Worth a Trip: Grunwald

Grunwald is hard to find, even on detailed maps, yet the name is known to every Pole. Here, on 15 July 1410, the combined Polish and Lithuanian forces (supported by contingents of Ruthenians and Tatars) under King Władysław II Jagiełło defeated the army of the Teutonic Knights. A crucial moment in Polish history, the 10 hours of carnage left the grand master of the Teutonic order, Ulrich von Jungingen, dead and his forces decimated. This was reputedly the largest medieval battle in Europe, involving an estimated 70,000 troops.

The battlefield is an open, gently rolling meadow adorned with three monuments. Built on the central hill is the Museum of the Grunwald Battlefield, which has a minuscule display of period armour, maps and battle banners. Its redeeming feature is a small cinema that plays scenes from Bitwa pod Grunwaldem (1931), a classic Polish flick about the battle. Five hundred metres from the museum are the ruins of a chapel, erected by the order a year after the battle, on the spot where the grand master is supposed to have died. All signs are in Polish, but the shop by the entrance to the battlefield sells brochures in English and German.

The best time to visit the place is in July during the Days of Grunwald festival, a medieval extravaganza with heaps of stalls, tournaments, concerts and costumed characters, culminating in an epic re-enactment of the battle itself.

Worth A Trip: Święta Lipka

Polish Catholics flock to this tiny hamlet for one reason only – to visit its celebrated church. The origins of Święta Lipka (shfyen-tah leep-kah), which means ‘Holy Lime Tree’, are linked to one of Poland’s most famous miracle stories. As the tale goes, a prisoner in Kętrzyn castle was visited the night before his execution by the Virgin Mary, who presented him with a tree trunk so he could carve an effigy of her. The resulting figure was so beautiful that the judges took it to be a sign from heaven and gave the condemned man his freedom. On his way home he placed the statue on the first lime tree he encountered, which happened to be in Święta Lipka (though it obviously wasn’t called that at the time).

Miracles immediately began to occur, and even sheep knelt down when passing the shrine. Pilgrims arrived in increasing numbers, including the last grand master of the Teutonic order, Albrecht von Hohenzollern, who walked here barefoot (ironically, he converted to Lutherism six years later). A timber chapel was built to protect the miraculous figure, and was later replaced with the present building. It’s perhaps the most magnificent baroque church in northern Poland, a huge attraction and still a major pilgrimage site, especially during the August Feast of the Assumption, which sees thousands of pious visitors descend on the village.