Some decades ago Walbrzych (Wałbrzych) wasn't a particularly popular destination for the casual visitor - and for a good reason. Ironically, while the city’s name translates directly as 'Forest Mountain', it was once hailed as one of the most polluted urban centers in Poland, violating dozens of World Health Organization regulations.
Getting back on track
What's worse, this once historic and majestic city was becoming too industrialized even for its citizens, let alone visitors, offering only the usual post-war grayness and the murkiness of factories. Today, however, Walbrzych is a completely new city. Having closed the infamous coal mines and implemented new pollution policies, the city has undergone a process of re-establishing itself. Clean, healthy, tourist friendly, and most notably “green,” Walbrzych has finally stood up for its name.
History of Walbrzych
The first records mentioning Walbrzych show that the city already existed by the 12th century, on what was once the site of a small Slavic settlement constructed on a hill near the Pelcznica Valley. Early in its life the city of Waldenburg bore the nickname Wallenberg, which meant 'the place of pilgrimages'. Indeed, pilgrimages were quite popular to the region, mainly due to its famous springs of highly mineralized water located near the town.
Between the 12th and 14th century two of its landmarks emerged – the Ksiaz Castle and the Nowy Dwór fortress. In the 15th century, inhabited by some 200 people, Walbrzych finally received its charter and constitution.
Since its official founding, the city changed owners at least twice. It was first ruled by princes from the Polish Piast lineage, but in the 15th century Walbrzych became the property of the Silesian aristocrats, including the Czettritzs. In 1730's it passed to the Hochbergs who sponsored construction of the Ksiaz Castle. Thanks to these families, by the 18th century the town had a flourishing business based on weaving. Walbrzych also had a rich tradition in coal mining, which dates back at least 1604. By the 18th century Walbrzych had 7 mines, employing nearly 900 mine workers.
The 19th century brought further development of the already existing weaving and coal industries. New businesses based on pottery, metallurgy and glassware emerged as well. Some of the factories built around that time still exist. Moreover, the 19th century saw a great expansion of the city and its infrastructure, with a first railway connection to Wroclaw in 1843. In 1898 an extensive tramway run in the most important parts of the city.
Surviving World War II
Before the World War II about 65,000 people lived in the city, it was one of the richest urban centers in the region. Fortunately, unlike many other important cities in Poland, Walbrzych survived the war almost intact. It retained its invaluable monuments and artifacts, some of them dating back to the Medieval times. After the war the city and its industries were further enlarged, at the cost of the Pelcznica Valley's natural environs. The worst period for the local environment was in the 1980's, when Walbrzych was hailed as one of the most polluted towns in Poland. This shameful recognition provoked an immediate uproar from local environmentalists. They managed to convince the city council to carry out new, more environment friendly policies.
Walbrzych is in a large valley, the city itself being inhabited by about 130,000 people. Founded near the spring of a highly mineralized water source, the city was intended to become a health resort. The curative properties of the Walbrzych stream began to disappear around the 17th century, when many coal mines opened in the region. As a result, in the 19th and 20th century the city's pollution became too important to be ignored.
However, in the 1990's the city launched a successful action to restore its status as a center of health. Nowadays, Walbrzych is one of the “greenest” cities in the region. It boasts over 50 km of marked tourist routes leading through seven parks and several of the forest areas that surround the town. What’s more, Walbrzych is a proud owner of a unique Palm House, which houses about 80 species of tropical plants.
Still, even today Walbrzych has yet to create a reputation for both its environs and some of Poland's oldest historical sites. Interestingly, Walbrzych is one of very few Polish cities that survived World War II almost intact. That's why the city can boast an unprecedented amount of original medieval buildings and other artifacts. One of the best-preserved medieval buildings is the 13th century Ksiaz Castle, sometimes called the Polish Versailles.
Situated nearby the Pelcznica River, in the midst of the Ksiaz Scenic Park, the castle is one of the biggest in the region and comprises 400 chambers and 200 fireplaces. All is preserved well and still functional. While there, you can experience the life of the Polish aristocracy by renting a room or having a dinner in one of its breathtaking halls. Apart from the Ksiaz Castle, don’t miss the imposing 17th century Czettritz Palace and the 19th century Neo-Gothic Catholic Church of the Guardian Angels located near the market square. The historical city center is a great place not only to admire the colorful tenement houses surrounding the market itself, but also to meet up with the locals, who gather at the nearby cafe's and wine shops.
Ksiaz Castle Walbrzych
The first written mention of today's Ksiaz Castle (in German, Fursteinstein) dates back to the 16th century. During these years, one of the many strategically significant defensive castles of Bolko I "the Strict", Prince of Świdnica and Jawor, was built. The construction was thus acknowledged to be the "key to Silesia". The newly built fortress, known from the beginning as “Książęca Góra” or "The Prince’s Heights", distinguished itself from other buildings of this type not only by its militarily advantageous setting, but also for its picturesque location, in the heart of the forest. Bolko I also conferred upon himself the title "Lord of Książ," which his successors also held.
After the Piasts extinct from the Świdnica-Jawor line, Czech kings from the Luxembourg dynasty became the castle's owners, by virtue of the succession treaty. Later, from 1463 to be exact, Książ belonged to the Czech King George of Poděbrady.
Książ came under the rule of the Hungarian king Matthias Corvinus, and the commander of his army, Georg von Stein governed it. It was this officer who first brought about changes in Ksiaz's character, from that of a fortress to one of a castle, transforming most of its defensive areas into residential ones. During this period, the south part of the castle arose, known from that time as the Matthias Wing in honour of the sovereign. From 1497 to 1508 the castle belonged to Vladislaus II (Władysław Jagiellończyk), the Czech and Hungarian king. Later, the ruler transferred the Książ property to his chancellor, Johann von Haugwitz.
For an undisclosed sum, Johann von Haugwitz transferred the castle, and its neighboring property, to the knight Konrad I von Hoberg, also known as Kunz von Hoberg. His line influenced the history of Ksiaz the most. It's thanks to this powerful Silesian family that the castle experienced many "metamorphoses." They began with Hans Heinrich I, who created French gardens, replacing the ramparts, trenches and moats, as well as part of the walls.
Great castle reconstruction
Konrad Ernest Maximilian von Hochberg initiated what became known as the first great castle reconstruction. During that time, there arose: the distinctively Baroque extension, the Honorary Courtyard and buildings near the entrance to the castle (outbuildings, baths, gate building, sentry post and library). On the Poplar Heights, the summer pavilion was also constructed, becoming the family mausoleum in the second half of the nineteenth century (the sepulchral chapel).
The Nazi regime confiscated the castle. During the Second World War, the Berlin’s Royal Prussian Library collection was kept in Ksiaz. It's important to know that Daisy and Hans Heinrich's sons fought against Hitler. Hans Heinrich XVII in the British forces, and Alexander in the Polish army. "Todt", a Nazi paramilitary organization, occupied Ksiaz Castle. Intensive works were carried out including, apparently, what was meant to be one of Hitler's main quarters. The changes brought about by Hitler's soldiers are called the third castle reconstruction, though owing to their barbaric character, this reconstruction is not designated as "great".
Tunnels under the castle
During this time, underground tunnels were also dug below the castle and the Honorary Courtyard. Historians have various opinions about what purpose the land under the castle had, as well as for the tunnels built in the nearby Sowa Mountains at the same time.
The Walbrzych district government (gmina) became the owner of the castle in 1991. The building was in the hands of the Walbrzych Ksiaz Castle Management Group. Among the most important transformations that have taken place to 2015 are:
- changes to the east face of the castle (reconstructing the North Terrace, and making it accessible to visitors);
- modernization of the third floor, creating the Conference-Cultural Centre there;
- the merging, once again, of the Walbrzych's Palm House's management with that of the castle, forming one complex of facilities, two stages of the Hochberg mausoleum's renovation (the sepulchral chapel);
- installation of new castle lighting;
- the many-staged renovation of the roof (changed from a copper sheet to ceramic tile);
- the reconstruction of the area in front of the castle (the terrace lookout and Ida's Gardens).