No Heathens Need Apply


Friday, April 27, 2018

More online searching for interesting spots resulted in another must-see site–Malbork Castle.

But, first we had to exit Warsaw, which gave us the interesting adventure of mistaking a bike path for a car road. After a carefully negotiated u-turn and red faces we ever-so-slowly made our way back up the said bike path.


With mouthed ‘sorrys’ to the two-legged perambulators and two-wheel mechanical vehicles we happily got back on an actual road and aimed for the castle.

But, must have been our day for traffic incidents. On entering the town where the castle is located, we pissed off a driver who stopped his car (in the middle of the road), got out of his car, and proceeded to yell something at us. Fortunately (?), it was in Polish so we just shrugged and then made sure to keep our distance as he zoomed off. I don’t know. Perhaps we made him late for his sword practice or chainmail fitting. Gratefully we did reach Malbork without further mishaps and proceeded to the mighty castle.

The powerful Teutonic Knights built this 13th-century brick fortress, considered the largest in the world when you include its land (52 acres). Whether the largest or not, this castle is astonishing in both scope–it contains three separate castles, a High, Middle, and Lower–and information–you easily can spend an entire day wandering around. Stopping here en route to Gdańsk was a no-brainer.


The High castle served as the primary fortress and was the first to be built. When the Grand Master, leader of the Teutonic Knights, made this his headquarters in 1309, more building took place, resulting in a lot more impressive red brick and the layout you can tour today.

My photos don’t really capture the magnificent size of this site but hopefully provides a sense of what we saw.







The Teutonic Knights were commissioned by, whom else, the Roman Catholic Church, in 1190, and, if you’re like me, you’re asking yourself how did they differ from Dan Brown’s Knights Templar? Which only leads to yet another, to-be-noted band of warrior monks (nice oxymoron), the Knights Hospitaliers. So, a quick rundown of who’s who:

Knights Templar, aka the Poor Knights of Christ and the Temple,

Screen Shot 2018-05-09 at 8.21.07 AM

were founded around 1110 to protect and aid the Christian pilgrims paying homage to the dude Jesus in the Holy Land. Thanks to donations and interest on loans made to the pilgrims (and later other borrowers), the Templars grew into an extremely wealthy organization. Eventually their finances got the best of them when French King Philip IV needed to get out of paying his loan. What to do? Why, get your buddy Pope Clement V to kick them out of the church, which he did in 1312.  And, if anyone’s been to Chinon, the French castle where Jean d’Arc correctly id’ed the Dauphin, then you’ve walked where several of the Templar leaders were held prior to being burned at the stake in Gay Paree. El Fin de Templars.

No problem, for we have the Knights Hospitalizers, aka Order of the Knights of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem (catchy name).

Screen Shot 2018-05-09 at 8.24.28 AM

This gang of brethren came to life around the same time (early 12th century) by the Benedictine nursing order before morphing into yet another protective (and medical) force for those trekking pilgrims. In spite of losing battles and having to island hop to Cyprus (until 1291), then Rhodes (until 1522), then Malta (until 1798)*, they landed in Rome (1834) and became the Sovereign Military Order of Malta. Oh, and, they lucked out by getting a lot of the Templar property when that order went poof.

Finally, there’s the Teutonic Knights, aka the Order of the Teutonic Knights of St. Mary’s Hospital in Jerusalem (another name that just rolls off one’s tongue).

Screen Shot 2018-05-09 at 8.26.41 AM

These guys began as German crusaders in 1190 to, what else, help those beleaguered Christian pilgrims in the Holy Land. Moving to Venice after the fall of Acre, then to Prussia in 1309 (now Poland territory),  these armed monks found better rewards by fighting not only Muslims on what now is Germany’s eastern border, but also fellow Christians. So much for brotherhood. However, like the Hospitalizers they also managed to limp along even after a major defeat in 1410 at the hands of the Polish-Lithuanian army (Battle of Grunwald). They lost all of their secular holdings in 1809 thanks to Napoleon and now exist as a charitable organization.

*Curiously, for a time the Roman Catholic pope allowed them to call an Orthodox emperor, the Russian Czar Paul, their Grand Master (1798-1802).

But, the easiest way to distinguish these dudes from one another comes down to colors:  Templars have the red cross on white background; Hospitalizers, the white cross on black background; and, the Teutonics, black cross on white background as seen on this medieval shield.


Back to the castle…

Originally known as Marienburg (“Mary’s Castle”) the castle housed up to 3,000 knights in its heyday.

Their coffers grew, as did a town outside its walls (which became one of the German Hanseatic Cities), from toll collection of passing ships and a monopoly on the amber trade (the castle included an amber exhibit where you could peep at items caught in Mother Nature’s super glue).


Through the centuries Malbork Castle changed hands many times, beginning in 1456.  The popularity of the Teutonic knights was waning, forcing the Grand Master to hire non-knights as a replacement force. But, due to being low on funds the Grand Master ‘paid’ his Bohemian Mercenaries by giving them the castle. They, in turn, sold it to Casimir IV Jagiellon, king of Poland and grand duke of Lithuania (1427-1492).


Later holders included Swedes, then Prussians again, and finally Poles, with the latter interrupted by the Nazi occupation, as documented by Hitler’s visit.


Now the Castle is a UNESCO site, in large part due to the extensive medieval art and craft techniques used to reconstruct this landmark after years of neglect and WWII bombs. Photographs on display attest to the extent of work required to put the castle back together again. Below is a ‘before’


and ‘after’ of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church in the High Castle.



On the exterior of this church a Virgin stands 8 meters tall (just over 26 feet) showing just how big the building is.


WW II destroyed the original, created in 1340. A reconstructed version is what we see now. Mighty big headed woman, I’d say.


One of the reasons for such amazing reconstructive work is the original fortress itself incorporated construction features unique for its day. The medieval builders managed to create a structure that influenced other Gothic building throughout northeastern Europe; thus, it’s not surprising part of the UNESCO designation comes from the amazing amount of effort it took so we serfs could see it as the Teutonic Knights must have.

We walked down a long hallway to reach one of the construction rarities:  the Danksker or latrine tower, aptly noted by a cross-legged demon.



Here we saw the pooping stations for the majority of the castle dwellers, which emptied directly below (so much for swimming in the moat).


The entire castle has been reconstructed with some rooms showcasing historical artifacts with explanatory signage. One such display appropriately located in the Grand Master’s office covered the art of writing and quill making.


You could visit 35 rooms, and we must have walked through all of them. I confess some of the ‘walking’ became fast trots, case in point, the weaponry exhibit. There are just so many sharp and pointy things I can see. Plus, I got a pretty good idea of what I missed by looking at this poster.


In other areas we found ourselves loitering, waiting for a group to leave so we could experience the space ourselves. Being early in the season, dodging crowds became pretty easy. Check out the awesome rooms below…

The Grand Refectory Middle Castle


and its heating ducts, a utility we saw in many of the rooms.


The ginormous Kitchen hearth Middle Castle


The Grand Master’s bedroom and commode–he had one of the only two private heads, the other being the chef  Grand Master’s Palace



The Summer and Winter (with heat ducts) Refectories Grand Master’s Palace.



The courtyard with the pelican atop the well (have learned in my travels that the pelican symbolizes Jesus. Legend has it the mother pelican wounded herself in order to feed her blood to her starving baby pelicans. Nice.)


And, the only original door out of the over 700 in the complex High Castle.


Lovely grounds provided a respite from the imposing red brick fortress and a chance to soak up some warmth from the sun.

It was difficult to grasp the overall layout of Malbork Castle as we wound our way through the rooms. However, the audio guide provided an excellent narration as we zipped around the grounds.

As we walked across the bridge to the car park we took one last glance at this magnificent Castle.


Most definitely an amazing testament to the wealth of those warrior monks and to those whose funds, knowledge and artistry restored it to its former glory. Those guys with the black crosses sure knew how to build. Would have been something to spend a night or two there. Yet, frankly, I like hangin’ with the heathens, as a friend of ours says.

Next, another type of warrior whose castle was a shipyard…

6 thoughts on “No Heathens Need Apply

  1. Jo and Mark

    That brought back great memories of our trip to Poland last year. LOVE your quick guide to the Templars, Hospitallers and Teutonic Knights… I seem to recall from last year that the Teutonic Knights were founded as the Hospitallers kept shoving the “Germans” (as we’d call them nowadays) to the back of the queue for assistance during the Crusades – their response was to tell the Hospitallers to get lost and to start their own “Teutonic” Order.