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This Edited Guide Entry is one of six sub-divisions of the mammoth Community collaboration on Great Castles. Links to the remaining five entries can be found at the bottom of the page.
Due to its central location between east and west and due to numerous wars in the area, Poland features a number of very interesting and very different castles. They range from simple fortifications of the early Middle Ages and the impressing brick structures of the knights in the High Middle Ages to the beautifully ornamented castles of rich barons and kings in the Renaissance and Baroque and to the heavy fortresses of the 19th Century.
Built in the early 17th Century, and located in central Poland, this castle was still built as a fortress (its name means 'battle axe') but was meant to show the grandeur of its owner, the rich magnate Ossolinski. Following the era's interest in astronomy, it featured 365 windows, 52 rooms and 12 ballrooms. However, the castle was intact only for a few years and started to decay after Swedish troops overran it in 1656. Now it is a ruin, although still impressive to look at.
Malbork Castle of the Teutonic Knights
Malbork (or Marienburg in German), situated in the estuary of the Vistula River, was built in the 13th Century by the Teutonic Knights who controlled at that time the Baltic coast and the areas around Gdansk. The castle is possibly the largest brick structure in the world and, like the Wawel, kept its original Medieval design. Its lack of decoration and its numerous walls and towers show immediately that Malbork was built to dominate, not to please.
The Wawel of Krakow
Originally founded in the 11th Century, the Wawel holds a prominent position on a rock over the city of Krakow, controlling both the city and the Vistula River. Thanks to that location and to the importance of Krakow, the Wawel became the seat of the Polish kings until the capital was moved to Warsaw in 1596. While in use, the Wawel underwent numerous renovations (eg, after the Tartars overran the city in the 13th Century) and now shows a number of styles. Also, it hosts a beautiful cathedral that in its crypt holds the sarcophagi of most of the Polish kings, among them August of Saxonia.
The Castles of Warsaw
Once Warsaw became the Polish capital in the 17th Century, the king, as well as numerous courtiers and magnates, created for themselves wealthy and beautiful estates in and around Warsaw, mostly in the Baroque style. Worthy of mention is Castle Wilanow, the summer residence of the Polish Kings, and comparable (though much smaller) to Versailles, featuring many rooms decorated in the fashion of its time and a well laid-out park. Besides Wilanow, Warsaw offers the City Castle in the Old Town, which is not overly nice from the outside but very interesting inside. A definite highlight are the castle-like buildings in the Baths-Park or Park Lasienkowski, built purely for pleasure around (and even in) a set of small lakes, close to the city centre.
The Fortresses of the 19th Century
Although not castles in the typical sense, these structures, comparable in their functionality to the big battleships or factories of their times, represent the end of the evolution of military strongholds. Their prominent features are triangular artillery buttresses, double and triple walls, large casemattes for servicemen and water moats. The forts were still in use in World War I and while the Red Army attacked Poland in 1920, but later mobile warfare and the airforce rendered these fortifications redundant.
The fortresses in Poland are not really tourist attractions and are difficult to find, as is the case in Warsaw, where a ring of 12-15 forts around the city is now in use as car garages, gardens, storage places or has been submerged under water. Warsaw has still one more or less intact fort over the Vistula.