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“Przekrój” Magazine brings English-speaking readers some of the best journalism from across Central and Eastern Europe, in the fields of wellbeing, art, literature, science, ecology, philosophy, psychology, and more. Take a break from the speed and intensity of the daily news and join us!

To the south-east of Warsaw lie two vacation towns: Otwock and Świder. Popular through the first half ...
2019-06-17 10:00:00

The Spa Town and the Summer Resort
Holidays in Otwock and Świder

Abram Gurewicz Guesthouse in Otwock, 1918–1939. Source: NAC (public domain)
The Spa Town and the Summer Resort
The Spa Town and the Summer Resort

Two resorts near Warsaw: one where the climate was considered close to that of Egypt, another where the air was prescribed for the physically and mentally depleted. Join us on a trip to Otwock and Świder, where the timetable includes bathing in rivers and pine needles, sipping kumis, and therapeutic gardening.

Read in 8 minutes

“Salutary, low-lying and homely” – that’s how Polish writer Cezary Jellenta described the virtues of the Otwock climate in 1935. But he was not always so laconic; he devoted a whole book, Sosny otwockie [The Otwock Pines], to the spa town where he spent the last years of his life. Paradoxically, many people living in Warsaw today have no idea that one of the formerly best-known Polish health resorts was developed on the “sands of the Gobi beyond the capital”. Or that Świder was, and perhaps still is, good for everything, according to the poet Konstanty Ildefons Gałczyński: “for the blues / for rheumatism / and eclecticism, / for love, for loneliness”.

Over a century of history for the resorts of Otwock and Świder near Warsaw can be written out for harmonizing literary voices, because these two places – nowadays under common administration – had two parallel fathers, a doctor and an artist. But let’s start from the beginning. And just like the first line of Piotr Paziński’s novel The Boarding House about the village Śródborów near Otwock: “In the beginning, there were train tracks.”

Beneficial pines

In 1877, when the Vistula River Railroad cut through the bogs and dense pine forests in the area of what is now Otwock and its surroundings, an era of wilderness and hunting slowly came to an end, and the first settlers began to arrive. Among these settlers was the renowned painter and book illustrator Michał Elwiro Andriolli, who was searching for a new place of residence in the middle of nowhere. He found what he was looking for in a valley in Lower Świder; he fell in love with it and bought 12 units of land (about 200 hectares) on both banks of the river. Straight away, he turned his retreat into a summer camp, which he called ‘Brzegi’ (‘Riverbanks’). Andriolli, described by Jellenta as an “extraordinary, vigorous, gushing, luxuriant and expansive illustrator, just like the river during the flood”, acquired an entrepreneurial momentum while living in Świder. He invented a style, a characteristic combination of elements of Swiss, Russian and Mazovian wooden architecture, in which he built not only his wooden house-cum-studio (which he named ‘Mine’), but also a whole agglomeration of small manor houses for friends who came to visit him from Warsaw. Among them were Henryk Sienkiewicz and Bolesław Prus, who was one of the first to attempt to describe these architectural “gems” (as he called them) in his Chronicles. However, the name Świdermajer [denoting the type of architecture specific to the wooden summer houses built in Świder in the late 19th and early 20th centuries – trans. note], which is still used today, only appeared after World War II, when Gałczyński wrote in his poem “A Trip to Świder” (published in “Przekrój”) that “The village mayor / calls them ‘Świdermajer’” (of course, no village mayor said any such thing!).

Andriolli’s success meant that within a few years, the area was teeming with decorative pine villas and had become a fashionable summer resort, which was soon to be a health resort too. However, the recreational attributes, convenient location and good transport links to Warsaw would have counted for little had the development of these areas not been supported by the extremely favourable microclimate recognized by the medical community. This was emphasized by the first monographer of Otwock, Edmund Diehl, in 1893, the year of Andriolli’s death, when Doctor Józef Marian Geisler arrived on the scene. It was he who discovered Otwock for its medicinal qualities, founding Poland’s first lowland, permanent (non-seasonal) sanatorium for those with chronic chest problems. Dr Geisler relied primarily on hydrotherapy, a treatment method that was popular at the time, but he also used dietetics, including the fermented dairy product kumis: “Under the management of Dr J. Gejsler there is also a local bathing facility, currently not very extensive, where bathtubs are set up for regular, mineral and pine needle baths […]. At the soda water stand you can get kumis, prepared daily onsite by a Tatar specialist, and therefore fresh, as well as kefir and mineral water,” wrote Diehl. In addition, Dr Geisler prescribed gymnastics and occupational therapy in the open air, such as working in the garden. The buildings of his facility no longer exist, but a nameless alley running off Kościelna Street has survived, which is still referred to by those in the know as “the road to Geisler”. Until the outbreak of World War II, over 170 specialists were practising in Otwock, including Odo Bujwid and Dr Stanisław Krzyżanowski, the father of Irena Sendler. Guests at the resort included the writers Stanisław Brzozowski, Cezary Jellenta and Władysław Reymont, who was accompanying his sick wife.

Geisler and other enterprising doctors, as well as private investors, copied Andriolli’s architectural style, the open or built-in porches being ideal for open-air recuperation throughout the year. However funny or unbelievable it may sound today, the medical committee examining the climatic conditions of Otwock after World War II described it as “the closest to the climate of Egypt”, and therefore optimal for the treatment of even the most severe forms of pulmonary tuberculosis (according to a statement published in the Otwock News on 2nd February 1958).

Not only was this a result of the “beneficial army of Otwock pines”, whose wide-branched canopies secrete essential oils and produce a large amount of chlorophyll, but also the town’s location on the highest sandy terrace in the vicinity. Another factor is the geological structure of the land – both Otwock and Świder have unusually high soil permeability. The sands, reaching depths of 30 metres and increasingly coarse-grained, guarantee the rapid outflow of rainwater and a low level of evaporation, so even after heavy rainfall, the soil is dry after 10-20 minutes.

Not quite Karlsbad, but better than Ciechocinek

Despite their proximity and many common features, Otwock and Świder are not the same. The difference is defined by the River Świder, which permeates the air of the summer resort with humidity, hence the historical decision to develop Świder in a slightly different direction than Otwock. Due to the increased humidity in Świder, in contrast to the almost completely dry air in Otwock, it was not indicated for tuberculous patients, but instead for those with cardiovascular problems, rhinitis and throat troubles, neuroses, and for convalescents, “but mainly the physically and mentally depleted, who quickly regain their lost strength and equilibrium of spirit” (Łażewski). Meanwhile, private owners of boarding houses primarily advertised the recreational values of Świder – the undulation of the land, the picturesque spot where the river flows into the Vistula, the coast-like beaches. They also emphasized Świder’s “superiority over Otwock”, the fact that it was not as densely built or populated – even during the summer, when it took in 5000 visitors – as Otwock, which in the interwar period had hosted up to twice the number of its inhabitants – around 40,000 patients and holidaymakers.

These were mostly the less well-off Jewish residents of Warsaw, who could not afford to travel to resorts further away: “Fancy-shmancy, maybe not quite Karlsbad, but better than Ciechocinek,” summarizes Piotr Paziński on the basis of pre-war brochures. More than half of the owners of holiday properties were also Jewish, among them many doctors, including the medic Józef Przygoda, who opened the first “dietetic-hygienic treatment facility for Israelites” two years after the arrival of Dr Geisler. The Otwock ghetto, divided into three parts, had a “therapeutic district”.

And here the narrative of the summer resort and spa town ends, or rather, comes full circle. We return to the beginning, to the train tracks where it all began, and along which everything ended. I’m referring, of course, to the fate of the majority of the inhabitants of this area and the infamous train that departed along these same tracks towards Treblinka. Otwock managed to maintain its status as a health resort for some time after the war. In 1949, Gałczyński took us on “A Trip to Świder”; there are still many hospitals there, and the wooden villas, of which there are fewer and fewer, “pretend they haven’t been orphaned” (Paziński). Otwock – as Piotr Sommer wrote – still “chimes with pine”, but the place has never regained its former climate.

However, something has been blossoming in recent years, and it’s not just the pine trees in May. It wouldn’t be right to revive the health resort in its original form, especially in the face of the smog problem that the area has faced in recent years, but a new dynamism has sprung up. Since 2011, sculptor Mirosław Bałka has been inviting artists to Otwock to perform their activities in public spaces; the Świdermajer Festival promoting local cultural heritage has been held since 2012; in 2018 the multicultural Membrana festival, organized throughout the summer on the beaches of Świder, had a broad impact – the aim of the festival was to bring the river back to the people and the people back to the river; and any day now, the reconstruction of the pearl of the Otwock Świdermajers – New Gurewicz, the former luxury spa of Abram Gurewicz – will be completed. And then there are those touching signposts from the historic train shelters on the Otwock line, pointing permanently “towards Otwock”.


Translated by Kate Webster

Dipping into Przekrój

In September 1949, the Zielona Gęś Theatre had the honour of presenting readers of “Przekrój” with an “old-fashioned poetry-operetta” entitled “A Trip to Świder”. According to the anecdote, Gałczyński didn’t have time to complete the next episode in the series he was writing, so he sent the editor a poem instead. As a result of this text, a new word was born in Polish – Świdermajer – defining the architectural style of the health resort outside Warsaw. Another part of the poem is the “Song about the Rojek Brothers!”, which starts with the words: “I dip into Przekrój / at odd moments, in undress: / the Rojeks write for it – how many / is anybody’s guess” (Bracia Rojek – ‘the Rojek Brothers’ – was one of the pseudonyms of “Przekrój’s” editor-in-chief at the time).

Today, we have the pleasure of recounting two parts – the second and the final, seventh – of this “old-fashioned poetry-operetta”.

Illustration by Marek Raczkowski
Illustration by Marek Raczkowski

A Trip to Świder (Wycieczka do Świdra)

Konstanty Ildefons Gałczyński, translated by Renata Senktas & Christopher Reid


There is a village,
Świder its sullen name,
a river, called the same
glitters behind the wooden villas;

on August nights, patrolling
underneath the stars,
I see stars falling,
but not on the villas,

they fall without exploding,
somehow landing
on my poor head,
while the sullen villas keep standing –

by day, and by night also,
lit as if by candles,
what do they care about Handel
and his “Concerto Grosso”?

The village mayor
calls them “Świdermajer”.


When you are sad, my pet,
when things are bad,
you mustn’t forget this little word:

ŚWIDER – for the blues,
for rheumatism
and eclecticism,
for love, for loneliness –

Here, my pet,
you can read Heine’s selected prose

Not too high. Not too low.
A phenomenal place to go.
I repeat:

Read the full poem, “A Trip to Świder”.


Introduction translated by Kate Webster

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