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Castles, Palaces and Monasteries

Like a still photograph, they seem to defy the passage of time. They can provide us with the best possible, most descriptive of history lessons, presenting the authentic scenery of past events and offering an insight into the everyday reality of days gone by.

Some can be dark and gloomy, others bright and joyful, some forcefully dominate their surroundings, while others merge into an idyllic setting. They can delight us as part of the overall view of the landscape or with the magnificence of their architecture, or they can inspire us with the richness of their museum exhibits, sometimes even just one unique piece that captures the imagination. And this is why they are so popular: the castles and palaces of kings and princes, of knights and bishops.

Some of these castles were subsequently destroyed during the wars of the XVIIth and XVIIIth centuries, while many of those left standing were situated in the easternmost regions, outside Poland's present borders. Of the 450 castles surviving today - some of them, in the west and north, of Teutonic or German rather than Polish lineage - only a few dozen have preserved their original architecture, and these are now most commonly museums.

Fortunately, one that has survived is the most important castle of them all: the Royal Castle on Wawel Hill in Cracow, which was to serve as a model for other royal castles, particularly those of a clearly defensive character, such as the ones to be found in southern Poland, on what is known as the Trail of the Eagle's Nests. Coming from the direction of Cracow, this trail begins with the castle at Pieskowa Skala, to continue along the edge of the extremely picturesque Cracow-Czestochowa Upland, the white stone walls of the particular strongholds outlined on the hilltops. Visible from a considerable distance, the bulky silhouettes of the fortresses at Rabsztyn, Ogrodzieniec and Olsztyn give us some idea of the might and grandeur of the defensive system developed in the XIVth century by Casimir, the last representative of the great royal dynasty of the Piasts.

Our list of royal castles ends with Warsaw Royal Castle, a witness to the closing episodes in the history of the Kingdom of Poland.

A specific feature of northern Poland are the castles that have survived as a legacy of the Teutonic Knights, invited to Poland in the XIIIth century to aid in the conversion of Prussia to Christianity. One of the most outstanding of these is the castle in Malbork, formerly the seat of the Grand Master of the Teutonic Order, which today houses interesting exhibits of weapons and armour and also of "Polish gold" - amber.

In the Poland of old, the splendour of the royal castles was rivalled by that of those serving as the official residences of the country's lords and bishops. Many of these were destroyed over the centuries, or lost their previous architectural form or interior furnishings. Nonetheless, quite a few real jewels still remain, retaining their original lustre. ORBIS will be happy to arrange visits on request to any of these grand examples of Poland's architectural heritage; at the same time, we are pleased to present our own proposals for tour parties: two itineraries which take in a series of castles and palaces in two historical regions, Wielkopolska (Greater Poland ) and Malopolska (Lesser Poland).

The first tour of seven days' duration, begins with Warsaw- Royal Castle, the country's premiere residence as of 1596, when the court was moved to the new capital on the Vistula (the river's significance is epitomised by the mermaid on Warsaw's coat of arms). This castle saw magnificent Polish victories and tragic defeats, and was the site of such historic events as the adoption of the Constitution of May 3 (1791), the first in Europe and only the second in the world (after that of the United States). During World War II, the castle was first bombed then deliberately razed to the ground by the Nazis, yet was subsequently reconstructed, the long years of painstaking work being made possible by the generosity of the Polish public, expatriates and foreign benefactors. The castle was restored to its former glory in 1984, a combination of the Baroque with Gothic elements and partly Classicist interiors. Open to visitors as a monument to Polish national history and culture, it also performs an official function during particulary important ceremonies of state.

The residences of another two of Poland's kings stand on Warsaw's Royal Way. The first, Classicist in style, is situated in the Lazienki Park, one of the most beautiful palace and garden complexes in Europe, and was commissioned in the second half of the XVIIIth century by King Stanislaus Augustus Poniatowski. The second, at Wilanow on the outskirts of Warsaw, is one of the finest examples of Baroque architecture in Poland and was the residence of John III Sobieski, famed for his victory over the armies of the Ottoman Empire at the Relief of Vienna in 1683. An undoubted attraction within the period interiors, particularly for connoisseurs, is the Gallery of XVIth - XIXth century Polish Portrait Paining; nearby, the former coach house is today a museum of international poster art.

Leaving Warsaw, the first stop on our tour itinerary is at Nieborow, the former residence of the Oginski and Radziwill families. This Baroque palace dating from the end of the XVIIth century, designed by Tylman van Gameren, boasts richly decorated interiors and valuable collections of art, and is situated in extensive XVIIth - XVIIIth century landscape gardens. It is today part of the National Museum in Warsaw. Next is Antonin and the small wooden hunting palace of the Radziwill family, built in the shape of a Greek cross; in the 1820s, this palace hosted visits and concerts by Frederic Chopin.

We then come to the first of the three great palatial residences of Wielkopolska, Goluchow. This building, previously a XVIth century castle, was converted to the French style at the end of the last century by Izabela Dzialynska, nee Czartoryska, to be used as a museum. Today it is a branch of the National Museum in Poznan, and maintains the style and spirit that pervaded the hobby of collecting in the XIXth century. Particularly noteworthy are the collections of ancient Greek vases, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese painting, Dutch painting and sculpture, French Gothic and Renaissance sculpture, XIVth - XVIIth century European goldwork, Flemish Gobelin tapestries, Persian weapons and tapestries, and Chinese and Japanese sculpture. The castle is surrounded by a large English-style park.

Next on our route is Rogalin on the River Warta, a Rococo/Classicist palace from the turn of the XVIIIth and XIXth centuries designed by D. Merlini and J. C. Kamsetzer, set in French and English gardens. The former residence of the Raczynski family, the palace is now a museum of period interiors, with a fine gallery of European XIXth and early XXth century painting. Nearby is a nature sanctuary unique on a European scale: a stand of 950 old oaks, each several hundred years old and 2-9 metres in circumference.

The castle in Kornik, our next stop, was owned at different times by the Gorka, Dzialynski and Zamoyski families, and was altered in the middle of the last century to the English Gothic style we see today. The castle houses historical mementoes and collections of arms and armour from Poland and the East, paintings, and archaeological, natural science and ethnographic exhibits from expeditions to Australia, Polynnesia and Madagascar. There is also a library of the Polish Academy of Sciences, with old prints and manuscripts, some dating back to the XIth century. The castle stands in a landscape park, adjoined by the largest dendrological gardens in Poland.

The Classicist palace buildings at Czerniejewo, next on our tour, date from the end of the XVIIIth century, and part of them are today used as a riding centre, which offers its guests trips through the picturesque surrounding countryside either by carriage or in the saddle. There is one more short stop on the journey back to Warsaw: at Iwno, where the early XIXth century neo-Renaissance palace, set in English gardens, is home to a stables specialising in English thoroughbreds.

The second tour of eight days' duration, also begins and ends in Warsaw, but the itinerary takes us south this time, rather than west. The first point on our route, the Baroque palace at Kozlowka, presents a rather interesting relic of the more recent past: on display here is a collection of the "socialist realist" art once promoted by the Communist authorities. Following a sightseeing tour of Lublin, a historical town that is the largest in eastern Poland, the itinerary leads us through Zamosc, with its Old Town defences, preserved in their original Renaissance style, and Lezajsk, with its celebrated XVIIth century church organ in the basilica of the Bernardine monastery, to bring us to Sieniawa, once the fortified residence of the Sieniawski family, then of the Czartoryski family, the Baroque palace standing in a geometrically arranged XVIIIth century park.

We now move on to Lancut, the fortified Baroque residence of the aristocratic Potocki family, noted for its superb interiors and unique museum of old coaches and carriages, and then to Cracow. Our sightseeing tour of Poland's former capital, which features the country's largest concentration of historical architecture and other monuments of national heritage, includes a detailed visit to Wawel Castle with its extensive collections of art and military exhibits from both Poland and abroad, and the adjoining cathedral, site of the coronation of Poland's kings, which houses the tombs of many of the country's past rulers.

An excursion from Cracow takes us to Pieskowa Skala, a Gothic-cum-Renaissance castle modelled on Wawel Castle; as already mentioned, this is the most southerly of the fortresses on the XIVth century Trail of the Eagle's Nests.

The tour party returns to Warsaw by way of Czestochowa, where the central point of interest is the fortified Paulist monastery of Jasna Gora, established in the XIVth century. Due to the role this monastery has played in Polish history, the miraculous icon of the Black Madonna on display here and the works on art in the monastery treasury, Jasna Gora - considered the spiritual capital of Polish Catholicism - is the site of constant pilgrimages and excursions.