Gdansk and Malbork

We arrived at Camp Site 218 (Camping Stogi) in Gdansk without incident. It wasn’t the most beautiful of camp sites, but then again it had all of the facilities we needed and was conveniently located near a tram line.

It took half an hour on the tram to get into the centre of town, passing through some pretty uninspiring-looking suburbs along the way. The touristy centre is lovely, full of Hanseatic-style houses that were pretty much completely destroyed during WW2 and have since been rebuilt:

After a good wander around, we headed North along the river and had a look at the Gdansk crane. The original dated to the 14th century and had two cranes operated using treadwheels which could lift up to 2 tonnes in weight. The brickwork survived WW2 but the wooden parts of the structure are subsequent replacements:

Another historic area had some attractive old mill buildings alongside a canal built by the Teutonic Knights (more of them later):

We then walked to the old shipyard and had a look at the Monument to the Shipyard Workers, erected after the 1980 workers’ strike and founding of Solidarity. The folk running past the bottom of the monument carrying batons were involved in the “Gdansk Business Run” which seemed to be some kind of team charity event.

After all that sightseeing, it was time to relax so we headed back to the main centre and… wait for it…. had something to eat in a cafe! Such uncharacteristic extravagance!

Overall, we enjoyed our day in Gdansk and felt that was plenty of time to take in the main sights. From what we saw as we made our way around, it’s not a city where there’s anything of great interest to be found outside of the touristy areas…..

It was an hour’s drive from Gdansk to a town called Malbork, which is home to a huge castle built by the Teutonic Knights.

The audioguide was very good but left out most of the historical nitty-gritty about who the Teutonic Knights were and what they were doing in what is now Poland. Luckily, we’d read up on it before arriving. Here’s the condensed version:

The story starts with the crusades to the Holy Land. Following the first crusade (1095-99), the Knights Templar (the ones who appear in all the conspiracy theory novels!) and Knights of St John (the Hospitallers) had been founded, respectively, to escort pilgrims safely between the coast and Jerusalem and to provide medical care to injured crusaders, but had each later taken on a military function (so they were, effectively, fighting monks under the auspices of the Catholic Church).

Come the Third Crusade (1189-91), problems arose during the siege of Acre when a lot of the crusaders fell ill. The Hospitallers, who had been founded by French knights, decided to prioritise treatment of their own, so French and English crusaders were OK (this was the time of the Plantagenets; much of modern-day France shared a King with England at this time) but Germans could get straight to the back of the queue 😝

This prompted the founding of the “Order of the Hospital of St Mary of the Germans in Jerusalem” – soon known as the Teutonic Knights – in 1197, initially to provide medical care to German knights, but in 1198 they also became a military order.

Being a military order was all well and good, but there was an implicit pressure to keep crusading and “converting” (or killing) pagans, otherwise what was the point? It would also be nice to have a stable geographical base to operate from. The Teutonic Knights had been invited to take land in Hungary in the early 13th century and offered immunity from taxes by the King. The idea was that they could then bring in settlers and live off the rents, whilst the King would have a friendly bunch of knights around to help out as and when. Ultimately, though, the Teutonic Knights overstepped the agreement and were thrown out of Hungary. Oops.

Help came in the form of a Duke Conrad of Masovia (now part of Poland), who offered them a bit of land based on the same kind of arrangement, the idea being that the Teutonic Knights could keep the pagans to the North and East in check.

The Teutonic Knights did well. They had no problem gaining financial support from the wealthy German burghers of towns such as Lübeck. There were plenty of younger sons of lesser noble families to recruit as knights, and as becoming a Teutonic Knight involved vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, new knights generally brought a “dowry” to the transaction. Not that a vow of poverty meant that you could no longer live in splendour, you understand…. Here’s Mark checking out the monks’ common room:

Other nobles could also go crusading with the knights, and in this regard, the Teutonic Knights seem to have offered the 14th century equivalent of the ultra-luxury safari trip. They laid on annual pagan-bashing sorties, it wasn’t too far to travel to get there, the climate was OK for crusading, and the food, wine and entertainment were apparently second to none. After which the nobles could trot off back home to Germany happy that they had fulfilled their crusading duty….. Business was booming…. No wonder that they could afford to build some pretty flash castles…..

Needless to say, the Teutonic Knights also slowly expanded the lands under their control, ending up with effectively their own country rather than a little enclave. The Teutonic State comprised the NE of modern-day Poland and much of what is now Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia along the Baltic coast.

There are lots of ruins of castles built by the Teutonic Knights in this part of Poland. Malbork was by far the biggest and later became the worldwide HQ of the order. Unfortunately, things went downhill again for the Teutonic Knights in the 15th century (more of which in the next post).

We enjoyed looking around the castle, though little of what we saw was original. Malbork Castle was pretty much completely destroyed during WW2.

It’s been reconstructed, and in most areas they’ve done a fantastic job. The staircase up the tallest tower, rebuilt in the 1960s, did have more than a hint of multi-storey car park about it though!

We really enjoyed Malbork Castle. It had plenty of character and being the castle of a bunch of bloodthirsty monks, it was quite different to any of the castles we’d visited before.

We haven’t travelled very far at all since our last post:

From here we’ve got a longer drive (three and a half hours or so) out to the East to have a look at the Wolf’s Lair before turning South….

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