Day 02: Gdansk and the Teutonic Knights of Malbork

We both slept in a bit late, until 9:00 am, showered and packed up our things to drop-off at our new hotel for the next 3 nights, the Gotyk House (this was the place we really wanted to stay but they didn’t have availability for all 4 nights of our visit.  Upon retrospect, it turns out the Kobza Haus was a much better hotel and we wished we had stayed put).  We soon wound up at Café Ferber again for a morning coffee before heading off for a full sightseeing day.

Beautifully rebuilt post-war construction

Beautifully rebuilt post-war construction

We started with a more observant stroll down the main drag, ulica Dluga, as it was no longer raining today and the sun was peeping through the clouds.  Our heads were clearer and overall in a much better state to fully appreciate the beauty of Gdansk.  As is the case with other parts of Poland, much of historic Gdansk was destroyed during and after WWII, either by Nazis or the subsequent Soviet occupation.  Much of what exists today was carefully reconstructed based on pre-war drawings and photos, in many cases using the same bricks.  It is quite remarkable how things have been put back together and the Main Town and riverfront make for very pleasant and picturesque strolling.  The pedestrian only street of ulica Dluga is particularly striking, as it’s lined with many pastel colored buildings with intricately painted designs and a few statues and fountains.

Dominoes illustrating the order in which communism fell

Dominoes illustrating the order in which communism fell

Significant historical events have taken place in Gdansk.  Aside from being the place where WWII started, Gdansk is the city where Lech Walesa led a group of determined shipyard workers to strike and protest loudly against Communism in 1980.  The movement was called Solidarity (Solidarnosc), and although communism wasn’t quelled just then (it took another 9 years), it helped set the groundwork for a free Polish society.  Poland was actually the first country to get out from under communism (the Berlin Wall came down months later) and Lech Walesa went on to win a Nobel Peace Prize and become Poland’s first elected post-communist president in 1990.

Monument to fallen shipyard workers

Monument to fallen shipyard workers

At any rate, our sightseeing today included walking out to the shipyard where the strike took place and viewing the monuments now standing for not only the 1980 strike but also a 1970 strike that turned out to be much more violent, bloody, and tragic.  Nearby we also visited the Roads to Freedom Exhibit (6zl/$2) that walks you through exhibits on what life was like behind the Iron Curtain and then takes you through a room-by-room timeline of events leading up to the fall of communism.  It’s just hard to imagine living your life so suppressed like that, and it also makes you wonder what kind of citizen you would have been – a keep-your-nose-down-and-out-of-trouble type or a member of the underground society for freedom, the latter of which could land you in dire – or possibly fatal – circumstances.

Next on our agenda today was to head out to the town of Malbork to view the biggest brick castle in the world.  Oh, how we relish seeing the biggest, tallest, shortest, roundest, flattest, deepest, thinnest, reddest, curliest, softest, etc. something in the world.  I mean, in the entire world, there is not a larger brick castle and we were off to see it.

The one and only Malbork Castle

The one and only Malbork Castle

We took the 12:51 train from the main train station to Malbork, about an hour away (11.50zl each/$3.65).  Once we got to Malbork we walked the 15 minutes or so down the main street toward the castle, which began to loom and sure enough, it was a biggun’ (entry 39.50zl each/$12.50).  The long and legendary history of Malbork Castle began when the Teutonic Knights started building it in the late 1200s.  It’s a long story, but essentially Poland had invited the Teutonic Knights into their land to help out with a situation they were having but the Teutonic Knights turned the tables on them and ended up dominating the Poles for about 150 years.  We learned that the Teutonic Knights were a pretty bad ass bunch and a force to be reckoned with.  The castle then changed hands a few times over the course of the next 500-ish years, and then the Nazis used it during the war, the Soviets went on to destroy a bunch of it, and it has now been restored.  Are you seeing a pattern here?  At any rate, now the only besiegement is by tourists and hopefully this is how it will remain.  A castle can only take so much.

Which one is not a knight - or very happy about having his picture taken?

Which one is not a knight? They all are, in my book.

After touring the ramparts, gates, drawbridge, armory, courtyard, kitchen, and many rooms including a latrine in which cabbage leaves were used for TP, we decided we had had about enough for one day and really wanted to get back to Gdansk for a rest.  We hoofed it back through town and out to the train station, where we came across a train ticket saleslady who I’m pretty sure was the sister of the bus ticket saleslady in Gdansk.  Jimmy had asked in his best Polish for two tickets to Gdansk, pleaseandthankyou.  Not saying a word, she tap tap tapped into her computer and out spit a couple tickets that she handed off (11zl each/$3.65) before abruptly turning around, indicating that would be quite enough out of us for one day.  We examined the tickets but something didn’t seem quite right because the departure time didn’t match any of the direct Malbork-Gdansk schedules on the wall.  It dawned on Jimmy that we may have to transfer trains somewhere, so he re-approached the ticket selling woman and I’m still not sure quite how he did it, but somehow he pried it out of her that, indeed, we had to change trains in Tczew.  Duh.  She seemed so disappointed that the secret was out.

A look at how Malbork Castle looked in 1945.  Unbelievable, isn't it?!

A look at how Malbork Castle looked in 1945. Unbelievable, isn’t it?!

I’d like to say the rest of the trip back was uneventful, but it wasn’t quite…  After dutifully changing trains in Tczew, we settled into the new one back to Gdansk.  Our seats were facing forward and near the front of the car.  There was a sliding glass door and beyond that was the vestibule where you enter/exit the train.  Additionally, a bathroom is located just off the vestibule.  During the course of the trip, a gentleman got up and went into the bathroom.  A short time later, a man who was clearly besotted stumbled up the aisle, opened the sliding glass door (leaving it open) and tried getting into the already occupied bathroom.  When that didn’t work, and clearly frustrated and confused as to why the bathroom door wouldn’t open, he did the next best thing:  unzipped his pants and peed right there, right in the vestibule for God and country to see – and smell.  A man sitting in the row ahead of us shouted at him in Polish before getting up in disgust and going to another car.  We were so dumbfounded that we couldn’t move, and thankfully the drunk moved on to the next car once he had finished relieving himself.  The rest of the ride was spent deliberating a strategy for how we would disembark the train without stepping in urine.  It’s always good to have a plan – and contingency plan – for such cases.

Gdansk's Golden Gate

Gdansk’s Golden Gate

After getting back to Gdansk pee-free we headed to our new hotel, the Gotyk House, for a rest.  After a brief respite we went out for our infamous Dinner Stroll.  Before we did, however, we thought we’d be clever by stopping at the front desk to ask the girl if she had any suggestions and please, nothing too fancy or formal.  This, we thought, would alleviate the aimless wandering around from restaurant to restaurant and give us a target and purpose.  She referred us to a place that is the oldest in Gdansk (and supposedly Lech Walesa’s favorite), but once we found it we noticed it was both fancy and formal.  Ok, we’re on our own here.  After aimlessly wandering around a bit, we wound up at Pierogarnia u Dzika because it looked like they had something for everyone on the menu.  And by everyone, I mean me because I am by far and away much pickier than Jim.  We walked in and were seated in a completely empty dining room.  Was this a bad omen?  It turned out not to be, as Jim feasted on the Polish dish of bigos (meat, sauerkraut, and mushrooms all mixed together) and I had enjoyed the pierogi ruskie (pierogis with cheese and potato).  After dinner we took our beers and moved outside to the front terrace, where we ended up chatting with a group of Norwegian ladies who were in town on a shopping weekend.  Before too long we had tuckered ourselves out again so headed back to the ranch for bed.

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