The Medieval Town of Torun
The Medieval town of Torun may be confined by space, fitting into approx. 1.5 sq kilometers, but time has expanded its breadth exhaling stories of bygone ages. Its walls are a portal to lives lived and life that continues through upheaval and peace from pestilence to health. It has risen and fallen and still continues bustling with activity, and wares for sale behind each door.
Medieval Torun is surrounded by walls, a leaning tower, and gates that signify entry into a place of importance.
The Polish settlement of Torun was founded in 1233AD¹, but archeologists hypothesize that people have resided here since 1100BC². Today we can see and touch a portion of the oldest city wall still standing. The rest of the wall was demolished in 1454 by the Oruniski burghers at the beginning of the anti-Teutonic order (according to the plaque on the remnant of the wall). The city however has continually been rebuilt.
Entering through an arched gate we were confronted with brick streets rife with activity. People mulling about every direction. Some looked up at the ornate architecture towering above them. The streets were lined with more than just facades. These were structures built in a time before planned obsolescence was the game of our society.
Fun Facts: Nicolaus Copernicus was born, went to school, and lived his life in Torun (1473-1543). The place where he is believed to have been born and the school (still a school today) he attended can be visited. Napoleon Bonaparte stayed in Torun in 1812.
More than a relic. Ancient here is tangible.
We felt an “ancient” distance while exploring the area around Machu Picchu in Peru. Even though Medieval Torun is of similar age to many of the ruins we explored in the Sacred Valley, it felt very different. Machu Pichu is estimated to have been built in the 15th century, but pre-Inca society and the ruins surrounding it were much older. It is estimated that from 1000 to 1400 AD a centralized state was developed in the Cusco Valley Peru³.
In Peru, “ancient” was separated as reminiscent of a society that has all but disappeared with time. Even though indigenous groups persist, the written language has been destroyed or hidden. Many of the practices of the Inca are gone leaving modern man astounded by the earthquake-proof architecture and transportation means of the massive stones used. It seems to be lost technology and lost art.
Here in Medieval Torun, the ancient is more tangible. It exists on a continuum. The culture and technology for sure have adapted over time but the place has been continually occupied – even if by different forces.
Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley exist as relics. Torun is a city still lived in. Modes of transport still pass through the gate. Instead of the sound of a horse’s hooves and the clatter of a carriage, we hear rubber tires squeaking on the cobblestone path. Even the tradition of baking gingerbread, which most Polish say, connect to the 13th-century⁴ is still alive all around town.
In Medieval Torun, trade continues. People buy and sell, and they laugh and cry. The next generation is born and a prior one passes to dust. It is a place of continual society, with some people surviving and others thriving.
Brick walls of silence
We stayed in Hotel Pod Orłem which resides within the city walls of medieval Torun. Some of the walls of this hotel are 500 years old and made of many brick layers. We were in the middle of the bustling town yet little sound penetrated those walls. We had a peaceful night’s rest. The age of the building however does mean that the floors creak and that there were multiple levels to the flooring in our room. We kept our shoes on to avoid stubbing our toes while walking around the room.
Malbork Castle: The largest castle in the world
This article’s feature image above is from inside Malbork Castle
Malbork Castle began as the fortress headquarters for the Teutonic Order and became the largest castle in the world by land mass. Construction began in 1276AD⁵. The first phase which includes the upper castle and tallest portion today took 24 years to construct. It continually expanded and has been repaired over the years as time and wars have taken their toll.
Malbork Castle covers 52 acres of land – four times the size of Windsor Castle. Currently, tours of the castle are available. Each guest is given a headset and a device that picks up the location in the castle and talks about it. It allows guests to wander at their own pace checking out intricate designs and massive rooms.
My favorite room was the summer room where guests were received during the warmer months. This room is located at the corner of the Grand Masters Palace. The two outer walls are covered with glazed windows that soften the sunlight entering the room. The lightly colored glass gave it a peaceful ambiance.
In the wintertime, a separate room was used for receiving guests. The winter room had only one outer wall giving it fewer windows. It also had vents in the floor where heat from the hypocaust could rise. In the basement, a large room of stones was heated by stoking a fire underneath them. The heat from the stones was then vented up to specific rooms.
Only the Grand Master and the head cook had their own bathroom. Both of them also had heating in their bedrooms.
In northern Poland beside the Baltic Sea lies the city of Gdańsk first mentioned as a Polish city in approx 997.⁶ It has changed hands back and forth over the years. Tensions over ownership of the city between Germany and Poland resulted in the first conflict of WWII when Germany invaded the city.
Old Town Gdańsk is beautiful and well-maintained. Cobbled streets are lined with large structures restored to their pre-1793 look. In 1793 Gdańsk was annexed to Prussia and the German influence on architecture filtered into the streets. After Poland regained ownership of Gdańsk the Polish reconstruction sought to wipe out the Germin-influenced architecture.
Old Town Krakow
Krakow was the center of political life in Poland from 1038 until 1596 when the court was relocated to Warsaw (or so some say – see Warsaw below). The town then had a defensive wall with 46 towers and 7 entry gates.
The town center is said to be the largest town center in medieval times. St. Mary’s Church, pictured below, rests at one end of the square. Legend says that two brothers were hired to build the towers for St. Mary’s Church. The first brother built his faster and higher. The second brother becoming jealous killed his brother. Then out of guilt he jumped from the tower and died. My Polish friend Maciej says that all good Polish legends end with everyone dying.
In the town center of Old Town Krakow, the blue and yellow flag of Ukraine waved.
“Why do the children have to die?” A woman yelled out with a broken voice. She stood below the flag with a microphone in her hand.
“We want to sleep in our own beds.”
“Please help us”.
Her impassioned plea moved me to tears.
There are many memorials that honor the lives of those lost during the Holocaust. Empty metal chairs sit in a town square, each one signifying 1,000 lives lost. There were a lot of chairs. In addition to the 3 million Jews (80% of the Jewish population) murdered during the war, there were also 2.8 non-Jewish Poles (10% of the Polish population).⁷ The exact number of lives lost is unknown but the devastation is indisputable.
Trin and I stayed in an Airbnb that during World War II was part of the Jewish ghetto. This section of town was walled off to contain and imprison the Jewish population. In late 1939 the Jewish population of Krakow was said to be 70,000. By the early 1990s, only a few hundred Jews remained in Krakow.⁸ It was sobering to stay within those walls.
Wawel Royal Castle
On a hill looking over the city of Krakow resides the Wawel Castle. Inside the walls of the castle is an eclectic mix of architectural styles from structures built during different periods. The current castle was built in the 14th century and has expanded over the last 800 years. However, some of the old walls can be traced back to 970 AD.⁹
Sigismund Bell hanging in the Wawel cathedral since 1521 weighs almost 13 tons (28 thousand pounds). It takes 12 bell ringers to toll it.¹⁰ We heard a rumor that it is good luck to climb the bell tower of the Wawel Castle Cathedral and lick the bell at the top. We skipped this tradition.
Old Town Warsaw
Some refer to Warsaw as the Phoenix city because it has been destroyed and then rebuilt from dirt.
Warsaw is the current capital of Poland. The actual date that the capital moved from Krakow to Warsaw is often debated. Some say it was 1596, others say it was 1952. Such a large discrepancy can only exist because of Poland’s complicated history. There were 123 years between those two dates when Poland did not even exist.
If you want to know more about when and where the capital of Poland moved this article from tour Poland is an interesting read. To see how the land borders have changed since 1635 check out this changing map.
Poland has a complicated history but what remains on her land is beautiful.
¹Torun Oldest Settlement: https://www.torun.pl/en/kultura/history-torun
²Torun Archeology: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Toru%C5%84
³Cusco Peru History: https://anthrosource.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1525/aa.2002.104.3.846
⁴Torun Gingerbread: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Toru%C5%84_gingerbread
⁵ Malbork Castle: http://www.castlestudiesgroup.org.uk/Malbork%20-%20Anthony%20Emery.pdf
⁶ Gdańsk: https://www.britannica.com/place/Gdansk
⁷ Holocaust: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Holocaust_in_Poland
⁸ Jewish Population of Krakow: https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/krakow-cracow
⁹ Wawel Castle: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wawel_Castle
¹⁰Wawel Cathedral Bell: http://www.katedra-wawelska.pl/english/the_royal_sigismund_bell%2C54.html