Two Polish Country Houses near Warsaw

The weather has been so wonderful in Warsaw over the last three weeks - clear, coolish and gloriously sunny. Perhaps climate change is going to emerge as a positive development in Poland! Late April and early May are wonderful months in the country as spring literally explodes across the landscape and the trees come into leaf. Warsaw is utterly transformed from the foolish accepted view of it as a miserable city, cold and mired in slush.

I have made a definite decision to use the old Royce more this spring and summer so on Sunday (April 26) Zosia and I packed a pic-nic, collected some friends and headed for a house I knew of but had never visited. This charming baroque country house is called Otwock Wielki and is situated about 25kms south of the city off the road to Pulawy. It is built on an island on a loop of the Vistula river. The house is surrounded by a superb park with the usual Polish practice of closely planted limes and a small area of English lawn with a fine fountain of two leaping dolphins. Otwock Wielki was built in 1693-1703 for Franciszek Bielinski, Grand Marshal of the Crown, by the remarkable seventeenth century Dutch architect Tylman van Gamaren who designed so many of the finest surviving buildings in Poland. It was subsequently expanded in the eighteenth century by the talented architect Jakub Fontana. The interior has recently been restored and furnished in period with a stunning stucco what one might call 'Roman' Ballroom. Two rooms are interestingly dedicated to the Polish military hero Jozef Pilsudski who presided over the brief flowering of Polish independence between the wars. They are furnished with remnants of his personal furniture and a cabinet containing a copy of his death mask and uniform.

The elderly owner of the house before the communist state stole it is now attempting restitution of the property. However, Poland is some way behind other former Soviet satellites in this process and he has a long road ahead I fear.

We set up our pic-nic table beside the long water of the lake between an ancient avenue of willows coming into leaf. Nothing could have been more civilised as we opened an old Fortnum's basket left over from Christmas festivities but now packed with excellent Polish cold cuts, fresh bread and a chilled bottle of Macon Rose. Nothing could have been further from the absurd view of Poland as still a melancholic uncouth country. Here was no interference from 'guards' or private 'policemen' urging you to move elsewhere. One wonderful aspect of motoring in Poland is that you can stop almost anywhere scenic and pic-nic without problems of invading private territory or being accused of trespassing. Bliss if you love this activity as much as I do. The country is relatively unregulated concerning leisure activities and one never feels that 'pressure of people' that often spoil country excursions in so many European countries.

Lovely drive home at dusk with scarcely any traffic.

Nieborów and Arkadia
(extracted from the unedited text of  A Country in the Moon: Travels in Search of the Heart of Poland by Michael Moran - published by Granta Books, London 2009)

Click on photos to enlarge for superior reproduction

Non-digital 1973 Nikon F2 SLR 




I travelled first to the village of Nieborów near Żelazowa Wola (the village where Chopin was born) about 50 kms from Warsaw where my favourite Polish country house and pendant garden is situated, one of the great mansion and park ensembles in Europe. Originally a baroque mansion designed by the Dutch architect Tylman van Gameren it passed to the noble Radziwiłł family in the late eighteenth century. Duke Michał Radziwiłł’s remarkable wife, Princess Helena, was a leader of fashion in Warsaw concerning matters of landscape gardening and enlightened patronage. The interior has an astonishing Dutch blue-tiled staircase and a fine library. The lime avenue on the broad central axis of the mansion leads across squares of lawn to a ha-ha opening onto a former deer park with a pine forest in the middle distance. The whimsical placement of urns, sarcophagi, tenth century statues of women from Sarmatian Black Sea tribes and a box garden with an imperial eagle perched on a Roman column urges the wanderer to heroic reminiscence of Polish history. I briefly sat on a garden seat with the admonitory Latin inscription Non Sedas Sed Eas (Do not sit down but go on). A fisherman was quietly waiting in a drifting dinghy on the lake near an island.

About a mile from Nieborów, Helena Radziwiłł with the assistance of her architect Szymon Bogumił Zug and the French painter Jean-Pierre Norblin de la Gourdaine created the astonishing landscape garden of Arkadia over a period of forty years. The ‘modern’ notion of a pastoral Arcadia is a substantial transformation from the original pagan and brutish domain overseen by rapacious Pan with horns, hairy haunches and cloven feet. Arkadia, a picturesque and elegiac garden of allusions, is in the tender spirit of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and is one of the most extraordinary ‘sentimental’ eighteenth century gardens in Europe.

The garden was fertilised by many international influences. Changing vistas were evoked by the golden pastorals of Claude Lorrain and the dramatic classicism of Nicholas Poussin. The English Virgilian landscapes created by William Kent at Stowe, Henry Hoare and Henry Flitcroft at Stourhead and Alexander Pope at Twickenham all played their part. In Arkadia Horace Walpole might have reminded us of those imitators of English gardens, his ‘little princes of Germany’. The magnificent Enlightenment realm of Wörlitz ruled by Reason and Nature was created in the late eighteenth century by Prince Leopold Friedrich Franz of Anhault-Dessau. Here the wanderer could choose between the route of ignorance and superstition or the route of esoteric knowledge.

Literature also played its part. The cult of nature, romantic mysticism and antiquity were developed in the baroque pastoral romance Astrée by Honoré d’Urfé and in ‘Julie’s garden’ of La Nouvelle Héloïse (1761) by Jean-Jacques Rousseau (‘perhaps the most influential bad book ever written’ ). The pervasive French sensibility of the time was greatly influenced by the charm of those crowds of vanishing, marvellous creatures languishing in the autumnal paintings of Jean-Antoine Watteau. Helena herself was fond of reading the influential meditative poem The complaint; or, Night-thoughts on life, death, and immortality by Edward Young (1683-1765).

The melancholy ghosts of dead renown,
Whispering faint echoes of the world's applause.

                                                                                        From Night IX

The many allegorical buildings in Arkadia are a labyrinth of encoded messages. These ideas were propagated through the medium of Freemasonry. The garden was conceived as an eloquent set of theatre scenes for the enlightened visitor, evoking the vanished joys and lost ideals of the Enlightenment. The predominant themes of are of Love, Happiness, Beauty and Death - ideas cultivated through her eighteenth century sensibilité. On the Island of Feelings set in a lake, flowers picked at the entrance to the park were placed by visitors on altars dedicated to Friendship, Hope, Gratitude and Remembrance. The walls of the High Priest’s Sanctuary are inset with Roman architectural fragments and even an artificial sheep-pen alludes to a lost Virgilian past. An inscription reads L’ésperance nourrit une Chimère et la Vie S’écoule (Hope nourishes a Delusion as Life slips away).

‘Arkadia was all about memories, reveries, regrets and keeping civilisation and culture alive.’ Lying on the grass in the sun in a column of warm gold it was not difficult to imagine delightful ‘Turkish’ fêtes galantes on the autumnal lake. Willows trailed leaves in the still waters around the islands, swans glided by while boats set sail for the île de Cythère. A world of intense impressions, melancholy, poignancy and reflective thought, an excursion particularly apposite in my present situation.

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