Ojców National Park
Poland's smallest national park (1580 ha) occupies the Prądnik Valley, a stone's throw from Cracow. Fairytale landscapes with fantastic rock formations bearing mythical names, more than 400 caves, gorges, karst springs, unique plants and, last but not least, evocative medieval castles and ruins, all make the park a place you simply have to visit.
An asphalt road open for cars and ideal for bikers runs along the bottom of the Prądnik Valley. On foot, the national park is best explored from the big car park at the Ojców Castle, where you can find a large board map with all the sights marked. Nearby (already within the park boundaries) all trails begin. Another place to leave your car is at the Pieskowa Skała Castle.
A medieval settlement first mentioned in 1370, Ojców had to wait until the 19th century to gain renown as a spa resort and, soon afterwards, to become a popular tourist destination. An old house at the foot of the castle hill, near the spa park, is occupied by a national park museum devoted to local archeology, flora, fauna and geology.
There is a castle nearby. Ojców Castle was constructed in the first half of the 14th century by Kazimierz the Great. The hill slopes are a strict nature reserve because of a number of rare plants growing there. Built of limestone slabs, the fortress is entered through a massive gate, one of its sides clinging to solid rock. Only 3 pillars on the right remain of the bridge that once spanned the moat. There are also some fragments of outer walls and a ruined chapel.
Behind the car park you can take the black trail to Łokietek's Cave. Folklore has it that for a long time the future King Władysław Łokietek (the Elbow-High) hid here, when he fought over the Polish throne with Bohemia's Vaclav II. About 320 m long, the cave is actually a series of chambers with names such as Knights' Hall, Kitchen or Bedroom, connected by wide corridors and can be easily explored even by children.
The castle at Pieskowa Skała was more lucky than its Ojców sibling and has not fallen into ruin. One of the Eagles' Nests, it commands a strategic hill with daunting cliffs on three sides. Constructed in the 14th century, it was later rebuilt in a combination of Italian and Netherlandish Renaissance styles.
From the well-maintained vast outer courtyard you can see the entire eastern wing of the residential part of the castle with its entrance gate and an openwork loggia evoking Italian Renaissance villas. The inner courtyard is surrounded by arcades decorated with gargoyles and reminiscent of the Wawel Castle.
The Jura on horseback
The best sights in the Jura are linked by the 250 km Transjurassic Horse Trail. Starting at Nielepice near Cracow, it runs through places such as the Błędowska Desert, Ogrodzieniec and Mirów, all the way to Częstochowa. You can take a six-day package tour or just do a stretch on your own. Along the trail there are many studs and riding schools, offering horses, equipment and lessons, as well as food and accommodation.