Travel: The dark knights of the soul

Peter Griffiths follows the trail of the Teutonic warriors who were once the masters of Poland
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The Independent Culture
Every Polish child knows the monument at the spot where Poland finally broke free from German domination. It has nothing to do with 1945, but an event long before, in 1410. Photographs of three tall steel masts, closely grouped on an open hillside where the battle of Grunwald was won, appear in most Polish school history books. But few Poles will in fact have visited the scene of this Polish Agincourt, as the battlefield lies in a relatively remote part of the rural north, some 40km south west of Olsztyn.

Driving out of Gdansk, across the flatlands to the south east, the road to Grunwald leads first to the place that was home to Poland's enemy at the battle. Here, 45km away, just upstream from where the Nogat river joins the Wisla (Vistula), lies Malbork.

It is not in itself much to wonder at, just another old Polish town sadly shelled to bits in the Second World War and rebuilt in depressing modern concrete. But down by the riverside your mind is blown by a daunting spectacle. Malbork's medieval fortress, one of the largest anywhere in Europe, has recently been added to Unesco's list of World Heritage sites. Photographs of its huge, red-brick walls and towers at the water's edge are already current favourites on calendars celebrating "beautiful Poland".

The castle was built by the Knights of the Teutonic Order, a fanatical band of German priest-warriors founded in the 12th century to aid Christian crusaders in Islamic Palestine. They had acquired a formidable reputation as a professional army, which is why, in 1226, a northern Polish duke appealed to them for help against pagan raids from the east. Ethnic cleansing was their known speciality, but the duke wasn't prepared for the scale of their ambition. They brutally purged the local Slavs, replacing them with German settlers. Then they rooted themselves at Malbork (Marlenburg in German) and seized control of the valuable Baltic trade in amber. As the order accumulated enormous wealth, its riverside stronghold ballooned into a vast estate covering more than 80 acres. From here the knights lorded it over the Baltic coast, the port of Gdansk and the Wisla, and effectively became the economic masters of Poland.

Arriving at Malbork, we parked our car on the opposite river bank to take in the view. Imagine Windsor Castle built not with stone but with red bricks, add steep, clay-tiled roofs and bring it down to the river's edge, and you have Malbork. There are reputedly more bricks in this structure than in any other building in the world, though we didn't stop to count. We crossed the footbridge over the river and made our way up to the massive gatehouse. Avoiding the tour parties, we slipped across the drawbridge and into a large courtyard with a sloping green. The first thing that draws the eye is the sheer scale of the walls rising up all around. A row of fine bronze statues represents the order's Grand Masters, who lived in the majestic palace alongside. There they enjoyed the comfort of stately, elegant interiors, with delicate vaulted ceilings of great beauty and casement windows with views over the river.

Passing through an arch at the top of the green, you cross another moat into the small arcaded courtyard of the "High Castle". This was the private den of the knights, and the dark, bare living cells are reminders that these feared warriors were in fact also monks. When the Nazis occupied the castle during the last war they no doubt felt they had returned to a spiritual home.

Back outside the gatehouse, a man in an absurd crusader costume (silver- painted cardboard armour, wooden sword) advertised lunch at the Hotel Zamek, in what was once the castle stable block. But why share a mock medieval setting with tour parties when you can gaze at the real thing? Far better to stroll down to the riverside for a beer in the sun, or a boat trip along the Nogat. If you then feel dwarfed looking up at the castle's vast rosy walls, imagine how Polish locals at the time of its building must have felt.

And it was the threat of further German expansion that moved the Poles and Lithuanians to challenge the Teutonic Order in 1410. The result was "one of the largest battles of the Middle Ages", involving more than 60,000 men, according to one historian.

As you drive south east out of Malbork on the remaining 90km run to Grunwald, the meandering country roads offer beautiful pastoral surroundings. This is lake and farming country, fertile and wooded. There are no clarion signs to guide you to the battlefield. You simply aim for the nearest village - Frygnowo - south of Ostrda. From there, a single rusting sign leads you down a tree-lined track until you reach a car park with a shop and a bar.

Not surprisingly, whereas most visitors to Malbork seem German, those few at Grunwald appear to be mainly Polish. As you walk up the slope to the battlefield, the familiar monument looms into view. Three masts stand 30 metres tall against the open sky. Alongside, two massive sculpted stone heads, one on top of the other, look out across the battlefield helmeted, firm-jawed and grim.

The landscape has changed little in six centuries. Very few visible buildings, just fields, hedgerows and rolling yellow downs, and it takes no time at all to imagine the rush and frenzy of battle in this place. But in case you're having difficulty, the museum is on hand to help. Outside, something resembling a giant chessboard shows how the two armies lined up. Inside, the movements of the battle are displayed in more detail, alongside murderous weaponry found in the soil: swords, daggers, arrow-heads and ugly-looking pikes. If you still can't quite picture the gory scene, then there's always the movie.

By the clamour coming from within the darkened cinema, the showing had already begun. Rows of schoolchildren sat transfixed by a 20-minute extract from the 1960 film spectacular Kryzacy, Knights of the Cross, the Polish equivalent of Olivier's Henry V. Much dashing and slashing later, the Grand Master of Teutonic Malbork is cut down in a bog, the Polish king savours the moment of victory, and all the kids get up in search of more ice-cream.

Of course, the reality behind the politics of what happened here in 1410 is more complex than the myth would suggest. But, given more recent history, is it any wonder that a Polish triumph over a German aggressor remains the cherished idea on view at Grunwald?

Fact File

Poland by air: British Airways (0345 222111), British Midland (0345 554554) and LOT Polish Airlines (0171-580 5037) fly from Heathrow. LOT also flies from Gatwick and has a code-share service from Manchester with BA. The same airlines combine on Gatwick-Krakow and Gatwick-Gdansk services.

Poland by bus: Eurolines (01582 404511) has a fare of pounds 100 from London to Krakow.

Red tape: British passport holders no longer need visas to visit Poland.

Information: Polish National Tourist Office, First Floor, Remo House, 310-312 Regent St, London W1R 5AJ (0171-580 8811)