Castles and Gems
One of the best parts of an ocean cruise is that you get to see a lot of diverse places. One of the worst is that you don’t have time to get an in-depth picture of many places. Gdansk, Poland, is a city and area in which I would like to spend more time.
Upon landing in Gdansk, we quickly left for a tour of the massive Malbork Castle, located less than an hour by bus. The castle covers 53 acres and was the largest brick castle in the world when it was completed in the early 1400s and is still the largest brick Gothic castle in the world. The castle was begun in 1218 as part of a monastery and became the capital of the Teutonic Knights of the German military order, a religious military order that started as a company of hospitallers in 1190. The castle was protected by a moat on one side and the Nogat River on the other. In addition, 20 gates into the fortress made it very difficult to penetrate. Throughout its years the castle housed as many as 3,000 people and as few as 75.
The castle has its original kitchen complete with its own private toilet! An underground heating system is another testament to its luxuriousness. Of course, no house is perfect and Malbork Castle is no exception. The bakery, located directly under the treasury, made it possible for a group of men to drill upwards and steal all the riches contained in the treasury. (They were hung as punishment for their theft.)
Malbork Castle served various ruling parties throughout its history, but WWII reduced it to rubble. Careful restoration has rebuilt it into a UNESCO World Heritage Site so that visitors can now see how the immense structure once stood.
After returning to Gdansk, we were able to spend time walking around the charming city, which was once a very important base of the Hanseatic League, a group of German traders that dominated trade in the Baltic Sea from the 13th to 15th centuries. (Gdansk was part of Germany and went by the name of Danzig.) The city changed ownership many times, especially between Germany and Poland. Although Gdansk is still a shipping center, I was more familiar with it as the site that the Polish Solidarity was begun by Lech Walesa in 1980.
We sampled traditional Polish food at the Hotel Gdansk which included soup and pierogi. The views along the Motlawa Marina through the Old Town on the path to the restaurant are typical of the hundreds of boats that line the shores. (Old Town and Main Town are not the same areas. Old Town is the area where St. Catherine’s Church is while the Main Town is where Long (Dluga) Street and the Long Market are located.)
The picturesque Main Town is a pedestrian street with lots of restaurants, ice cream shops, and amber stores. (Gdansk is the Capital of Amber and holds the Amber Museum.) The majority of buildings were destroyed in WWII but have been restored in the years since. The Royal Way—so called because it was the path the Polish kings once walked—is breathtaking with the tall buildings lining it. Residents were charged for the amount of space their homes took up on the road, so they built tall, deep homes to reduce their taxes. If the houses remind you of Amsterdam, it is because Mennonites came from the Netherlands to Gdansk about 500 years ago to escape persecution and brought their style of architecture with them.
The tower of the Main Town Hall, which can easily be mistaken for a church, stands proudly at the end of Long Market. In the shadow of the Main Town Hall is Neptune’s Fountain, a great photo op.
Our walking tour continued to St. Mary’s Church which was Catholic originally, changed to Lutheran, and then changed back to Catholic. (Remember that Gdansk changed hands between Poland and Germany multiple times.) The church is the largest brick church in the world. (If you haven’t realized, Gdansk did not have many stones with which to build, so they used what they had: brick.) Even though much of the building was destroyed in WWII, many of the items inside it were hidden until renovation was complete.
St. Mary's Church
We wandered around the town before heading back to the Viking Jupiter which was docked by the impressive Westerplatte War Monument also known as “The Monument for the Defenders of the Coast,” those Polish defenders who fought against the Nazis as they began their invasion of Poland in WWII.
Gdansk is definitely a town that lends itself to more exploration in the future. I hope we have that opportunity!
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