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Lonely Planet review
Malbork’s blockbuster attraction is its show-stoppingly massive castle that sits on the banks of the sluggish Nogat River, an eastern arm of the Vistula. The Marienburg (Fortress of Mary) was built by the Teutonic Knights and was the headquarters of the order for almost 150 years. Its vast bulk is an apt embodiment of its weighty history.
The immense castle took shape in stages. First was the so-called High Castle, the formidable central bastion that was begun around 1276 and finished within three decades. When Malbork became the capital of the order in 1309, the fortress was expanded considerably. The Middle Castle was built to the side of the high one, followed by the Lower Castle still further along. The whole complex was encircled by three rings of defensive walls and strengthened with dungeons and towers. The castle eventually spread over 21 hectares, making it the largest fortress built anywhere in the Middle Ages.
The castle was only seized by the Polish army in 1457, during the Thirteen Years’ War, when the military power of the knights had started to erode. Malbork then became the residence of Polish kings visiting Pomerania, but from the Swedish invasions onwards it gradually went into decline. After the First Partition in 1772, the Prussians turned it into barracks, destroying much of the decoration and dismantling sections of no military use.
In the 19th century the Marienburg was one of the first historic buildings taken under government protection, becoming a symbol of medieval German glory. Despite sustaining damage during WWII, almost the entire complex has been preserved, and the castle today looks much as it did six centuries ago, dominating the town and the surrounding countryside. The best view is from the opposite side of the river (you can get there via the footbridge), especially in the late afternoon when the brick turns an intense red-brown in the setting sun.
The fortress now operates as a museum with an ever-greater number of the rooms and chambers open to visitors, and housing dozens of exhibitions on various historical and archaeological topics.
The first thing to do when you arrive at the castle is buy your ticket from the office around 100m east of the main entrance. Mercifully, the castle management no longer insists you tag along with a tour and entry is now with an iPod audio tour – a vast improvement on the guides of yore with their jaded quips and dodgy English. The audio tours are picked up just by the main gate and come with a numbered map showing the rather complicated route you should take. Of course, without the human guide you are now free to wander at will and due to the vastness of the castle you’re more than likely to get lost at some point anyway. Allow at least two hours to do the place justice.
The entrance to the complex is from the northern side, through what used to be the only way in. From the main gate, you walk over the drawbridge, then go through five iron-barred doors to the vast courtyard of the Middle Castle (Zamek Średni). On the western side (to your right) is the Grand Masters’ Palace (Pałac Wielkich Mistrzów), which has some splendid interiors. Alongside is the Knights’ Hall (Sala Rycerska), which is the largest chamber in the castle at 450 sq metres. The remarkable ceiling has its original palm vaulting preserved. The building on the opposite side of the courtyard houses a collection of armour and an excellent display of amber, both of which come towards the end of the prescribed audio tour.
The tour proceeds to the High Castle (Zamek Wysoki), over another drawbridge and through a gate (note the ornamented 1280 doorway) to a spectacular arcaded courtyard that has a reconstructed well in the middle.
One of the most striking interiors is St Mary’s Church , accessed through a beautiful Gothic doorway, known as the Golden Gate. This is where the brothers would have met to pray every three hours, 24/7, but was the part most damaged during the bombardment of 1945. Renovation work has been slow and hasn’t really progressed much since 2006. In fact a decision may be taken to leave the church in its ruinous state as a memorial. Underneath the church’s presbytery is St Anne’s Chapel, with the grand masters’ crypt below its floor.
Other highlights of the tour include the Gdaniska , the knights’ loo perched high atop its own special tower and connected to the castle by a walkway. Perhaps it was one of the order who coined the phrase ‘long drop’ as he reached for the cabbage leaves they used for toilet paper. The knights’ kitchen also sticks in the memory, fragrant with its calendar of fast days (the knights seemed to have liked two things – fasting and drinking beer). Also look out for the interesting underfloor heating system in many of the rooms and the little Gothic stucco figures pointing the way to the nearest WC.
The view from the castle’s main square tower is also pretty impressive and gives a sense of the building’s scale and how it fits into the surrounding landscape.