Palaces and castles are the stuff of fairy tales, usually, but Poland has a host of them in varying degrees of decay. Once a powerful corner of Eastern Europe, the country suffered a Swedish invasion in the 17th century, devastation by both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union during World War II and neglect during the Communist era. Over time, that’s led to a lot of ruined castles in the country.
In some cases, developers are now trying to reinvigorate these grand properties, turning them into museums where visitors can gaze at the ornate details and learn more about Polish history. Some are now hotels. But others are simply a shell, a ruin, merely hinting at what was there hundreds of years before. And while fans of decay may enjoy these the most, Polish developers are looking to turn things around, motivated by a sense of national pride in addition to profit. “Why should the Germans have their castles on the Rhine, the French their castles on the Loire, why should the Czechs have so many castles open to the visitors and why should the Poles have only ruins?” one of the rebuilders of a medieval castle told the Associated Press in 2011. Another developer noted that the medieval and Renaissance periods, from which many of the castles date, were a golden age for the country—“a time when Poland was known in Europe, when Poland mattered.”
Today, each of Poland’s castles bears the stories of a slew of owners and inhabitants. After all, a structure that’s lasted five, six, or even seven centuries has seen hundreds of people live and die there. Read on for seven of Poland’s most interesting sites of ruin and repair:
Krzyżtopór Castle in Ujazd
Once the largest castle in all of Europe, Krzyżtopór was built between 1631 and 1644. The design is said to be based on numbers found in the calendar. As Poland’s official travel site explains, “The castle had as many windows as there are days in a year, as many chambers as there are weeks, as many rooms as there are months and as many towers as there are seasons of the year.”
During Krzyżtopór’s heyday, even the horses were living in style, with troughs made out of marble and crystal mirrors in the stables. Other decadent features included a room with an aquarium for a ceiling, filled with exotic fish. Now the massive castle is in a state of ruin, which visitors can explore. Folks who want to relive the Middle Ages can also attend periodic events at the site—this summer’s have included a show of artillery (including cannons, muskets and harquebuses), dancing and jousting tournaments.
Książ Castle in Wałbrzych
Although it has changed hands several times since its construction in the 13th century, the castle of Książ was owned by the House of Hochbergs for much of its history—between 1509 and 1941. Then, in 1941, the Nazis invaded it and destroyed a number of chambers. They also dug tunnels under the castle, which historians still haven’t been able to entirely explain. Between Hitler’s troops and the Red Army after them, Książ began to fall into ruin, until a conservator stepped in and began restoring it in 1974. Now the place is mostly swank again, with three hotels, two restaurants and an art gallery on its grounds—but tourgoers can still tour sections of the castle that were ruined during the war and can even go into one of the Nazi-dug tunnels. The areas that are restored throw the World War II damage into sharp relief.
Wenecja Castle in Wenecja
A former stronghold that's now fallen into ruins, the Wenecja Castle was built in the 14th century on the isthmus between three lakes: Weneckie, Biskupińskie and Skrzynka. According to a cultural website for the local region, the man in charge of the castle's construction, Mikołaj Nałęcz, compared his structure to the Italian city famous for buildings on water, and so named the site “Wenecja”—Polish for “Venice.” (Nałęcz was also a judge infamous for the “extremely cruel” verdicts he gave, which some say led to his nickname, “the Wenecja Devil.”) Other castles may offer more complete features, but for those who want to ponder just how long ago and far away the 14th century is, Weneckja provides a great visual reminder of the ravages of time.
The Mouse Tower in Kruszwica
In the town of Kruszwica in central Poland stands a structure known as the “Mouse Tower,” which was originally part of a 14th century castle. It’s been through quite a bit: In 1656, the Swedish army seized the castle and burned it down. In the latter part of the 18th century, as the region’s official website explains, “the castle ruins were gradually dismantled and its bricks floated up the Noteć river to Inowrocław.” Yet the tower still stands, along with some wall fragments, and an excavation in the 20th century uncovered other fragments of the castle as well as pieces of wooden huts, glass beads and the remains of streets from a city in the area’s medieval days.
So why is it called the “Mouse Tower”? According to The Rough Guide to Poland, legend has it that residents rose up against an “evil leader” who took refuge in his tower, “where he was eventually devoured by rats.” Today, tourists can climb to the top of the tower, about 105 feet high, and take in the (hopefully rodent-free) views.
Chęciny Castle in Chęciny
The ghost of a horse is said to haunt Chęciny, whose construction began more than 700 years ago. A fire broke out in 1465, and over the course of the next few centuries, the castle endured several more conflagrations as well as a number of military attacks. Various inhabitants sought to repair the structure but seemed unable to keep up with repeated destruction, and the castle was abandoned in 1707. Some restoration efforts followed World War II, but a giant, two-year undertaking to further reinvigorate the castle just concluded this year, and there are a number of new things for visitors to see. Previously, one could climb only the eastern tower, but the western tower is now also accessible, giving visitors an additional high-up vantage point.
Experts have also uncovered evidence of yet another tower, now gone—and to help us picture it, they’ve placed two giant concentric circles made of colored stones, mapping its erstwhile shape and location. The revitalization also added a number of wooden statues along the path to Chęcin, featuring royalty and knights who played a role in its history.
Kamieniec Castle in Odrzykon
Located on the edge of the Czarnorzecko-Strzyżowskiego National Park, Kamieniec is a defensive fortress from the 14th century, although the mid-15th century is considered its era of peak splendor. As with other castles in Poland, owners over the years expanded the site with new construction and repaired it after attacks. The Swedish invasion of the country in the 17th century severely damaged the building, and although later owners tried to fix it up, the castle still fell into decline. It was considered a ruin by 1786. Today, it’s open to visitors, including school children—and boasts quite an eclectic mix of activities. There are ceramic workshops on the castle grounds, as well as a tour of the torture chamber.
Castle of the Teutonic Order in Malbork
Built during the 13th century, this Gothic brick castle complex and Unesco World Heritage site was once a fortified monastery for the Teutonic Order. During its many years of existence, the castle has fallen into several periods of decay, followed by periods of restoration. Acccording to Unesco, its architectural features were influential across northeastern Europe. Its reconstructions were influential, too: Many of the methods used by conservators to restore the castle in the 19th and early 20th centuries went on to become standard practice. Visitors to the museum in place today can explore, among other things, a medieval heating furnace, an old-school flour mill, a garden and that most classic feature of childhood castle dreams: a moat.