Geographically isolated within the extreme southeast corner of Poland, Przemysl is a town closer to the Polish - Ukrainian border than to any other Polish city of significance. Midway between Rzeszow and Lviv and fifty miles away from each, it is highly influenced by Polish culture and traditions on one hand and Ukrainian lifestyle and customs on the other. This adopted behaviour on the part of the inhabitants of Przemysl is pretty straightforward to comprehend, the city being a spot frequented regularly by Poles from neighbouring Polish towns and villages and at the same time by Ukrainian businessmen coming from cities further east.
What is highly surprising is the additional Austrian influence that prevails in the medieval quarter, particularly in the baroque constructions and monumental stonework that dominate the streets of the city. To grasp the reasons behind such influence, one needs to become acquainted with the main historical facts and the political route Przemysl was forced to follow after the Third Partition of Poland in 1795. Assigned to Austria, it experienced a century of prosperity, a golden period during which most of the city was redesigned and reconstructed according to the best architectural theories prevalent in the west at that time. Additional constructions were erected within the medieval quarter while a double ring of fortified ramparts was put up to provide adequate protection for the inhabitants.
Unfortunately, World War II has seen the devastation of most of these priceless reconstructions but what remained is ample proof of the wealth the city experienced under Austrian domination. After the war, as the whole country was left under the control of the Soviet Union, Przemysl was relocated with Poles who had fled to other parts of Poland during the German invasion. In a bid to provide homes for the soaring population, the area north of the river was filled in with a jungle of apartment blocks and with the exception of the Church of the Holy Trinity and the former Jewish Synagogue, nothing is of interest to visitors.
After three glorious days in Rzeszow, I reluctantly left behind my Polish friends with whom I spent unforgettable evenings of lavish entertainment. The train from Rzeszow to Przemysl left the station at 10:30 am but being a slow local train, it took almost two hours to complete the fifty-mile distance between the two cities. Although time-consuming however, the trip was an enjoyable journey of leisure and relaxation, the train having wended its way through forested hillside groves and picturesque valley corridors for most of the time.
All eastbound trains from Rzeszow pass through the northern outskirts of Lancut, stopping at Lancut station for several minutes before proceeding further east to the residential town of Przeworsk. The railway tracks between Lancut and Przeworsk run across a picturesque area of unspoilt forest dotted here and there with small patches of grassland where several species of dwarf mountain shrubs and thorny bushes grow and bloom. Along this section of the route, the tracks run across a series of six arched stone bridges, each bridge being a modest example of masonry craftsmanship. The water running deep along the valley floor makes it possible for the area to host a diverse range of plant and animal species, birds being better represented and obviously more visible.
Przeworsk is a small urban settlement surrounded with virgin forest landscape, green hills and winding river tributaries. The small train station on the north edge of the town allows for good views of the Kniazie Grodziszcze Hill whose grassy top is crowned with a conventual church, its pair of bell towers and a section of the enclosing fortifications being clearly in sight through the train’s window.
Beyond Przeworsk, the train took a southeast direction, continuing its route along a wild and secluded region of wonderful landscape to the town of Jaroslaw. Jaroslaw train station on the south edge of the town is a huge affair, an indication that the town is an attractive place to visit and a prime trade centre. Through the train’s window, I could observe at a distance a wonderful panorama of grand buildings and mighty churches standing atop a huge outcrop of elevated rock formation.
Leaving Jaroslaw behind after a stop of several minutes, the train delved south passing through an underpass and over a bridge in a bid to bypass the motorway. It proceeded south following the course of the San River but never approaching close enough to render the river visible. Stopping at several minor stations along the last section of the route, the train finally reached its destination affording a good orientation of Przemysl while making its way into the station.
Located on the northeast edge of the medieval quarter, Przemysl train station is a monumental historic building that retains most of its original baroque features and interior decoration but the surrounding area, particularly north of the station and around the bus terminal is not the ideal spot to linger, being derelict, untidy and often frequented by a handful of outcasts. Crossing the tunnel under the train tracks and climbing up the steps into the open is a great redeeming action, the area here having been regenerated with new shops, clean streets and orderly parking spaces.
A short walk west on Ul Mickiewicza brings one near the huge brick Church of the Reformed Franciscans which for some reason was always closed when I visited. Almost opposite the church, the elegant car-free walkway across Ul Slowackiego (the city’s main thoroughfare) heads straight to a small triangular piazza, a lovely hangout and a popular rendezvous among the locals. From here, the city’s two most predominant shopping streets, Ul Franciszkanska and Ul Kazimierza Wielkiego radiate towards the Rynek. Ul Kazimierza Wielkiego is a shopper’s paradise, lined on both sides with scores of specialized shops of all sorts. Several bars and friendly restaurants have also found a hole here, extending their small drinking or dining space with open-air tables, appropriately shaded with colourful parasols. Worthy of mention more for its popularity than for its frosty helpings of sticky concoctions is the ice-cream parlour. I’ve never seen so many queuing up for so little. Also worthy of mention is a particular shop that deals in antiques and fine arts. Located just opposite the ice-cream parlour on the other side of Ul Kazimierza Wielkiego, it is indisputably the place to visit for the sheer beauty of the items on display even if you do not intend to buy.
The atmosphere on Ul Franciszkanska is more subdued but it is nonetheless equally tempting. Lined with more shops on both sides, Ul Franciszkanska provides buyers with dreamy displays of amazing drawings, etchings, icons, silverware, jewellery and good-quality religious works of art. The huge Franciscan Church tucked away on the extreme westernmost edge of Ul Franciszkanska may appear too plain outside but once you climb up the stairs and go inside, you will be faced with an amazing interior, a great display of ornamental work highly influenced by the baroque style that was widespread in Vienna in the mid-eighteenth century.
Unlike other market squares throughout Poland, the Rynek in Przemysl is not dominated by the Town Hall. It is an irregularly-shaped highly sloping piazza, its central empty space being entirely covered with grassy turf. The baroque structures around the square, particularly those sheltered by the arcaded walkways are outstanding and impressively well-preserved.
Climbing up from the Rynek to the Cathedral is no mean feat. Perched on the crest of a hill, the Cathedral occupies a position of prominence overshadowing the city beneath. Starting off your ascent along Ul Adama Asnyka, you will meet on the way two other places of worship. The baroque Jesuit Church, presently used by the Uniate congregation has been redecorated completely with Eastern-style church ornamentation, its impressive iconostasis being an attraction in its own right. Further up, the Carmelite Church is a rather quaint massive structure that has seen numerous remodellings over the years. The most interesting feature inside is the boat-shaped pulpit, an avant-garde design (can it be avant-garde if it’s over 200 years old?) of a fishing vessel complete with sails, mast and rigging.
A short detour and for a change… a downhill walk brings you back to the Jesuit Church. Climbing up Ul Katedralna deposits you right in front of the colossal Cathedral. It was remodelled over the years and changed from a Gothic to a baroque structure, mostly by the ruling Austrians. Its free-standing bell tower is a lofty construction, recently renovated and structurally impressive. I asked about the possibility to climb to the top but the only response I got was ‘zamkniete’ which means closed. Inside, the Cathedral contains a wealth of ornamental work, particularly in the Fredro and Drohojowski chapels.
The Castle ruins are located further uphill. Part of the Castle and two of its corner towers were rebuilt but there is not much else to see. The view over the Old Town is unfortunately obscured by trees.