This post is a continuation of an ongoing series documenting our travels through the Central European country of Poland. We had started in the port town of Gdansk at the Baltic coast and spent the first day roaming around what is known as Main Town, Gdansk. (Gdansk, Part 1 – First impressions of the Main Town on a sunny day)
The next morning after returning from our splendid morning walk around Gdansk we returned to the Hotel Podewils for a sumptuous breakfast which had all the usual bells and whistles ( Egg dishes, Pancakes, cheeses, lots of meat, fruits, baked products etc etc – No wonder I am a kilo heavier!)
The main agenda set for that day was visiting the Castle town of Malbork. While researching about the trip I had read about the humongous castle at Malbork, which was supposedly the largest castle in the world. Having seen some huge forts back home in India, I have always pooh poohed these rankings which have some definition of a castle / palace / fort that make no sense to me as a common tourist. Nevertheless the photos of the structure itself looked beautiful and it was only a short train ride from Gdansk. So it had to be on the itinerary.
I had booked just one way tickets from Gdansk to Malbork, since I had no idea how long it would take us to visit the castle and I didn’t want to be rushing just to catch a train. Anyway there were hourly trains at least back to Gdansk, so it wasn’t a major concern. We boarded the Intercity train to Krakow which stopped at Malbork and got comfortable at our allotted seats in the first class compartment.
In our previous travels across Europe I haven’t seen much difference in the first class and second class compartments. But while reading about Poland I found that the seats are wider and there is a lot of leg room in the first class especially in the Intercity and other Premium trains. The cost of a 1st class ticket in Poland was a fraction of a 2nd class train ticket price in France & Italy, so I booked first class throughout this trip!
We reached Malbork and were greeted outside the station by an overbearing stench. It was the huge sugar factory right outside the station that was causing the supremely bad odour. I hoped that the castle would be far enough so that we didn’t have to cover our noses for the entire visit. Luckily the castle was a 10 minute walk from the station we could literally breathe a sigh of relief!
We had reached just after the castle had opened so we didn’t face any lines to buy tickets. A free audio guide is included in the ticket price and it was a great deal since it made the castle come alive with stories pertaining to each part of the castle and details that would have been lost on us had we just wandered around.
We walked around the perimeter of the castle to the actual gates and that’s when you realise how big this thing actually is. It was like walking around our whole neighbourhood back home.
My 11-20mm ultra wide lens could barely fit the whole thing in frame, even though we were a fair distance away!
We finally reached the gate of the Castle which is an imposing structure even by todays standards. I can imagine the awe and fear it must have inspired in the 14th century when it was built. Like most structures in this part of Poland it was occupied by the Nazis in World war II and then bombed to smithereens by the allies to liberate it. So the structure has been restored post the war but the historical accuracy has been maintained.
We entered the gate ( Actually the gate complex had 5 gates!) to find ourselves in the huge area which the audio guide informed us was the Middle castle. The Castle was built by the Teutonic Knights in the 14th century. These knights would today be called radicals or extremists as they used the sword in order to further christianity. They carved out the biggest monk ruled territory in Europe and ruled from Malbork till they were finally defeated by a combined Polish & Lithuanian army in the early 15th century. (The famous battle of Grunwald for history buffs!)
The middle castle was meant for the common knights and monks of the Teutonic order. We first visited the area where the monks and the head of the order known as the “Grand Master” lived. (Not the Jeff Goldblum character from Marvel! though he would fit right in!)
This part of the castle also had huge halls called refectories where the grand dinners of the order were held and meeting with other dignitaries were held. The biggest among this was the Grand refectory which was really grand. Tall ceilings with beautiful palm vaulting , beautiful frescoes painted on the walls & large stained glass windows. These monks certainly ruled in style!
The winter refectory and the Grand refectory also had interesting holes in the floor which were connected to boiler rooms below to heat up the room in the cold days of winter. Medieval ingenuity at its best!
We also visited the Grand master’s room which was a plain room with a private toilet (Luxury in the medieval ages!), apt for a ruling monk! The audio guide then brought us back to the courtyard where there were 4 statues of the most famous Grand Masters in the history of the Teutonic Knights. They looked more like kings than Monks!
We then went to visit the two exhibitions that are permanently present in the Malbork castle. The first was the Amber exhibit which displays the history of this unique natural fossilised tree resin. The striking colour and beauty of Amber made it as expensive as gold in medieval days & this region in Poland was a major source of amber making it a prized possession of the Teutonic Knights.
It was amazing to see the pieces of art made from this resin, colourful & pleasing to the eye. No wonder it was considered Baltic gold. We oohed and ached at the variety of amber jewellery and other ingenuous uses of this material.
The amber was so enticing that I bought a small piece of amber jewellery for the better half at the store in the exhibit before we moved on.
Next was the armoury exhibit which held the various types of swords, guns and armour that the knights and their successors used to hold sway over this region.
The most impressive of these rooms was a display of the different types of armours used by the knights and the subtle difference in the battle armour and the tournament armour ( Tournament armour can be heavier and less mobile as lance tournaments had rules, wars have none !). Having read a lot about knights and their lancing tourneys as a kid this was especially interesting for me.
After visiting all the exhibits in the middle castle it was finally time to visit the High castle area where in the time of the Knights only 60 of the elected monks could enter.
This part again has a separate drawbridge and a moat, making it a castle inside a castle!
This part was where the headquarters of the order was, where the Teutonic knights made policy decisions about the land that they ruled. This was also the part they retreated to in case of a siege as this was the most well defended part and it could hold huge quantities of food. There was also a well right inside the high castle so that you never ran out of water in case of a long drawn out siege.
The high castle also had small quaint chapels. The order was monastic after all!
The initiative and insight of these monks is truly appreciable. They had a vegetable, fruit and herb garden inside the castle itself. Fresh food for everyone at most times and self reliant too!
We finally reached the last part of the castle the inner courtyard of the High Castle. A typical red brick structure with corridors all around, a tall guard tower at one end and a well in the centre
The well has a bronze statue of a pelican. This was because in olden times it was believed that the pelican feeds its own blood to its young ones in tough times till it itself dies, symbolic of the self sacrifice of Christ apparently!
We saw a reconstruction of the kitchen with a representation of what the knights ate on what days. Meat was banned on some religious days ( All religions are essentially the same!) while grand feasts were held on others. It also had a ingenious lift at one end where cooked food was directly transported to the refectory upstairs for consumption.
We then climbed to the first floor where the Chapter room was, this was the parliament of the knights and the chairs that lined the room were specifically assigned to a knight that held a certain position. As expected the Grand Master had the tallest, grandest chair!
The audio guide then led us into a long narrow corridor that led to what was the toilet tower. All the people in the castle except the grand master and a few lucky ones had to go to this specific tower for their daily deeds! It had medieval toilet stalls which opened down right onto a river that flowed underneath. This apparently limited the spread of diseases in an era when a severe bout of dysentery meant death!
The last part of the Castle we visited was the St Mary’s Church inside the Castle itself. Recently opened after a long restoration. This church was heavily damaged in the World War and has been painstakingly restored. The most famous part of the church is the undamaged Golden Gate which is a great example of 13th century art.
The interior makes no effort to hide the devastating damage caused in the shelling of the World War making it a eerily beautiful place, if there can be such a thing!
That marked the end of our tour to the Castle. We had spent more than 4 hours walking through the red bricked wonder that was Malbork Castle. We sat for a few minutes at one of the numerous benches in the middle castle courtyard and just enjoyed being there doing nothing for some time.
We finally handed back our audio guides and walked out of Malbork. It was still a beautiful sunny day, so we made an immediate decision to go straight away to Sopot, the so called “Riviera of the Baltic”. The weather was known to be unpredictable during this time of the year and we didn’t want to waste any part of this glorious sunny day.
So we said goodbye to Malbork Castle and walked back to the station. As expected there was a train to Sopot in some time. We bought tickets to Sopot and left Malbork with happy memories of our time spent in the ” Largest Castle in the World”.
After the largest castle would come the longest wooden pier at Sopot. This was surely a day for superlatives. But that is a story for another post, some other time, some other day.