… and a lot of history.
Oleśnica is a small Silesian town about half an hour northeast of Wrocław. They name it „the town of towers and roses“ – well, in December it is hard to tell about roses. However, the bit about the towers is definitely true. Approaching on the main road one sees the skyline with the six towers: the steeples of three churches, the town hall, the gate tower and the palace.
I was taken to Oleśnica on a private half-day excursion by a colleague from Wrocław (thank you M – I would never have found this place on my own!) Since we are both art historians our focus was on „churching“ – but unfortunately we found all churches in town closed. One, namely St John Apostle and Evangelist, at least allowed peeping in through a glass door. This may be different in warmer seasons with more visitors, or maybe even later in the day as we went in the morning. But this was the only disappointment - which, on the other hand, gave us time for a coffee break in a cosy cafe in Rynek.
Silesian country road
Originally we had planned to go to Brzeg for the day. However, things did not go the way they were planned. My host has a young son, her husband had to work unexpectedly, the grandparents had no time either, and it was the 5th of December. There was the Mikołajki (St Nicolas) celebration at kindergarten in the afternoon. M solved the problem by choosing a closer destination for us for just half a day, so she’d be back in time to take her son to the kindergarten celebration in the afternoon. I was and am fully understanding. Really. You cannot tell a five year old that he won‘t attend Mikołajki because Mama has to go on tour with some foreign colleague. You simply can’t.
We went by car, which gave us the opportunity to stop on the way and see a cute little village church. I admit that I forgot the name of the village, it is somewhere northeast of Wroclaw on the outskirts of the city. Until World War II this had been a protestant church, now it is obviously Roman catholic like most churches in present Silesia.
Experts on Silesian history will of course have heard of Oleśnica or, in German, Oels. In former times it had major importance as seat of the Piast dukes and later princes of Oels. The renaissance palace is a testimony of those times, as well as the four impressive churches within the old town and the walls. Unfortunately the town suffered severe destruction in World War II. Also, I do not want to imagine what it looked like some 30 or 40 years ago in the communist era. Due to urgent need for housing, „commie blocks“ have been erected in the former old town as well as in the suburbs. However, a lot has been done in the meantime. The churches and town hall all look well restored. The Rynek has been redesigned and newly paved, just like some streets. The town walls were rebuilt, though not (I think) to their former height. The palace underwent rebuilding already in the 1970s, although since then nothing has happened any more and it could really do with another restoration.
All in all, this small town is well worth a couple of hours. In case you happen to pass on the E67/S8 and spot the towers in the distance, take your time for a stop.
Oels in the 17th century, engraving by Matthäus Merian
Oleśnica’s „skyline“ with the six towers is a striking feature of the town to this very day, visible from afar, for example when approaching on the main highway. Even in the communist era, when large areas within the boundaries of the old town were rebuilt with condo blocks, these were kept low enough not to disturb the historical silhouette. Matthäus Merian, the famous engraver, depicted the town around 1650, and in fact the skyline still looks almost the same.
The towers are, from left to right:
- the steeple of, now orthodox, Church of St George
- the steeple of Roman-Catholic Church of the Holy Trinity
- the short gate tower of Wroclawian Gate
- the tower of the town hall
- the steeple of Palace Church of St John the Apostle and Evangelist- the tower of the Princely Palace
Palace of the Princes of Oels
The main attraction of Oleśnica is certainly the renaissance palace. The palace used to be the residence of Princes from the Piast dynasty, who ruled Poland in the middle ages. Branches of the Piasts continued to rule in the Silesian duchies until the 17th century. Oels became the seat of a separate duchy in 1312. The previous small castle was then extended and fortified. Around 1500 the duchy of Oels became property of the Bohemian dynasty of Podiebrad by exchange of territories. The Podiebrad dukes refurbished the castle and transformed it into a representative renaissance palace. The palace obtained its present shape between 1542 and 1616. Not much has been changed since then.
After the death of the last Podiebrad in 1647, the heir was his son-in-law from a side line of the house of Württemberg. Princes of Württemberg-Oels owned and inhabited the palace until 1792. They refurbished the interior but the renaissance facades and outline remained unchanged. Their successors were the Welf dukes of Brunswick-Lüneburg. Silesia had already been under Prussian rule since 1742. So Oels became part of the newly founded German Empire in 1871.
World War II caused significant damage. In the first decades of communist Poland the palace was used for various purposes and left to decay, until a thorough restoration and reconstruction was executed between 1971 and 1975. Since then, it seems, not much has been done any more. The building could do with another careful restoration.
The palace consists of four wings around a central courtyard, and a tall round tower on the north-eastern corner crowned by a baroque spire. Its outward appearance is still purely renaissance. The curved and stepped gables are a characteristic feature. The plaster on the facades is in bad shape, but its three-dimensional sgraffito ornaments are still visible.
The inner courtyard of the palace can be visited. It helps to know the word wejście (entrance) to find it;-). A small entrance fee of 5 PLN (December 2015) is charged. For this I received a little guidebook on the palace. A 1980s edition in „communist“ quality of paper and print, but better than nothing. It is in Polish but there are summaries in English and German at the end, so it is of use also to visitors who don’t speak Polish.
The renaissance courtyard has not been changed much since the 16th/17th century (an inscription shows the date 1608), except for some restorations after World War II and the addition of half a dozen ugly garbage bins. The southern side has two elegant renaissance galleries while the other sides are plain except for a low open gallery along the first floor. Curved gables ornate the roofs. The tall tower occupies the southeastern corner. The facades are in urgent need of some care and fresh paint, but the original sgraffito ornaments on the plastered surfaces are, despite their bad shape, still recognizable.
The southern side has a finely sculpted renaissance portal with three coats of arms. High up on the northern wall you’ll spot two portraits: Prince Jan Podiebrad and his wife Christina (Krzystyna), who undertook the renaissance remodelling of the palace in the mid 16th century.
In former times there must have been a museum inside the palace and some historical rooms could be seen, but not any more. The interior is occupied by a school and some other institutions and not accessible to visitors.
Conclusion: Seeing the courtyard is worth it if you are, like me, really interested in architecture. If it does not mean that much to you, then skip it.
A walk round the the outside of the palace to the southern side should not be skipped, though. The tower and main gate are on that side. This is the most beautiful facade and view. Moat and ramparts are still visible.
The main gate of the palace in the corner next to the tower is worth a closer look. It is constructed, due to its role in the palace’s fortification, as a double gate with side walls that form a bailey between the outer and inner gate.
The passage through the main gate is not in use any more and not accessible to visitors. It is closed by wrought-iron gates.
The gate displays elaborate stonemasonry in renaissance style. The outer gate has rustications, i.e. carefully sculpted blocks with a rough, protruding surface, that were meant to symbolize strength and fortification. Two arches, a larger one for carriages and a small one for pedestrians, lead into the bailey. The outer gate is crowned with the coats of arms of the dynasty.
The inner gate has tow more coats of arms and the statue of a knight in full armour (if I understand my Polish guidebook right, it depicts Prince Jan Podiebrad, who ruled Oels in the mid-16th century).
Palace Church of St John the Apostle and Evangelist
The Palace Church (Bazylika Mniejsza p.w. św. Jana Apostoła), which is also the main parish church of the town, is dedicated to St John the Apostle and Evangelist and has been promoted to the rank of a Basilica minor by Pope John Paul II. Its origins are medieval. In the beginning there were two smaller churches next to each other, which were then united to one big gothic basilica. For more than 400 years, from the introduction of the reformation in 1538 until the expulsion of the German population in 1945, it was a protestant (Lutheran) church. Since then it has been taken over by the Catholics.
The palace is the church’s next-door neighbour. The Princes of Oels used to visit the services here and donated rich furnishing. In order to adapt the medieval church to protestant service, galleries were installed in the side naves around 1600; their fronts are painted with biblical scenes and images of the apostles according to Lutheran theology. The princely family had their own box on the southwestern gallery. The dynasty of Württemberg-Oels had a burial chapel added to the church in 1698, which contains the tombs of several members of the princely family.
I am taking this information from a textbook. The church was unfortunately, you guessed it, closed. The entrances in the west and north allowed at least entering the vestibule and peeping through a glass door to get an idea of the interior. That’s how I got my photo, and I see a very similar photo of the same view from underneath the gallery on the Wikipedia page, which indicates that other people had the same problem…
The palace church is connected with the palace by a covered bridge. Its three arches cross the street and the moat around the palace. Inside there must be a long, dimly lit corridor with just a few small windows. Palace, church and bridge form an ensemble which proves that the gothic church of St John was indeed considered the „palace church“ as well as the city’s main parish church, where prince and court regularly attended service.
Such bridges were not uncommon in palace churches, but they are rarely preserved. They allowed the princely family and the court direct access into the church without having to mingle with ‘common folks’. From the palace they could reach their box on the first-floor gallery unseen and without being exposed to the weather.
Memorial „Golgotha of the East“
Behind the palace church of St John, there is a memorial known as Golgota Wschodu, Golgotha of the East, consists of two parts. The original memorial was erected in 2003 to commemorate the Polish victims of Soviet dictature: war crimes in World War II (Katyn) and deportations. The upright stone has a horizontal cut that the eye automatically completes to the shape of a cross. The crown of thorns also refers to the Golgotha topic. Little blocks of stones in the ground carry plaques with the names of the most important locations.
Recently a second part has been added. It commemorates April 10, 2010, when a Polish state aircraft crashed in dense fog near the military airport of Smolensk and all 96 people on board were killed. They were on the way to a commemoration service in nearby Katyn, the location of the massacre on 4.400 Polish army officers in 1940, committed by the Soviet army.
Among the fatalities in the plane crash were the President of the Republic of Poland, Lech Kaczyński and his wife, many politicians and government representatives as well as high-ranking officers and clergymen and also family members of victims of the Katyn massacre. To Poland this event is a national tragedy. The new part of the monument has the shape of an aircraft’s „tail“, i.e. the vertical stabilizer. It has the same horizontal cut as the stone on the left, and together the gaps form the silhouette of a slightly leaning cross.
Rynek and Town Hall
Oleśnica has a Rynek, or main square, as is typical for Silesian cities and towns. It is not an open wide square, but rather a ‘ring’ street. The middle of the rectangle is occupied by the town hall and some blocks of houses along tiny lanes.
The neoclassical town hall dates from the early 19th century. It was rebuilt after a devastating fire in 1823 which destroyed the 14th century predecessor. The southern wing of the present building is a product of the 1960s, after World War II destruction. Its tower is one of the landmarks in the town’s skyline.
The square and the houses around it are renovated and in good shape. Some little shops and a couple of cafes add to the atmosphere. The only ‘minus’ is the ugly shop building from the communist era that obscures, probably on purpose, the view towards the gothic choir of St John. In the warmer season this square, the heart of the town, will surely be livelier than it was in December.
The Victory Column in front of the town hall is a remnant of the German era. The victory column recalls the German-French war of 1870/71 and the foundation of the German Empire. The statue on top is Nike, the ancient Greek goddess of victory, holding up a laurel wreath. The monument was erected in 1873. I’m a bit amazed that, while elsewhere all traces of the German era were erased after World War II, this monument has remained.
Town Walls and Gate Tower
The old town used to be surrounded by a ring of town walls with four gates. One gate tower is preserved. Since it is located on the western side, towards the road to Wroclaw, it is named Brama Wrocławska, the Wroclawian Gate. Its origins date back to the 14th century. Most of the present building looks rather new, though. Large parts have been rebuilt after heavy damage in World War II. Town walls are preserved along about three quarters of the circumference. These are also mostly rebuilt, and probably not to their original height. They consist partly of old bricks, partly of new material. But they give an idea of the town’s pre-war appearance.
Medieval Former Synagogue
The gothic, 15th century building with the short steeple originally served as synagogue for the, it seems, rather large Jewish community of Oels for the first 100 years of its existence. After the Jews were expelled from the town in the 16th century, it was used as storage until it was transformed into a protestant church. A fire in 1734 required some rebuilding. It suffered damage in World War II which was then repaired in the 1960s. Nowadays it is used by the Pentecostal church.
I would have liked to see the interior, although I do not expect to find too many traces of the Jewish or the protestant era, but unfortunately it was closed. There were no hints of regular opening hours, so I assume it cannot be visited at all.
Catholic Church of the Holy Trinity
The baroque church (kościół świętej Trójcy) was built for the Roman-Catholic community of the town in 1738 – 1744. For a long time it remained the only catholic church in predominantly protestant Oels. At the end of World War II it suffered significant damage and was then rebuilt in the 1960s. The latest renovation was finished in 2005.
The elegant spire and the baroque facades, all painted in white and pale yellow, make it the prettiest church in town. I read that due to lucky circumstances the interior has mostly been preserved during the war, including the high altar with illusionist painting. Unfortunately the church was closed like all the others, so I could not verify this. Maybe you’ll be luckier?
Church of St George
The church in the northernmost end of the old town is known as St George: originally founded as hospital chapel, it later became the church of an Augustine convent and, from the 16th century onwards, a Lutheran parish church. If you arrive by car you will probably enter the old town from this side, via the roundabout, so this one will be the first church you pass. The brick gothic church dates from the late middle ages. The renaissance porch was added in the 16th century. In the 1930 the interior underwent a thorough renovation. I have no information about the spire, but its strange and neither medieval nor baroque shape makes me suspect that it is also a product of this renovation – rebuilt after World War II, of course. Like most buildings in town it suffered severe damage at the end of World War II. in May 1945.
The church used to be protestant until 1945. Since the repair and rebuilding in the 1960s it has been used by the orthodox community, so there cannot be much of the original interior preserved. It was, you guessed it, closed... The triple cross and the two icons on the facade above the entrance indicate the orthodox denomination.
The baroque house with the mansard roof opposite the church of St George, known as Dom wdów, the House of the Widows, dates from 1683. The construction was financed by Prince Silvius Friedrich of Württemberg, then the owner and resident of the castle. It provided housing for the widows of parsons and school teachers, who had to leave the official residence after their husbands’ death and had nowhere to stay and just a very small widows’ pension.
Nowadays the building hosts the state music school. The flag on the facade indicates that the school were celebrating their 50th anniversary in 2015. A monument to Poland’s most famous composer, Fryderyk (Frederic) Chopin, has been put up in the front garden – to be honest, it is so ugly that I doubt Chopin would be too happy with it…
Here are a few more impressions of the town, photos I caught along our walk.
Cute Cafe in Rynek
After all this walking and sighseeing we were in need of a rest and some refreshment. We found a small cafe (Kawiarnia i Cukiernia Amaretto) in a corner of the main square. It looked plain from the outside but the interior is really cosy, decorated with crocheted curtains, pillows and table covers and little ornaments everywhere. I liked the atmosphere. The counter offers a wide variety of cakes and pastries both for takeaway and to enjoy within the cafe. Select what you want from the counter, it will then be delivered to your table.
I had a coffee with milk and a piece of cake with mixed berries, chocolate cream and a dark dough, really tasty. I was hungry, so I took a large coffee and also a large piece of cake, and paid 15 PLN in total. They sell the cake by weight, so if you want to save either calories or money or both, then you can tell them to cut the cake to your liking.
It was, as I said, December 5, the day before St Nicolas Day. I have no idea what was really going to happen that day, but it looked like the local bikers club had some kind of event. About 15 or 20 men, all dressed up as Santa Clauses, assembled in the square in front of the cafe with their motorbikes, one even on a trike. It didn't look like a parade, though - maybe they set out to visit the schools and kindergartens in town to deliver presents to the children? This reminded us that it was time to leave so M’s son would not be late for St Nicolas…