The UNESCO-protected city of Zamosc (pronounced zah-mohsch) is a fascinating curiosity: It's a totally planned community from the 16th century and, as such, an almost completely intact example of Renaissance town planning. Call it Poland's first-ever mixed-use real estate development, with shops, offices, and housing all positioned for maximum efficiency and aesthetic beauty.
Zamosc was the dream of Jan Zamoyski, a wealthy Polish nobleman who wanted to establish the family's seat and a regional center of culture and commerce. Zamoyski hired a noted Renaissance town designer, Italian architect Bernardo Morando, to design, in essence, a perfect town from scratch. Morando modeled the town on a hexagon, 600m (21,969 ft.) long and 400m (1,312 ft.) wide. The market square and town hall were situated at the center, with two lesser squares -- Solny (Salt) and Wodny (Water) -- positioned on the sides. Major axes were cut through the square at right angles, and the side streets were laid out in a grid. The hexagon was surrounded on all sides by high walls with seven bastions and a moat, turning Zamosc, effectively, into a fortress town.
Much of this has survived to this day, including the impressive town hall, part of the walls and fortification system, and a good proportion of the houses. Indeed, it's a pleasure to stroll across the wide expanse of the Rynek and marvel at how well it all still works more than 400 years later. Zamosc was besieged time and again over the centuries -- first by the Cossacks, and then in turn by the Swedes, Saxons, and Russians -- but the fortress managed to hold. The Zamoyski family lasted until the 19th century, when under the Russian occupation, the family was finally forced to exchange its town holdings for land.
During World War II, Zamosc was first occupied by Soviet soldiers, and then brutally by the Nazis, who even considered renaming the town "Himmlerstadt" after SS Chief Heinrich Himmler. In the years before World War II, Zamosc was a thriving center of Jewish culture, and the town's synagogue still stands, even though most of Zamosc's Jews perished in the Holocaust.
Today, Zamosc is a rebuilding regional center of around 70,000 people. Because of its unique architecture and lively cultural calendar, including a festival of flowers in May and an international folk festival in summer, the town remains a popular weekend spot, with several good hotels and some excellent restaurants. That said, Zamosc is really at its best on a sunny summer day, when the Rynek's cafes are filled to brimming and there's a band playing on an impromptu stage on the main square. Outside of the main summer season, the town, and its huge square, can feel a little empty.