Netflix’s The Witcher, starring Superman Henry Cavill as Geralt of Rivia and the curiously-exotic Anya Chalotra as Yennefer of Vengerberg has been hugely successful and, for the binge-inclined masses, the series has filled the fantastical void that was left after the disappointing finale of HBO’s Game Of Thrones in 2019. Newcomers to the franchise may not know much about what preceded Season 1: notably an equally-successful game and, of course, the book series that it’s all based on. Unless you’ve actively sought out the titles on Amazon or at your local bookstore, the author’s name may shed some light over where we’re heading with this article.
Andrzej Sapkowski, born in Łódż in 1948, released the first novel in the Witcher Saga, Blood of Elves (PL: Krew Elfów) in 1994 and, 5 books later, the series was adapted into the TV show Wiedźmin (The Witcher in Polish) in 2002. The kitsch production values of this first adaptation made Polish fans giggle a bit back then, but it was influential enough for a then up-and-coming Polish computer game industry to have a crack at bringing the saga to life. Warsaw-based CD Projekt Red released the first Witcher game in 2007 and garnered more attention with Witcher II: Assasin of Kings in 2011. However, it was the multi award-winning Witcher III: The Wild Hunt, released in 2015, that really gave the franchise an international following as well as increasing the demand to have Sapkowski’s books translated from Polish! Within the homeland itself, the game had such a cultural impact that Geralt of Rivia even appeared on postal stamps. The latest Netflix series chose to cast a few Polish actors as well as shooting in on location in Hungary, Austria and a couple of spots in Poland.
Much like the books, steeped in Slavic traditions and folklore as well as some uniquely-Polish elements influencing the politics on The Continent (the world in which the saga takes place), both the games and the TV series have drawn upon real places in Poland to bring Sapkowski’s uniquely-crafted universe to life.
Netflix’s ‘The Witcher’
Though it was largely produced in Hungary, a popular spot for cheaper-but-quality productions and picturesque, medieval landscapes, the producers wanted to film at least some of the Netflix series in Poland. After all, this is Sapkowski’s homeland and it also gave us 3 x Witcher video games too!
In Season 1, Episode 3 of the Netflix series, Geralt is summoned to Vizmina to deal with a monster that has been knocking-off workers in the mine. Sitting well above the mine and appearing in several introductory shots is Vizmina castle, where the story develops further. This is Niedzica Castle in the very south of Poland, about 2.5 hours from Kraków, and barely 2km from the Czech boarder. Visitors often remark on the similarities the cloisters and towers have with Bran Castle in Romania, where Vlad Dracul resided. It should be noted, however, that the interior shots in the show are, in fact, a studio set somewhere in the UK. Niedzica Castle is beautifully-positioned above Lake Czorsztynskie, however in the Netflix series they’ve CGI’d it out (not to mention repairing one of the square fortifications) and covered the landscape in snow. We should mention that Niedzica is just one of several castles on the Dunajec river, which were part of a defence network in the 14-16th century. If you plan on visiting, why not try and see a few more!
SPOILER ALERT: At the end of Season 1 of the Netflix series, a great battle takes place between the bad guys and the good guys…and girls (the assembly of female mages)! This is Ogrodzieniec Castle, which was a fairly big tourist attraction even before the series came out. It’s about an hour drive from Katowice and there’s alot of ground covered, as well as some killer views of the Jura Upland area and plenty of inselbergs (weird rock-hill formations).
At certain times of the year, it’s also possible to catch Medieval reenactments, folk-dancing and market events (Check out their website for events!) At night, it’s no less impressive, with all the architectural lighting switched on. It’s a truly amazing experience and one you should consider if you’re in the south of Poland.
The Witcher III: The Wild Hunt
With its complex system of spells, swordplay and lore on how to fight monsters, it was inevitable that the Witcher universe would be made into an RPG (Role Playing Game) of some sort. However, Polish developers CD Projekt Red never expected their video game series would have such a huge reach! Sapkowski himself had no confidence in the games having any success at all and later, when The Wild Hunt became an earth-shattering hit, he took the developers to court to try and get more money out of them because he had initially sold himself short! There’s alot to talk about here, because the developers really drew upon the landscapes, folklore and history of their homeland to create a truly-unique Witcher universe.
The name says it all! Though it goes beyond just a nod to the interwar name of Gdańsk. The main city in Witcher III: The Wild Hunt is a major port on the continent, within the Kingdom of Redania (yet maintaining independence) with a multi-ethnic community of humans, elves and dwarves and a Red-and-Gold crest topped with a crown. These are just a few of the minor details that you would only pick up if you were familiar with Gdańsk history. There are, however, several more tangible elements that you would pick up if you had visited Gdańsk Old Town before playing the game and visa versa.
Direct inspiration for each kingdom on The Continent are still debated to this day, however there is no doubt that the Nilfgaardian Empire is, at least in part, a reference to the German Empire and Kingdom of Prussian that occupied Northern Poland in centuries past.Nilfgaard are at war with The Kingdom of Redania, reigned over by the rather Slavic-sounding Radovid the Fifth, is a little more obscure. In one way, the geography of the continent would suggest that they are Poland.
Others have suggested that Redania represents The Russian Empire in the 18th and 19th Centuries when Poland had been partitioned by both Russian and Prussia, which would comfortably fit the earlier Nilfgaard explanation. In this instance, a non-existent Poland is represented by the conquered Kingdom of Cintra or even Temeria or Kaedwin. As for names, a theory exists that ‘Redania’ was inspired by the Radunia River and Canal that runs through Gdańsk.
The most obvious influence over the city design of Novigrad, the Crane is often synonymous with Gdańsk and, undoubtedly, the most unique structure in the city. As you can see, the one in Novigrad is not quite the same but the mechanics are virtually-identical. Not surprisingly, the game’s concept artist, Andrzej Dybowski, is a Sopot native as well as the son of an architect and a Masters in Architecture graduate of Gdańsk Technical University. Much like you would see when visiting the long waterfront in Gdańsk, the replica galleons that ferry tourists around are obvious influences that Novigrad has also used docks! The historic Danzig Bowke are an obvious inspiration to the drunken sailors that harass you for coin and regularly cause fights.
In the quest A Towerful of Mice, Geralt comes across a tower on Fyke Isle is infested with rats. Geralt learns that the resident Mage Alexander, who was conveniently researching epidemiology, and his family lived in the tower until the local population turned on them in anger (reasons are not made clear). Alexander’s daughter, fearing for her life, took a potion that feigned death, meaning that the angry mob would leave her for the others. Unfortunately for her, the death-like paralysis continued for too long and rats eventually devoured her body!
Both the legend and the location are based on one place. Mysia Wieża (ENG: Mouse Tower) in Kruszwica, between Bydgoszcz and Poznan, is where the 9th-century Polish ruler Prince Popiel ІІ and his wife allegedly escaped to during his deposition by the angry masses. Legend has it that there were hordes of mice devouring the bodies of his uncles (Popiel had them murdered for conspiring against him). These mice eventually turned on the tower and ate Popiel and his wife alive! Though the game’s location is infested with rats, the quest name refers to the Polish legend. Aesthetically-speaking, there’s not a huge amount of similarity between Kruszwica’s Tower and the one in the game. Nevertheless, we have included it!
Just south of Novigrad is a distinct box-shaped windmill owned by Lucian le Foix, a game character who is a famous sculptor on the Continent. Polish players recognise a similar design to a windmill in the Maurzyce Open-Air Museum, 48 km north-east of Łódź.
There are many Polish ethnographic influences in Witcher III: The Wild Hunt. The most recognisable of these is the open-air museum of Zalipie, near Tarnow in Southern Poland. Floral designs on the exterior of cottages are typical of traditional Polish buildings and it is highly-likely that Zalipie inspired the cottages in the game’s Lindenvale, Velen.
PONTAR RIVER and VELEN’S LANDSCAPE = THE VISTULA AROUND WARSAW and MAZOVIA
Warsaw is known for its sandy riverside spots like Żoliborz and the Praga beach district, which come to life in the summertime. In the game, the Pontar river that runs by the cities of Oxenfurt, Novigrad and Rinde bears almost identical characteristics. Further out in Mazovia, Poland the Vistula’s sandy banks are accompanied by swamps and forests. This is a deadringer for regional Velen.
In the game, Geralt’s main quest leads him to The Bloody Baron, a mutinied army sergeant and a self-made governor within the fortified village of Crow’s Perch. Polish gamers believe the main inspiration for its design is Biskupin Archaeological Museum, a reconstructed Iron Age fort about 90km north of Poznan and, judging by the bridge and the gatehouse, they’re probably on the money!
Parallels have been drawn between The Wild Hunt’s Oxenfurt and Oxford in the UK. However, when you consider the red-tiled rooves and islets connected by all the bridges, it feels a little closer to two of our favourite Polish cites. The floating-nature of Wrocław on the Oder River plus some notable sites like Wawel Castle and the defensive walls in Kraków has undoubtedly had an influence on locations like Oxenfurt Academy.