Sometimes when I come across something in the superlative—the tallest something, shortest, oldest, narrowest—I often feel the need to go see it…but with discretion. The world’s largest ball of twine, for instance, bears zero interest for me. But the largest brick structure ever built that’s also a UNESCO World Heritage Site? Oh, yes!
That’s what prompted me to board a train from Gdansk, Poland (which, not so coincidentally, has the largest brick church ever built), to Malbork, about an hour away to the southeast. It’s a pleasant, functional town, with some nice municipal and ecclesiastical buildings, and the recently restored neo-Gothic train station, from 1852, presents a delightful arrival to the city, with its wood paneling, embossed ceilings, brick arches and chimneys, and town shields.
A 15-minute walk brought me to the city’s main attraction: Malbork Castle. The massive castle loomed in front of me, with its crenellated walls and round and octagonal towers with lancet windows. I crossed a former drawbridge over the moat, filled in and grassed, and through the entrance gate. The castle unfolded seemingly forever to my left, row upon row of brick, topped by tiled roofs. This was clearly built to last—but it almost didn’t.
The audio guide I picked up at the visitor center immediately validated the reason I came here: The castle, the largest brick structure ever constructed, utilized 4.5 million bricks. By land area—it occupies 52 acres—it’s also the largest castle in the world, outsizing the footprint of England’s Windsor Castle by a factor of four. That means you’ll be spending multiple hours here to see all its rooms and halls and chapels, towers and turrets, courtyards and gardens, bridges and gates.
I entered the castle—officially the Castle of the Teutonic Order in Malbork—via another former drawbridge over the moat. Above me, a projection with a single opening, now sporting a cheery potted plant, marked the spot from which defenders would pour boiling water or oil on attackers. I considered what an effective, and fell, method this was to ward off the enemy, but things were different nearly 800 years ago, when work began on the castle, in 1276, for the Teutonic Knights, a German Catholic religious order of crusaders.
Constructed along the banks of the Nogat River, the castle’s location easily enabled the knights to conduct trade and collect river tolls from passing ships. It expanded over the centuries to the separate High Castle, Middle Castle, and Grand Master’s Palace and was encircled by three rings of defensive walls, dungeons, and towers. Its multiple purposes over the centuries include a meeting location for the Hanseatic League; a Polish royal residence; a seat of Polish offices and institutes; a base for Swedish occupiers; a poorhouse, barracks, hospital, and arsenal for the Prussian Army; home to 170 years of hegemonic German rulers; and, more recently, a destination for annual pilgrimages of both the Hitler Youth and the League of German Girls. Half destroyed during World War II, private donors provided major funds for it to be entirely rebuilt and reopened as a museum.
I entered the first courtyard, a vast space with squares of grass framed by wide stone walkways, all closed in by brick buildings with steeply pitched roofs, windows of various sizes and shapes, wooden covered porches, and the apse of a church with 18 green tiles, in the shape of a cross, on the reddish-orange tile roof.
Your exploration begins here, and you’ll be weaving your way into, out of, and around the castle’s structures. When I first arrived at the castle, I noticed, on an exterior wall of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church, the figure of Mary With Child. It’s hard to miss, rising just over 26’. Dating from about 1340, the polychrome figure was later embellished with colored mosaics by Venetian masters. Now, at the High Castle, I passed through the arched entrance of this church, with its painted sculptures of the wise and foolish virgins, and stood inside it. Fading murals on the walls attest to the church’s age, and decapitated statues of saints and a crucifix with half of Christ’s body blown off remind you of the vast destruction during the Second World War.
Elsewhere in the High Castle, I marveled at the Chapter House, where decisions on national and foreign policies were made and where grand masters of the Teutonic Order were chosen. I sat on one of the wood seats with high carved backs that encircle the room to admire the murals and the slender columns supporting the rib vault ceiling with bosses.
An intricately sculpted tympanum leads to the more intimate St. Anne’s Chapel, where candlestick sconces and stained-glass windows light the space, and tombs of the grand masters rest on the tile floor. Outside, buildings with Venetian Gothic window frames enclose the High Castle’s stone courtyard.
The courtyard of the Middle Castle also features plenty of stone, relieved by some trees, shrubs, ivy, and small fields of grass. Inside, you can wander around the kitchen and cook’s chamber, walk through the passage lined with seven pointed-arch niches filled with paintings of St. John’s Apocalypse, check out the castle’s collection of amber and historical weapons, and roam around the old infirmary, restored to the time when it was used as lodgings for elderly and infirm knights.
Architecturally the richest part of the castle, the Grand Master’s Palace has a low vestibule and entrance hall with granite columns supporting a vaulted ceiling decorated with a beautiful grapevine motif, the elegant summer refectory, and the Grand Masters’ Chapel, the private chapel of the Order’s highest dignitaries, with a wooden plank ceiling, 15th-century paintings of apostles Peter and Thomas, and a timber wall with a door opening that separates the chapel from the living chambers.
While everything I had seen so far was grand, there’s a reminder that everyone who occupied these buildings was, when it comes down to it, just a human being: One of the oldest buildings in the complex is the Gdanisko—the medieval Toilet Tower, built on factitious arcades so that water carrying feculent sewage could flow under it.
It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the castle’s enormous size, but I also had ample opportunities to appreciate smaller details that could have been easily overlooked, especially on the outside. As you’re walking around, through gates and archways, over drawbridges and covered bridges, keep an eye out for the little things. Take all those bricks, for instance—all 10,125 tons of them. Darker bricks—those whose edges were closest to the fire during the baking process and got cooked a little more intensely—were used to create herringbone design patterns here and there. Passing through one of the arched gates, I looked back to see the hanging iron ball-and-chain mechanism that was used to raise and lower the drawbridge. A stone basin with three spigots is topped by, appropriately enough, a white tablet sculpture of Jesus meeting the Samaritan woman at a water well. A collection of stone cannonballs lines the walkway of one of the castle’s terraces, while another terrace is given over to a garden with trellises and rose bushes. Clever column capitals may feature sculptures of musicians or educators.
When you’ve completely exhausted yourself, make sure you descend into the castle’s Gothic Restaurant for a little sustenance. In this vaulted interior, I enjoyed duck pierogi with a dark sauce and cranberries, cucumbers, and radishes, and a mint lemonade.
I wrapped up my visit by heading off the grounds to get a truly complete picture of the castle. I crossed the pedestrian bridge over the Nogat River. On the opposite bank, I strolled along the river, with a veneer of green algae along the water’s edge, and gazed at the horizontal profile of the seemingly impenetrable outer defensive wall of the castle and the various towering structures behind it, helping me put its enormity into perspective. Here I decided, in a nod to the castle’s superlatives, that it is, indeed, the best thing to see in Malbork.
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