Along the Vistula. On the course of the Queen of Polish rivers

Vistula River as seen from the hill.
Kraków is not the only place on the banks of the Vistula that can enchant. Wandering along the course of this river, we’ll see castles, historic churches, and the royal domain: ponds full of carp and a primeval forest inhabited by European bison, we will also see unique... road rollers. We invite you on a trip through the Małopolska region along the course of the Queen of Polish rivers.

From Jawiszowice to Szczucin

Due to its length of over 1,000 kilometres, the Vistula is considered the queen of Polish rivers. Its Małopolska section measures more than 200 kilometres and begins in Jawiszowice in the west and ends in Szczucin in the east. Along the way, a host of interesting attractions await tourists: places of natural interest, historical monuments, a variety of traditions and customs and much more. They can be explored by car, using roads Number 44 (to Kraków) and Number 79 (east of Podwawelskie Grodno) running almost parallel to the river, by bicycle or on foot.

In many places, the best choice will be the bicycle, so as to best enjoy the section of the Małopolska section of the Vistula Cycling Route running largely along the river’s embankments and being part of the VeloMalopolska trail network. Due to the fact that the route meets the EuroVelo4, VeloRaba and VeloDunajec, you can also explore areas a little further away from the Vistula.

Thematic trails are becoming increasingly popular ways of exploring new places. So, why not return to the centuries-old tradition of travelling along rivers... Following the words of a popular song, let’s set off along the course of the queen of Polish rivers on a trip through the Małopolska region.

The Vistula is flowing, flowing, through Małopolska… 

The first village on the Vistula route through Małopolska region is Jawiszowice, where we can find the 17th-century wooden Church of Saint Martin, with furnishings coming from an earlier church. Another town on the route is Brzeszcze with one of the two coal mines in the region and picturesque cycling routes leading through the floodplains of the Vistula and Soła rivers.

In Oświęcim the river definitely changes direction, so far it has been flowing more from south to north, now, all the way to Kraków, it’s confidently heads east. Oświęcim is primarily associated with the tragic events of World War II and the German concentration camp Auschwitz-Birkenau that existed here. We have to remember the past, spread the idea of Cities of Peace, but also to be aware that Oświęcim is one of the oldest Polish towns, with rich and varied traditions that you can find out about by visiting the local museum, the castle and the synagogue Lomdei Mishnayot. There’s no shortage of places for recreation and leisure: Peace Square, Zasole Park and Nations Reconciliation Park, these are just a few examples of areas for pleasant relaxation in this city situated where  the Soła River joins the Vistula.

Other sites of this type in the capital of Carp Valley, Zator, can be reached by travelling along Road No. 44. The past of this area is is most vividly showcased in the ducal castle in Zator and the area’s tradition of breeding the Zator carp, also called the royal carp. Today, Zator is mainly known for its local amusement parks: Energylandia and Zatorland Dinosaur Park, as well as theme parks: Mythology Park and Insect Park.

The region, sometimes referred to as the ‘Masuria of the Małopolska region’, can be explored along numerous bicycle trails or paths marked out for enthusiasts of walking with poles, i.e., Nordic walking. In the latter case, particularly interesting are the routes located in the commune of Przeciszów, running among ponds and forest backwoods, as well as in the commune of Spytkowice, where you can visit Spytkowice Castle and the 18th-century wooden church of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

In the nearby town of Ryczów, it’s worth turning off Road No. 44 in the direction of Łączany (to the left) to drive through the local barrage to the left bank of the Vistula and along local roads to reach Czernichów Central Museum Station to take a sentimental journey to the time many years ago  when the narrow-gauge railway ran along the Vistula. Travelling further east along local roads through Wołowice to Jeziorzany will provide another attraction: crossing the Vistula River by ferry. Once you are back on Road No. 44, we suggest you head in the direction of Kraków, take the motorway ring road in the direction of Katowice, then exit at the nearest junction in the direction of Tyniec.

An alternative way of travelling from Zator is to head north along Road No. 781 and visit the open-air museum in Wygiełzów, the Lipowiec Castle and then, following Road No. 780 in the direction of Kraków, visit Alwernia, which is a sanctuary of the Merciful Lord Jesus, with the miraculous painting of Lord Jesus Ecce Homo from 1453. Next is the must-see palace in Poręba Żegota and an exhilarating drive near the Kajasówka Nature Reserve. Choosing this option means driving through Liszki, a town associated with the famous lisiecka sausage and the opportunity to visit the Zalew na Piaskach (Kryspinów Reservoir). Then, you need to follow the signs to the motorway ring road of Kraków, cross over the Vistula River heading towards Rzeszów and exit at the first junction towards Tyniec.

…she saw Krakow, she probably won’t miss it on her way…

The Kraków section of the river is over 20 kilometres long. At its eastern periphery, in Tyniec, on a lofty rock, the monastery of the Benedictine fathers was erected; on the west, the Vistula River bids farewell to Kraków, passing a few hundred metres away the Cistercian abbey with the Sanctuary of the Holy Cross in the former village of Mogiła. Almost exactly in the middle of the Kraków section is Wawel Hill with the Royal Castle, the cathedral and the legendary Dragon’s Den. Throughout Kraków, a pedestrian and bicycle route runs along the Vistula embankments, where on sunny days, especially on the Vistula Boulevards at the foot of Wawel Castle, we can enjoy a lively flow of pedestrians, joggers, cyclists and inline skaters.

Thousands of books, millions of articles and broadcasts have been devoted to the history of Kraków, its monuments and peculiarities. It takes a few days or even longer to get to know them and immerse oneself in the atmosphere of the city. So, now let’s just focus on what can be seen directly by the river.

Heading from Tyniec to the city centre, whether by car along Road No. 780 (Księcia Józefa Street) or by bicycle, riding along the Vistula embankments running parallel to it, we’ll go past the buildings of the Bielany Water Treatment Plant which are more than 100 years old. A little further on,  your attention will for sure be drawn to the Silver Mountain with its Camaldolese Monastery in Bielany (women are allowed to enter it only 12 days a year) and, immediately afterwards, the Przegorzalskie Rocks, on which stand the 1920s villa of Adolf Szyszko-Bohusz and a castle built by the Nazis during World War II. Along the left bank, there are hills covered with the lush greenery of the Wolski Forest, the zoological garden, numerous ravines, a rock formation named Maiden Rocks as well as the Piłsudski Mound and the Kościuszko Mound. On the slopes descending towards the Vistula, we can also find the forts of the Kraków Fortress, the Astronomical Observatory of Jagiellonian University (link to the website of the Astronomical Observatory of the Jagiellonian University) and... the Silver Mountain vineyard.

Then let’s also take a look at the Norbertine Nunnery and the Church of Sts Augustine and John the Baptist by the Salwator tram stop where the traditional Emmaus fair takes place on Easter Monday, and from where, on the octave of Corpus Christi, the Lajkonik sets off to prance about. We shall thus reach the foot of the Wawel Hill.

Its immediate surroundings are best explored on foot, by bicycle or… by boat starting from under the Wawel Hill. On the right, we can see the distinctive building of the Manggha Museum of Japanese Art and Technology; a little further (on the left bank) the white silhouette of the Pauline friars’ sanctuary of St Stanislaus on Skałka, the former Jewish district of Kazimierz and (on the right bank) Podgórze, once a separate town founded by the Austrians as competition for Kraków, and since 1915 a district of the latter. From afar you can see the green tower of the Redemptorists’  Sanctuary of Our Lady of Perpetual Help and the characteristic towers of the Sanctuary of St Joseph. After passing Father Bernatek Footbridge, on which lovers fasten padlocks to make their love unbreakable, the eye is drawn to the rusty-brown building of the Centre for the Documentation of the Art of Tadeusz Kantor Cricoteka.

Ships don’t travel further; due to the distance (approx. 10 km), the next section of the river is best explored on bicycle or a kick scooter. As you get further away from the centre, the buildings change, the greenery along the river front grows, and the unregulated river bed becomes wider and calmer. On some passages, you get the impression that you are away from the big city, especially when confronted with the extensive views of the Wieliczka Foothills. The last important point near the Vistula River in Kraków is the aforementioned Cistercian monastery, which can be reached by going north from the Wanda Bridge along Klasztorna Street.

…even though she’s hiding in the Niepołomice woods...

Leaving Kraków, the Vistula flows into the Wieliczka commune. If you want to visit places of interest further downstream, you need to go along Rybitwy Street and then Śliwiaka Street or choose the eastern ring road of the city (Route S7) and exit at the Przewóz junction to enter the Pope’s Route. Not far away is the Przystań Brzegi bathing site with a sandy beach and the area where Pope Francis met with pilgrims during the 2016 World Youth Day.

The event is commemorated by the Gate of Mercy, symbolising Christ the Merciful, the avenue with the Oaks of the 12 Apostles and the Mercy Bell standing near the complex of buildings of Mercy Campus. It consists of the House of Mercy, which is a Day Support Centre for the Elderly and Disabled (on the first floor there is a room where Pope Francis was supposed to spend the night after a prayer vigil, but in the end he only stayed for a few minutes; the objects he encountered are treated as precious mementos), the Youth House with its magnificent mural, chapel and the John Paul II Museum, as well as the Logistics Centre of the Kraków Archdiocese  Caritas ‘House of Bread’, from which food is distributed to those in need of support throughout the entire archdiocese.

The road continues towards Niepołomice. In the village of Grabie, there’s a historic wooden church dedicated to the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Chronicles state that the first temple was erected in the area in the 14th century on the other bank of the Vistula, but was moved to the present site in the following century after the riverbed changed. It’s worth seeing the main altar with its grace-famous 17th-century image of Our Lady of Grabie with silver cloths and regency crowns.

Another town we’ll meet when travelling along the Vistula is Niepołomice. The local Royal Castle, known as the second Wawel Castle, had for centuries been a place of rest and work for Polish rulers residing in Kraków. Currently the castle is the seat of the Museum of Niepołomice  which displays works of sacred art from the treasury of the Gothic church in Niepołomice, as well as chronicles and photographs documenting the history of the town.

We’re now quite close to the nearby Małopolska Centre of Sound and Word with Poland’s only museum of phonography as well as the Youth Astronomical Observatory and the Sanctuary of Saint Charles Borromeo with an interesting painting of the temple’s patron saint and a polychrome modelled on the one decorating the interior of St Mary’s Church in Kraków. While wandering around the town, it’s worth visiting the Błonia Niepołomickie Park, which includes the Queen Bona Gardens, and the Grunwald Mound, commemorating the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Grunwald, from the top of which there is an extensive view of the surrounding area.

The thing you just can’t miss in the area is a look into the Niepołomice Forest. You can get there from the town’s market square along the Royal Road, which was used centuries ago by kings going for hunting. Admittedly, meeting the King of the Forest – the bison – is unlikely, as it lives in the fenced-off Bison Breeding Centre, but if you dare to venture a little further away from the most frequented routes, you can meet other forest inhabitants.

Picturesque meanders

Having passed Niepołomice, the Vistula meanders picturesquely through the countryside, flowing through fertile agricultural land. The best way to travel then is to move along Road No. 79 that goes to Sandomierz. It was on one of the Vistula meanders, in Hebdów, that the Norbertine monastery was built in the 12th century; today, the Polish Province of the Piarists manages this site. In the Church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary there’s a venerated statue of Our Lady of Hebdów, carved in linden wood around 1400 by an unknown artist. Pilgrims who come to see it leave numerous votive offerings, including a white zucchetto and a papal rosary presented by Pope John Paul II in 2004.

Before the Vistula leaves the Małopolska region, the Raba River (slightly beyond Hebdów) and the Dunajec River (in Opatowiec) join up with it. At the mouth of the latter, on the left bank, stands a tall monument to Józef Piłsudski commemorating the battles fought in the Kielce region by the troops he commanded during World War I.

A few kilometres beyond Koszyce, the Vistula becomes the border between the Małopolskie Voivodeship and the Świętokrzyskie Voivodeship. Further travel along its course on the Małopolska side is only possible via local roads running through small villages. podziwiać lokomobile, walce i inne urządzenia wykorzystywane przy budowie dróg. Dla fascynatów techniki, to obowiązkowe miejsce podróży po regionie, ale i laicy zapewne zainteresują się potężnymi maszynami. Innymi obiektami godnymi zobaczenia są barokowy kościół pw. świętej Marii Magdaleny oraz kamienna figura świętego Marka, zwana popularnie Markiem, wzniesiona według legendy w 1684 r. dla upamiętnienia przeprawy przez Wisłę zmierzających pod Wiedeń wojsk króla Jana III Sobieskiego.

To reach Szczucin, the last town located by the Vistula River in the Małopolska region, it’s best to take Road No. 79 to Słupia and there turn right onto Road No. 73 (towards Tarnów). This small town is home to Europe’s only Road Engineering Museum, where you can admire traction engines, steamrollers and other equipment used for road construction. For the fans of technology and engineering marvels, this is a must-see destination in the region, but the uninitiated will probably find the powerful, sophisticated machines  no less engrossing. Other sights worth seeing include the Baroque Church of St Mary Magdalene and a stone statue of St Mark, popularly known as Mark, erected according to legend in 1684 to commemorate the crossing of the Vistula by the army of King Jan III Sobieski heading for Vienna.

While in Szczucin, it’s worth paying a short visit to the neighbouring Pacanów, located 12 kilometres away in the Świętokrzyskie Voivodeship. Considered as the only place in the world where they shoe goats, it was the supposedly destination of the wandering of the lovable Matołek the Goat created by the writer Kornel Makuszyński. Today you can experience his adventures and those of other children’s story characters at the European Fairy Tale Centre.

Few people know that Archbishop Zygmunt Zimowski, bishop of the Diocese  of Radom (2002–2009) and of the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of the Health Service (2009–2016), was born and buried in the tiny town of Kupienin (Mędrzechów commune), which lies a dozen kilometres from Szczucin.

Time to move on...

Your journey through the Małopolska region along the flow of the Vistula is about to finish. Don’t hesitate to discover the region’s charms in many other ways, following various thematic routes, e.g., the Wooden Architecture Route, on the trail of films shot in Małopolska, or Małopolska Gourmets Route, or hiking along tourist trails, travelling along interesting car routes (link to description of the Małopolska’s car routes) or at your own pace, in your own way, using the tips provided on our portal.


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