Regional beers have become big news and leading the pack is the stuff from Ciechanów. As an excuse for a travel piece that tops the lot.
Polish beer hasn’t always had the best press, least not from me. I liken much of it (well, the big brands) to poison; the kind that kills you before you get drunk. But that’s no longer the rule, and there’s enough secondary breweries to keep me in Polska. Breweries like Ciechan. And it was while pondering one of their bottles I had an idea. “Well that’s a nice castle on the label,” I mused, “could be a smashing place to visit…”
14:00 We’re booked into the Hotel Baron (hotel-baron.pl), which in spite of the noble name is anything but. “Do you reckon they’ve got wifi?” I ask as we pull in. “Wifi!” snorts my driver, Drax, “It’s practically the only hotel in town, we’ll be lucky if the toilet flushes.” In fairness, it isn’t the dud he’d forecast. While pretty basic, the Baron is clean, comfortable and certainly not offensive, and with prices touching zł. 140 for a single it’s unquestionably a deal. And yes, they do have wifi.
They also have a location that’s practically on the doorstep of the brewery. I make this discovery on opening the window. When the wind turns the rich scent of hops wafts across town, its distinguished aroma filling the air. Buoyed by these heady, pungent smells, we set off to pinpoint the source of them.
14:30 Now I’ve visited breweries before: Heineken in Amsterdam and Guinness in Dublin, then of course there’s the microbreweries around Poland like Bierhalle etc. All are spotless, with gleaming tanks, shiny brass and immaculate staff who would pass a parade. So landing on the doorstep of Browar Ciechan is a bit of a surprise. Like turning up to a Spanish resort to find that instead of a luxury condo complex you’ve actually been sold an abandoned construction site with a dead donkey by the gate.
Browar Ciechan is not what I envisioned. Brewing since 1864, it looks dog-eared and shabby – but reassuringly so. Having this fine beer brewed in an anonymous plant just wouldn’t be right. Our whistle stop tour (book in advance so they can rustle up an English-speaker, www.ciechan.com.pl) takes us wading through barley, and past topless calendars, clattering down stairwells and ducking low ceilings. Deep underground, we’re escorted to the fermentation rooms, dark, slippery cellars filled with dials and pipes, before making it back to the rattle and din of the bottling room. It’s an amazing experience, made all the better when Kamil, our guide, cracks open beers fresh from the assembly line. It’s been a hard day and we deserve them.
16:00 Open Sesame! The on-site brewery pub opens for trade, and the real work begins. At some stage during the evening, I’m advised that this is the only decent place to eat. I know better though.
20:00 Dining options are limited in Ciechanów, but galvanized by the local lager I opt to check out Tesali Grill Restaurant (Rynek 11). Even in my pickled state, I know a dangerous meal when I see one: think Sphinx, then think even worse.
22:00 Clubbing, Ciechanów-style. The brewery doesn’t only own a pub, but also a club. Seating in this subterranean lair comes in the form of hollowed out beer tanks, and I learn that during the war this is where SS officers would carouse. That’s not the only discovery I make. Doda, the pin-up songstress, is from round these parts, and for a fleeting moment I eyeball her twin. All is well again.
Saturday 10:00 My head feels like I’ve just lost a game of Russian Roulette. Clearly, today’s plan consists of survival. Drax has other ideas though, and we check out of the hotel for a quick bout of sightseeing. The previous night I’d resisted his suggestions to fire up the laptop and research the town. “No need,” I’d declared, “all we’ve got to do is hit tourist info and pick up their bumph.” As brainwaves go, it was there with my best. This was going to go like clockwork…
10:30 … A broken clock. Finding Tourist Information (ul. Warszawska 34) isn’t hard, finding them open is. For reasons I can’t fathom they’re closed at weekends (I mean, what kind of idiot goes sightseeing on Saturday?), an unexpected factor that sees my master plan unravel. Fortunately, Ciechanów’s size acts in its favor. A town of little under 50,000, it’s not hard to locate the few sights and sounds.
11:00 Take the castle for instance. That’s just down the road from the brewery, and is our next port of call. Believed to have been built in the 15th Century, its red brick form is haunted by the executed wife of a former duke. Certain she was lavishing his pricey gifts on a courtier, the duke sentenced her to die. It was only after she lost her head the stash of missing jewels was found in a nest, apparently swiped by a naughty little magpie. Racked with guilt, the duke leapt to his death from one of the towers that stand on each corner.
Later annexed by the Polish royal family, the castle served as HQ for Queen Bona for ten years, while in 1647 Marie Louise Gonzago, wife of Władysław IV, popped in for some R&R. She didn’t hang around long enough to see dawn; spooked by the ghosts, she made a sharp exit. Alas, you’ll probably see even less of the zamek than her. Bombshell II comes with the realization the castle is closed – and not just for Saturday, but the next few months. Smashed in the Swedish Deluge, then battered during the 1920 Polish-Bolshevik war, the castle is at long last undergoing work to restore it.
That wasn’t stopping me though. Using skills acquired from my secretive past, I found a way in – someone had left the gate open. Standing alone in a medieval courtyard surrounded by muddy machinery is weird. Weirder still, I note that renovation plans include the addition of a glass extension – the future home of the local museum. It’s eerily quiet as I wonder amid cement mixers and drills, the only sound coming from a shrieking crow. I’m moved to remember something I’d read a few months back. During WWII, the Nazis held ‘selections’ here on the local population.
12:00 The Ciechan Pub doesn’t open till 4 p.m. The culinary calamity of last night is still tumbling around my guts, so it’s a no brainer when Drax presents me with a choice. “We can visit MacJack’s Kebab & Pizza over there, or put the pedal to the metal and head back to Warsaw.”
12:10 We’re not the only ones suffering from yesterday. A classic GPS malfunction leads us deep into a 70s housing estate centered round a park. Spotting a monument we stop, squelching our way across to discover the lonely memorial marks what was once the New Jewish Cemetery (ul. Pułtuska). Like the other two Jewish cemeteries, and the synagogue, it was razed by the Germans, and is now a solitary reminder of a murdered Jewish community which once formed a third of the populace. The windswept scene feels a poignant conclusion to a strange, backwater town. Unexplored and underrated, it’s a weird weekend that shouldn’t be missed.