All over Poland, there are incredible examples of just about any architectural style one can imagine from the past millennium. In the country’s vast collection of castles and palaces, history and aesthetics combine in awesome testament to the endurance of Polish heritage despite trials and tribulations. There are fortresses of the Teutonic Order (one of which is the largest brick castle in the world), fairy-tale chateaus of the aristocracy, and resplendent palaces built solely to inspire awe with their grandeur. They come in different shapes, colors, and sizes, but all contain stories about the people who lived and worked there, creating a rich tapestry of culture that you might miss if you just take them, or Poland, at face value.
To me, that’s why the castles you can find in far-flung corners of Poland are the most interesting, and perhaps the most important for understanding where the country has been, or where it’s going. Particularly in the southern regions, these castles rest in the foothills of mountains that have watched over centuries of change. The border counties have long been a crossroads of European civilizations, with German, Bohemian (Czech), and Ukrainian communities all inhabiting these areas at one time or another. At one time, Napoleon’s French forces tried to gain a foothold in the region and suffered an uncharacteristic defeat. At another, Hitler’s Third Reich wanted to reshape Silesia and Lower Silesia to their liking, only to fail as well.
All of that is to say that going out of your way in Poland is well worth the time and effort. You will come away with some unique experiences, beautiful photos, and a deeper understanding of the forces that have shaped the country you’re traveling. If you’re like me and love to explore stories as much as places, Poland’s off-the-beaten-path palaces deserve a place on your itinerary. But don’t just take my word for it: let me unravel some of the tales you might discover, and let the characters they contain do the talking.
Just outside of Wałbrzych in Lower Silesia, a region that contains a quarter of all of Poland’s castles, stands the magnificent and eclectic Książ Castle. It is the best place to start our story for a few reasons, one of which being that it is the largest. The castle comprises hundreds of rooms, whose walls I desperately wished could talk while I was being led through them. First built in 1288 and constantly expanded ever since, its sheer size also leads to some inconsistencies in design, wherein the different floors and even the individual rooms are decorated in completely different styles from one another. Still, these give the whole edifice an intricacy and air of enigma that mirrors the region and, to the eyes of an outsider, Poland itself.
I did not know very much of Poland before arriving, let alone of Lower Silesia, but an hour and a half with my Książ guide, Matt, was like a crash course in… everything. First of all he was incredibly energetic, something I have learned not to take for granted when discussing politics or history. He launched into a constant stream of anecdotes and histories that was such a wild ride, I could almost miss the bombshells he dropped right in the middle. This story was a well-known and navigable river to him that certain facts were passed by like the laziest rapids, when they were in fact white-water that would be stupefying to anyone else. Here was Hitler’s bedroom, then a theory that the legendary amber room was moved to Książ; here were the train tunnels below intended to provide direct access to Third Reich Berlin, and there was the well-known spot where the castle’s ghosts show themselves.
Only when he mentioned the fabled Nazi treasure train did I finally stop him for some clarification. It turns out that Matt is one of many locals who believe that when the Soviets advanced and the war was all but over, work desperately continued under the earth around Książ to evacuate riches, or even a superweapon, and at least hide them from the enemy, if not use them to turn the tide of war at the last moment. There is sobering evidence for this in the caves I explored around the region, which were hollowed out and fortified by forced laborers in the most harrowing conditions imaginable. No one really knows why, or if there really is anything to be found. From the outside, it’s “just” a beautiful pink castle, but there is so much more. All that people at Książ and in the area around Wałbrzych want to do is remember, and not selectively; this is a place that has seen horror and devastation, but also family, beauty, and the memory of a world gone by, where Tsars, Presidents, and Princesses consorted in peace.
Not far from Książ is Grodno Castle, comparatively modest in size but brimming with the same local spirit, if in a different way. The fortress comprises just one tower, a gatehouse, barracks, and some fortifications, all perched coyly on a densely forested hill so that one cannot see it when the trees have their leaves. While Książ shines and sparkles with baroque gilding and renaissance art, Grodno attunes itself with the earth for protection and certainly values function over form. It charms you, but not with pomp ― with honesty. There is a torture chamber, and you’re encouraged to visit it, but there are also creaking wooden steps on a spiral staircase, where soft light from the narrow windows guides your careful ascent to the apex of the lonely tower. On a clear day, the vantage point offers a view of the European plain giving way to the Sudeten mountains, layers of hills rolling over one another onto the horizon.
The people who work to maintain Grodno prioritize this relationship with the earth in their efforts to improve the castle’s facilities and appeal to tourists. The man in charge here, Pavel, sat with us for at least an hour and a half at a lunch where we ate fish caught in the nearby river and soup of vegetables grown in their garden. We discussed the reality right in front of us, on our plates: this place has been doing sustainable tourism since before it was cool, just because it’s the right thing to do. It’s a way of life. Although the castle’s rural location poses a unique set of challenges, it also presents opportunities for Pavel and to travelers looking for salt-of-the-earth destinations that are offbeat but eye-catching. Even if tourism were to blow up here, one gets the impression that daily life would keep the same steady pace and cool-headed determination that gets work done when it needs to be.
Every castle in Lower Silesia is like a self-contained compendium of the version of Poland it experienced over time in that exact geographic location. Many will tell the same stories, but all will tell it differently, adding characters and details to the never-ending tapestry. That is to say that no two are the same, as each is a unique combination of elements: at Chojnik Castle, you have the myth and legend of Książ combined with a vision of what Grodno might become if it housed tourists. The semi-ruined structure sits atop a hill in the bustling Karkonosze National Park, which itself receives 1.5 million visitors a year. The hotel in Chojnik is a scenic place to base oneself for enjoying the park’s 70 miles of hiking trails, several of which lead up to the highest mountain in Lower Silesia and Czechia, Sněžka. Or stay in and commune with the spirit of Princess Kunegunda, said to have thrown herself from the castle walls in shame over her cruelty to the man she loved.
There is a similar beauty in tragedy at other castles that deserve a mention in Southern Poland, those which are mostly in ruins but leave a greater impression on the imagination as a result. In Ząbkowice Śląskie, the weathered ruins look lifted straight from the pages of a story about knights and tourneys, although the town was interestingly founded with the name “Frankenstein.” Some speculate that a resurgence of the plague here in the 17th century might have inspired the story, and it did earn the structure the nickname of Frankenstein’s Castle when it went into disrepair soon after. As an aside, this small town is also known as the Silesian Pisa on account of its very own leaning tower — if you’ve come all this way, that’s a must for your Instagram. 15 minutes down the road is another palace worth your time, Kamieniec Ząbkowicki; it is newer and more intact, but built in a neo-gothic style that harkens Frankenstein’s ruins.
Further east in the borderlands, the Trail of the Eagle’s Nests links 25 castles that were built along the medieval border of the Kingdom of Poland near Krakow. They belonged to royals, nobles, knights, and even priests, some of whom are said to still haunt some of the more ruinous stops like Ogrodzieniec Castle. The legend of a demon dog that prowls the grounds might have been the reason Iron Maiden filmed a music video there in 1984, but it could also just be the scenery; many of the castles on the trail rest atop dramatic limestone cliffs in the Polish Jura, a Jurassic-age fault that left the landscape in this region carved with valleys and caves, making it a very unique setting in a country as flat as Poland. There are beautiful castles all over the country, many of which are larger and more resplendent than those in the South, but the different scenery perfectly complements the southern castles’ more rustic aesthetics.
How do you think Poland’s palaces stack up to other countries? Be sure to let us know in the comments!
Header photo by Jan Nijman.
Other uncredited photos by Joseph Ozment, Lily Allen, and Kyle Peters.