Today we made a day trip to Malbork, the former home and seat of the Teutonic Knights. Now there’s a name that speaks to your imagination, although I can’t say I had ever heard before of them, maybe just a fleeting reference somewhere. Anyway, it was another indication that Poland’s history is quite different from the western European one I regard as my own, yet also still quite similar, not so radically different as the American, Asian and African cultural framework we have travelled in until now).
The day started beautifully again, with clear bright blue skies, all the more intensely so when seen through the polarising lenses my sunglasses, and with lovely warm sunshine, and of course the tasty bread at breakfast! No noise from the builders either this morning. We collected Eddie from the car park next door and made a note to ourselves not to park under so many trees in future as he’s now getting quite dirty. A parking attendant was sat in a raised little cabin, supervising, and there was something very 70’s about the scene. It was straightforward to make our way out of Gdańsk and onto the main road, heading south-east.
Countryside and scenery were unspectacular, just a decent road, flat green landscape, of the sort you might have found in Holland no so long ago – lines of trees here and there, along the road or along the edge of a field. Little villages and groups of houses dotted here and there, cows in some fields, and along the road all the usual stuff, garages, shops and small companies, houses, etc. All part of the rapid transformation of Poland over the last ten to fifteen years, though there’s nothing hurried or slapdash or brand-spanking new about it. All I could think of to describe it was “normal”, “ordinary”. Well, until we turned off the main road and for a short distance were driving on a very broad tree-lined cobbled road. The odd thing was that it struck me as being so … odd. Again, not that long ago you would have come across many of these kinds of roads in Holland and Belgium, but now they have all been replaced by smooth tarmac.
|Enjoying the sunshine at Malbork|
|On the phone to the Grand Master|
We reached the small village of Malbork around eleven o’clock and followed the signs through the “ordinary” part of the village to a car park consisting of grounds just outside the castle. We had already had a few glimpses of Malbork as we crossed a broad slow river approaching the town, and could see how the imposing red-brick buildings dominated the sky, commanding the entire surrounding countryside. We walked along the tree-lined streets and up to the castle, which now begun to look even more …erm… big, solid.
Three colours totally dominated the scenery, intensely so: the green of the trees, in full summer bloom, the clear blue sky, and the red bricks and roof tiles, making a perfect trio of primary colours. More tourists, of course, mostly Polish and German. We were just on time for the guided visit in English, with a small group of about a dozen or so. The guide was a small blonde Slavic girl with a nervous timbre in her voice, and she took us round on a tour of three hours. Afterwards it still felt as if we had only seen a small part of the whole!
First we got a bit of history about the Teutonic Knights, as a monastic order of knight-monks, or monk-knights, which had its origins in the crusades, the Holy Land, and all that, but they somehow ended up here – I believe the King of Hungary had invited them to his lands but he either had changed his mind or felt the Teutonic Knights were getting too powerful, and they ended up here in northern Poland, their “mission” to christianise the pagan lands, Lithuania, and so on. All in all a fascinating bit of medieval history. The main period was around 1300-1400. As for the castle, this consisted of three parts: the “lower”, now gone, the “middle”, where we started our tour, and the “higher”, where the Grandmaster lived and which was the main seat. Pictures should explain the visual impact better than my scribblings! We toured through a succession of chamber, corridors, courtyards, some fully restored and redecorated, other, such as the chapel/church, consisting of bare brick, with three “generations” of brick and work clearly visible.
During the 1920’s, or rather, before WWII, over a period of 40 years a man called Conrad Steinbrecht worked to restore large sections of the castle, which had obviously suffered over the years. Then WWII happened and some pictures showed the remains of the castle, a ruin, in 1946. During the 1960’s and 1970’s it was restored again. It was incredible to see how fully it had been restored – not a building seems incomplete, it all looked intact and as if it had always been here. More restoration work has been done in the 1990’s and is still ongoing. At the end of the tour we climbed the tall main tower, for a separate entrance fee, which was certainly worth it for the commanding views from the top, overlooking the flat agricultural countryside. Below us was the rest of the small town of Malbork, many medium-sized apartment blocks, not quite so picturesque. Oh, I almost forgot to mention the armoury, with an excellent collection of helmets, weapons, etc., and the coin collection, in dim lighting, a stunning collection of medieval silver and gold coins, dukats, and up to massive intricate gold coins which must have been worth a fortune in their day (and more now!), and the amber gallery, with a wide range of jewellery containing big pieces of yellow and orange amber, and pieces with “organic inclusions” (think Jurassic Park), and the two guys dressed up as Teutonic Knights in the massive main square of the middle castle.
After the tour we went for a drink and an ice cream at a little village stand on a square in front of the castle. Here there was still the sleepy village atmosphere. On the whole, quite a few visitors but hardly any English (well, none in fact, only a couple of non-Polish/German speakers on the tour, of indeterminate origin). We returned to Gdańsk, by the same route through the beautiful countryside, green and a little sleepy, and closer to Gdańsk the “ordinary” roadsides. On the way we stopped at a car wash and gave Eddie a much-needed clean. Back at the hotel, the former music academy, we spent a bit of time writing diaries and chilling out.
In the evening we walked into the centre of town, looking for a cheap nosh place and ended up back on the main street, ul. Długa, at a touristic café, although the only tourists here seemed to be young Poles, and we had a pretty crappy plate of shwarma, but it did the trick. I remember four or five police officers queuing up at the take-away counter for their kebabs. Pleasant laid-back atmosphere again, “terrace weather” as we’d say in Dutch. After the meal we went for a drink or two at a bar back across the river. We were almost the only customers they had for the entire time we were sat there, except for a snogging couple on one side and two guys who hardly touched their beers. A few beers and vodkas later we strolled back to Dom Muzycka, feeling very relaxed indeed.