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Nuggets of history

Nov 11, 2012
heritage Teutonic Knights at Malbork Castle. photo by author

With its World War II history, monuments, castles and museums that testify to the Polish story of struggle and survival, Poland offers the tourist a heritage trail like none other, writes Lakshmi Sharath

I am always fascinated by three facets of a destination — the sights, sounds and stories. And very often, it is the tale that stays with me even after I have left the town behind. In Poland, I used to wake up to stories all the time. Here, history is served in a little capsule, locked inside castles and cathedrals. The stories speak about everything from kings to dictators, from knights to dragons, from archbishops to shoemakers.

A stone wall tells you a saga from the Second World War, a living quarters narrates tales of communities who lived here at one time, while statues speak words and stone benches take you on a musical journey. In Krakow, a dragon is killed by a prince, in Warsaw, a mermaid protects the city, and in Gdansk, Neptune treats the citizens to the famous Goldwasseur Liquer, filled with gold. You can see stars here with Copernicus or waltz into a world of music with Chopin. Palaces and fortresses echo legends from the past as murders do happen inside places of worship.


The setting is medieval. I look at a piece of land that was once Prussia in the 14th century, across the River Nogat. On its banks stands a towering red-coloured fortress, built in bricks, and it is now Europe’s largest castle built in the Gothic style. Built by the Teutonic Knights and named Malbork or Marienburg after the patron Saint Mary, it was earlier referred to as the Monastic State of the Teutonic Knights. As I gaze upon it, there are three main towers in this fortress that lure me into a mysterious old world.

Malbork Castle itself was destroyed during the Second World War and yet, as I enter the ruins of the Church of Our Lady, it shows me a glimpse of the past. I walk around the courtyard and enter halls and rooms filled with ancient paintings. The towers take me into the medieval world of knights who lived here and defended their castle besides controlling the amber trade as well. I see the kitchens, the mills, the large wells and even the restrooms sitting atop a moat with cabbage leaves serving as toilet paper.
Interestingly, the rest rooms are in a distant turret, the fortress of last refuge if the castle was to fall to the enemy.

A journey to Malbork reminds me of the town of Torun, another quaint ancient city, known for its traditional gingerbreads. Built by the Teutonic Knights, Torun’s Old Town stands like a still picture postcard in a dreamy setting. And that is where I hear the story about the Teutonic Knights who were actually men of a religious order from Jerusalem. Invited by the Polish princes to fight against the pagan Prussians, these men of militia decided to build a castle on the banks of the Vistula and make Torun with its river port, their home.
Constant wars between the Polish and the knights continued, until the people of Torun eventually rebelled against the knights and laid siege to their castle. It lies in ruins here, but Torun’s medieval monuments have stood the test of time, even the World War II which has left the town unscathed.

There is a leaning Watch Tower that stands at an angle looking down at me. The fortress, the gates to the city, the medieval walls, the town hall and the Gothic churches, the Baroque granaries, the ancient houses — all lend a quaint touch to Torun. As I gaze at the top of the cathedral tower, I see a huge bell, weighing seven tons, referred to as God’s Trumpet. I am however told that this is not a landmark of Torun.

The city revolves around one astronomer, who literally lives today in the city — Nicolas Copernicus Thorunensis. Statues and shops, universities and restaurants are all named after this man who observed that it was the earth that rotated around the static sun. The church where he was baptised, his house where he was raised, are all living symbols of his life in this city. And Torun is proud of the man who showed the world the ways of the
universe.

I move on to more cities, listening to more stories. I am sailing in a little dingy on the Vistula, gazing upon another castle in Krakow. Clouds float in the blue sky as Wawel Castle is perched precariously on a mound, also referred to as Wawel Hill. Home to the many dynasties of Polish kings, fairy tales, stories of intrigue and murder pour forth from every wall here. The Gothic cathedral here, where kings were crowned and buried, was the scene of crime when an Archbishop was murdered in its premises. And yet, the cathedral was where Pope John Paul II offered his first mass as a priest.

However, it’s a local lore that fascinates me. A cobbler’s apprentice is a hero in this story and he is pitted against a dragon which has an eye for virgins. So, the story goes that a dragon lived at the foot of the hill and killed all the virgins in the region. The king offered his daughter’s hand in marriage to the person who killed the dragon. Skuba, the hero, stuffed a lamb with sulphur and left it as a bait below the dragon’s lair, who eventually exploded after eating it. Another version, however, says that the dragon was killed by Prince Krakus who founded the city Krakow.

In Krakow, I almost travel back and forth in history. The medieval city exists in every cellar as the city was built and rebuilt many times. I walk into a McDonald’s and see another world in its basement. Guides on buggies offer to take me on a journey on their battery-powered vehicles to the Jewish quarter to see a slice of life of Schindler’s List or for a life-changing experience to Auschwitz. We sit in a coffee shop and refresh our history and think about how the countries have changed since the World Wars. The guide narrates events and escapades and Poland’s tragic tryst with the Germans and the Russians. But the heart of Poland, however, lies in its old towns and the medieval worlds.

And I discovered the same in the capital Warsaw, where royalty still lives on in a little street aptly called the Royal Route. And it is not just about castles and cathedrals that stand in this World Unesco Centre, but lilting notes of music that play from stone benches placed in front of monuments. They take you on a musical journey on the life of legendary musician Chopin who pined for his homeland even after he left Poland for Paris, but was never able to return. I piece his life together from little excerpts of music from the benches and listen to a heart-rending tale.

I stand in front of the Holy Cross Church, where a tiny urn inside a pillar has a part of Chopin locked inside it. The musician’s desire to be buried in his home country was not fulfilled as he died in Paris and the political landscape did not allow the body to be sent to Poland. But his sister smuggled his heart and brought it down to the church, where it lies till date — a treasure. The poignant story summed it all. Poland belongs to its people and their stories live on till date.

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