Fun in Dobrzyn and Toruń

October 3, 2015 • 8:45 am

Yesterday I was off to Toruń to give the beginning-of-the-school year lecture to the entering biology students at Nicolaus Copernicus University. The school was founded only in 1945, but has antecedents dating centuries earlier to the University of Vilnius (founded 1579), many of whose students and faculty migrated to Toruń after World War II.

But before I left, Malgorzata began making quince jam from the harvest of fruit from a bush right outside the front door.


When I returned in the evening, the fruits had been turned into jam. But the cooking was a mess: “Never again!”, said Malgorzata:

Quince Paste

Toruń (population about 200,000), situated on the river Vistula, is a medieval city founded in the 1100s and once the site of a castle housing the Teutonic Knights (Russia began on the other side of the river). The old part of the town, which is lovely (see below) is now a UNESCO Heritage site. Here’s the location:

Screen Shot 2015-10-03 at 8.51.10 AM

Toruń is famous for two things: Copernicus (who was born there) and gingerbread, which was supposedly invented there. We’ll get to Copernicus later, but gingerbread is everywhere. The story that it was invented in Torun is probably wrong, but the city was certainly famous for gingerbread beginning ages ago, and I was told it was used as currency there. Wikipedia reports this:

In Poland, gingerbreads are known as pierniki (singular, piernik). The most famous are called Toruń gingerbread (piernik toruński), a traditional Polish gingerbread that has been produced since the Middle Ages in the city of Toruń. It was a favorite delicacy of Chopin’s when he visited his godfather, Fryderyk Florian Skarbek, in Toruń during one of his school vacations.

My day began with a visit to a local theater where Justyna and her boyfriend Michal (who kindly drove me from Dobrzyn to Torun) were acting in a play performed for (and also starring) handicapped people. Entering the theater, one sees a mural of Copernicus—made out of gingerbread!


See? The mural has both regular gingerbread (always frosted) and the chocolate-covered variety:

Copernicus poster closeup

The play—actually a series of different scenes—is not only put on for handicapped people, but involves them as participants. Justyna and Michael were in a dance scene without words, with the male dancers in black (not shown) representing the difficulties and prejudices faced by the handicapped, and the female dancers those who are compassionate. Justyna (to the right) was one of these; you can see the two people in wheelchairs performing in the scene, one of whom has tipped her wheelchair over and is covered with a shroud:

Justyna play 3

It was a moving presentation, literally and figuratively. Justyna is studying for her Ph.D. in biology at Torun, and Michal is a DJ in local clubs, who also performs with symphony orchestras, producing a hybrid form of music.

Justyna Play 2

It was then time to go to the University and meet the dean. Dean Kozak, better known as Prof. dr hab. Wiesław Kozak, turned out to be a terrific guy, friendly and garrulous. He had studied immunology in the US for fifteen years, at the University of Michigan, the University of New Mexico, and in Augusta, Georgia.  Finishing up his second and last term as Dean, he sits in perhaps the most magnificent academic office I’ve ever seen, full of draperies, old carpets and antique furniture:

Dean in office

The Dean told me that one piece of furniture dated to the sixteenth century, contained no nails, and was designed to be converted into a coffin!:

Dean's cabinet

The office also held an Art Nouveau clock, which I photographed since I love items from that era:

Dean's clock

The biology “convocation” was very formal: first the deans and deanlets entered to a recording of a trumpet fanfare, in full academic regalia, with the dean sporting a gold necklace. There was a welcome speech in Polish, new doctoral candidates were welcomed on stage, and then I gave a 30-minute talk on the wonders of evolution (I have no photos of that one). We finished with a singing of the traditional “Gaudeamus Igitur.


I mentioned religion only briefly, explaining that in America, and probably in Poland, resistance to accepting the truth of evolution comes largely from religion. But even that brief statement angered one faculty member, who trotted onstage afterwards and chastised me for even mentioning religion. He claimed that Catholics had no problem with evolution (I contradicted him, mentioned the Church’s view on the literal ancestry of all humans from Adam and Eve) and asserted that there was no conflict between science and religion since everyone reads the Bible as metaphor. I corrected him further, citing the statistics in the US and UK that most people take things like Heaven, Hell, Satan, Jesus’s divinity, and of course God’s existence as literal truths. No doubt they do in Poland, too.

It still amazes me that people object to the plain fact that virtually all opposition to teaching evolution comes from religion. Such is the special treatment that faith is given not just in the US and UK, but almost everywhere. This religious source of creationism of course greatly discomfits accommodationists, who claim that there’s no conflict between science and religion, and it’s almost amusing to see them twist, turn, and dissimulate to avoid the obvious. It’s religion, stupid!

But then, thankfully, the Dean dragged me off to lunch, a multicourse Polish feed in his fancy office. I had requested local fare, and they complied in spades. The first course was a very traditional Polish soup,either żur (sour rye soup) or biały barszcz (a soup made of bread, and meat stock, loaded with sausage, pork, and hard-boiled eggs). This would have been enough for lunch on its own, as each of us got a substantial tureen:

Lunch 1, bigos

We were then served one of my favorites, a selection of pierogi: Polish dumplings, these ones filled with either meat, spinach or kasha (buckwhat), and topped with nuts and raisins. On the side were pickled beets and cabbage.

Lunch 2 Pierogi etc

I thought the pierogi was the main course, but it was only an appetizer. The main course was a form of schabowy, pork cutlets rolled up, wrapped in bacon and filled with cooked plums. It was served with boiled potatoes. The Dean then asked, with a twinkle in his eye, whether I would like some wine. Of course I said, “yes,” and he disappeared into the adjacent room, returning with a bottle of 2008 grenache/shiraz from Australia, which was terrific. (The Dean said he has a collection of over 1,000 bottles.) As neither Justyna nor the assistant dean were drinking, the Dean and I made substantial inroads into the bottle.

And oy!, was I full after lunch:

Lunch Schabowy Ham roll

Before we left to see the town, the Dean gave me largesse (European universities tend to give you nice presents when you give a big lecture). First, a heavy bronze medal celebrating the 60th anniversary of biology at the University (1952):

Largesse medal 1

Largesse medal 2

I also got a gift basket containing varieties of gingerbread–all wrapped in cellophane with a red bow! There were four types, including chocolate-covered, chocolate-filled, and traditional plain gingerbread. I also got a pen and pencil set and a silver University of Torun keychain with Copernicus symbols on it.

Largesse, gingerbread

After lunch I briefly met my friends Kaja Bryx and Jacek Tabisz, officers of the Polish Rationalist Association, which awarded me Polish Rationalist of the Year two years ago. They travelled three hours to finally deliver my award, a glass trophy to which Kaja had added a special symbol. Can you spot it?

Largesse Polish rationalist award

On to the Old Town, with the first stop being the home of Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543), famous of course for his heliocentric model of the solar system. This is the house where he was born, and you can see that the family was prosperous (his father was a copper merchant). Copernicus didn’t live here his whole life: he traveled widely, including to Italy, and ultimately settled in other towns in northern Poland.

Sadly, the house was closed for the day, but I was promised a return visit next year so that I could go inside:

Copernicus house

A famous statue of Copernicus stands near the town hall:

Statue Copernicus

Nearby is part of the two-building Gingerbread Museum (the other part is several blocks away). We didn’t go in, but I am puzzled how one can have two buildings devoted wholly to the history of gingerbread.
Gingerbread Museum

Gingerbread shops stud the city, and there are dozens of varieties of the stuff. Here’s one of the bigger shops where you can buy chocolate covered gingerbread, plain gingerbread, gingerbread in fancy boxes (one looking like Copernicus’s house), gingerbread filled with rose jam, prunes, and so on. The treat, which I enjoy very much, is popular with locals as well as tourists:
Gingerbread shop

Some of the varieties on offer (Polish-speaking readers are invited to translate):

Gingerbread 2

The historic Old Town contains lovely old buildings:

Torun buildings

And there’s the Leaning Tower of Toruń, built as a fortification in the thirteenth century and now leaning, though not as drastically inclined as the tower in Pisa. Here’s a photo from Wikipedia:


Justyna told me that if you can stand with your back against the part of the tower that leans outwards, and not fall over, you are a good person; but bad people cannot do it. The angle is such that it is barely achievable—by some. Justyna and Michal could do it:

Torun leaning wall

. . . but I could not!:

Torun leaning wall JAC

More scenes from the Old Town:
Torun center


There were several nice bronze statues in the town. One of the most famous is the Torun Donkey Statue. As one website notes, it depicts a grim history:

The city pillory, a wooden donkey with a sharpened tin ridge along its spine, appeared in the corner of the Old City Square presumably in 1629. It was mostly used to discipline Toruń soldiers who, seated on its back, frequently had lead weights tied to their legs to intensify the pain. The convicts suffered double punishment: in addition to the protruding back sinking into their bottom, they were exposed to public humiliation.

Statue donkey

There’s a newer statue depicting a woman holding a basket of gingerbread, accompanied by a small terrier (presumably wanting a treat) nipping at her heels:
Statue Woman with gingerbread

On a park bench in the town square is a statue of the lady with the goose that laid the golden egg. The precious egg appears to be falling from her basket:

Statue, goose with golden egg

A famous and unprepossessing shop in the Old Town sells pączki, delicious polish donuts filled with jam or cream. They are made all day, and you can buy them hot. (I much regret not having tried one). I was told that there is often a line of people down the block waiting to buy these hot pastries. Pączki resemble Krispy Kreme donuts, but are filled, and are much tastier and more substantial (you can see Justyna’s reflection in the window):

torun Paschky

I end my photographic tour of the city with two pieces of cat graffiti I found:

Graffiti cat torun 2

Graffiti cat torun

49 thoughts on “Fun in Dobrzyn and Toruń

  1. Very good pictures, thank you so much! It’s a bit weird to see you with a tie though, it doesn’t happen that often. And congratulations with finally getting that award!

  2. What a wonderful visit!
    The good person test of the leaning tower reminds me of the old trick that supposedly tests strength. There are two parts.
    1. Stand behind a small wooden chair and bend over at the waist to pick it up. This one is easy.
    2. Do the same once again, only this time stand with your back to a wall. Men generally cannot do this but women can. Of course the reason is that in step 1 you leaned back a little to compensate for the increased load in front. But you cannot do that against the wall. Women can still pick up the chair b/c their weight distribution is different from that of men.

  3. Very nice review of many things in Poland we will never get to see in person.

    I would guess they may need to do some expensive work if they want to preserve the Tower of Torun. Those thick brick walls would be very heavy and surely the leaning does not stop.

    Noticed a building with the name Santander (commercial bank) on the front. Have seen this name advertised at many events, including grand prix racing but never bothered to look it up. A very large worldwide bank I see.

    1. Maybe the way to address it is to carefully work underground to stabilize the building from underneath.

  4. Gingerbread has just begun to make inroads in Japan during the Christmas season, temporarily offered in certain specialty gift shops, some high-end bakeries, and at the holiday vendors set up in the lobbies of major hotels. Though it tends to be mildly flavored and less pungent than traditional varieties of gingerbread, I love seeing it around Tokyo at the end of the year.

  5. Jerry, thank you for sharing your wonderful day. But one thing… your description of the Polish meals ALWAYS makes me wish I could indulge in some too! Maybe your failure to stand against the leaning wall was due to the terrific lunch and wine indulgence you had with the Dean? Oh well, you’re a fantastically good person anyway. Oh, and congratulations on your retirement!

    John (Seattle, WA)

  6. What? You didn’t try the paczki!? You may well have found the holy grail of paczki, and blew your chance. They are not made with doughnut dough, and they’re nothing like Krispy Kremes. They’re called Krapfen in Germany, and you’re lucky if you find decent ones at one shop in ten. The good ones are light, “heavenly,” and melt in your mouth. I used to live a bit north of Regensburg, near the town of Regenstauf. A shop there had fantastic Krapfen, all made by the proprietress. When she passed away, they were never the same. They’re like pie crust. One of the ingredients is magic. If you don’t have a little of that in your fingers, forget about making anything above the mediocre level. That’s why you’ll never find a decent pie crust in a restaurant in the US. As for the Krapfen here, as the Germans would say, they’re “graeslich verfaelscht” (horrifyingly bowdlerized) with doughnut dough. It’s impossible to get good ones, even in Detroit.

    1. You can get them in Chicago, but only on the Thursday before Lent, or on Shrove Tuesday (Apparently the date differs by neighborhood). Supposedly they were meant to use up the butter and sugar in the house before Lent. Most bakeries in Polish neighborhoods will have them. Are they pronounced “punch-key” in native Polish as well? That’s how I’ve heard them in Chicago Polish.

  7. Despite my personal feelings against coffins (why spend thousands of dollars on something to bury?), knowing that the cabinetmaker’s intent wasn’t fulfilled somewhat saddens me. It is a beautiful piece, though.

  8. Wow! Copernicus AND gingerbread. An embarassment of riches. How in the world are you going to lug thst beautiful glass plaque ( with kitteh) home on the plane?

    As for quince jam, Malgorzata, I tried it once, disasterously. We had a family joke about flowering quince. When my parents were courting and my mom wondered the name of a flower, bush, tree, whatever, my dad always said, with authority: flowering quince. I don’t think any of them ever were. Maybe 15 yrs ago I saw an actual flowering quince at the nursery and had to have one. It flowered beautifully for a number of years before finally produc ing about 3 quince(s). I finally dug the sucker out a couple of years ago because it was turning into a treacherous thorn bush.

    1. LOL quinces seem to be hard to convert into something tasty. I remember we had a quince bush in our garden. My mom tried to make jam exactly twice: once and never again! Malgorzata arrived at the same conclusion.

      1. Oh, it is very tasty when used not as a jam but as an addition to meat (preferably cold). But it is difficult to make and very messy. It just takes too long to make and clean the kitchen afterwards.

        1. Whenever I make preserves or do any sort of home canning, even if it’s a simple recipe, my respect for my grandmothers and their mothers/grandmothers increases. It always seems like a lot of work and often a lot of mess to clean up. Fortunately it’s just something I do to preserve extra garden produce and make gifts (or because I love both jalapeño jelly and dilly beans, and they’re pricey in the grocery store), and I don’t depend on it through the winter like my ancestors did. I’m nowhere near as efficient or skilled at processing and canning fruits and vegetables either.

        2. Oh, the trick with quince jam, it must be cooked repeatedly for a few days.
          You cook it for a few hours a day, that let it cool overnight than cook it again. And again, until the consistency is more marmalade than jam.

          That’s how I remember my grandmother doing it.
          Wasn’t very messy, just a lot of stirring.

      2. Quinces are extraordinarily sour. You need to add a LOT of sugar. The bushes do have lovely red blossoms, though.

  9. Thank you very much for all these wonderful photographs and the their descriptions. Congratulations for the award and the medal, and for the ginger bread basket. I kind of knew you were probably going to fall forward against that wall. Thank you Mr. Coyne.

  10. The inscription on the obverse of the medal is “Faculty of Biology and Earth Sciences Nicolaus Copernicus University in Torun”. On the reverse, “60 LAT” means 60 “Years”.

    Of the labels on the bins in the gingerbread store, I can only make out four of them:

    morela = apricot

    sliwka = plum

    jagoda = blueberry

    krajanka = slices

  11. Thank you for this delightful tour. What a charming place. I would love to go there after seeing this wonderful post.

  12. Fabulous post Jerry. Lots of vicarious enjoyment here and as usual, I want to make the trip myself now. History and great food – what more could you want? And I love gingerbread too!

  13. Those Polish donuts look scrumptious! The cream filled ones must be divine!

    The people browsing the gingerbread look overwhelmed with choice!

    I think that terrier looks sad – holding the dress of his owner like he was forced to do it.

    The donkey story is awful – how terrible to use the image of such a lovely animal to torture people.

  14. Pleased to know you’ve had such a great time in Toruń!

    And kudos for raising the problem of evolution denialism in your talk. The little exchange with the offended academician it triggered should give the students something to think about…

  15. Thanks for the photos and info. Have you ever been to Piotrkow Trybunalski, the birthplace of Ernestine Rose(Potowski)? According to the map, it’s about 150 kilometers southeast of Torun.

  16. We have 2 quince bushes in our driveway, the only 2 in our village. After May 1st when the blossoms appear they attract hummingbirds and after October 1st they attract an elderly lady in the village who picks the fruit and makes quince jelly which she sells at our local Farmers Market in the following year.

  17. What an enjoyable post! I don’t know how you can pack so much into one day!

    It’s most interesting learning so much about Poland–its food, architecture, history, people…about all I knew before was its plight in WW II and the Cold War…and Lech Walesa.

    I love the Golden Goose lady!

    Now I want some gingerbread.

  18. I was raised in Germany and went to Catholic grade school where we were taught that the story of Adam and Eve (as well as many other Bible stories) should not be taken at face value – they were written as understood by the people who wrote them.

  19. I hope you took the chance, Jerry, to smell the quince before they were cooked. One of those light and elusive scents that make you sniff more and more deeply, yet you never quite identify the component you thought you got a hint of at first. I put that in a clumsy way, but olfaction is so damn’ old, we don’t even have the language to describe our perception of processes in such primitive parts of our brains!

  20. Dear prof. Coyne

    The soup you were served was not bigos. Bigos is never a soup, it’s main ingredient is sauerkraut (kiszona kapusta) and what’s on that picture looks nothing like bigos.

    The soup was probably żur(sour rye soup) or biały barszcz (white borscht) – two very popular and similar polish soups. It’s basis is not bread but sourdough starter. For żur it’s rye (the soup is dark and have stronger sour flavor), for biały barszcz it’s wheat (that makes it lighter and more delicate in taste).

    I suppose biologists are not necessary culinary experts, but every Pole knows what bigos is and what is żur. So some mistransaltion must have occurred.

    I’m clarifying this, sins you are known for your interest in food 🙂

    ps. The Nicolaus Coeprnicus big statue stands in front of Town hall (ratusz, real pride of citizens of Toruń in Hanza times, it was a symbol of town’s prosperity), not a cathedral.
    Every child in Toruń knows that. Who was your guide??? Shame on him/her.

    1. Yes, I was going to correct that, as I knew bigos was a stew, but that’s what I was told at lunch, and later by Malgorzata. I’ll correct it now, thank you.
      As for the statue, that was just my guess, nobody told me. So the shame is on me.

      1. No shame in this 🙂

        But as born and raised Torunian (and straight line descendant of Hanseatic traders on my mother’s side) I felt obliged to correct that fact.

        I hope you will visit Toruń again, there is still a lot to see here, lot of stories to tell about various historical objects. And lot of fresh pączki to eat.

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