Why Harry Potter fans are flocking to this Polish castle

This castle in Poland lets fans believe they’re in the world of Harry Potter for four days

Helen Coffey
Thursday 01 February 2018 14:00
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College of Wizardry: The Challenge - Trailer

I just got the letter. You know, the letter – the one that tells me I got into Hogwarts. It’s the day every Harry Potter fan secretly dreams of: the day we discover we are actually witches and wizards and this banal life full of “doing the washing up” and “cleaning the shower drain” is finally over.

At the age of 30 I’d largely given up hope this day would ever come. But it’s finally here! I got the letter!

Truth be told it’s an email, and the school in question is Czocha Wizarding College in Poland, but whatever – I am beyond excited.

As an HP fan I have indulged in nearly every novelty experience going – I’ve watched the play, done the Studio Tour and played the escape-the-room game.

But this takes things to a whole new level. I’ll be attending a fully immersive wizarding college experience at a 13th-century castle for three days, taking magic classes and staying in character as a student the entire time – it’s the closest I’ll ever come to living in the world of my favourite books.

Four weeks after this momentous day, I’m on a chartered bus from Berlin to Czocha Castle in rural Poland, accompanied by 50 or so like-minded wannabe wizards. At this point we’re still allowed to be ourselves, rather than our magical counterparts, but conversation revolves entirely around the experience that lies ahead.

“I’m in Faust house, which are you in?” Selina, a Swiss student, asks me. It turns out there are five houses at Czocha rather than the four found at Hogwarts (the whole thing is very carefully structured to avoid potential lawsuits from the estate of JK Rowling) – but I haven’t been assigned one yet. As a junior, I’ll be “sorted” on my second night.

I glance at my character description, which details who I’ll be for the next three days: Veronica Poe, a “mundane-born” (Czocha’s word for muggle) student with a taste for adventure. OK. I can do this.

Wizards are schooled in the art of spell-casting (Dziobak Larp Studios)

By the time we pull up at the castle I have the kind of first-night butterflies normally associated with playing the lead in the school play. I am excited, yes – but also nervous. Really, really nervous.

The castle itself is everything you could possibly wish for in an ersatz-Hogwarts though, and I gasp upon seeing the dreamy spires dramatically lit up against the night’s sky. Inside, the main Knight’s Hall is suitably grand, while spiralling secret passages can be found behind bookcases in the library. There’s even a “Dark Forest” that students are forbidden to frequent after dark.

Before we can properly begin, there are, thankfully, myriad workshops to attend, including the art of spell-casting and how to cope with “emotional overload” during the game. Armed with a head full of information, a robe and a wand, it’s finally time to play for real, and we’re ushered outside to enter the castle again, ceremonially, as students.

The evening passes in an adrenaline-fuelled blur – there are opening speeches from the teachers (portrayed by regular players, rather than actors), a school song is performed in rousing fashion, juniors are given a tour of our new school and extracurricular clubs are put on, covering everything from duelling to poetry. I fall into bed giddy yet exhausted.

Knight’s Hall is evocative of Hogwarts (Dziobak Larp Studios)

The days start early at Czocha, and 8.15am finds me down in the castle dungeons standing over a beaker of mysterious bubbling liquid. The alchemy master, an affable American chap with a ponytail, is a far cry from Severus Snape, for which I’m grateful. He teaches us to add a vitamin C tablet to our concoction to improve its efficacy, and I soon find myself engaged in a heartfelt discussion with my neighbour about the untapped potential of using mundane ingredients in magical medicines.

Maybe it’s the fact that I did a drama degree, maybe it’s because everyone else is fully immersed in their characters too, but I don’t feel silly talking utter nonsense with conviction – it’s not long before I’m telling people to “call me Ronnie” and opening up about how my mundane parents have never been supportive of my magic.

Alchemy is swiftly followed by magical defence, taught by a huge, Hagrid-like man whose skin is covered in runes, and beastology, in which we encounter a fawn and a mermaid in the Dark Forest and try to charm them. I suggest singing – my go-to solution to any problem – but alas, my dulcet tones aren’t up to the job. Every now and then I catch myself and think, “I’m a bloody wizard!”, but then carry on as if it’s all perfectly normal.

That evening, we juniors queue up nervously for the sorting, before being ushered into a dark room one by one and quizzed by the house prefects. What is my greatest fear? What are my best qualities? It’s like being in an intense job interview coupled with a police interrogation.

In Beastology, students learn how to charm a fawn (Dziobak Larp Studios)

When the results are announced that night I realise I may have become just a bit too immersed. I’m genuinely, bitterly disappointed to be sorted into Faust – known for being insanely competitive – rather than Durentius, a fun-loving, laid-back house that I just feel I “vibe with” more.

Perhaps it’s this less-than-ideal result, perhaps it’s because the novelty is not quite as fresh, but the next day I feel strangely out of sorts. In the breaks between classes I don’t know what to do with myself; I normally love talking to new people but find it increasingly difficult to connect with my fellow players. I take myself off for a quiet sit-down and the problem suddenly hits me – how can you authentically engage with people when you’re not being yourself and they’re not being themselves? How can you befriend someone when you’re both just playing a part?

It is all still bonkers and exciting – I end up challenging a third year to a duel and losing, and take part in a ritual to bring back the ghost of a classmate’s dead father – but whenever there’s a moment of downtime I feel a bit lost, and a bit lonely. I miss being me.

Luckily there’s too much going on to overly indulge in my burgeoning existential crisis. The final night brings the ball, in which students grab a partner and don their glad-rags; and, this being wizarding college, some of them are very glad indeed: ball gowns, top hats and dresses illuminated by LED lights are all on display.

Alchemy classes take place in the school dungeons (Dziobak Larp Studios)

As it’s the last night, there’s all kinds of drama afoot – couples are making up and breaking up, family feuds are bubbling over and demons from the netherworld are being fought and defeated at every turn. But I find I don’t really care. I’m happier being mundane for the evening, and stick to the dance floor along with a handful of other dedicated movers and shakers.

The experience comes to a close with the announcement of the winner of the Czocha Trophy, and in a crazed state of euphoria I hug my housemates as Faust is declared victorious. The headmistress gives a stirring speech that pushes me to the cusp of tears; we finish with a final, emotionally charged rendition of the school song. In that moment, it feels like we’ve been here three years, not three days.

And then, just like that, it’s over. Characters are dropped and players awkwardly introduce their real selves to one another. There’s an opt-in debriefing workshop that resembles a group therapy session – tears are shed and more than one person admits they wish they were more like their character in real life. It somehow feels overwhelming and anticlimactic at the same time.

School spirit can earn students house points (Dziobak Larp Studios)

On the road the next day I reflect on what has turned out to be an unexpectedly intense weekend, rather than the light-hearted fun I’d expected. “That’s what larping is all about,” Selina assures me. “The heightened emotions, the crazy experiences…” Well, that’s certainly true for me.

Am I relieved to be leaving the magical world behind? A little, perhaps. But as we turn a corner and the castle disappears from view, I know what I just experienced was once-in-a-lifetime – and if that’s not worth a mini-existential crisis, I don’t know what is.

Travel essentials

Getting there

EasyJet flies from London Luton to Berlin Schoenefeld from around £40 return. College of Wizardry puts on a coach from the airport to Czocha for €60 (£53) return.

Staying there

A three-night stay at the castle, full-board, starts from €540.

More information

The next College of Wizardry events take place 5-8 April and 12-15 April 2018.

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