Travel Right

    Knight Tracking through Prussia
    by Mishelle Shepard (Czech Republic 1994–96)

    GAZING AT THE SILHOUETTED LANDSCAPE speeding by and slowly drifting off to sleep, I hardly felt ready to wake up in Warsaw with the dawn. As much as I enjoy the jostled rest of the sleeping car, the destination cast a shadow on the sense of romance that always accompanies me on train travel. Warsaw has long felt unpleasant to me, hostile somehow, like the high-pitched shriek of the old wheels laboriously coming to a stop at the station. But, it was with a sense of relief that I finally dozed off, remembering that this time I was staying just long enough to rent the car that would take me directly out of the unfriendly city to follow the tracks forged seven centuries earlier by the Teutonic Knights.
         Like so many Americans I have long been mysteriously drawn to European castles. Poland’s turbulent history gave birth to unique architectural treasures that have impressed me as some of the best Europe has to offer. My journey promised to be one of educational value, as well as one of adventure and romance. Not only would I be shooting the majestic castle exteriors bathed in soft light and exploring their antique-filled interiors, I would then get to spend the night there. Perhaps little more than idyllic American fancy, it was none-the-less a childhood dream come true.
         A large number of castles around Poland have been converted wholly or partially into beautiful hotels with fairly reasonable rates by Western standards. Whether a 14th century Teutonic stronghold or a 19th century hunting palace, the facilities are very modern and even the most remote have information or tours in English. To add to their appeal, they provide the simplicity of online booking and also offer other services like decent restaurants, bike rental, guided excursions by horse-drawn carriage, game rooms and sometimes live entertainment during the high season.

    The Teutonic Knights
    Although the country is abound with impressive castles, palaces and ruins in every direction and from every conceivable era, I was felt inexplicably lured to the region of Masuria-Warmia, the long-time headquarters of the Teutonic Knights. Despite their reputation for mass destruction, the order constructed over 70 fortified castles around the region and their efforts to convert the pagan Slavs to Christianity has obviously had a tremendous historical and cultural impact not only in what is now Poland, but all around eastern and central Europe. For over 50 years they waged war in the region, converting, destroying or driving their victims out with as many as eight military campaigns per year. So set was Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II on converting the Slavs that he promised the Teutonic order the right to claim any territory taken over from the natives as their own.
         Beginning as a purely charitable organization, they were given the full name House Of The Hospitalers Of Saint Mary Of The Teutons In Jerusalem; the white tunic with black cross being the symbol granted with their official recognition as a monastic order in 1199. They were eventually relieved of the vow of poverty required of them as a monastic order, and were then able to gain even more power with their increasing wealth thanks to diligent trading activities.
         Although originally established in Palestine as the last of the three great military religious orders during the crusades, they moved to the area formerly known as Prussia in 1226 by invitation from the prince, Conrad of Mazovia. In most respects they were similar to their predecessors, the Templars and Hospitalers, except that their members were required to be German noblemen. During the widespread pillaging, German settlers were called upon to repopulate the region, an indirect result being the enduring ethnic tensions between Germans and Slavs. It was with the combined effort of their numerous enemies, including Czechs, Hungarians, Tartars, and Lithuanians that they were finally defeated, but their impact would continue even to modern times.
         Undoubtedly the strong Roman Catholic predominance in modern day Poland could be asserted as another of their influences. Their existence also said to set a precedent for the conquest of Eastern Europe by the Nazis, who saw the Teutonic Order as an example of the superiority of German-speaking peoples. The Third Reich spent considerable sums and efforts restoring the Teutonic castles as a tribute to German greatness, while other architectural beauties were shamelessly destroyed.

    The castles
    The castles’ verifiable history is littered with intriguing legends turning their otherwise inert stone walls into tales alive with mystery and passion. The old fortified castle of Dzialdowo is one of many with a story of love, torture and betrayal. Constructed in 1309, the castle fell into the hands of one vicious and widely disliked knight and his family. As the legend goes, a Prussian military leader and talented musician was imprisoned there with his violin as his only distraction. The beautiful melodies drifting up from the dungeon inspired the love of the knight’s sister, and the two secretly planned their escape together. But the couple was betrayed and their plans ruined by the furious knight who then forced the sister’s marriage to a more suitable partner. The prisoner/musician was instructed to play at the matrimonial ceremony and when he refused was killed before her eyes. She is said to have died of grief only a short time later and still wanders the castle waiting in vain for the carriage that would have carried the lovers to safety.
         To give appropriate attention to all the castles in the small region would require volumes and could be spread out over a timeframe impossible for the average visitor, even though it covers an area about the size of Vermont. On my journey I explored both the major tourist must-sees as well as some far off-the-beaten-path treasures and it was in combining these two extremes that the aura of the region revealed the striking similarity of the Teutonic architectural style and their deep influence in both urban and rural life.

    Not far from Gdansk, and also part of the main tourist trail, is the master of all the Teutonic strongholds, Malbork. The town was partly destroyed by the Soviets and has a drab, colorless feel to it, but the stronghold itself covers over 80 acres, and is an amazing site to behold. One of the largest of its kind in the world, the castle became the new headquarters of the Teutonic Order in 1309 and the oldest section is the High Castle, which was begun in about 1270. The castle museum is a great place not only for history buffs with its extensive collection of old weapons, medieval sculpture, stained-glass windows, china and pottery, but also for esthetic seekers of priceless art. Its collection of the most famous stone in the region, amber, is worth a look.
         However, it was not the museum or even the sound and light show held in the castle courtyards that etched this castle in my memory forever, it was the hotel. After a depressingly unimaginative selection of accommodations for several nights in a row, for me, to step inside the exquisitely decorated room seemed a luxury that could be paralleled at that moment only by a night at the Ritz. This is the most popular of all the castle-hotels, so reservations need to be made in advance any time of the year. But, if you have only one place to splurge, I can’t imagine a better place to do it. The high ceilings, dark heavy furnishings, large windows covered with plush, velvety drapes, and, of course, the superbly modern bathroom with all the extra little touches are the perfect combination of old and new to make this wanna-be-princess-for-a-night sing with pleasure. The main restaurant has a large menu and a fabulous gothic ambience, but unfortunately it is not very consistent in service and quality and closes without warning for large tour groups. Also, as is still the case all around Poland, what is on the menu or wine list is not necessarily what is actually available.

    Three castles of Olsztyn
    Continuing east towards the Mazurian Lake district, three smaller castles are situated not too far from the town of Olsztyn, where a fortified castle rises up on the right bank of the Lyna river. Its construction began about 1350 and the castle administration was headed by Copernicus for many years, who, in 1520, successfully forced back a raid of the Teutonic Knights' forces.

    Lidzbark Warminski
    The castle at Lidzbark Warminski is one more of the many situated on the Lyna river, in a town left mostly in ruins after 1945. The castle itself was left untouched and it was here that Copernicus wrote his greatest work “De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium” [“On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres”] and the museum exhibits illustrate his life and scientific work. Having begun construction in 1350, its interior was completely redesigned in the early 16th century. This castle is considered to be one of the most valuable monuments of defensive architecture in Poland.

    A stone’s throw from the town of Ketrzyn, known for its castle and its proximity to the famous pilgrimage site of the Baroque Swieta Lipka cathedral, is the 14th century Reszel. This is another gothic castle where it’s possible to spend the night. In the late 18th century the Prussian authorities converted the castle into a court and prison. In addition to the Art Gallery, where artists are invited to work during summer, there is also a regional museum with a wildlife exhibit.

    If the hotel at Reszel is booked, or if you have grown tired of the oppressive gothic atmosphere of the Teutonic castles, try driving southwest to spend a night or two at the remote palace-hotel Karnity (near Ostroda). On the way, a short but worthwhile stop to consider would be another pilgrimage site, the exquisite14th century cathedral of Geitrzwald. Once at the hotel, enjoy a sunset over the small lake in a relaxed and peaceful country setting. The hospitable German owner speaks fluent English and the restaurant serves numerous regional specialties. The wild mushrooms served in a variety of ways are a favorite in season, but should probably be avoided by those without a strong stomach. Like most specialties in eastern and central Europe the dishes tend to be heavy—sausages, dumplings, wild game—but vegetable soups and salads, assorted cheese plates and fresh dark breads make for a great meal on their own.

    The fortified town of Kwidzyn was the first stronghold established by the Teutonic Knights. This castle also functioned as a prison for a short period. The nearby Gniew is definitely the least known of the area castles and arguably the most attractive. Set in a small village on a hill overlooking the river, it also has an excellent hotel and restaurant with stunning views. Consider a quick visit to the town of Chelmno where the Knights first arrived in 1225.

    Once in the area, don’t miss the splendor of architectural styles in the city of Torun. Not being the big city type, I found this pleasantly small city to be ideal — full of historical treasures yet devoid of heavy traffic and mass crowding. The birthplace of Copernicus and the most important Hanseatic trading center along the Vistula, both the old and new towns were established during the Teutonic rule. The only way to explore it properly is to leave the car in the large car park along the river before entering the labyrinth of the Old Town’s streets. Climbing the tower makes for a superb panoramic view of the environs and it’s great fun to do like the locals and take a picnic to the park and a stroll along the river-walk, remembering to bring along the town’s specialty — sweet spicy gingerbread.

    Waking up in a castle, taking a horse-drawn carriage through the forest and wandering the ancient roads of a fortified town may sound as trite as any tourist cliché, but in discovering the history and legends along the way and letting my imagination take me back to another age has etched this region into my heart forever. In my eyes, Poland became Prussia once again and it no longer felt as if I was simply driving without purpose to meaningless sites listed in a guidebook, but was following the tracks of the Teutonic Knights while feeling first-hand their immeasurable influence on the past, present and future of an entire culture.

    Mishelle Shepard has been writing and teaching in a new location every year since her service ended. She has published numerous travel-related articles, and ghostwritten a financial planning book. She is currently living in Girona, Spain and working on her first novel.