Chojnik Castle: The Legend of Kunegunda

“A free bird leaps on the back of the wind and floats downstream till the current ends and dips his wing in the orange suns rays and dares to claim the sky…..The caged bird sings with a fearful trill of things unknown but longed for still, and his tune is heard on the distant hill for the caged bird sings of freedom.” (I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou.)

I had arrived in Wroclaw a few days before my volunteer position with the Angloville English Immersion Program was scheduled to begin. Like the immersion program Diverbo for which I had previously provided volunteer service in Spain, Angloville generously provides native English speakers the opportunity to experience a unique culture in return for six days of informative and entertaining conversation. Anglos receive free accommodations, a tour of one of Poland’s most popular cities, and meals of authentic Polish food for their contribution. The only expense for the Anglo volunteer is transportation costs.

Fascinated by the country of Poland after many years of studying her intriguing history, I needed time alone. I did not want anyone with me to break the solitude I needed in order to grasp the amazing opportunities that had brought me to the one country that had always held my deepest fascination. Always one for a sense of the historic, I wanted to walk the streets on the land where the ancient Poles had once lived, loved, battled, and died.

The solitude that I longed for lasted only one day. It was interrupted by a young man who worked in the bakery where I ate breakfast each morning. It was he who helped me to understand, admittedly to a tiny degree, the people with whom I would be volunteering.

 

Angloville Participants

Angloville Participants

“Always, there is a hint of apprehension, a shadow from the experiences of the past hanging over us,” I  recalled him saying with a mischievous smile as he  entertained me with Polish songs while I sipped my morning coffee and nibbled on a delicious pastry. “We do not laugh as much as you Americans and we don’t dance and sing as much as the Spaniards. Most of the time though, we are happy people,” he explained with an honesty that one with more years likely would have evaded.

 

About Poland

It is understandable that many Polish citizens feel a shadow hanging over them, for Poland’s history has been one of continued turmoil and upheaval. The country’s first partition was executed by Prussia, Austria, and Russia in 1772. Her second partition occurred in 1795, when again Russia and Prussia greedily carved her lands and each received vast areas. The final partition, once more by Prussia, Austria, and Russia, totally erased the country from the face of the world’s map. Poland gained her independence in 1939; however, only a few years later she lay ruined and decimated by the brutal occupation of Nazi Germany. Then, in 1945, following Germany’s defeat in World War II, the country became a satellite nation behind the Iron Curtain of the USSR. Like the caged bird of the brilliant Maya Angelou’s famous poem, the people of Poland have for many centuries dreamed of “things unknown but longed for.”  For generations, the Polish people “sang of freedom,” while being crushed under the burden of partition, occupation, and communism.

Under Soviet rule, Polish schools were required to teach the Russian language. Students had little exposure to English. Following the collapse of the Iron Curtain, schools began to teach English. Yet, those who had grown up during the communist era had not received the necessary exposure to the English language to allow them to develop conversational fluency. These were the people for whom we volunteered. For six days the Polish participants conversed with native English speakers from many parts of the world, learning to grasp and understand the many unique dialects and idioms that they are often exposed to in their daily professional lives.

Angloville’s Polish speakers came from very diverse backgrounds. Their professions included such jobs as a university professor, an information technology specialist, a psychologist, a professional trainer, and even one motor cross expert.  Each man and woman understood that the universal language for business is English, and that success in the Polish business world depends on fluency in that language.

Like Diverbo, Angloville has many diverse venues from which to select. The one that I had chosen to attend was at the Cojnik Hotel in the Karkonosze National Park overlooking the Jelenia Góra Valley. It was a rural and quite beautiful setting, with abundant wildlife, majestic mountains, and peaceful wooded hiking trails.

 

Karkonosze National Park

Karkonosze National Park

 

Karkonosze National Park

Karkonosze National Park

 

A short, but steep, distance from the Hotel Chojnic, one will find Chojnik Castle. The crumbling fortress is located at the top of a steep incline surrounded by deep chasms. Those who visit it must walk along a narrow winding pathway that leads through the forest and then climb several stone steps in order to reach the castle grounds. Originally built in 1292 A.D. by Duke Bolko the Strict, its ruins are closely tied to a legend called Kunegunda.

Pathway to Cojnik Castle

Pathway to Cojnik Castle

 

Cojnik Castle

Cojnik Castle

 

The Legend of Kunegunda

Kunegunda was the beautiful princess of Chojnik. Desired by all the knights of the realm, she vowed that she would only marry the brave knight who, wearing helmet and armor, with his shield and sword in hand, and mounted upon his war horse, would make one complete circuit around the castle without falling to his death. For many years knights tried but failed, meeting tragic deaths. Finally, a very proud nobleman came to Chojnik. Kunegunda fell deeply in love with him. She sent him a message begging him not to attempt the impossible task; however, he replied that his honor demanded that he fulfill his destiny.

The following morning as trumpeters announced the knight’s successful circuit around Chojnik Castle, Kunegunda expressed her love and willingness to be his wife. The brave warrior informed the princess that he had no intention of marrying her. He had only risked his life to prevent the deaths of other knights from occurring in the future. He could never marry anyone so very cruel, he told her. Kunegunda threw herself from the castle walls, ending her brutal reign forever.

There is little doubt for me that the young baker spoke the truth about the shadow that hangs over Poland and her people. It is seldom obvious, and I only caught a glimpse of it during the one-to-one conversations when people began to open their hearts and talk about things that really mattered. Most of the time I found the Polish participants filled with resiliency, life, love, joy, and a deep spirituality that was easily and frequently expressed. I saw also devotion to their families and pride in their heritage.

My memories are of a laughing, mischievous Aldona, a professional trainer for Avon and Tupperware. From Aldona, I learned of the ladies of Lodz, enchanting gypsy women who read their tarot cards and consult their crystal balls before making a professional decision of major importance. My memories are of a gentle and compassionate young man named Krzysztof, a psychologist who is so devoted to helping his clients that he frequently grieves that many of the important words used in his profession are still illusive to him in English. My memories are also of a sweet, soft-spoken college professor named Agnieszka, whose mastery of the Polish language is above reproach when she is lecturing to her students, yet has a desire to also teach in the English language. These are but three of the many inspiring people who touched my life during my stay at Chojnik.

It has been said by those wiser than I that there are three kinds of people who come into our lives. One type is the person who enters and stays for only a short while. That person brings lessons for us to learn, laughter to make us smile, stories to help us understand and cope with our problems, and love of one fellowman to another. To volunteer is to experience this type person. It is the most powerful element of volunteerism for me. I love Poland and I adore her people!

 My costs for eighteen days in Poland, aside from my original flight to Europe, were approximately $350. This included the train ride from Wroclaw to Krakow, my hostels and meals, and tours to Auschwitz-Birkenau, Jewish Krakow, Rynek Underground, and Old City Krakow. Based upon average costs in Poland, I received approximately $800 in free accommodations and meals, which resulted in  my expenses averaging less than $20 each day.

Travel websites that display total daily costs in European countries for low-budget travelers estimate that most major cities in Poland cost less than $35 per day to visit as compared to the most expensive country, Switzerland, with an average cost of $119 per day. Poland, with its gorgeous landscape of forest, rivers, meadows, and mountains is the perfect place for one who travels on a budget. But be prepared should you decide to visit this ancient land originally settled by the Celts of old, for its beauty, its people, its sacred sites, and its “shadows” will leave a lasting impression upon you.

Suggested Resources

Angloville English Immersion

 

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