Travelling from ‘Hel’ to the City of Saint Mary

We were sitting on the train going across Pomeranian Voivodeship southwards, in the direction of Malbork. It was really hot. Nothing surprising as it was the beginning of August but in Poland the weather is changeable, and you cannot predict it even in summer. One week ago, when I and my sister met with our Austrian friends by the Baltic Sea, it was rather cloudy and then it kept raining for the first two days of our stay. In such an inconvenient outlook, we dedicated our time to short city breaks in Tri-city, which is a metropolitan area in northern Poland (Pomerania) and it includes three major cities, Gdańsk, Gdynia and Sopot, as well as minor towns in the area. We got there and back either by train or by a ferry across the Bay of Puck from the very tip of Hel Peninsula.


The Hel Peninsula from the bird’s eye view. Video source: KolejFilmy (2016) ”Kolej na Hel – Pociągi z lotu ptaka”.

Let’s go to Hel

Once, when I had spent vacations with Kathi and Wolfgang in the Alps, I expressed my idea of going together to ‘Hel’ for summer. For a while they kept looking at me with no hidden surprise, and then probably started analyzing my health condition. When they kept silent, blinking at me, astonished, I realized how my words were misunderstood and I quickly explained. ‘Oh no, not this “Hell”. Another one … You know … It’s one of the best holiday spots in Poland.” When they still did not react. I grabbed my smartphone and googled ‘Hel Peninsula’.

It is a good idea to visit Hel on a bicycle. Copyright©Archaeotravel.
Wonderful and relaxing time on long, sandy beaches of Hel. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Hel (pronounced as the English word “hell”) is actually a town at the ultimate end of Hel Peninsula, a 35-km-long sand bar, covered with thick woods and splashed by deep blue waters of the sea on its both sides (PółwysepHel.pl 2020). The Hel Peninsula is one of the most interesting regions of the Polish coast of the Baltic Sea (PółwysepHel.pl 2020; PoznajKrajTV 2020).

In fact, the peninsula should be professionally called the Hel Spit as it is a narrow spit of land that shelters the bay (PoznajKrajTV 2020). Still, it is commonly referred to as a peninsula (Ibid.). The entire Hel Peninsula is unique in its landscape and belongs to the Coastal Landscape Park (PółwysepHel.pl 2020). The narrowest is at its base, in the area of the town, Władysławowo, it is only about one hundred meters, while its width at the end, near the town of Hel, where we stayed, is just about three kilometres (Ibid.). So when we look at the map of Poland, it looks like a ‘cow’s tail’ (Ibid.).

As impossible as it sounds we have visited Hel. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

In some narrow places, the spit is sometimes flooded by storm waves, which  causes stunting of oak trees in these areas (PoznajKrajTV 2020). A railway line and a comfortable road with a bicycle path run through the entire Hel Peninsula (PółwysepHel.pl 2020). Tourists staying there can enjoy the beautiful, uncrowded beaches by the open sea or the beaches located by the Bay of Puck (Ibid.). There are many campsites by the Bay that specialize in servicing windsurfers and kite surfers because there are very good conditions for practicing this sport (Ibid.). Along its Baltic coast, there are some interesting seaside resorts; starting from the mainland, it is Władysławowo, Chałupy, Kuźnica, Jastarnia, Jurata (mostly for the elite), and finally Hel (Ibid.).

Encountering history at each step

Hel is an old Kashubian port town, and a summer resort located at the end of the Peninsula (PółwysepHel.pl 2020; PoznajKrajTV 2020). The port of Hel is not only an excellent base for water sports but mostly for modern history enthusiasts (PółwysepHel.pl 2020). The tip of Peninsula is just scattered with defensive fortifications, such as shotting bunkers or air raid shelters, which had been built especially during the last World War until the 1950s. (PoznajKrajTV 2020).

‘The Hel Peninsula is [also] a cemetery of various types of wrecks from different periods of history’, says Władysław Szarski, director of the Museum of Coastal Defense, located in the town of Hel (MAK/gp. Source: TVN24 2020; see PółwysepHel.pl 2020). Photographer Grzegorz Elmiś has lately found a fragment of a wooden ship with various elements, possibly from the nineteenth century (MAK/gp. Source: TVN24 2020). An undoubted attraction of Hel is additionally the lighthouse, open to the public; climbing to the top will reward its visitors with a picturesque view of the sea and the Hel Peninsula from its summit (PółwysepHel.pl 2020).

From fishing villages to the famous holiday resort

It is difficult to imagine that around four hundred years ago, the Hel Peninsula did not exist at all (PoznajKrajTV 2020). At that time, there were only two islands with fishing villages in the Bay (Ibid.). So how did this wonderful place come about? On the Polish coast of the Baltic Sea, there is a coastal sea current that flows from the west towards the east, which keeps accumulating sand in some places, and over the course of hundreds of years had built a large headland, today up to a hundred meters thick, below which there is a chalk rock (Ibid.). There are no freshwater streams in Hel, but there is still much humidity caused by local microclimate (Ibid.).

High concentration of iodine in the air by the Baltic Sea, especially in autumn, and fresh air from oak forests on Hel bring health and relaxation to all the visitors. Depending on the weather in summertime, everybody can enjoy either the sun and endless sandy beaches or a thrilling hunt for amber along the Baltic coast, just after a sudden storm.

For its distinctive climate and long, sandy beaches my friends started to call the place the Polish Caribbean with freshly cold water for swimming. And only Wolfgang was ambitious enough to stay in the water for more than five minutes. Mostly, we spent our time either walking in the forest or cycling along the northern coast, reaching Jurata and Jastarnia. When it was sunny and warm, we bought several types of smoked fish, good Polish bread, and stayed on the empty beach for the whole day. And so we enjoy coastline views, silence and our own company, while building the Giza plateau out of the sand. Sand castles were too ordinary for us …

Coming back in time to the Middle Ages

When our train left the railway station of Hel behind, we promised to come back there in the future. At that time, however, we were going back in time to visit another unique site in Pomerania – the medieval castle of Malbork. Its huge perimeter walls and brick towers can be seen yet from the train which is passing by the city of Malbork, by heading to the north or south of Poland.

Red brick walls of the Gothic Malbork Castle have always made a great impression on visitors. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Castle of Saint Mary’s City

Malbork is a bricked castle, erected on stone foundations (Bieszk 2010:104). It is the largest medieval complex in Europe in terms of the area it occupies, which is over twenty hectares (Bieszk 2010:104; Pro100 z MoSTU 2017). It is also one of the finest examples of Gothic defensive and residential architecture in Europe (Bieszk 2010:104; Pro100 z MoSTU 2017). Today, the huge complex rises in the northern part of the modern city of Malbork, on the elevated right bank of the Nougat River and is jokingly called “the largest pile of bricks in Europe” because it is estimated that the Teutonic Knights used about three and a half million hand-made and fired bricks to build it (Bieszk 2010:104; Pro100 z MoSTU 2017; Chabińska-Ilchanka et al. 2015:174).

Malbork castle from the bird’s eye view. Photo by Jan Nowak, (2016). Free images at Pixabay.

In the Middle Ages, it was called Castrum Sanctae Marienburch, which means the Castle of Saint Mary’s City, and was the most important of over one hundred bricked castles built by the Teutonic Knights in their monastic state within the present borders of Poland (Bieszk 2010:7-8;104; see Pro100 z MoSTU 2017). It included the areas of Chełmno, Kuyavian, Dobrzyń, Prussia proper and New Marchia (Bieszk 2010:7). As Janusz Bieszk (2010:7) writes, the so-called Teutonic castles fascinate and attract. Their original architectural shape and unique beauty of the bricked edifice, beautifully blended into the Slavic landscape of towns and villages, make a great impression on visitors even today (Bieszk 2010:7).

Such a range of large castles was a defence system functioning in the Middle Ages in northern Poland, the borders of which were determined by: in the west and south by the castle in Kostrzyn, in the north by the castle in Puck, in the south of central Poland by the castle in Bobrowniki and finally in the east by the castle of Metenburg (Bieszk 2010:7).

Teutonic Knights (Krzyżacy)

The castles were to show off the power and influence of the Order and their state in Europe (Chabińska-Ilchanka et al. 2015:174). The basis of the economic and political strength of the Teutonic knighthood was an excellent economic organization, which in the mid-fourteenth century led the Knights to their prominent position in the basin of the Baltic Sea (PWN 1997-2020). Constant fights with Lithuania brought the Teutonic Knights international fame and attracted European knights to expeditions, but finally led to the loss of the order’s religious character (Ibid.).

Stanisław Jasiukiewicz as the Teutonic Grand Master, Ulrich von Jungingen. Shot from the movie “Knights of the Teutonic Order” (”Krzyżacy”), directed by Aleksander Ford (1960). Source: Tele Magzayn. Galeria zdjęć (2020).

Teutonic Knights were popularly called in Polish Krzyżacy, which simply means Knights of the Cross. It was because they wore a large black cross on their white clothes and coats. The official name was much longer, that is to say, the Order of the Hospital of the Holy Virgin Mary of the German House in Jerusalem (Lat.: Ordo fratrum hospitalis sanctae Mariae Theutonicorum Ierosolimitanorum) (PWN 1997-2020). Like their more famous counterparts, Templar Knights or Johannites, Teutonic Knights formed a knightly order founded during the crusades to the Holy Land, and so their main task was to take care of pilgrims and the sick and to fight the infidels (Ibid.).

Threat of the black cross

The order was founded in 1190 in Palestine and converted into a knighthood in 1198; it was headed by the Grand Master and  Chapter (PWN 1997-2020). With the beginning of the thirteenth century, Christian forces were slowly retreating from the Holy Land under the Muslims’ pressure, and the Order moved to Europe (Ibid.). After being expelled from Hungary in 1224-1225 for their imperial ambitions, Teutonic Knights came to the Chełmno Land (northern Poland) in 1226, summoned by Konrad I of Mazowiecki to fight pagan Prussia (Ibid.).

In medieval Europe, the black cross caused common terror among people. Today you can dress up as a Teutonic knight when visiting their castle. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

They conquered it (as it was the Order’s original task) but with time they followed the same aggressively expansive policy as in Hungary, which was not actually difficult to be foreseen (PWN 1997-2020). As a result, they established their own monastic state in the occupied lands, constantly striving to expand their borders at the expense of their neighbours, like the Kingdom of Poland (Ibid.). With each conquered or stolen piece of land, they built a castle to mark there their presence. For this reason, the Teutonic black cross became the symbol of threat and fear instead of Christian service and mercifulness, the Order was originally established for.

Grunwald (1410)

The Teutonic Knights were definitely infamous in medieval Poland for their mischievous deeds, and constantly fought against by Polish kings. In 1308–1309 they occupied Gdańsk in Pomerania, which started the period of long Polish-Teutonic wars; their first stage ended in 1343 with the Kalisz Peace, at the time of Casimir III the Great, who reigned as the King of Poland from 1333 to 1370 (PWN 1997-2020). The threat by the Teutonic Knights of Lithuania became one of the causes of the Polish-Lithuanian union in 1385. In 1409, the Teutonic Knights started the so-called Great War with one of the greatest battle of the Middle Ages (Ibid.).

Two naked swords given to the Polish King Władysław II Jagiello and the Grand Duke of Lithuania Vytautas by the heralds of the Grand Master of the Teutonic Order, Ulrich von Jungingen. The handing over of the swords was a symbolic excuse to start the Battle of Grunwald, 1410. In: “Miecze grunwaldzkie”. (2019) Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Emil Karewicz as the Polish King, Władysław II Jagiełło. Shot from the movie “Knights of the Teutonic Order” (”Krzyżacy”), directed by Aleksander Ford (1960). Source: East News/POLFILM (2018).“’Krzyżacy’: pierwsza historyczna superprodukcja”. In: Film Interia.pl.

The final fight was at Grunwald (Poland) in 1410, where the Teutonic Knights were strongly defeated by the united Polish-Lithuanian forces led by the Polish King, Władysław II Jagiełło (PWN 1997-2020). Like later Azincourt in 1415, Grunwald was one of the greatest battles and turning points in the European history. Since then, the political and economic power of the Order had collapsed (Ibid.). Further wars with Poland in the fifteenth century led to the impoverishment of the population of the Teutonic state and its final secularization in the sixteenth century (Ibid.).

Mischievous knights

In one of his historic novels, Knights of the Teutonic Order (1900) (Krzyżacy) by Henryk Sienkiewicz, the author describes the Teutonic-Polish tense relations just one decade before Grunwald (1410).

Against the background of significant historical events, Sienkiewicz tells a story of colourful and expressive characters; the tragic love of the heroes is a melodramatic theme, and the fight against the treacherous Teutonic Knights was to raise the spirit of Poles under the partitions (”Krzyżacy (powieść)” 2020). The plot of the novel also takes place at the Malbork castle.

Polish pyramids

The history of Teutonic knights, however, is not the only interesting aspect of the site.

As some Polish researchers state, Poles do not have to leave their country to look for traces of ancient civilizations (Białczyński 2017). There are places in Poland that are not less interesting as Egyptian pyramids or cyclopean constructions in Peru, and there are yet many mysteries in the Polish history waiting to be explained (Ibid.). Some of them concern medieval castles, such as the royal Wawel castle in Kraków or Malbork (Ibid.). Archaeologists presume that the greatest number of medieval constructions was built in our lands from the thirteenth to the fifteenth century, of which there are mostly castles founded by Casimir III the Great, another group by the Teutonic Knights, others by minor local princes or families, and also those more legendary, apparently built either by angels or demons (Białczyński 2017; see Matusik, Miszalski 1998).

The Malbork castle’s massive turrets by the Nougat. Photo by Jan Nowak, (2016) Free images at Pixabay.

Historians agree that castles of stone (mostly in the south-west of Poland) and of brick (in the north-east of the country) had been built since around the end of the tenth century (Christianisation of Poland) (Białczyński 2017; see Matusik, Miszalski 1998). The choice of building material used may be related to its access, as well as the possibility of its transport to the construction site, but may also be related to the level of building technology in a given period (Białczyński 2017).

According to the official history, contemporary inhabitants of the country had a sufficiently good technique to build such a big number of huge buildings in that period (Białczyński 2017). However, some alternative thesis says some of these constructions were re-built on much older stone foundations, that is to say, stone foundations had already been there in the period that is commonly associated with wooden constructions in Poland (Ibid.). Moreover, when looking closely at the Polish strongholds, some of their stone elements should not exist at all according to the official history, as their processing is characterised by a highly advanced technology (Ibid.). Many authors claim that some features of the stones bear similarity to those observed in Egypt or Peru … This theory in a first place concerns medieval castles ascribed to Casimir III the Great, but there are also Teutonic castles known of that phenomenon (Białczyński 2017; Zalewski 2018; Tagen TV 2018).

Alternative history of Poland and of its castles

Famous propagators of such alternative and controversial theories are, among all, an independent historian and author, Janusz Bieszk, and a geologist, Dr. Franc Zalewski. The latter traces down extraordinary aspects of medieval constructions, such as unusual tool marks left on some stone slabs (see Zalewski 2018).

Red silhouette of the castle is full of mysteries. Photo by Krzysztof Karwan, (2016) Free images at Pixabay.

Whereas some of them are exposed in a commonly accessed areas, the major part of such features is hidden in castles’ basements (Zalewski 2018; Tagen TV 2018). In one of his interviews, Janusz Bieszk admits that during his work on Teutonic castles, he was not allowed to go down to the basements to carry on his studies (Tagen TV 2018). Simultaneously, he admits that the Teutonic knights could not have been able to build such a large number of fortifications from the scratch just during a century (Ibid.). He says that the Malbork castle itself, has got peculiar stones incorporated into the bricked walls, which show marks of mechanical tools (Ibid.). At the same time, he admits it is difficult to say without further examination of the site who made them and when (Ibid.). ‘The fact is that most Teutonic castles are set on the ancient foundations’, he assures (Ibid.). ‘When the knights came, they must have built over the ancient remains, using accessible materials such as bricks or stone’ (Ibid.) Similar assumptions are made by Dr. Franc Zalewski regarding Casimir’s castles and the royal Wawel castle with its surroundings (Zalewski 2018).

The courtyard of the castle in Malbork. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

As it is easy to guess, we were not allowed to descend in the undergrounds of the castle as we were just common tourists visiting the complex. I even doubt I would have obtained a permit if I had applied for it as an independent researcher. Maybe such an option would be considered if I worked as a part of an archaeological team on site … Hopefully, such an opportunity will arise in the future. I am also planning to have a tour along the trail of the Eagle’s Nests, where the southwestern stone castles and medieval ruins are located. For the need of the present and rather short visit, we had to rely on an official version of history (see: Red-Bricked Castle of Marienburg on the River Nougat).

Featured image: Almost deserted, long and sandy beaches with predominant silence and cooling breeze are typical of Hel Peninsula, in Poland. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

By Joanna
Faculties of English Philology, History of Art and Archaeology.
University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland;
Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland;
University College Dublin, Ireland.

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