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Malbork is a sleepy, shabby town on the Nogat river. Its main claim to world fame is the huge, magnificent castle of the Teutonic Knights. ** Teutonic Knights, or to give them their full name, Knights Hospitaliers of St Mary were, with the Templars and the Hospitaliers of St John, among the military orders that emerged from the Crusades. Unlike their better known counterparts, after Palestine was lost to the Crusaders' cause, The Teutonic Knights established themselves in Poland following an invitation from the Duke Konrad of Mazovia who wanted their help fighting the pagan tribes of Prussians, Jacvingians and Lithuanians. The Teutonic Knights decided to build their headquarters in Malbork and Grand Master moved here from Venice in 1309. Having wiped out the heathen tribes (at least the Prussians and Jacvingians, the Lithuanians were busy getting themselves baptised and allied with the Polish kingdom), the Knights engaged in a vigorous territorial conquest, aiming to establish a commercial monopoly and a theocratic state in what was later to become, somehow ironically, East Prussia. They soon grew into a formidable competition and opponent to their former sponsor and, although Poland, united with Lithuanian under freshly baptised Lithuanian Duke and Polish king Wladyslaw Jagiello, inflicted a decisive military defeat on the Order at the battle of Grunwald in 1410, there was no real political follow up. The last Grand Master Albert von Hohenzollern converted to Lutheranism and the lands of the order became the secular Ducal Prussia, nominally paying feudal dues to the Polish crown, but in reality pretty much independent, not only of Poland, but of the whole Catholic system of the Holy Roman Empire. This would lead to the development of a strong Prussia which would take part in the partitions of Poland in the end of 18th century and ultimately, the creation of modern, unified Germany in the 19th century. It's hard to think of a political invitation that had more disastrous long-term consequences for the host than that of Konrad of Mazovia, worried about pagan tribes in his borderlands. ** The castle in Malbork was, in fact, only used by the Order for about two hundred years, to then be sold to the Czechs and onto the Polish crown. It was a Polish royal residence until the Partitions, when it was turned into barracks by the Prussians. It suffered some damage during the WW2, but now stands mostly restored to something resembling the original state, the largest brick castle in Europe and one of the few Polish entries on the UNESCO's World Heritage list. The most interesting parts of the castle complex (the Middle and the High Castle) can be only viewed as part of an organised tour; a lot of external parts however can be walked around without a guide. It's a truly impressive site - one of the best if not the best of the medieval castles in Poland, and eminently worth a visit. It can be easily done as a day trip from Gdansk or Torun or en route from Gdansk to Warsaw (it's on the train line, or a manageable detour from the road route). The visitor approaches the fortress via the never-rebuilt area of the lower castle, which used to support the fortress during its heyday. The entrance is through a hugely imposing main gate: a picture perfect medieval doorway, over a moat, with a drawbridge and portcullis. Around the main courtyard are several of the most important parts of the complex, with the Grand Master's palace, with its huge, vaulted refectory being a graceful example of a grand Gothic interior and housing the gigantic "Battle of Grunwald" painting by Jan Matejko, a foremost historical Polish painter of the 19th century. It's fashionable to knock Matejko's brand of Romantic historicism and he certainly wasn't as good a painter as he was considered to be by his contemporaries, but he had huge influence on Polish historical imagery and for the sheer anecdotal interest his vast canvasses are unrivalled. The oldest section of the castle complex is the High Castle, full of turrets, towers and narrow passages. The castle church and cloisters are here, as are the Spartan sleeping quarters of the Knights and Gdanisko tower - the original castle privy. Also in the High Castle, one of the castle kitchens has been recently opened to show how the cooking was done and what was eaten in the medieval times: the table settings change according to the day (the Knights were allowed to eat meat on three days of the week, eggs and cheese on other three days and fish only on Fridays). There are many other exhibitions and themed interiors around the castle, including its collection of amber, a mill, the former Infirmary, exhibition of arms and other militaria, the office of the Grand Master, the Chapter House, a fascinating exhibition the the medieval heating systems and more. During the summer, Son and Lumiere spectacles as well as historical pageants, jousting displays and fairs are arranged and it might be worthwhile to try to catch one of those (though the crowds will be worse). After the tour, walking around the castle earthworks and battlements or even crossing the Nogat to the other side for a more complete look of the whole are a nice way to round the visit.
Malbork itself is unspectacular, a medium sized town south of Trojmiasto with a mixture of typical communist grey blocks and the occasional red bricked building, there's a fair amount of park. Malbork Castle however is a mammoth reminder of a bygone era in these parts. Built over 3 decades in the late 13th century in what was then Prussia, Malbork castle was the headquarters of the Teutonic Knights, in fact it's kind of ironic that one of Poland's most magnificent buildings and the world's largest brick castle was mostly used by enemies throughout its battle history. Despite its controversial background, a trip to Poland is incomplete without having visited this overpowering structure. This was once the capital of the Order but in its later years when it was back under Polish rule (just before the 16th century), it hosted passing kings for a while before eventually falling into deterioration, its renovation that started in the 19th century was interrupted by the World War's in the 20th century and the full renovation has only recently finished as the Eastern side of the castle took a bit of a beating in WW2. Set alongside the Nogat river, it makes a truly magnificent spectacle, this medieval fortress looks unbreakable (providing you don't think about nuclear bombs), the re-enforced layers of wall and upper and central castle are worth the trip alone but fortunately you can also go inside for and nosy around the rooms from kitchens and halls through to it's very own bakery and the dormitory that was used by the knights. The castle houses furniture from over the periods and many pieces are labeled with a little note about its history. It's free to wander around outside the walls in the car park but 30zl (in high season) 20zl (in full season), students (ISEC or Polish) get discounts of around 33%. *£1 - 4.8zl as of Aug 04 2009
This is a classic example of a medieval fortress and the worlds largest brick castle.