Just 70km from Wrocław is the rarely visited, sleepy little town of Wałbrzych, a former bustling coal mining centre spread out over a few foothills of the Sudety Mountains. It’s an unlikely place to make international news, and yet it’s been in the spotlight on and off since August 2015, as one of the biggest stories to grip Poland in recent times unfolded here - the search for a mysterious Nazi gold train, rumoured to have been buried in an underground tunnel with tonnes upon tonnes of stolen treasure transported from Breslau (Wrocław) as WWII drew to a close.
Speculated treasure aside, Wałbrzych has some very real riches that make it a worthwhile daytrip from Wrocław. Dating back to at least the 12th century, the Lower Silesian town boasts a vast industrial legacy of coal mining, porcelain production, and textile mills; complicated WWII history; and Poland’s third-largest castle. Venture here and you can visit a modern cultural centre located in a converted mine (the Old Mine Science & Art Centre), meander through lavish rooms at Książ Castle, gaze at some fine porcelain in a specially-dedicated museum, hike in the nearby Owl Mountains (Góry Sowie), and take in the atmosphere of small-town Poland, far removed from Wrocław’s cosmopolitan hum (and, for better or worse, many of its comforts).
As local legend has it, a Nazi train brimming with gold, jewels, and priceless art stolen from Poland and the USSR left Wrocław in late 1944 or early 1945 and never made it to its final destination, disappearing somewhere in the mountainous terrain between Świebodzice and Wałbrzych. Though no real evidence supports this tale, the story has been fuelled by not one, but two alleged deathbed confessions. The first came soon after the war, when a German worker remaining in the town accidentally found a blocked tunnel in the side of a mountain, which he believed held the missing train; fearing for the safety of himself and his family, he only disclosed his discovery in his dying moments to a certain Mr. Schulz working at the Wałbrzych train station. Schulz in turn passed this information to Polish miner Tadeusz Słowikowski as thanks for fending off two attackers who had threatened Schulz’s life. Słowikowski’s not-so-secret efforts to locate the train drew the attention of Polish communist authorities, who confiscated his map and launched searches of their own, to no avail.
The almost-forgotten story burst forth anew in August of 2015, when two treasure hunters - Piotr Koper of Poland and Andreas Richter of Germany - came forward claiming they had located the gold train with ground-penetrating radar technology after hearing the deathbed confession of an unnamed German involved in the original operation. The pair offered to disclose the location to the Polish government in exchange for a 10% finders’ fee, and a deal was soon struck. By September, the authorities sectioned off the search site, located at ul. Uczniowska in Wałbrzych’s Szczawienko district, at the ‘65th kilometre’ of the Wrocław-Wałbrzych railway, to clear it of trees and possible mines or booby traps (and keep out hordes of amateurs armed with metal detectors).