Ojców and Ojców National Park - the oldest traces of man

The Prądnik Valley in Ojców National Park. The Pieskowa Skała Castle in the background, houses in the distance.
Ojców National Park is located near Kraków. The world as if from a fairy tale, enchanting with the beauty of nature enclosed in unique forms, enchanted in legends, remembering ancient times, about which old trees rustle and whose secrets are still guarded, as in the past, by the walls of old fortresses.

This is a great idea for a weekend trip, as you definitely need to see Ojców, with its spa buildings and ruins of a medieval castle, the late Renaissance Pieskowa Skała Castle, the Chapel on the Water, the Hercules Mace, the Kraków Gate, Łokietek's and Ciemna's Caves, and the Prądnik Valley.

After World War II the area of the Prądnik Valley was recognised as a place of nature protection, and in 1956 Ojców National Park was established here.

The Health Resort, Ojców

The beautiful Ojców buildings are connected to its spa history. Although it did not have a unique microclimate or healing waters, a therapeutic facility was established here in 1855 due to its exceptional natural values, to which patients crowded. There were also great names, such as the composer Fryderyk Chopin, the poets Franciszek Karpiński and Cyprian Kamil Norwid, and the novelist Jan Ursyn Niemcewicz. So it is not surprising that Ojców has been known as the Polish Switzerland. History did not spare Ojców's unique buildings, and what has survived is a mere substitute for the great times of this unusual health resort. These include the current building of the Władysław Szafer Natural History Museum, Villa Pod Berłem from 1885, Villa Pod Koroną from 1910, Villa Zawiszówka from 1910, and the famous St. Joseph the Worker Chapel, known as the Chapel on the Water from 1901. Officially, Ojców received the status of a health resort after World War I and became a very fashionable place, chosen for recreation.

The Chapel on the Water

The Chapel of St. Joseph the Craftsman (Worker), called the Chapel on the Water, was built in 1901 from reconstructed spa baths. The unusual location of the Chapel, preserved in its familiar, traditional name, may be puzzling. Since Tsar Nicholas II, under whose jurisdiction Ojców was located, issued a decree prohibiting the erection of religious buildings on the Ojców Land, the ban was cleverly circumvented by setting the on-water building with the cross-shaped structure, planked with light-coloured boards, held above the stream by piles set in the bottom. The Chapel roof is decorated with a slender openwork turret topped with a cross. The modest, bright interior, especially the altars, whose shape alludes to the gables of country cottages, looks charming.

Ruins of the Ojców Castle

The knights’ fortress in Ojców was an object of the medieval fortification system of the Kraków-Częstochowa Jurassic Highland, guarding a trade route from Kraków to Częstochowa, called the Trail of the Eagle’s Nests. The Ojców Castle was erected on a limestone rock towering over the Prądnik Valley. The Castle tower, the remains of the defensive walls, a 40-metre well hollowed in the limestone rock, and the entrance gate, beautifully blending in with the surrounding limestone rocks and treetops, have all survived to this day. In the past, to get to the gate one had to cross a bridge suspended over an artificial moat. In the 19th century the moat was filled in, but the stone pillars that held the drawbridge have survived to this day. Tradition has it that Casimir the Great named the Castle Oczec u Skały in honour of his father, Władysław Łokietek, whose fate intertwined with this land during the Battle for the Kraków throne with the Czechs (according to the legend of the Łokietek Cave, the ruler took refuge in it from the enemy and thus survived). The name survived as Ojców. After the period of its magnificence in the Middle Ages, the Castle lost its importance in the following centuries. In the 19th century it was described as a partial ruin. It owes its present appearance to restoration works between 1913 and 1935. There is a beautiful panorama of Ojców and the entire Prądnik Valley from the Castle hill.

The Pieskowa Skała Castle

The Castle in Pieskowa Skała is a real, well-preserved architectural gem. The building was also commissioned by Casimir the Great in the 14th century and was given a Renaissance character over 200 years later by its successive owners, the Szafraniec family. They modelled it on the royal Wawel Castle: architects brought from Italy built an arcaded courtyard, and the clock tower received a helmet similar to those of the Wawel towers. Next to it, masters from Italy erected an architectural marvel: an arcaded loggia. Below, they designed an Italian-style garden on a terrace above the cliff. Today, the Castle houses a museum and the most extensive gallery of English paintings in Poland. There is also a legend connected with this place, which explains the name of the Castle. In the tower called Dorotka, one of the Tęczyński daughters starved to death, punished cruelly for her love for a lute player with whom she tried to escape. For some time, a dog tried to save her from death by climbing the rock and throwing her food. A beautiful view of the Castle stretches from the Prądnik Valley - accompanied by a limestone spur called the Hercules Mace.

The Hercules Mace

The Hercules Mace rises on a rock terrace called the Fortepian (Eng. Piano), at the foot of which the Prądnik River once flowed. The 25-metre-high rock, resembling the weapon of the mythical Hercules, was formed because of karst water activities. In the past it was called Maczuga Kraka, Sokola Skała, Czarcia Skała, and Skała Twardowskiego. It is not only one of the most characteristic elements of the Prądnik Valley landscape, but also the most distinctive and most recognisable rock formation in Poland.

The Kraków Gate

The Prądnik Valley of Ojców National Park abounds in natural rock formations of incredible shapes. Another such intriguing formation is the Kraków Gate, in the form of two over 15-metre-high pillars which are the mouth of the Ciasne Skałki Gorge into the Prądnik Valley. The limestone pillars were formed entirely naturally as a result of erosion processes, and one is higher than the other. Moreover, the legend says more than the sources say - according to tradition, a trade route from Silesia to Kraków was supposed to lead here. From the Gate, a stunning panorama of the rock massifs of Mount Koronna opens. Below the Kraków Gate, there is the Spring of Love.

The Łokietek and Ciemna Caves

The entire Prądnik Valley abounds in caves and rocky limestone, forming numerous monadnocks. It is a climbers' oasis and a paradise for archaeologists researching caves. Canyons with steep walls, protruding rock needles, and groups of cones are the result of water's destructive activity. The limestone rocks that make up the Kraków-Częstochowa Jurassic Highland are relatively easily dissolved by precipitation, and the process of limestone leaching that lasted for millions of years resulted in fantastic forms. The most spectacular ones can be found in the Prądnik Valley as a gallery of karst works. Here you will find rocks several dozen metres high, with fanciful shapes, springs (karst springs) and many caves (their number is estimated at over 400).

The Łokietek Cave, or the Royal Cave, or the Łokietek Grotto, is the largest in Ojców National Park, stretching over the bottom of the Sąspowska Valley, and its corridors are 320 metres long. It consists of several corridors and two large rooms: The Knight's Room and the Bedroom, and two smaller ones. It is also enchanted with a legend; it was there that Władysław Łokietek took refuge from the enemy and thus survived. Hence, the name of the cave and its mystery. According to legend, the ruler hid in this inaccessible cave for six weeks after escaping from Kraków from the army of the Czech king Wenceslaus II. He survived thanks to a spider's web that covered the entrance to the cave. During World War I, the cave served as a shelter for local people. The traces of a human from ancient times, a cave bear, knights' spurs, belt fittings and fragments of pottery were found there. In 1927 the cave was declared a monument of inanimate nature.

In turn, the oldest traces of a human in Poland were discovered in the Ciemna Cave, or the Ojców Cave, and therefore it is counted among the most valuable archaeological sites in Poland as the remains of a Neanderthal child were found here in 2018. It was the oldest human habitation in Poland; 120,000 years ago, a Neanderthal man temporarily stayed and hunted here. The Ciemna Cave in the Prądnik Valley is a fragment of an ancient system of chambers and passages with a total length of 230 metres. The entrance chamber is the largest known cave hall in the Kraków-Częstochowa Jurassic Highland. Further on, there is the present cave closed with an iron grate, just to the right, the Tunnel, and behind it the so-called Garden, i.e. a kind of rock courtyard surrounded on three sides by rocks formed by the collapse of the cave ceiling, which turns into a tunnel called Oborzysko Wielkie. The encampment of the Neanderthal man for whom the Ciemna Cave was a shelter has also been reconstructed here.

The Prądnik Valley

The Ojców caves and the park are a kingdom of bats - 17 out of the 21 species living in Poland have been observed here. A silhouette of this mammal can also be found in the logo of Ojców National Park. Although it is the smallest park in Poland, the Prądnik Valley and the Sąspowska Valley hide true treasures and fairy-tale nature. It lies in the southern part of the Kraków-Częstochowa Upland, in the Kraków-Częstochowa Jurassic Highland and is considered the most beautiful valley in the Jura Chain. It is built mainly of limestone from the Upper Jurassic and Cretaceous period 150 million years ago. It is a karst ravine with perpendicular rocky slopes and a flat bottom. Increased lateral erosion has led to the formation of rock terraces, i.e. flattening, which form picturesque gateways, rock spires and other rock formations.

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