Cold. Rain. Wind. We are prepared. Fleece, hat, good rain jacket are enough, but just barely. Fortunately we are going only 100 feet to the Amber Museum just south of Zlota Brama. The gate had been built by ethnic Germans in the early 17th Century, destroyed in WWII and rebuilt by Poles in the 50’s.
Dating back to the Teutonic knights, Gdansk used to be primarily a German city called Danzig. By the end of WWII and shortly thereafter most Germans left on their own, or under duress by the occupying Soviet Army. Few remain.
The Baltic Coast, specifically the Kaliningrad Oblast- that little part of European Russia that isn’t connected with the rest, is a source of 90% of the worlds Amber. 44 million years ago, the area was covered by dense forests of pine trees, some of which would spill their sap in a way that it didn’t decay. As the plates shifted and waters rose, the sap underwent change under pressure and turned in to a rock.
The museum isn’t great, but it’s worth it for $5 and a 100 foot walk. There are a lot of critters one can see trapped in the amber, mostly insects and a tiny lizard. There is a room of weird stuff like an Amber electric guitar and a lot of funky jewelry like this steampunk-y stuff in the picture.
It’s time to leave Gdansk and head to the largest medieval fortress in Europe.
Our driver wants to use the meter, but I wave him off. I take his price though, without bargaining. Nothing is terribly expensive in Poland as they have not converted to the Euro and the Zloty is weak. In fact Poland is one of the cheapest countries in Europe and and excellent place for a quick trip if you can find a good flight. But the meter is a tourist trap on a long ride.
Malbork, or Marienberg Castle in German, is the fortress home of the Teutonic knights from the thirteenth to the 15th centuries an hour outside Gdansk, Poland.
The Teutonic knights, of German origin, set out to conquer and convert the pagan tribes of Prussia and the Baltics. They called it ‘the northern crusade’ and it was pretty successful.
It was equal parts religious and economic as Germans tended to settle the lands they attacked. Over time they created a ‘Monastic Order of the Teutonic Knights’ which was basically a German state that covered most of the Baltic coast almost up to modern St. Petersberg. As they grew in strength, the clashed with The Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the Polish Kingdom with whom they bordered, eventually losing in the Battle of Grunewald 1410.
The Battle of Grunewald was not held at Malbork Castle but in a field some miles away. It marked the beginning of a new era for the Poles and Lithuanians who intermarried their royalty and created an alliance (later a unified kingdom). Lithuanians were the last pagan country in Europe and officially accepted Catholicism in that deal. Because Lithuania had faked prior conversions, the sincerity was contested to the pope, which is ironic because Lithuania is one of the most fiercely Catholic nations now.
The new combined country fought their German enemy to the North at Grunewald and won, although they suffered heavy casualties. Malbork Castle never actually surrendered but they Teutonic knights had to pay such ransom for their safety that they were bankrupted and never rose to power again.
Hitler used this as mythology fueling German revenge over the Poles and Slavs.
The Castle is the largest in Europe and it exceeds even Hollywood depictions of knights and castles. It’s endless. We spend three hours and barely get through half of it at a fast pace.
It actually has three castles – high, middle and low. 3000 men lived and worked here in a space four times the size of Windsor Castle.
Interesting elements of the castle include central heating in some areas. Stone ductwork would carry heat to some areas from fires below. The toilet room is down a long corridor that extends over the river Nogat which provided the plumbing. Green paint, which was made from rare shrimp, indicated how important you were. The Grand Masters room was heavy with green paint.
To the left is a picture of the castle after it was bombed heavily in WWII by both Soviets and Germans at different times. As you can see there was no other choice but to reconstruct this almost entirely. It wasn’t the first time.
Restoration happened in the late 19th century as well, but it was trivial compared to what was done in beginning in the 1990s by Unesco.
I’m a pretty big fan of European history but it’s so long that it still gets repetitive after a while and we pick up the pace. Lily and Emma don’t attach to it like they did our great Museum day but they absorbed a lot.
We ask our taxi driver to stop by McDonalds so we can eat in the car. McDonalds coffee and fries aren’t that gross when you’ve been eating the same thing for a few days.
It’s time to leave Gdansk and fly to our final city in Poland, Warsaw. Lily and Emma laugh and split a pair of headphones to some old disco hits while we wait for delays. This is why I do this. It’s our family time.