longest in the world, and more cute houses to look at. There’s even a structure which looks suspiciously like a tserkva (in Ukrainian, means “Eastern Orthodox church”) but since there is a building of the Polish-Ukrainian Friendship Association on the museum’s premises, it’s highly possible they have a wooden Ukrainian church there, too.

The whole place closes at 7PM, though the bakery closes much earlier – around 4PM, or whenever they run out of bread, so don’t assume you can buy a loaf on your way out.

Around the museum there is a lovely lake, and from what I’m seeing, the owners of CEPR (which, incidentally, even though technically an open-air museum, is also a private enterprise) are busy constructing something what looks like a fancy hotel and convention center. So, if you’re thinking to head that way, do it before this monstrosity becomes operational.

All in all, I liked it there. It’s tacky, it’s kitschy, it’s schmaltzy (in more ways than one) but it’s fun. I liked it so much that even though I am leaving Poland next week, I am seriously considering a quick return visit before my departure, even if only for the bread.

Moi in the window

And good times were had by all!

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