Primeval, Postmodern Nidzica

picture120In the castle courtyard, cobblestones slicked with rain, a Teutonic knight was sneaking a cigarette. He sported an ankle-length, sea-green hooded tunic cinched with a broad blue sash. A rectangular swath of watermelon-colored cloth fit over his head, reaching the full length of his tunic, and a forest-green mantle capped his shoulders. The setting and sartorial style were ancient; the bright colors and wreath of cigarette smoke, vibrantly modern.

In his own way, this errant knight symbolized the churning, startling blend of old and new in Poland’s lake country. Our knight was really a hotel guest, and so were we.

Last March my husband, Paul, and I visited this medieval castle, the gem of Nidzica (nih-JEET-sah), a small town about 100 miles north of Warsaw. Paul was attending a conference here; I wanted to investigate a land of more than 1,000 lakes, primeval forests, castles and historic sites. It’s an area popular with vacationing Poles but little known by those outside the country.

Chilly, damp weather prevented me from paddling on any lakes, but I was able to explore the historic riches of the region. My most surprising find, though, turned out to be three unusual, wildly different lodgings that catapult a visitor from the 21st century back to the 14th.

Eight years ago, Nidzica Castle was in ruins, ravaged by years of lax communist stewardship. But in its nearly 700-year history, the castle has suffered at the hands of more aggressive attackers, from Swedes and Tatars in the 17th century to Napoleon’s army and Cossacks in the 19th. With loan guarantees from a local development foundation, it was rebuilt and now contains the 25-room Hotel Gregorovius and Zamku restaurant, as well as a local museum, library, arts center and meeting rooms.

The castle dominates the town from the top of a steep, tree-dotted hill. Entry is first through an outer ward, protected by a wall and gatehouse. Then a low, thick archway leads to the iron portcullis, a heavy gate made to clang shut in the face of invaders before they reached the inner courtyard. Today, fortunately, the most dangerous part of Nidzica Castle is the seductive selection of vodkas behind the bar.

The hotel occupies the castle’s eastern wing, connected to the rest of the building by two huge square towers. The redbrick towers, capped by pyramidal tile roofs, loom more than 75 feet high, with stairways – “medieval StairMasters,” I called them – that lead to accommodations on four levels. With no elevators and no bellhops, this hotel is definitely for the fit. Handmade replicas of ancient swords, pikes and battle-axes decorate the corridors.

Standard accommodations are basic and neat, featuring compact, modern bathrooms equipped with shower stalls. The furnishings are pleasant but utilitarian, with a desk, chair and cable TV. Colors are in shades of brown and orange – aside from the bright pink sheets, which seemed flimsy. Our fourth-floor room faced the courtyard, with two ample windows set in the 3-foot-thick walls; the tower rooms (found only on the fifth floor) have a series of small, high windows.

The castle ravens provided morning wake-up service, swooping and calling from the ramparts. Gazing over the mossy roofs and into the misty courtyard, I found it easy to imagine Nidzica Castle as an ancient seat of power.

It was built by the Teutonic knights, invited to northern Poland in the 13th century to crush local Prussian pagans. The knights were German crusaders who continued to mercilessly grab land and wage war, even after exterminating virtually all the pagans. Soon they were unwelcome guests, and in 1410, the stage was set for a monumental battle.

The Teutonic knights fielded a force of 33,000 – heavy cavalry, well-equipped infantry and trained servants. The Poles came to battle with 40,000 troops, including Bohemians, Lithuanians, Russians (many of them peasants armed only with wooden clubs) and 1,100 Tatar horsemen. The Teutonic knights were so certain of victory that they had brought a huge supply of wine to celebrate.

I set out with Barbara Margol, head of the Nidzica Community Foundation whom I met at my husband’s conference, to see Grunwald battleground, where the confrontation unfolded. After a 30-mile drive on two-lane roads, we reached the entrance to the park, where two huge swords are thrust into the ground, evoking an episode that occurred just before the battle. A formidable sight, the Teutonic knights took the field at dawn, dressed in white tunics with black crosses and mounted on large horses. Polish King Jagiello refused to face them, preferring to let his opponents roast in the July heat while his forces rested in the forest.

The knights sent two emissaries to the Poles, taunting them by thrusting their swords into the ground and saying, “If you are afraid to come out and fight, our grand master sends you these additional weapons.”

Jagiello stood his ground and, as the battle finally unfolded, won the day with a series of maneuvers that took the seasoned knights by surprise. More than 20,000 were slain on each side, but the Teutonic knights’ rule was broken.

Like many historic battlefields, this one is lush green and eerily peaceful. Barbara fearlessly piloted her car around barricades and over grass to drive us up a hill in the center of the vast park. A chill wind swept over us as we stood on the hilltop staring up at the towering modern steel monument and toward the deep forests that still rim the area. I thought of victorious King Jagiello, who ordered the knights’ wine stash poured on the bloody ground to prevent his men from getting out of hand.

Every July 15, thousands of reenactors fight the battle again. I suspect, though, that the wine has a different fate in this modern version.

A trencherman’s feast

Back at Nidzica Castle, we were in for a treat. It was our turn to don the Teutonic knights’ garb (at-home wear, that is, without chain mail) and dine in medieval style. We assembled at a long table in a gallery high on the western side of the castle. I’m not a fan of theme restaurants, but this meal had a ring of authenticity. Local craftspeople attended, and between courses we could try our hand at woodcarving, working with stained glass or forming a clay bowl.

Our only utensils were a plank and a large wooden spoon. A river of beer flowed from earthenware pitchers. Crocks of pickles and sauerkraut were passed. We grabbed whole smoked trout and sausages hanging from wooden racks and ate with our hands. The trout was moist and sweet; the sausage, well, I had done my time on the medieval StairMaster for a moment such as this. I boldly dipped into a ramekin of fat (medieval butter) and spread a little onto dense, brown bread.

Next we were treated to chicken cooked in mead, an ancient liquor made from honey. Then the lights dimmed and the pièce de résistance arrived: a flaming roast pig. It was heavenly. I reevaluated my silly dependence on silverware, vowing to eat every meal with my hands from that day on.

Just when you think a Polish feast is over, the next course arrives. I said no to ebony-colored blood sausages but found the potato sausages, a local specialty, divine.

The rest of the meal was a blur of overabundance: baked potatoes, a savory corn pudding, apples. Taking a break, I sneaked behind a wall to the row of narrow window slits that allowed castle archers to rain arrows on their attackers. The lights of Nidzica glimmered calmly below. I smiled. My kingdom was at peace.

Following their dream

The next day, Barbara’s husband, Krzysztof, and I ventured 10 miles northeast from Nidzica to see a small, exclusive resort that opened late last spring. My first glimpse of Lemany Estate was a field of grazing horses. Then I spied a stable, with two graceful carriages and a painted sleigh parked beneath its eaves. Beyond a gentle rise, a scattering of half-timbered houses appeared.

Owner Marlena Liczmanska strode out to greet us. She and her husband, Janusz Studzinski, are former brewery executives who left Warsaw to realize a dream that includes four two-story guesthouses, furnished with antiques, fireplaces and saunas (but no kitchens).

Liczmanska spent years collecting the furnishings, from as far away as France. The beautiful 18th to 20th century pieces are so skillfully renovated that they look almost new. Each house is more than 1,000 square feet, with two bedrooms (plus a living room sofa bed) and two spacious baths; most have views down to pristine lakes, Kownatki and Katy, where beaches await swimmers, kayakers, windsurfers and fishermen. A main building holds a restaurant, disco and children’s playroom plus three bilevel suites. Liczmanska has lured two foreign-trained Polish chefs who buy many of their all-natural ingredients from local producers.

Lemany Estate figures to be a boon to the area’s limping economy, already employing a local architect and craftspeople to re-create the ancient regional Mazurian half-timbered style, which features dark crisscrossed exterior timbers supporting white stucco walls. Liczmanska even recycled old clay roof tiles from local buildings to add character to the new construction.

“Our friends were shocked,” she said, at her preference for using old tiles rather than new ones.

A 36-mile journey north of Nidzica took us to Olsztyn, the largest city in the Warmia/Mazuria region. Parts of its old town were heavily damaged in World War II, and many of the buildings have been reconstructed. The pedestrian area is guarded by an original towering brick gate, part of the ancient defenses. A 14th century castle, a short stroll from the main square, houses the Museum of Warmia and Mazuria, but was home to Nicolaus Copernicus, astronomer and scholar, from 1516 to 1521.

There Copernicus worked on his treatise postulating that Earth is not the center of the universe, or, as a well-known Polish saying goes, Copernicus “stopped the sun and moved the Earth.” High on one wall, remnants of his 20-foot-long astronomical table, painted in red and black, chart the spring and fall equinoxes. In the castle’s refectory is a small display about the astronomer, with reproductions of his simple instruments. Equally fascinating is the room’s intricate crystalline vaulting, also found in the Cathedral of St. Jacob (Katedra sw. Jakuba) across the town square.

We strolled across the square, passing up a tempting flea market to look at the cathedral. Staring up at the vaulting was like gazing into the depths of a huge diamond, a series of delicate geometric facets dancing together with mathematical precision. Senses dazzled and stomachs growling, we hit the road again, heading a few miles south to the hamlet of Stawiguda.

Inside an unassuming former school with a generic sign that merely proclaims “Hotel” resides one of the hippest establishments I’ve encountered. We never would have found it without a tip from a local design aficionado.

Hotel Galery69 was conceived by an architect couple, Malgorzata Zoltowska and Wojciech Zoltowski, as a gallery for their designs. Every piece of furniture in the hotel and every plate of food in the restaurant bears their distinctive touch. The look is light and airy, thanks to an abundance of natural wood, even though some of their furniture forms are massive.

We settled in at a restaurant table where we could take in the lake through picture windows. It was a contest between watching the light play off the “Scandinavian Zen” interiors or observing a pair of wild swans (the area is known for them) feeding just offshore.

The food was as clean and fresh as the design. The eclectic menu offers a modern take on traditional Polish foods, plus such diverse items as pasta and pizzas, even fondue.

We started with seafood chowder thick with salmon, shrimp and mussels, and a tomato soup laced with tiny half-moon-shaped pasta pierogi stuffed with mushrooms. The flavors were vibrant. We followed with grilled chicken breast kebabs that arrived with a subtle yogurt-based dipping sauce and an artful scattering of vegetables. Ultra-fresh Greek salads topped off the meal.

The upstairs accommodations echo the restaurant’s serenity and creativity. There are seven double rooms and three suites, some with kitchenettes; the nicest have terraces or views of the lake. Furnishings include sinuous sofas, rice paper lamps and a chunky wooden headboard evoking a silhouetted city bordered by rolling countryside.

Although the couple’s sensibilities would be at home in the world’s trendiest enclaves, their style was relaxed and welcoming. The one small downside: They spoke very little English, and we spoke very little Polish.

After surveying 700 years’ worth of sights, I’d ended up squarely back in the 21st century. And after all the Polish feasting, I hustled back home to a modern-day StairMaster.

© 2003 Gayle Keck
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