A few miles from Podzamcze, population 1,011, a magical castle appeared, afloat in the sky. As we drew closer, we saw how it seemed to meld organically with the landscape.
Some of its shapely white towers were man made, others were natural pillars of limestone, all integrated into the structure by pale curtain walls. The spectacular ruins had an other-worldly look. Mark and I agreed; on all our travels, it was one of the most impressive castles we’d ever seen.
Ogrodzieniec Castle sits 515 metres above sea level on the highest outcrop of the Polish Jura. It is close to the centre of the trail of the ‘Eagles’ Nests’, a chain of twenty-five fortifications mostly built in the 14th century by King Kazimierz the Great. We love a castle. Recommendations had directed us towards Ogrodzieniec, along with a plethora of signs jostling on roadsides around the area, which proclaimed its status as ‘The Best Tourist Attraction of 2020’.
Really, we should have known!
Ogrodzieniec hides a secret far darker than the ghost of the black dog dragging a length of golden chain, which allegedly patrols its battlements on moonlit nights.
Traffic in the tiny village of Podzamcze was as crazy as rush hour in London. Even at 4pm on a Saturday, the vast castle car park overflowed. Conscious of our outlaw status, caused by our inability to decipher, never mind pay the parking ticket we’d received that morning, we didn’t want to add further misdemeanours to our unintended criminal record.
A spiralling black hole of unparked cars sucked us over its event horizon. Imprisoned by the circulating melee, we were propelled along a street where a line of identical ladies in identical headscarves sat on an identical chair outside each garden gate. We took a guess at this peculiar aspect of the local economy and escaped the fray when one beckoned us into her yard. As the dogs sprang out of the van, she greeted them with an enormous smile and told us we could park for as long as we wanted for approximately £3.
Our walk up to the castle was beyond strange. For at least half a mile, stalls packed both sides of the walkway, peddling every kind of tat from plastic swords to candy floss. More sinister was the array of authentic weaponry for sale. Since it’s perfectly normal to pick up guns, knives and pepper spray with your coffee as you fill up a gas station, perhaps it shouldn’t have surprised us.
The walk brought to mind a fabled anecdote concerning a radio programme scheduled to kick off with a clarion of trumpets. It opened to the clamour of fairground carousels, because the sound unit confused a funfair with a fanfare!
I felt a similar disconnect with the ambient soundtrack as we approached this splendid 14th Century castle. An army surrounded it – of giant trampolines, dodgem cars and bouncy castles, as if the real thing were not enough. What do you need to complement a superb medieval monument? A monstrous theme park! How it won the vote as Number One Tourist Attraction was instantly clear; it was huge, grotesque – and a testament to the triumph of capitalism!
A socially-distanced queue at the entrance was long and slow-moving, so we opted to walk around the outside. Rock Jocks scaled the magnificent pillars. The area is popular with sport climbers; a few miles from Ogrodzieniec, also in the Eagles’ Nest Landscape Park, is another picturesque limestone area known as Kroczyce Rocks.
Our Rosie knows she is gorgeous and loved by everyone, so she did what she does best and bounded over to introduce herself to a lovely young Polish couple relaxing on the grass. Of course, nosy Rosie never takes her eye off the ball regarding investigations; she is well aware that anyone sitting outdoors on a sunny day could be packing a picnic… The couple both spoke perfect English, so we joined them at a safe distance while they played with the dogs.
As we chatted, the sudden, plaintive blare of an air-raid siren split the warmth of the afternoon. It was 5pm. The background of fairground fun and laughter fell away immediately.
The couple explained what was going on,
“Today is the 75th anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising,”
Not one person, adult or child, broke the minute’s silence.
Poor Poland has had such a tragic past. For 123 years leading up to WWI, it was annexed and didn’t even exist as a country. The same thing happened after WWII, when the Allies hung the Poles out to dry.
Since he is a scholar of history, I will hand you over to Mark:
At the mention of the Warsaw Uprising, my heart skipped a beat, and a lump came into my throat. I despair of the depths that human behaviour can reach when circumstance removes societal boundaries, and neighbour turns on neighbour with vitriol and violence.
The Warsaw Uprising was an organised attempt by the citizens of this brave city to expel the Nazis from Warsaw. The Allies actively encouraged them to do this to support their advance. Initial efforts were successful, but for post-war political advantage, the Red army deliberately held back, which enabled the Nazis to reinforce. For fear of Soviet wrath, the Western powers dithered and took no decisive action – until it was far too late.
During two months of fighting, estimates suggest that Nazi reprisals and mass executions caused the deaths of 200,000 civilians and 20,000 Polish resistance fighters. The Nazis levelled 35% of the city (on top of what they had already destroyed) and sent residents of those areas to Auschwitz, where they almost certainly perished too.
After the war, the Allies handed Poland over to the Soviets. Polish war heroes, a squadron of whom were the most successful in The Battle of Britain, were denied the right to take part in the UK Victory parade. Polish servicemen who returned home risked imprisonment, torture and execution as enemies of the state. Post war, Poland did not regain her independence; instead she was given over for occupation by the USSR.
Six-million Poles – around 20% of the population – died during WWII. 90% of these lives were not lost in combat, but in prisons and death camps, or through over-work and starvation.
No-one should forget that even after the war, the freedom and privilege we enjoy in the West was built on the foundation of bravery and suffering that for some did not end with the conflict, but continued for decades under a brutal and oppressive regime.
We shared the couple’s grief and happiness – they told us they were getting married in three weeks. They seemed pleased that a pair of foreigners understood and empathised with the plight of their countrymen.
On our walk back, there were plenty reminders that sadly, terrible cruelty is hardly a 20th Century invention. We could peer through loopholes into various rooms and courtyards within the ruins, which were very atmospheric. On the north side, one was possibly Meczarnia Warszyckiego, the torture chamber built by 17th-century badass Stanislaw Warszycki.
According to legend, Warszycki tortured his peasants, imprisoned his wife (in mitigation, some stories say she did try to poison him!) and made a pact with the Devil. Demons transported him to hell before his death, where Old Nick ripped out his soul, and transformed it into the giant black dog, condemned to haunt the castle and repent his sins forever.
Folklore suggests that Warszycki’s bargain with Beelzebub is the reason that his stronghold at Danków was not destroyed in the wars known as the Swedish Deluge. Apparently Warszycki also haunts Danków Castle, although there, he appears as a headless horseman.
At this late hour, we didn’t have time to investigate the other sights around Ogrodzieniec. A reconstructed 13th-century wooden hill fortress, Birów Stronghold, is a short walk away on the adjacent hill. A chapel in Podzamcze was rebuilt from stonework and statuary taken from the castle, and contains a cannonball from the Swedish Deluge. One of the most famous attractions nearby is the Wieliczka Salt Mine, which has a connection with Ogrodzieniec. Of course I remained extremely mature about a gentleman banker; one of the richest men in Europe, who managed the mine and took over the castle at Ogrodzieniec.
His name was Jan and he came from a long line of Boners.
As we left, we reflected that perhaps Ogrodzieniec is a metaphor for life. If you strip away the superfluous crap, what’s left is quite beautiful.
- Castle ruins in Ogrodzieniec, Śląskie Province, Poland. Łukasz Śmigasiewicz own work on Wikimedia commons. This file is unaltered & licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Poland licence
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