Set amid rolling fields and endless skies, Krzyżtopór is king of the castles
I’d class myself as being borderline fanatical about castles, something that I credit to a youth spent poking around cobwebbed dungeons on history field trips.
More than just a chance to sneak an illicit smoke, these excursions had more in line with an episode of Ghosthunters International: it wasn’t the dull stuff we learned about, but stories of plotting courtiers and villainous monarchs, of conniving jesters and headless white ladies.
Into adulthood, all that stuff still holds a magic.
Living in Poland, however, that excitement has been bevelled by trips to Wawel and Malbork and countless other zameks that still look pristine. Gimme’ a pile of ruins, not squeaky corridors lined with Ducal portraits and dented silver goblets.
When I visit a castle, I want it to fire my imagination. Fortunately, on that front, there are several in this country with the ability to do exactly that – then, in a league of its own, there is Krzyżtopór.
From afar, it looks truly monumental – the kind of place in which you’d expect to find a dragon in the moat and a trapped damsel up a tower.
Set amid verdant rolling fields and impossibly endless skies, it’s a backdrop that emphasizes the immensity of the monolith up in front.
Constructed to fill the twin duties of a fortress and a palace, its design was commissioned by Krzysztof Ossoliński, an obscenely wealthy nobleman from a dynasty that was notorious for its extravagance.
Handed a bottomless budget to play with, Italian-born architect Lauretius de Sente set about realizing Ossoliński’s dreams, and in 1644 he was finally able to present the fruits of his labour: even taking into account the lurid exhibitionism of the era, what he’d designed was astonishing.
Inspired by the annual calendar, the castle featured 352 windows to represent the days of the year, 52 rooms for the number of weeks, a dozen ballrooms to signify the months, and four towers to symbolize the seasons.
What had arisen was the largest palace in Europe. Built using 200,000 bricks and 11,000 tons of sandstone, such was the largesse that it was only beaten for size when Versailles was completed.
An amalgam of words, the title Krzyżtopór referenced Ossoliński’s Catholic faith (krzyż: the cross) and the ancestral coat of arms (a topór: axe), and this residence set a new benchmark in both vanity and standards.
Ossoliński, though, enjoyed it for less than a year. Dying in 1645, the property passed to his son, Krzysztof Baldwin Ossoliński, but he too would not enjoy it for any length of time – in 1649, he was picked off by a stray arrow at the Battle of Zborów.
Indeed, these were bad times to live here, a point underlined by the Swedish Deluge that descended upon Poland in 1655.
Set to a pentagonal plan, the castle had been built with state-of-the-art defensive fortifications, but these did not account for the meteoric advances that were being made in military technology and know-how. When the Swedes surrounded the castle just eleven years after it’d been built, it was a no-brainer that they’d end up victorious. With that in mind, the castle raised the white flag with not one shot being fired.
Subsequently plundered by the Swedes, a century later Russian troops finished the job and left it utterly ruined and ransacked.
Today, to call the leftovers a remarkable phantom would be to flirt with understatement. A spectacularly hollow husk, you walk down subterranean hallways and crouch through tunnels before emerging into eerie chambers that drip with the tip tap of water.
A common legend asserts that Krzysztof Baldwin Ossoliński is prone to appearing at times to guard undiscovered treasure, and these rumours don’t feel all too far-fetched when you find yourself caught in the castle’s swirling shadows.
True, it’s not entirely timeless.
Bless the modern world, for outside find a line of stalls peddling wooden swords and plastic helmets, an exercise that’s repeated in the souvenir store now added inside. And there’s ice cream, as well, a commodity you can enjoy in a café that’s been constructed in one of the wings of the castle.
Want more reminders of the century you’re in? Then stick your head through cardboard cut-out figures depicting knights and princesses: you’ll do so whilst being accompanied by jolly medieval tunes being piped into the courtyard.
But it says much for the castle that none of these points diminish its atmosphere. Such is its vastness and skeletal state, you walk the corridors and halls as if lost in a dream. Surreal and serene, its crevices and corners afford a solitude that’s both eerie and enthralling: you are spellbound.
Outside, this does not change. Skirting the perimeter, visitors can’t fail to be struck by the size and scale of it all. Dwarfed by it, a memorial marks the burial place of 19 Poles shot in reprisal for an assassination attempt on a local Nazi figure.
Set to the seeming impregnability of the castle, it is a poignant reminder of the fragility of life.