A polished ruin

building castles

Ten minutes into our visit to Malbork Castle, we encountered five kids with toy guns running down the long, empty corridors on either side, depicting an imaginary battle. It must have been fun to play this game in a medieval castle.

rebuilt Malbork Castle in Poland. (photo by author)

However, their parents caught up with them in no time and reprimanded them, after which the kids had to reluctantly give up their ‘weapons’ and walk beside their parents who were sedately inspecting the castle.

We had just arrived from Gdansk, the port city of Poland. The journey to the castle, which stood next to the quietly drifting River Wisla, took about an hour from Gdansk, thanks to smooth, low-traffic roads. The massive brick walls and towers of this splendid edifice had been visible from quite a distance away.

The fortress-style Malbork Castle is a must-do on the itinerary of tourists to Poland. Its historic value, including that of its exhibits, have qualified it as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

As castles and palaces go, this one is not opulent, we found out. Especially, if you were to compare it to the one we had recently visited –– the Royal Castle in Warsaw’s Old Town. Or for that matter, many of the Indian palaces. But then, Malbork is a magnificent edifice and the number of beautiful exhibits and displays — of which many are exquisite antiques –– make it outstanding.

It is reputed to be the largest brick-built Gothic castle in the world as well as the world’s largest castle by area, our guide informed us. The castle is cited as an architectural work of unique character. Many of the castle’s intelligent design features influenced subsequently-built castles in Europe, he added.

The history of Malbork Castle is rather convoluted and long, and very hard to take in at one sitting or rather in one stroll through the sprawling property. Of course, our guide did try his best to make us comprehend the castle’s past in the three hours we spent around this place. The story begins centuries ago in Palestine or the Holy Land and involves the fabled Teutonic knights of European history, the Crusades, Polish kings, Swedish forces, the Baltic people and their baptism, Lithuanians, Prussians, and finally the Soviet army. And of course, many battles and sieges including the best-known Battle of Grunwald.

The Teutonic knights who built the original castle (work began around the 13th century) called it Marienburg, which means St Mary’s stronghold. They built it in the style of a fortress. In fact, the castle is regarded as a classic example of a medieval fortress. It was later expanded — several times actually –– to accommodate the growing number of knights. Many defensive walls, moats, ditches, ponds, bastions, ramparts, and towers were –– and still are –– features of this castle. It became a political, administrative and military centre.

Picking up the pieces

When Poland was partitioned in 1772, the castle came under the control of the Prussian rulers who unfortunately turned it into a barrack, marring much of its architectural beauty. Its value as a historic monument was recognised in the early 19th century and some efforts were made for its conservation. However, it suffered a terrible fate at the hands of the Soviet Army, whose bombing, looting and wanton destruction turned the castle into a ruin.

The town and castle were devastated in the combat between the Germans and Russians. Later, the castle was renovated and reconstructed, in a slow and painstaking process, into what we see today.

But then, this is a familiar story in Poland. Many of the places you get to see as tourist attractions in this country have some history of war and destruction followed by a relatively recent renovation. At all places, the care and attention to detail with which this repair and reconstruction has been done –– often faithful to the original structure, its design and interiors –– is quite remarkable. However, one cathedral of Malbork Castle still remains in ruins.

The vaulted hallways and art displays in this elaborate Gothic castle are awesome. The display of weapons make up a large part of the collection at Malbork Castle, as do stunning amber products. Amber is fossilised tree resin, famed for its colour and beauty and a well-known product of Poland. Some locals repeatedly visit the castle to get their fill of its amber treasures, our guide told us. Among the exhibits are purely religious items like chests and private altars as well as others like cutlery, cases, candle-holders and many other décor items. All of them are neatly labelled with detailed explanations in some cases.

A large part of the display gives you an insight into the lifestyle of the Tuetonic knights. The armoury has a large variety of armour and weapons on display. There is one rather gruesome picture of the many ways in which the different weapons can be used to injure. We were told that the castle regularly holds events and exhibitions related to milestones in its history as well as its great collection of antiques, all of which draw thousands of visitors.

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