A Walk Through Chełm
I’ll be honest. I came to Chełm because of a book. Only, it wasn’t a guide book that sent me to this obsure corner of Poland. It was a juvenile fantasy book. The Rithmatist, by Brandon Sanderson, to be exact. It isn’t set in Chełm. It isn't set in this world at all (it is a fantasy book, after all). It’s just that it’s a terribly fun little read, centered around a magic system powered by chalk. When a friend casually mentioned that there is a town in Southeastern Poland built entirely on top of chalk mines, I was fascinated. I knew nothing of the actual town or the actual history. But, I was drawn by the imaginative possibilities.
It’s no secret that stories draw me to places. Usually, they’re the stories that happen there. But, sometimes, they’re the stories that could have happened there. Ask anyone who’s stood at Platform 9 3/4 in London, they’ll tell you: Imagination is plenty of reason enough for a visit.
So, when we were going to be nearby, during our Quiet Week, I knew I’d want to check in on Chełm. But, because I knew I was going based entirely on whims of my own fancy, I was prepared to be entirely unimpressed. Low expectations are always a boon to any adventure.
From the moment we drove in to the quaint little town, I was charmed. The main road slides its way down the slope of a hill. Chełm’s tourist industry is light at best, so there are no crowds to speak of. It is, quite simply, an unexpectedly delightful place to spend an afternoon.
What’s There to Do in Chełm?
This, of course, was the main attraction. Dreaming of the scenes Brandon Sanderson could write for these catacombs, I was excited to get down into the tunnels. Perhaps that’s where I went wrong. I didn’t keep my expectations tamped down sufficiently. In the end, I was terrifically underwhelmed.
We booked a tour at a particular time, because it was the English tour. That turned out to mean that the tour was in Polish, with a few words hastily thrown at us in postscript. But, that’s not what turned me off (I don’t expect people to cater to me in my own language when I’m overseas, it’s just a bonus when it works out). It was simply that the tour just wasn’t that great.
Instead of focusing on the excitement of walking through miles of tunnels made entirely of chalk (which is pretty cool), they did this hokey ghost-in-the-cave routine. The guide would suddenly turn off the lights, or talk in a spooky voice, telling cheesy ghost stories. There was even a sheet-covered apparition that appeared at one point, sporting black high tops that were clearly visible, even in the black light. It was silly, is all, and just not what I was looking for.
The Parish Church of Apostles, the Messengers
Luckily, the churches in this tiny town made up for the lackluster chalk mines. The murals inside are truly breathtaking. Not in the Raphael rooms at the Vatican “I’m standing at the feet of a master” sort of way. This is more approachable. Every inch of ceiling and wall are covered in ornamentation. It isn’t necessarily austentatious. More, thorough. If I had one wish from our trip to Chełm, it’d be that I spent more time in here, admiring.
Bishop’s Cathedral Complex
Having come, really, just for the Chalk mines, I didn’t have any other plans for our day in Chełm. Our tactic was simply, walk around until we found something interesting. Luckily, it’s a small enough town that this proves reasonably comprehensive.
We stumbled upon the Cathedral Complex, simply because it’s difficult to miss, perched on a hill above the Old Square. It is a delight up there. A wooded path unfolds into the Basilica of the Birth of the Virgin Mary, with its monastery and ceremonial gates. The detached Belfry (thank you Italian Renaissance influence) gives a stellar overview of Chełm and all the surroundings. At the pinnacle of the hill are a few archeological remains of the oldest inhabited area in Chełm. Now a monumental cross stands atop the crest, with statues of stations of the cross spread throughout the complex. And, let’s be honest. Whenever I run into an overgrown cemetery I’m always going to call it a good day.
Chełm was cute.It was a fun wander. And, while it was less chalk excitement than I had hoped for, I was delighted with everything we did find.