21 November 2022
“But where even is this Kraków Fortress?” Cracovians frequently ask. They’re surprised to hear that it’s not just a single place, and that you can find it in the centre and on the outskirts!
It may come as a surprise that as well as the fort itself, it also includes other buildings – a total of over a hundred! And there’s more – you can find traces in places where fortifications are long gone, or they were never there in the first place.
Around Kraków and Podgórze
The former Kraków Fortress is the largest structure of its kind from the late 19th century in Central Europe. In its heyday, it included over 120 fortifications and dozens of outbuildings. The defences were mainly at the main and intermediary, artillery, armoured, infantry, redoubt and tower forts, as well as bastions. There were supported by ramparts, caverns, groynes, magazines, ammunition shelters and batteries erected around Kraków and Podgórze. There were also other buildings ensuring the fortress operated effectively: barracks, stations, storerooms, garages, stables, workshops, food stores, a hospital and even an airfield. The fort and its outbuildings were connected by a network of roads and complex junctions. The garrison housed between 6,000 and 12,000 soldiers, and the number could increase up to 100,000 in the event of war.
Fortress, a former free city
The decision to construct the Kraków Fortress was taken shortly after the liquidation of the semi-independent state created after the Napoleonic wars, known as the Republic of Kraków. The final documents were signed by Emperor Franz Joseph I in April 1850. The fortified city was to protect Austria’s northern territories against any Prussian and Russian incursions. The original citadel was Wawel Royal Castle, with new bastions on the Podzamcze Street side. The main defence formations were based on the banks erected during the Kościuszko uprising and following today’s Three Bards’ Avenues (Aleje Trzech Wieszczów). The banks were fortified with massive bastions.
As artillery power and range improved, further fortifications were built beyond the banks. They encircled Kraków and Podgórze with the aim of providing mutual support in time of conflict. However, the arms race and rapid development of military technologies meant that some structures, such as St Benedict’s Fort, were obsolete as soon as they were ready. More buildings were needed, further away from the city centre. To protect them from artillery fire, they were fortified with bricks and later reinforced concrete. The new forts were lower, concealed behind and under layers of soil, increasingly dispersed and camouflaged by terrain and vegetation.
The fortress was a highly expensive investment, developed over the course of some 60 years. It provided employment for construction workers and suppliers of materials, products and services. In 1914, there were around 5,000 people working at the fortress, making the army the largest employer in the city.
The military investment was used by Austria just once: during the First World War. In autumn 1914, the fortress successfully defended an attack by the Tsar’s army and saved Kraków from Russian occupation. The November battles north of the city and in the Kraków-Częstochowa Upland involved around 400,000 soldiers from both sides, while the clashes in December south of Kraków and in the Beskidy Mountains involved over 200,000.
In 1918, the complex was handed over to the Polish Army. Since then it has not been expanded and mainly served as barracks and depots. The only part of the fortress deemed worthy of development was the airfield in Rakowice, which was expanded in the direction of Czyżyny.
Thirty-four forts survive today, as well as several smaller fortifications and most of the outbuildings and infrastructure. Some still serve as army quarters, for example the former lancer and aviation barracks at Ułanów Street, and the military hospital at Wrocławska Street. However, the majority of the infrastructure was regarded as not needed, and it was gradually deconstructed over the years.
During the communist period, some post-partition buildings were demolished for construction materials. Before the authorities realised the senselessness of this, several of the forts had been destroyed. Some were knocked down to make space for new building projects, for example the Kraków Television headquarters in Krzemionki. However, demilitarisation turned out to be the most popular option.
The first building to turn civilian was the citadel at Royal Wawel Castle. Between 1905 and 1911, the former seat of Poland’s royalty was reclaimed from the imperial-royal forces with the aim to convert it as an imperial residence in exchange for constructing extensive barracks. Franz Joseph never came to live at the castle, and once the army was evicted it was possible to start renovation work and return Wawel to the Polish nation.
Other successful examples are adaptations implemented after the Second World War: Crown Prince Rudolph’s barracks became the home of the Kraków Polytechnic, the artillery barracks at Montelupich Street was converted into the Faculty of Dentistry at Collegium Medicum, while the Skała Fort became the Jagiellonian University’s Astronomical Observatory.
Many forts were handed over to institutions and companies which have adapted the buildings to their own needs, frequently causing massive damage. The problematic complex was finally seen in a more positive light in the 1960s, when Cracovian academics Karol Estreicher and Janusz Bogdanowski worked hard with local media to promote the former stronghold’s architectural beauty and showcase its potential for the city.
Today, the city has over a thousand hectares of green spaces thanks to the Kraków Fortress and plots owned by the army. The original purpose of the greenery was camouflage: the imperial-royal forces planted over 25,000 trees around the buildings and along roads serving the fortress. Some form today’s beautiful green borders along Waszyngtona and 3 Maja avenues. We also have the army to thank for leaving Błonia clear: a vast meadow in the middle of the present-day city was used by the garrisons for military exercises and parades. As a result, it survived the period of extensive housebuilding until the point when it became clear that having this great open space was a boon for the city.
The forts also helped preserve many hills around Kraków: had they not been owned by the military, they would have likely been built up with villas as early as the interwar period. As it is, they finally returned to the city, they mean that all local residents – not just villa owners – can enjoy the rolling green landscapes and stunning views over Kraków and its surrounds.
Many forts have been built over with housing estates, and the camouflage greenery has been turned into parks – and so the city has gradually absorbed the fortress.
In 1990, some of the buildings of the Kraków Fortress were handed over to the reincarnated municipal authorities which tried to find them a new purpose. This was frequently difficult and always expensive, especially for forts of several thousand cubic meters and those which are at least partially underground, resulting in damp problems which affects how they can be used.
Fortunately, many such conversions have been successful. The completely refurbished Borek Fort reopened on 30 July 2022. It is now home to a branch of the Podgórze Cultural Centre and a Library of Polish Songs. The Krzesławice and Olszanica forts now serve as youth centres. Others operate as museums: the Kościuszko Fort is dedicated to its patron, while several outbuildings are homes to museums celebrating photography, aviation and the Home Army. The Jugowice Fort will serve as the Centre and Museum of the Scout Movement. Some forts and other buildings have been handed over to non-governmental organisations, universities and private companies; the best known example is the RMF radio station at the Kościuszko Fort.
Some forts are still looking for new hosts and new functions, while others are likely to remain in their present condition. However, they have the potential to become major tourists attractions, with each element telling a different part of the whole story of the century and a half of Kraków and Poland’s belle époque, when the frameworks of the city and world we know and love were being established.
Municipal authority official, councilman for the Prądnik Czerwony district, populariser of Kraków’s history, columnist and author of over 500 articles published in the “Dziennik Polski” and “Gazeta Wyborcza” dailies, the “Nasza Historia” and “Kraków” monthlies and online. Author of a guidebook to the Kraków Fortress.
St Mary’s Church
Rynek Główny 5A history spanning over eight centuries, a high altar by Veit Stoss (Wit Stwosz), a bugle call, the...
Wawel HillA limestone rock rising above the Vistula in the centre of Kraków, an ancient centre of...
ICE Kraków Congress Centre
ul. Konopnickiej 17A modern venue hosting concerts, theatrical performances, exhibitions, congresses, conferences, and...
Rynek Główny 1-3One of the symbols of city, a pearl of renaissance architecture, Kraków’s oldest...
Oskar Schindler’s Enamel Factory
ul. Lipowa 4Where the tumultuous history of a world war meets everyday life, and private lives – a...
WawelThe cave that the legendary dragon inhabited leads down from Wawel Hill to the bank of the Vistula....