ANY VISITOR TO Poland will be struck by the country’s vibrant and sometimes bloody history of royal dynasties, wars, and occupations. But equally rich is its folklore tradition of witchcraft, hauntings, heroes, and monsters.
This tradition has recently gained prominence through the popular role-playing video game series, The Witcher, based on a series of fantasy novels by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski. Whether you’re a fan or not, for those with an interest in the magical and paranormal, Poland offers countless sites of interest. Here are a few of our favourites.
Burial sites around Poland show evidence of practices intended to prevent the dead from rising again. Those who died suddenly or took their own lives were considered to be at risk for vampirism. Certain physical traits were also seen as risk factors, such as left-handedness. Evidence of anti-vampire burial practices was found in an excavation of a 17th and 18th-century cemetery in the village of Drawsko, including bodies with iron sickles placed around the neck and stones on the throat. Likewise, the remains of six women apparently subjected to anti-vampire treatment were found under Krakow’s main market square. Two had been decapitated, with their heads separated from their bodies, another was on her stomach with her hands bound by rope. You can learn about the vampire burials, as well as a plethora of other archeological findings, at Krakow’s Rynek Underground museum under the market square.
Wawel Castle and the Dragon of Krakow
Krakow’s majestic Wawel Castle stands on a hill honeycombed with caves and crevices. Legend has it that in the early days of the city—during the reign of its namesake, King Krak—one of these caves was inhabited by a dragon that terrorised the city, devouring maidens and livestock.
According to the oldest version of the legend, the king’s sons tricked the beast to his death by feeding him cattle skins stuffed with sulphur, setting his insides ablaze. This version of the story has a grim ending, as the jealous younger prince then killed his older brother and blamed it on the dragon. Other versions have the king himself or a clever shoemaker vanquishing the beast.
Whatever your preferred version, be sure to tour the Dragon’s Lair during your visit to Wawel Castle and pass by the dragon sculpture outside, which periodically belches real fire.
PHOTOGRAPH BY LTERLECKA/ALAMY
The Lady in White
Poland is dotted with historic castles and manors, many of which are believed to be visited by the spirits of former occupants. Among the most famous of these is Kórnik Castle, near the city of Poznan in western Poland. The castle, first built in 1430, went through several alterations over the years—and allegedly acquired a ghost. In the castle’s dining hall hangs a portrait of the lady Teofila Szoldrska-Potulicka née Dzialynska (1714-1790). It is said that at night, Teofila steps down from the painting as a “white lady” and goes riding through the castle grounds accompanied by a mysterious knight.
The Witches of Bald Mountain
The Bald Mountain is a site in the popular Witcher game, but it’s also a real place in Poland with a storied past. Lysa Góra (or Bald Mountain), a peak in the Swietokrzyskie mountains of southern Poland, was a centre of pagan worship in Roman and early medieval times, leaving it with a reputation as a meeting place for witches, who would allegedly gather there for their sabbath. In the 12th century, a Benedictine monastery—the Swiety Krzyz or Holy Cross monastery—was built on the site, perhaps in hopes of erasing its pagan past. Lysa Gora was also the site of a more recent and bloody piece of history. The monastery was used by the Germans during World War II as an extermination camp for Soviet soldiers.
PHOTOGRAPH BY JACEK GAJEWSKI, ALAMY
The Dwarves of Wroclaw
Dwarves, or krasnale, are an established part of Polish folklore, but the dwarves of Wroclaw have a distinctly modern origin story. During the 1980s, Orange Resistance activists opposed to the Soviet-backed communist regime then governing Poland began painting graffiti dwarves on buildings in major Polish cities as a symbol of resistance, beginning in Wroclaw.
The first dwarf statue commemorating the movement was placed on Wroclaw’s Swidnicka Street in 2001. Since then, the dwarf statues have proliferated and become a tourist attraction. There are now 165 of them, with their own website and map.
PHOTOGRAPH BY MICHAEL GOTTSCHALK, GETTY IMAGES
Abby Sewell is a freelance journalist based in Beirut covering politics, travel, and culture. Follow her on Twitter at @sewella.
Lead Image: PHOTOGRAPH BY EDGAR MOSKOPP, GETTY IMAGES