In the triangle formed by the cities of Cracow, Częstochowa, and the Katowice conurbation, lies one of the most original regions of Poland and Central Europe: the Polish Jura (Locally named Jura-Krakowsko Częstochowska). As its name suggests, just like its Franco-Swiss counterpart, it is shaped by a specific geology where predominates limestone... from the Jurassic.
But, unlike the other, this Jura is not mountains, but rather a wide plateau, which has more in common with older mountainous areas like in the French Massif Central. Let's put in it few herds of sheep, as one could meet there a few decades ago, and the sight is almost perfect! Oscillating around 400m in height, these sparsely populated regions present contrasted aspects, here desert and punctuated with white outcrops, here deep gorges carved by erosion fantasy, sparing natural arches or
gigantic vertical monoliths here and there... As well as surprising expanses of sand, like the "desert" of Błędów, amongst the largests in Europe.
The abundance of castles is another feature of the Jura. This can be explained partly by the tender stone, easily worked, the abundance of suitable sites for their constructions, but also the strategic position as a the natural barrier, which often was a politic border: the "Panorama of Racławice" exposed to Wrocław, illustrates some of the great battles that took place. Some are in ruins, but others in perfect condition and the environment within which they are located in are amongst the most romantic in the country. The architecture even, in the broadest sense, is also noteworthy. Watching the old buildings, the discerning eye will notice some common details with vernacular wooden architecture farther south, in the Carpathians. But it is often mixed with the use of dry stone, in low-lying areas or walls, like a strange marriage of Poland and details more reminiscent of meridional countries.
On these cut stones, it is not uncommon to notice in abundance
some "Perisphinctes", these spiral-shaped fossils : the geology and prehistory of Jura are wealthy. Sources are legion, and produce mineral renowned water as Jurajska: like any ground limestone, the Jura is rich in cavities. Flint points from Paleolithic have been found in some caves, evidence that the region is inhabited since immemorial times.
The Jura finally draws tourists and sportsmen from all backgrounds. Besides the monuments and cultural attractions, many hikers walk the "Trail of eagles nest" (Orlich Szlak Gniazd), connecting Cracow and Częstochowa through all the famous sites. Climbers especially, are particularly fond of the playground provided by this unique geology, and finally, cyclists enjoy the tracks in these hilly forests, as well as the unusual landscapes met all along.
There is a long distance cycling trail from Cracow to Częstochowa. Some pictures are located on it, some other not far. I am collecting passively portions of it to cycle it all, part after part, every time I can. Any other biker that has affinities with the area is more than welcome to join my efforts.
The "Cracow valleys"
It is possible to divide into three main regions Jura. Let's start our tour by... Cracow: The rock on which is perched the Wawel castle is nothing else than another one of these Jura outcrops ! The plateau continues west through the hills of Las Woski, enthroned by the mound of Pilsudski and Kosciuski, then the heights where the Benedictine abbey on the cliffs, and the hermitage of Camaldolese are both overlooking the Vistula. Farther behind the airport of Balice are located three small valleys carved into the white rock: Dolina Mnikowska, Zimny Dol, and Dolina
Brzoskwinki, forming together a pleasant promenade. The remarkable
Tenczyn Castle, (sometimes spelled Tęczyn or Rudno) is located a few kilometers away.
The A4 motorway cuts unfortunately this beautiful entity in two, and we need to move few miles further north, in the angle formed by the roads to rzebinia and Olkusz to discover the place that makes the lure of all Cracovians during sunny weekends. This plateau is split over its width by three major valleys: Dolina Będkowska, Dolina Kobylańska, and Dolina Bolechowicka. Spectacular white cliffs provide to each of them their own charm. Their rocks, sometimes requiring several lengths of rope, make their celebrity among climbers. But the reverse of the medal is that we see an erosion due to feet and hands over the years, making them extremely slippery and dangerous wet weather. Other valleys, smaller, can be discovered on foot, like Dolina Kluczwody, Dolina Szklarki, Dolina Racławki, Dolina Eliaszówki...
The Ojców National Park
Ojców is the smallest national park in Poland, and the only region of the Jura with such a status. The river Prądnik has carved what might be called, viewed from a certain angle, a gigantic canyon. The white cliffs reach 200m in height in places!
However, viewpoints from which one can see it under such perspective are scarce if we stick to marked trails, except the tops of Góra Okopy and Góra Koronna.
But the valley also provide wonderful views as seen from below. If we plan to visit it in its length, either by car or bicycle, the best way is to start from the top, arriving in the small road leaving the main road 94 near Biały Kosciol and Czajowice, whose laces provide stunning views. Then, it is impossible not to stop and contemplating Brama Krakowska, which as its name suggests, is shaped like a giant door.
Dolina Sąspowska, tributary valley, and no less interesting to visit, appears just after on the left.
Then comes Ojców, ruins of the fourteenth century castle after which the park is named. Although it contains a courtyard, its visit is unfortunately impossible, because of thick vegetation overlaying the limestone in which it is embedded. Countless monoliths border the valley, partly merged into the cliff or completely separated, such as the mass of Hercule, unprovable standing mass that precedes Pieskowa Skała.
Here's the Neuschwanstein of the Poles! The archetype of the stunning romantic castle, as it is in our Children's representations, is an elegant fortress, as strong as slender, merging into the accidents of nature.
The best time to visit is in the evening, once the crowds left and
on top of its walls, when the evening sunlight illuminate the latter, which seem blend the edges of the valley Prądnik until infinity ...
Ruins and desertic plateaus
Made up of fields and pastures as far as sight can go, the last
large sub-region of Jura extends north from the industrial city of Olkusz until as far as Częstochowa. In the same time, we switch from the administrative region of Lesser Poland to Upper Silesia. A lower density of attractions holds not fewer surprises, and particularly a greater share of mystery.
Let's come this from the west, from Dąbrowa Górnicza, forming the Northwest
corder of the conurbation of Upper Silesia. Once the extensive pines forests are passed, the Jura suddenly makes its apparition, and
just like welcoming us, the road seem to cross a mountain pass in
a lace that circumvents the rock Kromołowiec.
We are two steps far from to Ogrodzieniec, largest fortress of the whole region, in ruins. Casimir the Great, in 1339, was not wrong when he chose the highest point of the Jura, the only one that exceeds 500m. The remains of this construction are merged into these omnipresent chalky outcrops of the region, more whimsical than ever, giving it a surreal look. In
dark, one would wonder what man has really built and what is not his.
Smoleń and Bydlin stand farther west, and are also located in the vicinity of giant boulders, and own stairs carved in the rock so one can climb to the panorama. Castles are not what's missing in the region, but sometimes they are well hidden in the forest, as that of Bąkowiec. Sometimes they are perfectly restored, as Bobolice straight out of a fairy tale, or worthy of the most haunted ruins of Scotland, like Mirów, just nearby.
The portion of the "Eagle Trail" which connects the two is particularly beautiful.
Olsztyn is the last of the most famous, in the neighborhood of Częstochowa, in the north end of the Jura. All have their own character, a specific secret atmosphere sometimes ghostly, due in big part to this environment of giants white stones with which they coexist, sometimes in which they are even based. With a touch of superstition, one could easily figure out they are some spirits who watch over their frozen remains of their former home. Without them, the Jura just wouldn't be.
Some also share the same level of popularity by themselves, such as few natural arches: Brama Skalna (near Suliszowice) Bobolice (at the entrance of the castle), or Okiennek Wielki, the "Pierced Rock", which seems to point an accusing finger towards the sky. True indeed, these buildings are
result of erosion, which has gradually stripped them from the soft rock that enveloped them.
The sportiest ones will finally climb Zborów Góra, which is for the inhabitants of the Jura what St .Victoire was to Cezanne. This hill epitomizes the Jura. It has the power to disturb our sense of direction in a rather pleasant way, taking us straight out of Poland during
few minutes. The voluptuous creaking chalky gravel under the shoe, the smell of boxwood and pine fulfilling nostrils, and we imagine now ourselves on some trail of the Dolomites...
General Map & Getting there
The map below shows the three main regions of the Jura described above and the surrounding cities and roads.
Two main airports are worth mention :
- Cracow Balice Airport (www.krakowairport.pl)
- Katowice Pyrzowice Airport (www.katowice-airport.com)
By car, Southern Poland has got the A4 motorway that leads from the German border till Cracow, via Katowice. The motorway is free... except in the section from Cracow to Katowice where one needs to pay 13zl (3€) shared in two tolls.
One other important road axis is the S1, double-lane and almost motorway-like, from Katowice to Częstochowa.
The road from Dąbrowa Górnicza to Cracow via Olkusz is also a main road worth mention too. Double-lane in many places and recently renovated, that's "the" road to access directly into the Jura.
The rest of the network is made of small roads. Drive carefully...
All towns including the smallest villages are usually served by train and bus too.
Afficher Jura sur une carte plus grande
The Jura is quite touristic and lots of tourist rush to the green during sunny green week ends. Consequently, the tourist will be embarassed with choice concerning accommodations. One will find in particular green accommodations locally known as "agrotouristic" (green B&B's).
A lot of portals summarize all accommodations on internet, but unfortunately rarely in English or foreign languages. Since an inventory of all of them would be too much work, and the data is changing constantly, here are only a couple of tips to help to sort it out.
Let's start with a small lexicon:
- Accomodation = Noclegi
- Hotel = Hotel/Hotel. "Hostels" often designate Youth hostels or motels.
- Green lodge = Agroturystyka
- Guesthouse = Pokoje gościnne
- Summer residence = Dom letniskowe
- Flat for rent = Kwatery
- Mountain hut = Schronisko
- Tavern = Chata
- Restoracja = Restaurant
- Campsite = Kemping