It started again the other night. That was when an irresistible urge to travel into the further reaches of Eastern Europe suddenly possessed me. This was caused by nothing more than a short entry in Wikipedia. While researching a blog post on the Ossolineum, I happened upon the entry for the House of Ossoliński , a family of powerful Polish aristocrats who were at the height of their wealth and fame during the Renaissance. The following sentence related back to that time and gripped my imagination: “The Ossolinski’s castle was reputedly the biggest in Europe prior to the building of Versailles. Its name was ‘Krzyżtopór’ (“The Battle Axe of The Cross”).” Suddenly I was transformed. My pulse quickened, as I was seized by a yearning to visit Krzyżtopór castle. To be the biggest castle in Europe at one time was notable, but to be mentioned in the same sentence as Versailles was an outright honor. Questions came to mind immediately: Where was this castle? Was there anything left to see? What was its history? Why had I never heard of it? How could I get there? After a few seconds this question morphed into not if, but when would I get there? In my imagination I was on already on my way.
A Sizeable Achievement – Accessing Krzyżtopór
Researching the location of Krzyżtopór Castle I expected it to be off the beaten path, in a remote, rural backwater untouched by modern tourism. There was some truth to this. It is situated in the southeastern part of Poland, in one of its least visited regions. On the other hand, the castle turned out to be located not that far from the top tourist destination in the country. By road Krzyżtopór is 140 kilometers or a two and a half hour drive away from Krakow, the beautifully preserved, former royal capital of the Polish Kingdom. A day trip from the city to the castle was doable. With a generally accessible location, my suspicion was aroused as to why the castle was pretty much unknown. Perhaps nothing was left except for scant ruins.
I discovered that presently, Krzyżtopór did consist of “ruins” but because of its size, the castle redefined that term. The sheer scale of the ruins as they exist today is bigger than most intact castles in Europe. The interior areas, which historically suffered the worst damage, were hollowed out by invaders and pillagers long ago, but there is still much left to see. Considering the original size of the castle’s interior it is hardly surprising so much of it still remains today. The castle was estimated to have 750,000 square feet of room space. This is equivalent to 350 average sized American homes. As for the outer walls these stretch nearly half a mile and are almost completely intact. The moat and bastions are also in pretty good condition. It is hard to believe the castle has not achieved greater notoriety.
Gigantic, Austere and Lonely – An Ill-Fated Castle
Krzyżtopór castle has been resigned to the touristic and historical netherworld, but why is this? To put it simply, the history of Krzyżtopór Castle is the antithesis of the size and scale of the actual structure. It is defined more by mystery than hard facts, the unknown outweighs the known. While mysteries usually attract interest, in this case too much is open to question. No one knows when construction began or who the original architect of the castle was. It took at least a quarter century just to build it, but the interiors were never completed. This is because the castle’s “historical” period – when it acted as a fully functioning residence – lasted a mere eleven years. Krzyżtopór Castle was ill-fated almost from the start. A year after its completion, the founder Krzyzsztof Ossoliński died. He had bequeathed the castle to his son Kryzsztof Baldwin who was killed at the Battle of Zboriv against the Cossacks and Tatars in 1649, only five years after inheriting the castle. The next tenants were just as unlucky. In 1655 the castle was taken and pillaged by the Swedes.
The Swedes took all the castle’s valuables. They also did lasting damage to historical knowledge concerning the castle, as they stole its library and family archives. These were hauled off to Sweden, where they subsequently vanished. The Swedish occupation of Krzyżtopór did not last, but it led to a new era in the castle’s history. Restoring the entire structure was too costly for even the wealthiest of aristocrats. Those who owned the castle decided to use parts of it as a residence. Unfortunately for these residents, the castle was always in an area that was riven by geo-political fighting between East and West. More invasions of the area and occupations of the castle ruins were to come. Ironically the size and stature of Krzyżtopór acted as a deterrent to both reconstruction and destruction. The ruins of the castle were just too extensive. They stood for centuries isolated in the Polish countryside, gigantic, austere and lonely.
The Obscure and the Unknowable – Traveling to a Castle, Traveling to Myself
After finishing my research on Krzyżtopór Castle I have resigned myself to the fact that a complete understanding of the architectural and human history of the castle is out of the question. That really is not the point. The castle for me has acted as a stimulus to travel deep into the Polish countryside, to both visit the ruins and fulfill a longing for the obscure and unknowable. The obstacles to accessing the castle have stimulated my interest. There is something inspiring about a place that leaves so many questions unanswered, that can never be made complete or whole. That will forever be lacking. I have to visit Krzyżtopór Castle for the simple reason, that by learning about it, I will learn more about myself.