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||GAZING AT THE SILHOUETTED LANDSCAPE speeding by and slowly drifting off to sleep, I hardly felt ready to wake up in Warsaw with the dawn. As much as I enjoy the jostled rest of the sleeping car, the destination cast a shadow on the sense of romance that always accompanies me on train travel. Warsaw has long felt unpleasant to me, hostile somehow, like the high-pitched shriek of the old wheels laboriously coming to a stop at the station. But, it was with a sense of relief that I finally dozed off, remembering that this time I was staying just long enough to rent the car that would take me directly out of the unfriendly city to follow the tracks forged seven centuries earlier by the Teutonic Knights.
Like so many Americans I have long been mysteriously drawn to European castles. Polands turbulent history gave birth to unique architectural treasures that have impressed me as some of the best Europe has to offer. My journey promised to be one of educational value, as well as one of adventure and romance. Not only would I be shooting the majestic castle exteriors bathed in soft light and exploring their antique-filled interiors, I would then get to spend the night there. Perhaps little more than idyllic American fancy, it was none-the-less a childhood dream come true.
A large number of castles around Poland have been converted wholly or partially into beautiful hotels with fairly reasonable rates by Western standards. Whether a 14th century Teutonic stronghold or a 19th century hunting palace, the facilities are very modern and even the most remote have information or tours in English. To add to their appeal, they provide the simplicity of online booking and also offer other services like decent restaurants, bike rental, guided excursions by horse-drawn carriage, game rooms and sometimes live entertainment during the high season.
The Teutonic Knights
Although the country is abound with impressive castles, palaces and ruins in every direction and from every conceivable era, I was felt inexplicably lured to the region of Masuria-Warmia, the long-time headquarters of the Teutonic Knights. Despite their reputation for mass destruction, the order constructed over 70 fortified castles around the region and their efforts to convert the pagan Slavs to Christianity has obviously had a tremendous historical and cultural impact not only in what is now Poland, but all around eastern and central Europe. For over 50 years they waged war in the region, converting, destroying or driving their victims out with as many as eight military campaigns per year. So set was Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II on converting the Slavs that he promised the Teutonic order the right to claim any territory taken over from the natives as their own.
Beginning as a purely charitable organization, they were given the full name House Of The Hospitalers Of Saint Mary Of The Teutons In Jerusalem; the white tunic with black cross being the symbol granted with their official recognition as a monastic order in 1199. They were eventually relieved of the vow of poverty required of them as a monastic order, and were then able to gain even more power with their increasing wealth thanks to diligent trading activities.
Although originally established in Palestine as the last of the three great military religious orders during the crusades, they moved to the area formerly known as Prussia in 1226 by invitation from the prince, Conrad of Mazovia. In most respects they were similar to their predecessors, the Templars and Hospitalers, except that their members were required to be German noblemen. During the widespread pillaging, German settlers were called upon to repopulate the region, an indirect result being the enduring ethnic tensions between Germans and Slavs. It was with the combined effort of their numerous enemies, including Czechs, Hungarians, Tartars, and Lithuanians that they were finally defeated, but their impact would continue even to modern times.
Undoubtedly the strong Roman Catholic predominance in modern day Poland could be asserted as another of their influences. Their existence also said to set a precedent for the conquest of Eastern Europe by the Nazis, who saw the Teutonic Order as an example of the superiority of German-speaking peoples. The Third Reich spent considerable sums and efforts restoring the Teutonic castles as a tribute to German greatness, while other architectural beauties were shamelessly destroyed.