Nidzica, Poland — In 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."