Not far from Gdańsk is the small town of Malbork, where you find a castle. Take a moment and imagine a castle. It probably looks a lot like Germany’s Neuschwanstein Castle, the inspiration for Walt Disney’s Sleeping Beauty Castle? But Malbork Castle doesn’t look like that, it is a solid, brick construction from times past, not from a fairytale. But if one thinks it is an ordinary castle, then one is wrong. Malbork Castle is one of not many castles that was never been taken by force.
There are many castles around the world. Some of them have famous names and some of them stay basically unknown. Malbork Castle is probably in the second group. And it should be world known because it is the world’s largest castle (by surface area), the largest brick building in Europe and a UNESCO World Heritage site.
As a history lover, I can’t go further without telling you briefly the history of this mighty building. It was originally built by the Teutonic Knights, a Catholic, crusading, religious order of Germany, in 1280! When the crusades ended in the 12th century the unemployed knights saw a new job opportunity. They went over to Poland to do some pagan-converting (by the sword of course). Poland became a Christian country in 966 and was more than happy to join the ranks of the Teutonic Order in converting pagan, Baltic countries. The Teutonic Order didn’t border with Baltics, so Poland let them stay on its territory. History shows that it was one of the greatest mistakes made by my country. The Knights settled in northern Poland and made Malbork their home base. The Knights had quickly taken steps against their Polish host and with the Holy Roman Emperor’s support, attacked Poland and turned the Polish lands into their own property. When Lithuania took Christianity from the hands of Polish king, the Order theoretically lost its main purpose in Europe. However, this didn’t stop it from starting numerous of campaigns against its Christian neighbours. Poland wanted to get back its lands but it wasn’t that easy. The Germanic order had control of the Baltic Sea, which meant lots of power and money thanks to this strategic trading post. It also had all the help from the West.
The Teutonic Order was defeated in 1410. The Battle of Grunwald was one of the largest in Medieval Europe and is regarded as the most important victory in the history of Poland. What might be surprising, is that despite the loss the Knights didn’t lose the Malbork Castle. The castle is famous for being unconquered. Poland, or anyone else, has never taken it by force. The castle turned out to be an impregnable fortress. But they say that money can buy everything and in this case they did. Poland bought the castle from hands of the Teutonic Knights’ mercenaries. The Teutonic Knights had to move their headquarter. What is interesting, is that the Order still exists and residents in Vienna.
The castle was heavily destroyed by Soviets during WWII and has since been almost entirely restored. Malbork Castle is entirely made of bricks and it consists of three separate fortresses – the High, Middle, and Lower Castles. Large moats once filled with water and defensive walls with several towers once heavily armed surround the whole complex.
The ticket office is located outside the castle’s walls and a ticket comes with a free audio guide. The guide has a built in GPS that tracks your route and literally guides you into the next location on the map. A calm male voice tells the history of the castle the way you think it is a fairytale or goodnight story. I think it was the best audio guide I have had so far!
The tour starts outside the castle and to see the interior one must cross a moat on a small wooden bridge. After crossing, I found myself standing in an impressive, defensive gate. I stopped for a moment to admire the tall walls surrounding me. This small area fenced by walls once was the “do not let them in” and “kill them all” zone.” In front there was a tower with a heavy iron gate. On top of the walls were wooden defense balconies, the perfect vantage point for crossbowmen to shoot invaders. Behind the gate was an enclosed passageway, the only entrance to the castle, with holes above for dumping scalding hot water or tar and arrow slits on both sides for defending archers. Unlike the enemies of the Teutonic Knights 700 years ago, as a tourist I was able to past by these imposing defenses unharmed and enter the courtyard freely, During the siege people were locked between these two gates and killed one by one in a very brutal way. Now the castle’s walls don’t hide soldiers protecting it but in the past there were about 3,000 soldiers ready for a battle at any time of the day and night.
The courtyard of the castle is enormous. Green grass, together with polished stone paths, covers the entire courtyard. The castle is all around and one can get confused which doors to enter, to start a tour. The audio guide helps with targeting the doors. After entering them Malbork Castle shows its soul.
The place is absolutely huge. Some of the rooms are empty some have exhibitions. There are many impressive rooms. My favourite room is the Summer Refectory. It is not only beautiful but it has a story to tell. Above the fireplace in this dining area, you can see a cannonball embedded into the wall. It crashed through a window during the 1410 siege led by Polish King Władysław Jagiełło. Polish king was informed by a spy about a secret meeting holding there by the Grand Master, and ordered his gunner to aim for the only pillar in the hall. Unfortunately, or fortunately, the gunner missed. If he wouldn’t missed, the roof would have collapsed, destroying the entire grand hall and we would not have been able to see it now. But on the other hand, the most important defense commanders of the Teutonic Order would have been killed. The course of history would have been changed.
The room was very impressive but not as much as the castle’s chapel. St. Mary’s Church in its heyday was the heart of Malbork Castle, with lots of monks worshiping here daily. It was badly damaged during WWII and sat for decades with no roof. Its renovation was just finished. It was restored to look like original walls and walking around it feels like discovering a long-forgotten church.
I also visited Malbork’s baths. It is pretty easy to find them as a little devil that crosses his legs shows a way. Now we have a circle and square telling us where the loo is, in the past they had a devil. Sometimes I miss all these ornamental elements of past centuries architecture. Now things are built from glass and concrete and are super simple and plain. The corridor to this medieval toilet is super long and I guess many knights didn’t get there on time. The bathrooms look like wooden outhouses, furnished with cabbage leaves which were used as toilet paper.
It is also possible to climb the High Tower. A lot of stairs but the effort pays off! To do this you need to pay extra. Before leaving I visited the amber exhibition, the Order’s kitchen, cemetery, the mill and many rooms. I walked many corridors, some of them so narrow that I felt walls touching my both arms at once, while walking through them. The castle is so large that I think I missed some rooms. I was hungry so decided to have a traditional meal (stew, bread with lard and pork knuckle) in one of Knight’s taverns.
At the end I walked across the wooden bridge to try to get the best view of the castle from across the Nogat River. Few photos and I was ready to end the tour. It was time to leave the Middle Age and return to the modern world.