I love exploring castles around Europe and I have known about Malbork Castle for a very long time. On a recent trip to Poland, road tripping around Łódź and Torun, I managed to explore Malbork and also four other castles nearby which I was fortunate to see all in one day. Based in Łódź, I took the long drive up to Malbork which is actually nearer to Gdansk and then worked my way down, driving south alongside the River Vistula before hitting the highway back to Łódź. It was a very long day but well worth it.
Zamek w Malborku – Malbork
It wasn’t until I arrived at the ticket hall next to the car park that I found out the castle is the world’s largest & also the world’s largest structure built entirely of brick. Before I arrived all I knew about the castle was it looked very pretty next to the river on a sunny day (lots of postcards showing this image) and that it was in northern Poland. That is all I knew. I came here with a clear head and ready to learn (as well as to do a lot of walking).
Before I even walked into the main courtyard, how can someone class this as the world’s biggest castle. Is it the entire complex or is it just one building? What about buildings which were attached and expanded from the original building and land? Do fortresses count as a castle. I never really thought about these questions before when it came to exploring a castle. Today I had these on my mind. Researching later that day answered some of the questions. Malbork Castle is measured by the land area which is 143,591 square meters making it the world’s largest.
The castle was built in the 13th century and constructed by the Teutonic Knights, a German-Catholic religious order of crusaders. The Teutonic order named the castle Marienburg in honour of Mary, mother of Jesus. Then the castle was sold during some sort of war in the fourteenth century by the Bohemian mercenaries who held the castle at that point. They sold it to King Casimir IV of Poland and then served as Polish royal residence (which was interrupted for several years when the Swedish Empire came in and ran the show!). Then in 1772 the Germans came in and ruled the area, held onto the castle right up until the end of the Second World War in 1945. The land was assigned to Poland. The castle was heavily damaged so was renovated towards the end of the 20th century and what I saw when I was there, is the finishing result. The castle is now also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, one of two in the region, the other one being the ‘Medieval town of Torun’ which is around 200km south of Malbork.
After paying the admission ticket which included an audio guide (which I didn’t use but still had it with me), the cost was around €10. Through the main gates I was standing in the middle of the central courtyard. Here there are museums showing furniture, amber, paintings as well as restaurants and souvenir shops dotted around the place.
I was quite fortunate to come in the Autumn and there weren’t many visitors around but I could imagine the place in the summer months when there would be a lot of visitors. This gave me a lot more freedom (and time) in all the rooms I explored and checking out the fine staircases. There was a chapel which I came across and I loved the stained glass window but also here were displays of old books dating back memory centuries to which I stood here for a very long time studying them, the fine print work and trying to understand what language they were written in (back then, European languages were not the same as of today and I found it to be a mixture of Slavic, German and Swedish…but I could be wrong).
Once I checked out the rooms in the main building, I took a walk around the grounds, inside the main fortress walls, checking out the cute little gardens, the vines going up the buildings and the graveyard.
After I checked out the castle, I left the grounds and headed over to the Nogat River. Here there is a bridge to which I walked across, turned left and about 100 meters further on, stopped and tried to get that picture postcard view. It wasn’t sunny but I tried my best to capture it. It’s been many years since I wanted to come here so I tried my best to get the best photo possible. Looking around there were also a few outside bars and restaurants near the bridge serving grilled meats and vegetables with a glass of beer. Also in the summer months there are river cruises which go along here and is another way to capture the castle. Seriously, this is the best area to check out how big the castle really is!
Now as I mentioned earlier there are four other castles nearby which are a short drive away (some of them can also be done by train from Malbork/Gdansk). Here is a round up of the castles I saw in the late afternoon after a day trip to Malbork Castle.
Zamek Krzyżacki w Sztumie – Sztum
In the small town of Sztum, the castle is located by Lake Zajezierskie which has stood here since the 1320s. Built in the shape of a polygon with two towers, the castle was built by the Prussians. Eventually it became part of the Kingdom of Poland in 1410, before getting destroyed by the Swedish Empire (those Swedes!). After coming back to Poland, two wings of the castle exist but had to be reconstructed in the 19th century alongside the fortification walls, gates and the prison tower. Nice little castle with a nice courtyard but I loved doing the short walk alongside the lakeside before getting back into the car and heading south.
Zamek w Kwidzynie – Kwidzyn
A great example of bricked-building alongside with some wonderful architecture built by the Teutonic Knights is found in the small town of Kwidzyn. Built at the start of the fourteenth century which was used as a chapter house for the Pomesanians (one of the Prussian clans who had control of this area) before the King of Poland came along and took over the castle whilst doing battles against the Teutonic Knights further north. Eventually the castle was ceded back to the Teutonic Knights, then the Swedes came along (those Swedes!) who partially destroyed the castle, then after a few centuries, the castle was restored to what I see today.
One of the highlights for me is seeing the Dansker (which was supported by five arcades/pillars). Now I thought this was a nice looking tower (as seen in my photo) which overlooks the river down below. After researching what a Dansker is (which was common on German/Prussia castles built in the 13th and 14th centuries, these were used to house the toilets so the sewage can go into the river below. However the Dansker I saw was rebuilt and has lost many of its medieval features.
Zamek Krzyżacki w Gniewie – Gniew
I did a short visit to Gniew and the castle is located on top of a hill overlooking the nearby river. Built again by, you guessed it, the Teutonic Order in 1290. As like the other castles, it became a part of Poland (Poland’s borders have changed a lot over history until its current state in 1945) and has been rebuilt a few times but was totally restored in the 20th century. Today it also hosts a hotel and a conference centre and I think I was gate crashing a wedding which was about to start due to what I saw inside, the tables all lined out with the finest dining cutlery and white balloons dotted all over the place.
Centrum Kultury Zamek – Nowe
The last castle was in Nowe which is also located by the banks of the River Vistula and again, built by the Teutonic Order for the Pomeranians in the fourteenth century (those guys really went on a ‘building-castle-crusade’ in this period of time). Again, the castle was eventually destroyed by the Swedes (again…those Swedes!), and then was handed to Poland. Back to Prussians after a while who deconstructed the castle (not sure why they did this) but they kept the main wing which was turned into a church. After a while it was a warehouse and a fire station before being renovated and turned into a museum. Not quite sure what to make of this castle but it does remind me of the chalet buildings used in the Alpine regions of Europe.
I really did enjoy my day checking out the world’s largest castle with others dotted alongside the River Vistula and other lakes in the region. However there are about another 10-15 castles in the north and north-east regions of Poland and I hope to be checking these out one day. I sure do love my castles in Europe and Poland has some fantastic ones to check out. I highly recommend checking out the smaller castles and the towns along the river but it is best to have a car if you can drive (it’s fairly easy to drive around here and there is not much traffic especially at weekends). There is a lot of history here, a-bit that all the castles I saw had very similar history, but away from this region, the history does change due to the changing landscapes of land ownership (i.e. – Poland, Prussia, Sweden, and god knows who else). Even though I am a regular visitor to this amazing country, I am still trying to understand the history in the different regions as it is different, which makes learning fun for me. Overall, if you love castles, history and going to far flung places away from the cities, then check out this castle route I did.