So I’m in Toruń, Poland for the World Masters Athletics (my parents are badasses and this is how it manifests in my dad). Poland is a popular destination, it’s fair to say, for architecture, medieval history, and cheap beer, so I was pretty happy to go out there for a few days to support him. It ended up becoming a two-week trip between Spain, Belgium and Poland. Thanks to the international sporting event being held in the town, and the fact that I booked too late, I was a little bit limited when it came to choosing my accommodation, and after tearing my hair out over it for a bit, I went for the cheapest one that didn’t have bed bugs mentioned in the reviews.
And let me tell you. I’m developing quite a knack for choosing cool hotels.
Upon arrival, I passed through a gated entrance and into a sort of triangular shaped car park, beyond which I could see a moat and a bridge leading up to the fort itself, a red brick building partly covered over with grass. Once past the main entrance, I passed by cases of historical military artefacts, before entering a dingy stone reception area. The receptionist didn’t speak much English but took my details and handed me a key before knocking on the door behind the desk. Next thing I know, a tiny dog was pattering around my legs, and a gentleman was beckoning me to follow him. As we walked, he told me that the dog’s name was Misha (probably not the correct spelling) and he or she happily trotted along the corridor ahead of us. Every time it strayed off course, the man would issue a reminder “room 14!” and the dog quickly got back to work leading me to my room. The city of Torun, the man told me, is famous for Nicolaus Copernicus, and gingerbread. He worked in the gingerbread factory himself for many years.
And then we were at my room. It was at the very end of several cavernous corridors, which seemed to smell of some mixture of old dust and sulphur, but somehow the smell stops at the door, and my room is quite pleasant. I’m in the last room, on my own little bend in the corridor. Beyond my door is an archway, leading off to some other corridor. The sign next to it reads “latrines”. That’s pretty cool, I thought, because the place has these signs up indicating where historical parts of the fort are. Except, a glance down there shows modern (ish) communal showers, so now I’m wondering which poor souls don’t have their own bathroom in their rooms, and are trudging down freezing stone corridors for a wash.
In my room, I quickly lock the door behind me because there are definitely some uniformed ghosts in this place (not that a locked door would stop them). The room is – really nice. But in a weird way. Like everything else here, it’s impossible to describe. The whole place has the vibe of a tiny roadside museum that you only notice because of a half hidden sign, and when you decide to stop off and take a look, you don’t see a single other person for your entire visit.
It’s technically clean, but parts have been left deliberately in states of partial disrepair – nothing major, just cracked plaster and exposed brick. The effect is actually quite striking on the high ceilings. The curtains over my window are grand, since they’re floor to ceiling and heavy, but they’re also olive green and reminiscent of an army blanket. There’s usually someone on reception, but the desk is so hidden they might as well not be there. I hear echoes of other people around, but rarely actually see them. And the smell…it’s not as pungent as drains, but not as dusty as a museum. It’s somewhere in between. The whole place is so eerily historic that I feel the I could be ordered onto the parade square at any moment, or to line up for room inspection, but at the same time it feels dead and left behind.
There’s no wifi. Or rather, it’s only available in Room One. So I go on a hunt. I can’t top up my data until I’m back in Sweden. Room One doesn’t seem to be in existence. No one’s at reception. Somewhere in the corridor, the wifi pops up on my phone, so I join. One bar. I’m next to a sign that says Common Room, but the door – a huge wooden one painted green – is locked. The windows have iron bars over them, but inside I’m sure I see a table football. This is where the wifi seems to be strongest, so I decide to hang around. But thirty seconds later, it’s gone, so I head back to my room, gather my stuff, and journey to town to meet my dad in his own hotel.
Petite Fleur hotel, in the old town, is lavishly decorated yet somehow faded at the same time. There are once-red drapes over the windows, plush carpet, and lots and lots of sofas in the reception area. Dried flowers in ceramic vases adorn every surface, accompanied by lace doilies. We head downstairs, via a wide, dark wooden staircase, into a wine-cellar-style vaulted room, where there are tables with candlesticks, white tablecloths and fresh flowers. French music is playing. There is a set dinner of a soup and a main each day, and through the week we have some slightly spicy lentil soups, and a lovely tomato one. The first main course I had there (because we ate there a lot) was Gołąbki, which is actually a lovely sort of meat roll in cabbage, but if you’re just expecting what looks like a sausage, it catches you off guard.
Back in my hotel, I cross the moat again. The gentleman I met earlier is on reception, and I ask about the wifi. He holds up a finger, then goes into a drawer and pulls out a tiny slip with a wifi name and password on. I thank him in Polish, and he looks at me either impressed or insulted – I couldn’t tell, but I’m fairly sure I had the right word, so I hope he was impressed. Then I promptly set off in the wrong direction, and he had to call after me to correct me.
In my room, I try connecting to wifi. It doesn’t work.
This usually wouldn’t be a problem, except that I’ve got work to do for university and a trip to Gdańsk to prepare for. I can’t afford to burn through data when I’m about to be alone for the weekend in a new city. Also, I can understand why it doesn’t work. We’re in a huge stone building with long corridors, several levels, and partly underground. You’d need about seventy-five signal boosters. So I hop online and buy an eSIM for the first time, which worked wonderfully.
I also close the curtains tightly, because I don’t want to see an old fort in the dark, and avoid looking in the mirror, because my stupid imagination has convinced me that I might see a Prussian soldier in the corner or something.
The room isn’t cold, but there is a chill in the air, so I look forward to a warm shower. But it turns lukewarm after about three minutes, so I allow myself a few minutes with the electric heater provided. There’s a spare set of bedding on the sofa, and I wrap myself in that to do a bit of work before bed. It’s next to the window, the only part of the room where I’m not surrounded by several feet of brick and grass, so the signal is best here.
When I leave my room the next morning, someone is cooking up a feast in the kitchen next to me. Because yes, there’s a kitchen. It’s somehow not quite a hostel but not quite a hotel. I almost poke my nose in and ask for some. In the restaurant, a long, cavernous room low arched ceilings, I find dressed tables but no people, so the receptionist says she’ll call someone. I met three or four staff members during my stay, but don’t think I ever saw more than one of them in the same place at once. The summoned young man and I can’t communicate beyond getting a coffee, so he gets his phone out to translate the menu – modern solutions. There are 3 options: scrambled egg; fried egg and bacon; and sausage with something that I can’t remember. I go for option two. Behind me, another man has arrived. I attempt a conversation, because we’re alone in this stone room, but it wasn’t to be, so I went to sit down. He orders option number one.
Very quickly, a plate of eggs arrives at my table. I try to explain that I ordered option two, but the waiter thinks I’m asking for two forks. I try again, and he goes “ah” and disappears out to the back, reappearing with another plate. Now panicking that he thinks I want TWO breakfasts, I’m relieved when it’s just a plate of meat and cheese and a bread basket. Then I’m panicking again, because oh my gosh that’s so much food.
A plate with bacon on goes to the other chap, but before I can offer to swap, he’s tucking in. So I do the same, with no regrets because the scrambled egg was delicious. I cut up a piece of bread and put some on there, and that’s delicious too. Then I try the slices of meat, also delicious. Then I try the marmalade, delicious. The coffee – also delicious.
Some other guests have arrived by this point, and now it’s the two of them speaking German to my mixed-up breakfast buddy, and me, with each word reverberating ever so slightly off the bare walls. So I make my escape, wishing I could make some apology about the amount of food I’ve left on the plate. Now I’m thinking about it, I wish I’d put that bread and meat in a napkin for later.
I go outside and await my Uber. It’s very unusual for me to use a taxi when I travel; I usually go for public transport or walking, but the stadium is in a location just awkward enough that the bus takes too long, and close enough that Ubering feels a bit ridiculous. Whilst waiting, Misha the dog appears and proceeds to bark at every single passing car, and one unfortunate hostel guest – what he did to incur the dog’s wrath I don’t know. Hearing the commotion, the groundskeeper – the gentleman who greeted me when I arrived – emerges from a little hut. We exchange names, and he marvels that I share a name with Buck’s Fizz, while I learn that his name is Andreu. He’s a wonderful gent and his presence really lights up my stay.
I spend my week in Toruń alternating between spending hours at the stadium, and a bit of sightseeing. Dad and I mostly eat in his hotel, for ease, but we do explore some other places too. Namely, a cat cafe where a robot brings your food, and a fantastic sushi restaurant. I didn’t get to try pierogi on this trip, but wasn’t worried, because I knew I’d get the chance.
On my last day, I pick up a map from reception, with which I can tour the fort! Each point of the building has a couple of paragraphs of information about the history and function of the place. Interestingly, the fort isn’t half as old as you’d think. In the late 1800s, the city built several such fortifications, for the purpose of protection from the Prussian and Russian borders. By the time they were completed, many were already outdated thanks to new artillery technology, leaving some to be updated and some to be abandoned completely.
Our tour takes us through dingy corridors, out to the courtyards, and over the top of the fort. As we go, it’s clear that there are event spaces throughout, but we couldn’t imagine what a function there would look like. Honestly, I can’t imagine what people there would look like, full stop. It’s so empty. And yet, on paper, a courtyard in a dramatic building, with covered areas and long beer benches is the perfect event space. I see spots where they’ve clearly had fires, with long metal grilling skewers strewn about – but even the fact that they’re just left there is bizarre.
It’s at this point, after exploring the tunnels under the moat and the artillery mounts, that we realise something. We are lost.
No, not “lost”, exactly.
We know exactly where we are. Except, we don’t know how to get back into the main building.
The thing is, from the tarmac of the courtyard, you can walk up onto one part of the fort – literally the roof. But only one part, and from there, you can’t get to the front entrance. That would be too easy, of course. No, our only way back inside is through the back door we came out of.
But where is it?
Retracing our steps doesn’t help. We’re fairly certain we remember which door it was, but going back through it only takes us to a second, unfamiliar chipboard door, locked from our side.
From our side!!
The other passageways all lead to dead ends or similarly locked doors – we already knew this, but of course we tried each one five times. It starts to drizzle with rain.
We spend a good ten minutes really scratching our heads and wondering if we’re losing our minds (I’m once again considering the possibility of ghosts). I’m just about coming around to the idea of getting reception on the phone. Can you imagine anything more mortifying?
I know you can’t.
Anyway, one or the other of us finally had the bright idea to go back and try that door again. The one that should be the right one. Faced once more with that stupid chipboard door (I was disappointed every time it didn’t magically change) I decide to pull open the metal latch and give the door a good shove. And would you believe it, it opens up, and we find ourselves in exactly the corridor we were after.
Turns out the latch was only on one half of the door, and the other half was never really locked, so all possibility of ghosts goes out the window. And thus we learned a valuable lesson of checking the other side of doors when they close behind us.
Back in reception, we acted as if I didn’t just start to believe in the paranormal, thanked the staff, and headed outside, desperate to get away from those brick corridors. They were colder than outside! As we waited for an Uber to take us back to the town, I hear a pattering of paws, and out pops Misha the dog, much to my delight, closely followed by Andreu. I introduce him to my dad before he goes pottering off to continue with his daily jobs, and the dog scampers around excitedly. Andreu returns shortly, with a small metal pin badge from the Torun gingerbread factory where he used to work. I was really touched by this! It lives on my scarf for now, but I’m worried about losing it, so it might find a new home when I get back.
And after the Uber arrived, I pulled away from those brick gateposts one last time, both happy and sad to leave the place behind. All in all, it was a bizarre, comfy, interesting stay. I do want to stress that it was enjoyable, with good food and pretty clean facilities. The staff especially were incredibly friendly. But at the same time, I just can’t describe in words the eerie atmosphere. Check the place out, if you’re interested! The town is very lovely and, I think, worth a visit if you’re nearby.
Things to do
Planetarium | Walking Tour | Gingerbread museum (or others) | Town hall | Teutonic castle
Places to eat
Dom Sushi | Pierogarnia Stary Mlyn
Where we stayed
Affiliate links, read more here.
Twierdza Fort IV (currently not available on Booking.com)