I’ve been lucky enough to visit many spectacular castles and fortresses during my years of traveling in Europe, but nothing prepared me for the arresting sight of Malbork Castle in a light morning mist on a late summer day. A pleasant drive of an hour and a half from Gdańsk, this massive medieval structure sits on the banks of the Vistula River, and it makes the same purposefully severe impression as it did when the Teutonic Knights built it in the late 13th century. This place is so imposing and atmospheric that I wouldn’t have been surprised if a couple of knights in chain mail with broadaxes jumped out of the yellowing reeds by the water’s edge.
Though I’ve had a keen interest in European medieval history ever since an aunt gave me a book about knights when I was a boy, the night before our expedition I decided to read up on the Teutonic Knights and the history of this highly contested region. For the Poles, Malbork is a stirring patriotic symbol of the many battles fought with the Germans during the Middle Ages (and afterward), and the Teutonic Knights who defended it were one of many military-religious orders that emerged during the Crusades.
After they were routed from their original home in Palestine, the knights zeroed in on this lush region. In a sort of Baltic version of the story of the Trojan Horse, the Polish kings who invited them realized they’d made a mistake when the knights set out to dominate commerce among the Hanseatic League port cities, as well as the lucrative trade in amber. Construction of the fortress, known in German as “Marienburg,” began in 1274. Complicated by the marshy ground in the area, this massive works project continued for decades, until the Grand Master of the Teutonic Knights transferred his headquarters here from Venice in 1309.
Entrenched in their awe-inspiring fortress, the knights proved difficult to defeat, and it wasn’t until 1457 that Poland succeeded in reestablishing sovereignty over the region. The fortress subsequently became a residence for the Polish kings for three centuries, until the area was annexed by Prussia. Badly damaged by the Russians during World War II, it has since been meticulously restored and is today a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Our visit was made especially memorable by the crew of very intelligent and entertaining guides who lead three-hour English-language tours through the castle three times daily (call ahead to confirm times). After crossing the wide moat, we found ourselves in the Middle Castle, and then entered the Grand Master’s Palace, which was ingeniously heated by a system of hot air piped through the floors from fireplaces. Equally impressive was the beautiful Chapter House, with its elegant palm-leaf vaulting and solemn paintings of Grand Masters of the Order. All through the presentation, a very amusing lecture not only about Malbork but life in the Middle Ages, our guide made a variety of unexpected and often rather plucky asides, explaining, for example, the myriad and often surprising uses of cabbage in a medieval fortress under siege. All told, no visitor to Poland should miss a trip to Malbork.