From amber to gingerbread, from Torun to Malbork, we discover the riches of the former crusader state around Gdansk.
“These are everybody’s favourites,“ explains the shop attendant and points to a pile of Katarzynki. A chubbily shaped gingerbread with thin sugar icing. Next to them, other varieties of gingerbread with and without chocolate fill the shelves. It is just after Christmas when we visit the city of Torun, but the gingerbread shops are busy all year round. The small town on the banks of the Vistula is not only famous – and a UNESCO World Heritage site – for its gothic town centre and for being the birthplace of Copernicus. Torun is also well-known as Poland’s ginger bread capital.
Reportedly, the people of Torun have produced gingerbread since the 14th century. In the 13th century, the crusaders’ order of the Teutonic Knights built the first fortifications in Torun. The townspeople later tore down their castle, rebelling against the arrogant German aristocrats who had turned a huge part of Poland into a theocratic state, named Prussia after a hastily proselytised local tribe.
The crusaders’ castle of Malbork
The centre of this strange state of Christian warrior monks became the town of Malbork, a UNESCO World heritage site. The originally small fort situated in Malbork was extended in 1309 with the decision to make it the headquarters of the mighty Order of the Knights of the Hospital of St. Mary of the Teutons in Jerusalem. With the loss of the Holy Land just before, the crusades in the Middle East were coming to an end. So, the Teutonic Knights decided to shift their missionary efforts to the last heathens remaining in Europe’s east. Every year during winter time, when the frozen rivers allowed the knights to move about the swampy area, they did missionary forays into the Baltic. European knights and nobles who had missed the opportunity to take part into the real thing could even join for a small financial contribution.
Touring one of Europe’s largest castles in midwinter requires almost as much zeal as the Teutonic Knights displayed against the Baltic barbarians. The guided tour of unheated hallways and courts of the Malbork castle, a World Heritage site, takes nearly 3 hours. It is drawn out even more when a family ponders lengthily over souvenirs at an intermediate stop in the inevitable amber shop.
In the 14th century most of the Amber trade went along the river Vistula. Quite cleverly, the Teutonic Knights had acquired a monopoly on the amber trade, thus becoming ever richer, since amber was in high demand for rosary beads.
The Hanseatic city of Gdansk
Today the numerous amber shops in Gdansk are most heavily visited by German tourists. And so is the huge church of St. Mary, and the picturesque streets and quays of the old town. Even if few of the buildings are original, remaining of what used to be Danzig, the Germans love the reconstructed Hanseatic city.
It is on New Year’s Day that we hit the Pole’s idea of a good outing. Like them, we are spending the better half of the day in the beach resort of Sopot, parading up and down the long pier to welcome the year at sea. It was freezing cold!
NB: Our winter trip to Gdansk, Torun, and Malbork was not sponsored in any way. We paid all the expenses ourselves.