From Jurassic outcrops and fortresses to desert mirages

From Jurassic outcrops and fortresses to desert mirages

White rock surrounded by woods and meadows.
Hercules’ Club, Pieskowa Skała Castle, Ojców National Park, Wind Rose in the Błędów Desert, Łokietek Cave, Tenczyn Castle in Rudno, Ciemna Cave, Deotyma Needle, Prądnik Valley, Blessed Salomea’s Hermitage in Grodzisk.... These are just a few of the diamonds in the elaborate crown of the Kraków-Częstochowa Upland. Some sparkle in the sunshine, admired by thousands of tourists, others hide discreetly from human sight in shadowy valleys and dark caves. However, every one of them, even the tiniest, is worth discovering on your own, with family or with friends. Why is that? Because these are works of exceptional beauty. Welcome to the Jurassic Upland!

You will find fortresses that have successfully withstood the onslaught of the enemy and the storms of history as well as those whose splendour we can only read about today in the pages of history. Some were built on solid rock, but there are also those built on the top of a volcano... Yes, that is right, we have such attractions in the Małopolska region. Kraków-Częstochowa Upland is also home to impressive mansions of wealthy aristocratic families, elegant villas, wooden churches perfectly integrated into the landscape, huts, gloomy caves, crystal clear water springs, vineyards and a picturesque mosaic of fields.

Why is it called Jurassic Upland? Well, because most of these natural wonders that we will come to see along the way date back at least 145 million years. So where to start? Let us start with Sułoszowa, 2023 Tourist Treasure of the Małopolska region , a social media star, or perhaps with the picturesque valleys near Kraków, Ojców National Park, or places that only eagles can freely admire?

On the Trail of the Eagles’ Nests and fascinating mysteries

If we wish to set off on the Trail of the Eagles’ Nests, we need to be prepared for a ‘walk’ of at least 170 km, from Kraków to Jasna Góra, along a path marked out by the mighty strongholds of King Casimir the Great. Erected or modernised by the medieval ruler, the watchtowers not only secured one of the most important trade routes, but above all protected the troubled border between the Małopolska and Silesia.

So where to begin an extraordinary journey through the Upland? Perhaps in Kraków? Wawel Eagle’s Nest, although it is not always counted as part of the Eagles’ Nest Trail, is a unique place not only on the tourist, but also historical map of Poland. Vast and powerful, it rises high above the current of the Vistula River. Settlement on this naturally defensible terrain can be traced back to 100,000 years BCE. Currently, it includes not only Wawel Royal Castle and the Basilica of Wenceslas, but also, for example, the Dragon’s Den shrouded in numerous legends. Profane and sacred. It is from there, that princes and kings once ruled. Here you will find Poland’s greatest treasures, as well as the final resting place of kings, princes, bishops, leaders, bards and politicians. The heart of Poland still beats here.

From knightly Korzkiew to the Raven Rock

Once we have crossed the border of the capital of the Małopolska region, a path marked with the white limestone of the Upland strongholds will lead us to Korzkiew. The knights’ watchtower, built on a picturesque rise above the charmingly meandering Korzkiewka River, is an unquestioned eagle’s nest. It is the work of Jan of the Syrokomla coat of arms, who decided in the 14th century to build an ancestral seat here. He paid 130 grivnas for the hill and the surrounding area and also added the Giebułtów pasture. The small castle – according to legend – was once connected by a suspension bridge to the neighbouring hill, on which stood the church of St John the Baptist. Few people know that for centuries a certain devil has occupied his favourite spot in Korzkiew, on a park bench.

Ociec, Oczecz, Ocziec, Oszyec – according to historical sources, this is how the  Ossie stronghold on Złota Góra, built on the initiative of King Casimir the Great, was called. And there would be nothing surprising about this, as he erected quite a few of them in his life, but in this case, the name Ojców, which refers to the Polish word ojciec, i.e., father, is significant.  Legend says that the ruler himself chose it, and that it was to commemorate the dramatic fate of his father, Władysław I the Short, who took refuge in the nearby cave from the assassins sent by the Bohemian king Wenceslas II, a pretender to the Kraków throne. Ojców is not only a castle, but also a charming resort with elegant villas, an exceptional trout farm, where the famous Ojców trout is bred.  And yet this is only the beginning of the adventure, because in front of us is the famous Chapel on the Water, which is cared for by St Joseph the Craftsman, as well as, high above the valley, the hermitage of Blessed Salomea.

A Renaissance pearl will appear on our way in Pieskowa Skała. The local castle, spectacularly reflected in the surrounding ponds, with an impressive art collection, an arcaded courtyard and an elegant Italian garden, is another eagle’s nest. It was the Szafraniec family, among others, who took care of its exclusive appearance, creating an ancestral seat on the model of the royal Wawel Castle. In the past centuries, it was also the site of a lot of romantic excitations, but also of dramatic events. When, for example, one of mister Tęczyński’s daughters fell in love with a lute player from the castle orchestra, her father did not agree to the relationship. Dorotka was imprisoned in the wall tower and was saved from inevitable starvation by a dog who brought her food. Hence the name of the tower: Dorotka, and the castle, Pieskowa Skała, which in Polish literally means ‘dog’s rock’.

A solid fortress also crowns  Raven Rock in Rabsztyn near Olkusz. It was erected in the second half of the 13th century, possibly on the initiative of the Toporczyk family originating from Morawica, or that of Bishop Jan Muskata, or perhaps the Bohemian and Polish King, Wenceslas II. The Boner family gave the development its Renaissance character in the 16th century, and today – partly rebuilt – it is becoming the centre of knightly life. The chain of the Małopolska strongholds guarding the border with Silesia included also the watchtower in Bydlin. The castle, which probably belonged to the Niemierz family of the Strzała coat of arms, has only bare walls left, but it is still worth a look, as it is obviously not the only attraction in the area.

Little Wawel on the volcano and the bishops’ prison

The Małopolska Trail of the Eagles’ Nests often features a powerful fortified structure crowning an extinct volcano in Rudno. Although Tenczyn Castle is most likely the work of Nawoj of Morawica, it was not until the time of Andrzej of the Topór coat of arms – the first of the Tęczyński family – that it became an impressive edifice. In the second half of the 16th century Jan Tęczyński rebuilt the somewhat gloomy fortress, turning it into a chic Renaissance development. And that is how the not-so-’little Wawel’ was created.

Although Tenczyn was a powerful fortress it surrendered without a fight during the Swedish Deluge. This did not save it from ruination. For the Swedes heard a rumour that the crown treasury was hidden in the castle and they began to search for it, devastating the whole edifice. When they found nothing, they set fire to the buildings. Later on, the Lubomirski, Sieniawski, Czartoryski and Potocki families tried to raise it from the ruins. Unfortunately, the work of destruction was completed by a lightning bolt which struck the castle and caused a massive fire. Today, it is a picturesque ruin and, at the same time, a highly attractive place on the Trail of the Eagles’ Nests.

When wandering along the charming paths of the Małopolska region one cannot miss Lipowiec Castle in Wygiełzów. It was not only a solid, well-equipped fortress, but also a bishops’ prison. And it may also be worth mentioning that at its foot there is a picturesque open-air museum, which preserves treasures enchanted in wood.

And that would be it for the Małopolska Trail of the Eagles’ Nests... Of course, you can go further to see the fortresses on its Silesian section: in Smoleń, Pilica, Podzamcze, Morsko, Bobolice, Mirów, Olsztyn, and Jasna Góra in Częstochowa.

The Eagles’ Nests can also be explored from the saddle of a bicycle. This beautiful route is around 190 kilometres long, including 89 kilometres in the Małopolska region, and runs through Kraków’s valleys, nature reserves and Natura 2000 areas. On the other hand, all those who like to see the world from the saddle can think about the Trans-Jurassic Horse Trail.

Ojców National Park with night aviators in the emblem

Although it is the smallest national park in Poland, this does not at all mean that it is the least glamorous. On the contrary: It would be difficult to find elsewhere such an accumulation of natural treasures as those in the Ojców National Park (link to the Ojców National Park website), which features, among others, the Prądnik Valley and Sąspowska Valley.

The Prądnik Valley is an impressive amphitheatre of history and karst works, built from limestone from 150 million years ago. Thanks to the sculptural ‘fantasy’ of nature, with the help of wind, water, snow and frost, today we can admire not only a huge ravine with a flat bottom and impressive rocky cliffs rising above it, but also exquisite limestone monoliths: Hercules’ Club, Deotyma Needle, the Glove, Kraków Gate, Łaskawiec, Panieńskie Skały and Skałki Kawalerskie.

However, that is not all. For when we plunge into the darkness of caves, such as the Łokietek Cave or the Ojców Cave, we enter a world which was populated thousands of years ago by Neanderthals, among others.

And let us not forget that the Ojców National Park is a welcoming home for night fliers. More than a dozen of Poland’s 21 known bat species found a favourable climate for living here. Not surprisingly, they have become the symbol of the Ojców National Park. If we are lucky, we will also see, among others, the saffron warbler and the violet-coloured copper, or perhaps the hen harrier or the black stork on our path. Several scenic trails run through the park. You will find them below.

Hiking trails in the Ojców National Park 

red (Trail of the Eagles’ Nests): Kraków – Giebułtów – Prądnik Korzkiewski – Ojców – Grodzisko – Młynnik – Pieskowa Skała – Sułoszowa; 13.6 km in the Ojców National Park area (then through Rabsztyn, Klucze, Ogrodzieniec to Częstochowa)

blue (Upland Strongholds Trail): Rudawa – Będkowska Valley – Jerzmanowice Lepianka – Czajowice – Ciasne Skałki Ravine – Kraków Gate – Ojców – Grodzisko – Skała; 9 km on the territory of the Ojców National Park (then Tarnawa, Glanów, Wolbrom, Ogrodzieniec to Mstów)

yellow (Jurassic Valleys Trail): Krzeszowice – Szklary – Wierzchowie – Murownia – Prądnik Valley – Sąspowska Valley – Sąspów – Pieskowa Skała; 9.5 km within the boundaries of Ojców National Park

green: Sąspowska Valley – Złota Góra – Castle Park – ‘Pod Koroną’ Villa – Ciemna Cave – Okopy Mount – Prądnik Valley – Brama Krakowska – Castle Park; 5.3 km

black: Łokietek Cave – Chełmowa Góra – Jonaszówka – Ojców – Złota Góra car park – Kaliski – Młynnik – Słoneczna Góra – Herianówka – ‘ponds’ – Pieskowa Skała; 9.2 km in the Ojców National Park area

In the Ojców National Park it is possible to cycle on footpaths with the exception of:

a section of the green trail from the ticket office at Ciemna Cave through Góra Koronna, Okopy to the Prądnik Valley exit

section of the black trail from the fish ponds to Łokietek Cave

section of the blue trail from the Kraków Gate to Góra Chełmowa

All these sites are marked with appropriate signs.

Błędów Desert: mirages, bubblers and curlew

The oases were green in splendour, the ponds tempted with spring water, mirages deceived many, sandstorms troubled the inhabitants, a curlew roamed the desert paths and the sky reflected in ponds – this is how it used to be in the Błędów Desert. Later, the volatile sands ceased to be volatile and most of the Błędów Desert became a kingdom of dwarf trees and tall grasses. The deadly iron was hidden under the grey sand, and unauthorised camping and illegal off-road rallies took place here. Today, it is again a sea of sand, picturesque viewpoints on the Dąbrówka and Czubatka hills and the intriguing Rose of the Winds.

Few people know, however, that the ‘Polish Sahara’, as the Błędów Desert is also called, is the devil’s work. This area, far from human habitation, was chosen by the devils’ tribe for its underground treasury. It was filled to the brim with silver and lead, although there was no shortage of other precious metals there either. When word of this spread among the people, they decided to skim a little of the devils’ fortune. When they started digging the shafts, the devils decided to destroy them by filling them with sand. However, there was not much of it in the area. So, the most powerful of devils flew to the sea to get the right amount of it. As he was returning with a massive sack of sand, he failed to notice that he made a hole in it on by the slender tower of the Błędów temple. The bag ripped open and the sand scattered widely.... And that is how the Błędów Desert came into being. So much for the legend. And what does science say about it? We will find out by coming to this extraordinary place.

It is worth mentioning that Olkusz surrounded by a ‘sea of sands’, also beautifully called the Silver City, was written about as early as in 1815 by Stanisław Staszic. The phenomenon of the mirage – in the middle of Europe – was reported in 1924 by the botanist Professor Kazimierz Piech. Photos from the not-so-distant past show not only lovely lakes, but also ladies in long dresses, big hats and sunshades in hand. The men strutted across the sea of sand in elegant patent leather shoes, supporting themselves with exquisite walking sticks.

The area has also become a favourite training ground for the military. Between the First and Second World Wars, this training ground was frequently visited by infantrymen and artillerymen of the Kraków Army, among others. During the Second World War, Rommel’s Afrika Korps prepared for the fighting in North Africa here, and the Luftwaffe tested various types of bombs. After the war, a sizable part of the desert was taken into possession by soldiers, including paratroopers from the 6th Airborne Division. Even today, military parachutes can often be seen above it.

However, since flying sands have recently ‘returned’ to the desert, perhaps we will also see curlews, extremely rare birds, and bubblers, the small ponds in which the sky used to look at itself. It is an extraordinary world, so it is worth becoming part of it, even for a few moments.

Kraków Valleys, including sky walks

How many valleys make up the Kraków Valleys? How did the outcrops emerge? Is Szum a waterfall and does Bolechowicka Gate lead to Bolechowice? Who lived in the Mammoth Cave (link to description of the Mammoth Cave)? What has the Pillar of Penance to do with mountaineers? Why does the Czerna Monastery resemble the Spanish Escorial? All of this can be found out while wandering through the Kraków Valleys Landscape Park.

It is an area so rich in magnificent landscapes, monuments and colourful history that it could be the destination of not one, but many wonderful trips, even into the fairytale past. Wandering unhurriedly among the amazing limestone outcroppings, along paths by picturesque rivers and streams, traversing wilderness trails, peering into the darkness of caves, one can best see why it is worth protecting nature, not only for posterity, but also for oneself.

The Kraków Valleys Landscape Park is made up of valleys including Kluczwoda, Bolechowicka, Kobylańska, Będkowska, Szklarka, Racławka and Eliaszówka. Five reserves have been created in the area to protect, among other things, the Carpathian beech forest, alder and ash riparian forest, as well as fantastic limestone rocks, springs and caves.

We can also find here the monastery in Czerna, submerged in silence, with hermit’s cottages, as well as the spring of St Elias and the Devil’s Bridge, the beautiful wooden churches in Racławice, Modlnica and Paczółtowice. Well worth visiting, too, are the ruins of the knight’s watchtower in Biały Kościół, the manor complexes in Bolechowice and Kobylany, and Fort 44 in Tonie.

In turn, when we decide to visit the Tenczyn Landscape Park, we will immerse ourselves in, among others, the wild backwoods of the Dulowa Forest (Link to description of the Dulowa Forest) and the Zwierzyniec Forest. There are several reserves here, protecting, among other things, stands of oak-hornbeam and old-growth beech, karst ravines with charming rocks and caves, as well as.... ivy, golden lily and marsh violet. Perhaps we will also be tempted by the charming gorge of Rudawa, the Kmita Rock, the Sanka spring or the beautiful manor complexes in Balice and Aleksandrowice.

We can also add that it was in these valleys that the most outstanding Polish climbers, including Jerzy Kukuczka and Artur Hajzer, began their careers. And today it is the place of choice for lovers of extreme experiences. Arranged climbing routes can be found on the walls surrounding the Kobylańska, Będkowska (for example at the several dozen metres high Sokolica, the highest peak in the Upland) and Bolechowicka valleys... There are also many places ideally suited for bouldering. Lovers of slightly less extreme leisure will not be disappointed either: their dreamed-of peaceful site may take the form of, for example, the 18-hole golf course in Paczółtowice.

Fairy-tale landscapes, an ideal holiday destination and Juromania

The Krakó-Częstochowa Upland is a world of dreams: fairytale-like, picturesque, abounding in caves, karst valleys and springs. You will find here half of Poland’s flora, unusual specimens of fauna, and a fascinating mosaic pattern of fields and forests. Let us add the wonderfully captivating relics of settlements thousands of years old, architectural and artistic monuments, as well as enchanting ensembles of greenery. Works of defensive art embedded in the rocks, but also, for example, sulphurous waters and a huge palace with over 200 rooms in Krzeszowice!

Upland is also the magnificent Juromania, i.e., the traditional festival dedicated to this region. It is then that the thunder of horses’ hooves, the flapping of hussar wings, the rumble of muskets, the blood-curdling whine of sabres can be heard on the surrounding paths. We can witness spectacular charges, dreadful assaults, but also displays by master swordsmen. Juromania is a dream opportunity to visit Rudno, Rabsztyn, Olkusz, and to set off on hardly less popular Upland paths. It features plenty of attractions for the young and old alike, and for those who enjoy active recreation and well-worked muscles, but also people who are not so keen on physical exertion.

The Upland has a different face for everyone. Monumental and intimate. It is beautiful in its immensity and in the smallest, perfectly executed detail. Here we can find the Polish Switzerland, the Polish Sahara, the Polish Tuscany, but also a unique climate, beautiful surroundings and, although it seems unlikely in today’s fast-paced world, the silence of the forest backwoods, watched over by limestone outcroppings and fortified castles.

So, when we put our ear to the centuries-old walls, perhaps we can hear the clash of swords, the groaning of chains, the roar of cannons, battle cries... Perhaps the stones will tell us how to find our way to secret hiding places or dark dungeons filled with priceless treasures. However, it should not be forgotten that this region also offers intangible treasures: colourful stories, magnificent landscapes, captivating natural beauty, the opportunity to look deep into... yourself. The Upland tempts, the Upland invites. Perhaps it will capture our senses, and we will leave our hearts there?



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