Twenty years ago Walbrzych was not 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 hailed as one of the most polluted urban centres in Poland, violating dozens of World Health Organization regulations. 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 greyness and the murkiness of factories. Today, however, Walbrzych is a completely new city. Having closed the infamous coalmines 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.
Walbrzych is located in a large valley, the city itself being inhabited by about 130,000 people. Founded near the spring of a highly mineralised 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 numerous coalmines were opened in the region. As a consequence, in the 19th and 20th century the pollution of the city became too evident to be ignored. However, in the 1990’s the city launched a successful action to restore its status as a centre of health. Nowadays, Walbrzych is one of the “greenest” cities in the region, boasting 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 sights. 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 artefacts. One of the best-preserved medieval buildings is the 13th century Ksiaz Castle, sometimes referred to as the Polish Versailles. Situated nearby the Pelcznica River, in the midst of the Książ Scenic Park, the castle is one of the biggest in the region and comprises 400 chambers and 200 fireplaces – all well preserved 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 Książ Castle, don’t miss the imposing 17th century Czettritz Palace (currently housing the district authorities) and the 19th century Neo-Gothic Catholic Church of the Guardian Angels located near the market square. The historical city centre is a great place not only to admire the colourful tenement houses surrounding the market itself, but also to meet up with the locals, who gather at the nearby cafes and wine shops.
Walbrzych is situated in the south-western part of Poland, in the Lower Silesian Voivodship. The areas surrounding the city belong to the central part of the Sudety Mountains and have clear views of the Walbrzyskie Mountains. The city is in a densely forested valley, with several mountain streams flowing through it, most notably the Pelcznica River. The setting provides numerous opportunities for relaxation in the open – particularly popular are hiking, climbing, cycling and camping in the forest. Located near the borders with the Czech Republic (17 km) and Germany (120 km), Walbrzych, apart from a holiday destination, can be used as a base for further exploration of Europe. The best way to drive to Walbrzych is on the A4 highway or national road No.35, which intersects the city on its way to the Czech Republic.
The first records mentioning Walbrzych indicate 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 (the original name) was nicknamed Wallenberg, which meant ‘the place of pilgrimages’. Indeed, pilgrimages were quite popular to the region, mainly due to its famous springs of highly mineralised water located near the town. Between the 12th and 14th century two of its landmarks were constructed – the Książ 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: at first it was ruled by princes from the Polish Piast lineage, but in the 15th century Walbrzych became the property of the Silesian aristocrats, including the Czettritzs, and then in 1730’s it passed to the Hochbergs who sponsored the construction of the Książ Castle. Thanks to the involvement of these families in the development of industry in Walbrzych, by the 18th century the town had a flourishing business based on weaving. Other than that, Walbrzych also had a rich tradition in coal mining, which dates back at least 1604 when an ordinance was issued regulating the amount and price of coal extracted from the first mine. By the 18th century Walbrzych had 7 mines, employing nearly 900 mineworkers.
The 19th century brought further development of the already existing weaving and coal industries and the emergence of new businesses based on pottery, metallurgy and glassware. 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 first railway connection to Wroclaw in 1843, and then in 1898 an extensive tramway was installed in the most important parts of the city.
Before the World War II the city was inhabited by about 65,000 people, and was one of the richest urban centres in the region. Fortunately, unlike many other important cities in Poland, Walbrzych survived the war almost intact, retaining its invaluable monuments and artefacts, some of them dating back to the Medieval times. After the war the city and its industries were further enlarged, at the expense 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, who managed to convince the city council to implement new, more environment friendly policies.