Day: 90 & 91
Cities / Towns Visited: 48
Countries Visited: 15
Steps Taken Today: 33,514
Steps Taken Around the World: 1,642,315
Day 90 was a somewhat uneventful travel day so I’ll just give you the brief version. After an early morning start, a long bus ride, a short flight, and a taxi ride we arrived at our hostel in our forty sixth town in our fifteenth country; Gdansk, Poland. After a bit of hassle and some help from a friendly Polish woman we managed to get into our rather fortified accommodation, where seemingly the couple running it had stepped out from reception at a rather inopportune time for us.
Unburdened by our bags we took a couple of hours to explore the beautiful old town of this small northerly city. Rather tired, and more than a little hungry we settled in on the balcony of a small restaurant and whiled away some time basking in the picturesque view, drinking the first of many vodkas we would consume in the nation of one of its best producers, and gorging on an unnecessarily large amount of pierogi. We finished our feast with the discovery of lody, which is basically soft serve but it’s a touch firmer so they swirl it onto the cone until it’s almost a foot tall. It’s both ridiculous and amazing. Needless to say we slept well that night, which was for the best as we had adventuring to do the next day.
Waking early, checking out, and heading to the train station, we were soon on our way to our intermediate stop for the day; Malbork. The town in and of itself isn’t particularly remarkable, but we were there for something else. Thus after stowing our bags in the lockers at the train station, we scurried off to the world’s largest brick fortress in the world; Malbork Castle. I guess you never really consider the fact that the majority of fortresses are built of stone, but seeing this much red brick on mass it truly is a wonder to behold. To simply consider the man hours and skill needed to make and lay that many bricks is mind boggling. So it will not be surprising to hear that we lingered outside the walls for a long moment simply admiring it.
With our rather nifty audio guide, which tells you snippets of information based on its GPS signal knowing exactly where you are, we sauntered across the draw bridge and into the grounds of the fortification. The guide interestingly pointed out the patterns in the brickwork made by black bricks, which despite looking to be made of different material, were simply the bricks which had been closer to the fire in the kiln and had become charred. In today’s mechanised factory nature it’s hard to imaging the back braking labour of having to make the literal millions of bricks needed to construct this enormous complex. Now for those of your who are unaware, medieval Poland was ruled not by a monarchy but instead by the Grand Master of the German Order of Teutonic knights. Yes, the Teutonic knights who were around in the same time as the crusades and who spent an inordinate amount of time waging war with the Ottomans and anyone who did not believe in their lord almighty, although to be honest it was less a holy war than a front for a land grab.
Passing across the next wooden bridge, built over the now dry moat and designed to be able to be burnt in order to cut off the castle complex in case of attack, we were delivered into the first courtyard. If the beauty of the sheer number of bricks hadn’t sunk in yet, it we reinforced by being surrounded by the square structure of deep ochre building blocks. With its cobblestone paths and ivy covered walls it all felt so medieval that I could almost hear a lute. Heading on into the private and state rooms of this lower castle almost every inch of it was tinged with a religious hue. From the infirmary in which the monks cared for the sick and needy, to the plethora of biblical murals adorning the walls, to the addition of crosses at almost every turn. As our audio guide led us around, we passed through a number if fascinating exhibits, including: the amber collection which was as beautiful as it was Christian, and was mainly traded through Gdansk as it was a mainland port from Norway and Sweden, thus the Teutonic knights invaded and occupied it to control the trade; the medieval weapons and armour collection, which was extensive to say the least, and including an intimidating suit of armour from the famous Polish winged hussars who’s outfit was equipped with massive wings; and finally a seperate exhibition of Ottoman style armorments and weaponry.
It was time to move on across another drawbridge, through a small old chapel which houses graves of old grand masters, between the fortified outer wall and the inner wall of the next square complex which is magically green, with a few gravestones of deceased knights, and on to the second courtyard, which sat at the centre of another square brick building. This complex was used by the monks who resided at the castle, and aside from the medieval gothically vaulted refectory, cosy old kitchen, and other general living quarters of the monks; now houses an extensive collection of beautiful and rare religious art. In the middle of the cloister ringed courtyard sits a stunning old well.
From here we headed out of the courtyard and onwards to the massive old cathedral. Walking inside, the first thing that hits you is not its size, but instead that it is the first building which has a noticeably damaged structure. You see, much like alot of Europe, this historic site did not survive the second world war unscathed, with large portions of the fortress being obliterated. However, instead of trying to restore it exactly how it was, as they have with the rest of the complex, they have chosen to rebuild the destroyed section of the Cathedral interior with plaster. As a result you can see exactly where the old ends with the bricks and the new begins with the clean white walls. A sombre but hauntingly beautiful reminder of the ravages of war. In a way I’m glad they didn’t make it identical, as it would not have the impact it does in its current state.
With our tour coming to a end and with a lengthy train ride still on the cards we made our way back to the train station, taking one last moment to admire the fortress. There is something so fundamentally medieval about it; something that calls to our romanticised ideas of that time. Reluctantly we handed back in our guides and scurried off, stopping briefly to grab a quick lunch from a small stall beside the road, before boarding our train. Without hassle we arrived in Warsaw, and after a bit of a hike we reached our AirBNB. Braving the supermarket, and whipping up some food we fell exhausted into the arms of sleep. As I dozed, I thought once more about the effort needed to build that grand old castle. Every brick made, fired, and laid by hand. Working when they could, obviously dependent on the weather, it took a year to raise only a few metres of the walls. This amount of craftsmanship is nigh on an impossibility in today’s day and age. We would never commit the time and man-hours to such a feat when we could simply prefabricate reinforced concrete panels in its place. A fact which only serves to make Malbork Castle all the more impressive. Should this castle ever crumble and fall its beauty would be lost to the ages, never to be repeated; all because we are too lazy, too impatient, too greedy. A shame really.