Tag Archives: castle

Baltic Amber

Jurassic Park is one of the greatest movies ever made. From a pair of spunky kids outsmarting a herd of velociraptors to a T-rex seriously ruining someone’s toilet time, the movie has it all. But one of the most underrated aspects of the flick is how it pushed amber into the public conscious. The Baltic region produces the vast majority of the world’s amber so the odds that fly with the dinosaur DNA was Northern European is pretty high.

Since the dawn of humans, amber has been marveled at and desired for it’s beauty. Then golden color can just mesmerize a person. The tourist industries in the Baltic states have taken full advantage of this. Walk through any tourist area in Gdansk or Vilnius (also probably Kaliningrad, Tallinn, and Riga) and you’ll see hundreds of amber trinkets for sale. You can also get them in Germany, but according to a German friend I toured Poland, Polish prices are less than half of German prices. Whether it’s just a little necklace for a special girl in your life or a huge ship that can dominate your mantle, amber artisans are still able to practice their craft.

Carry-on?  Vilnius, Lithuania

Carry-on baggage? Vilnius, Lithuania

Amber just isn’t for looking pretty. It has left it’s mark on European history. After the Crusades the Teutonic Knights conquered the amber rich Baltic region eventually building Malbork Castle. As the seat of the Teutonic power, it was where the knights enforced their monopoly over the amber trade. Amber was used for rosaries and by controlling the production and supply of the precious materials, the Teutonic Order was able to leverage concessions and power from various other world leaders. Kind of like OPEC. Eventually this license to print money collapsed with the Protestant Reformation and the Lutheran lack of rosaries.

The history of amber in Poland is shown through a surprisingly modern and well equipped museum located in Malbork Castle. You can see how amber is born millions of years ago and all the exact geologic processes that have to occur in order to complete the formation. You’ll also find dozens of pieces of jewelry stretching from the Neolithic time right up until today. The evolution of the craft as tools got stronger, smaller, and more precise is great to see. It’s like two attractions for the price of one. Just another reason you should visit one of the best draws in Poland.

Malbork Castle

Designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1997, Malbork Castle is one of the preeminent attractions in Poland. It was built by the Teutonic Order to be the seat of their power in the region. It is enormous, the largest castle in the world. After years of warfare and sieges the Teutonic Order finally gave Malbork over to the Polish kings who used it as their residence for a time. During the partitions of Poland, the castle changed hands multiple times and it wasn’t until after WWII the area was returned to Poland. Of course like much of Europe Malbork was a pile of smoking rubble after the war. The pictures you can see of the restoration are amazing. My first reaction when I saw the damage in the photos was, ‘Why didn’t they just bulldoze the whole thing and chalk it up as a loss?’ But if I guess they did that half of Europe would be a parking lot today.

Malbork is located about an hour south of Gdansk by train and very easy to visit as you’ll see.

I was in Poland and my friend lives in Warsaw. My original plan was to stay with her a few nights but she had just accepted a job offer in Bucharest and was busy packing and getting ready to move. She told me that it would be easier if I didn’t stay with her because moving sucks. She didn’t want to be frustrated or angry with me being in the way. So I decided to visit Malbork. I was traveling onwards after my CELTA course in Wroclaw but I had three nights in between the end of my course and my flight from Warsaw. So I did the only rational thing I could and turned Malbork into a two night trek.

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I left Warsaw after having dinner with my friend on a train heading to Gdansk at 11:00 PM. It was an over night train that would get into Gdansk at 7:00 AM. I pulled into the station and went over to the automated ticket machine to get my ride to Malbork. There was a train leaving in twenty minutes, but I passed on that. I wanted to get to Malbork at around 10:00 AM when it actually opened. It was too cold to be standing and waiting. The tickets from Gdansk to Malbork are quite cheap and the ride isn’t bad. It takes a little under an hour so if you’re already visiting the lovely city of Gdansk, Malbork is an easy day trip by train.

Getting closer to the station I caught my first glimpse of the castle. It was pretty awe inspiring. We pulled into Malbork and the first thing I noticed was an awful smell in the air. I looked around and noticed that quite close to the train station is a large factory belching out fumes. Luckily I had seen the castle from the train so I knew the general direction to head in from the station. It’s about a kilometer and a half, maybe two kilometer walk to the castle. I’m pretty sure I saw a bus that ran the route but I felt like seeing if the town of Malbork had anything else interesting to offer. It doesn’t.

To enter castle you need to purchase a ticket. If I’m being honest it was kind of expensive. More than I would like to pay normally, but I bit the bullet. It was definitely worth the money though. You can get in cheaper if you arrive later in the day, but since the tour takes about three hours you might miss much of it. Make sure to bring your passport with you. Normally I leave my passport somewhere safe when I make day trips, but this time I just had a gut feeling I should have it on me. I’m glad I did. If you have your passport they’ll let you borrow an audioguide for a self tour. The audioguide is in five or six different languages that you can choose from when you receive it. Physically it’s a small iPod touch in a case with some headphones and a custom app made for it. That’s why you need your passport, they don’t want their nice gadgets walking off. Not getting the audioguide isn’t much of an option because you won’t find a whole lot of signs explaining the different rooms in the castle.

You’ll get the chance to tour the knights quarters, mess halls, privies, chapels, an armory, even a really nice museum dedicated to amber. There are some beautiful pieces of jewelry and decoration that can take your breath away. All in all, the castle feels like something right out of Dungeons and Dragons.

After I finished my tour I headed back to Gdansk. I was leaving Gdansk on another over night train to Warsaw leaving at 11:30 PM so I had plenty of time to waste. I spent some time wandering the streets, I was quite surprised there was no Christmas market. Gdansk is a beautiful city so I was happy to spend time. I got some dinner and then headed back to the train station to wait. I had my Kindle with me so it wasn’t too bad. Also the train station has free wifi so I pulled out my iPhone and chatted with people on Facebook. I don’t like waiting but it wasn’t too terrible.

We boarded the train and my plan was to go straight to sleep. Unfortunately that wasn’t going to happen. Two other travelers in my car kept talking to each other with the lights on. Whenever there was a break in the conversation I would doze off for about twenty minutes then a conductor would come through asking to see our tickets. This would kick off their conversation for another hour easily. They weren’t going all the way to Warsaw and when they got off I was alone in the car. I immediately hopped up and turned the lights off, a sign to anyone else coming into the car that it was going to be quite. A few other travelers boarded and they didn’t make any noise, everyone just tried to get comfortable in their seats for the ride.

I arrived in Warsaw around 5:30 and felt like a zombie. In the last 48 hours I had spent seven hours on a bus from Wroclaw to Warsaw, 16 hours on trains from Warsaw to Gdansk and back, and two hours on trains from Gdansk to Malbork. And that didn’t include any of the time I spent walking around in Malbork exploring the place.

As a whole the experience wasn’t the most pleasant.  The obscene amount of travelling in such a short time really took a mental toll on me.  But it was worth it to see Malkbork.  The castle was awesome, one of the best things I’ve ever seen.  But from now on I’m going to try and avoid multiple nights of overnight travel.