My History Blog, Focussing mostly on Roman and Mediaeval Times

  Krakow and Wrocław - My Spring Journey 2019, Part 2

The second post of my Travel Return Booty will present the places I visited in Poland.

Krakow, Easter market on the Market Square, seen from the balcony of the Cloth Hall
(St.Mary's Basilica in the background)

It was Palm Sunday in Krakow, an important day for Catholics in Poland, and the weather was fine to boot, so the town was rather crowded, not only with - mostly Polish - tourists, but with pretty much all inhabitants of the city and surroundings. The women and some children were carrying bouquets made of evergreen and spring flowers. It was a pretty sight.

Krakow, Cloth Hall and belfry (left)

Since there were services and prayers going on all day, I didn't have a chance to seen any of the churches from the inside, but I didn't mind - I got plenty of church photos in my collection. There was much else to see.

Krakow, view from the Barbikane to St.Florian's Gate

Like the remains of the town fortifications, the Barbikane and St.Florian's Gate. Not many people purchased a ticket for the tour of their interior, so I had some quiet moments doing one of my favourite things: photographing Mediaeval military architechture. *grin*

Krakow, Wawel Castle in the evening sun

Wawel Castle had been the main seat of the Kings of Poland for centuries and thus has been altered and enlarged several times. The inner yards are open to the public, but access to the rooms is limited to 30 people per hour, so it is a bit tricky to get tickets for the tour (though I approve such precautions to preserve valuable items). Since photographing is not allowed inside, I skipped the Flemish tapestries and pretty furniture.

Krakow, the Wawel Dragon

Outside I met with a fire breathing dragon. The beastie haunted a cave under the castle until some brave soul fed it with sulphur and the dragon exploded. The statue dates to 1972 and does indeed breathe fire now and then. I was lucky to catch on of those bursts (though you can obviously trigger them via SMS, how mundane).

Street Café in the Jewish quarter

Kazimierz, the former Jewish Quarter, is a very different part of Krakow. Less frequented by tourists, but popular with young people. Some houses have already been restored and look as pretty as in the Old Town, but others still need new paint or a sandblasting. It gives the place a slightly rundown, but charming atmosphere.

Ogrodzieniec Castle

I also got yet another castle for my collection. There are several castles not far from Krakow; the so called Eagle Nest Trail, a series of castles situated on lime stone cliffs. They were built mostly in the 14th century to protect the border to Silesia which then belonged to the Kingdom of Bohemia. Ogrodzieniec is the most spectacular of the lot.

Ogrodzieniec Castle, the main hall seen from one of the towers

The castle is a veritable labyrinth since the various levels have been made accessible by stairs and metal bridges. I didn't even notice the school class who visited the place at the same time until we met back at the entrance.

Wrocław, gabled houses at the market square

Wrocław (Breslau) was much quieter and relaxed; a nice final part of my tour. The market square (rynek głowny - great ring) is one of the finest in Europe. I've seen some pretty ones, esp. the one in Bruges, but I think I like the market square in Wrocław best.

Wrocław, well in the market square

Even the modern well, the Zdroj Fountain from 1996, which sparkles so prettily in the sunshine, fits. And for one there was no need to photgraph around tourists and Easter market booths. *grin*

Wrocław, the Cathedral Island with the St.John's Cathedral

The second historical centre of Wrocław is the Cathedral Island (Ostrów Tumski) in the Oder river. It is the eldest kernel of the town, dating to the 10th century. It was given to the Church in 1315. The most famous - and architecturally outstanding - building on the island is the Gothic Cathedral of St. John the Baptist.

Blooming magnolias in the Botanical Garden

The Botanical Garden is also situated on the Cathedral Island. It was a lovely, quiet and restful place filled with the flowers and scents of spring.

  Prague and More - My Spring Journey 2019, Part 1

I'm back from my tour through the Czech Republic and Poland, and I did indeed manage to squish in some more places besides the major towns on the itinerary. Here is part 1 of the customary overview posts.

Prague seen from the Hradčany

Prague was of course the highlight. The town is beautiful, but also pretty stuffed with tourists already in April. I wouldn't want to travel there in summer; you'd probably have to ride a Nimbus 2000 to get any photos without peoples' heads in the foreground, and the queues in front of the Hradčany ticket office will wind down halfway into the Lesser Town.

View to the Hradčany and St.Vitus Cathedral, with the Charles Bridge in the foreground

As it was, I managed enough decent pics to give you a tour of the town in another post or two. I was told that November is a quiet month ... so if you want to get Prague with fog instead of tourists, travel in November. *grin*

Vltava river and Old Town, seen from the Lesser Town

The photo above is a fine example for the reason Prague is called the Golden City - it does have a golden shine in the sunset gleam.

The weather was sunny most of the time, though the temperature couldn't decide whether it was spring already or still winter, it tried something different every day.

Prague, Easter market in the Old Town Square

What I had not counted on was the Easter markets being held in pretty much every square shaped place, which added to the crowded feel. But they were a pretty sight nevertheless. (Note to self: don't travel the week prior to Easter.)

Cheb, the market square

The Mediaeval town of Cheb (Eger) is a much smaller town close to the German border, with a charming old market square plus some other pretty old houses, and an interesting castle.

Cheb castle, the chapel (left) and Black Tower (right)

The castle - then an Imperial palatine seat - dates back to the time of Friedrich Barbarossa. The chapel and the Black Tower are remaining features of that earliest construction from the 12th century. At that time, Cheb belonged to the German Empire.

Loket Castle

Another castle near Cheb is Loket (Elbogen). Its origins date to the 13th century, but it was enlarged in the 1520ies, thus displaying Romanesque and Gothic architectural features. As border castle between Germany and Bohemia, it was the place of several historical events.

Loket castle, inner yard

The castle fell into disrepair after the Thirty Years War; some parts burned down a century later. The remains were used as prison in the 19th century. The castle was eventually restored when it came into possession of the town of Loket in 1993.

Karlovy Vary, timber colonnade

Karlovy Vary (Karlsbad) is a spa town in the same area as Cheb and Loket Castle. It once was one of the most popular spa town in Austria-Hungary (and Germany). Famous German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe went there several times during his life (he'd been to Loket as well, where he got a statue on the main road of the village).

Karlovy Vary, view from the Teplá river to the houses uphill;
with the Mill Colonnade to the right

Until the end of WW1, most of the inhabitants of Karlovy Vary were German speakers. Today, the language I most prominently heard during the few hours of my visit was Russian - they have replaced the German spa visitors, it seems.

Karlštejn Castle

The other Czech castle I visited is situated close to Prague: the iconic Karlštejn. It was founded by Charles IV (of House Luxembourg), Holy Roman Emperor and King of Bohemia, in 1348. Charles was also responsible for several of the buildings on the Hradčany in Prague. The castle was intended to protect the crown jewels of Bohemia, and did so for several centuries.

Karlštejn, the outer bailey

Due to its historcial importance, the castle has been restored in the late 19th century. Some neo-Gothic fake elements, like the timber battlements on the towers, have been added in the process. Some important rooms can be seen on a guided tour which I took.

Bone decorations in the Sedlec Ossuary

Sedlec (about an hours drive from Prague) was a 13th century Cistercian monastery which became attractive as burial site when one abbot brought back some earth from Golgotha and sprinkled it over the cemetery. A Gothic chapel was built over the churchyard in 1400; with the cellar used as ossuary for the mass of bones found in the cemetery. The site came into possession of the Schwarzenberg family who employed the woodcarver František Rint to sort the heaps of bones (1870) - the result was that he used a bunch of them for decorations.

St.James Church and Italian Court in Kutna Horá

Kutna Horá (Kuttenberg), the town near the Sedlec monastery, was one of the wealthiest towns in Bohemia in the 13th - 16th centuries due to the nearby silver mines, competing even with Prague. The city centre is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Italian Court during that time included the main mint of Bohemia.

Prague, the Čertovka canal

A quiet spot in busy Prague: The Čertovka canal separating the Kampa island from the Lesser Town.


  Eastward Bound - My Spring Tour 2019

I'll be off until Easter visiting Prague and Cheb (Eger) in the Czech Republic, and Krakow and Wrocław (Breslau) in Poland, plus some planned detours to castles and other sites of interest. Let's see what fun places I can squish into my schedule.

The three larger towns each have their river: the Vltava (Moldau) in Prague, the Vistula (Weichsel) in Krakow and the Oder in Wrocław. So there may be a river boat tour in there as well - you know I like those.

Gdańsk, the Motława river with the Crane Gate

I left plenty of reading material in the posts below to tide you over the break. You'll have to get used to some names with odd letters in the time to come, since I'm going to post more about Polish and Czech history in the future. *grin*

Gdańsk, the 'Milk Can' Gate seen from the river

On another note: I have disabled anonymous comments again. I get a dozen spam, troll and just plain silly comments every day, and I don't feel like sorting through several hundred of those upon my return. I apologise for the inconvenience that may cause those of my readers who don't want to register with Google in order to comment on my blog.

  Lithuanian History: Troublesome Cousins - Jogaila Algirdaitis and Vytautas Kęstutaitis

I mentioned the union of Poland and Lithuania under Władysław Jagiełło of Poland, formerly Jogaila of Lithuania, only briefly in my post about the history of Gdańsk. Of course, the process, and the years leading up to it, did not go as smoothly as such a brief mention may suggest. When I read up on the details, I got interested in this little piece of history, not the least because the crusades against the still pagan Lithuanians involved some noblemen from England, among them the future Henry IV. I'm preparing a post about his adventures, so this essay serves to present the historical background.

Map (copyright: Wikipedia Commons)

The map above shows the countries in north-eastern Europe in the 14th century. The borders are not exactly the same as today, but it gives a good overview: Livonia and Courland cover what are basically present day Latvia and Estonia, Baltic lands then held by the Teutonic Knights. Poland today encompasses Prussia - except for the Kaliningrad Oblast - and Silesia (the latter was part of Bohemia in the 14th century), as well as part of Pomerania. The other part of Pomerania is now the German county of Vorpommern. Contested Samogitia today is Lithuanian. To the east, Lithuania's borders stretched far into what is now Belarus and Ukraine; at its largest expanse, towns like Kiev and Smolensk belonged to the grand duchy, while Lviv/Lemberg, part of former Halych-Volhynia, was Polish.

Those had been part of the Kievan Rus and came under dominion of the Golden Horde in the 1240ies. By the mid 1300ies, the Tatar grip had lessened, and some of the Ruthenian dukes prefered Lithuanian suzerainity. There were a few conquests, but most of the gains in the east were made by marriages (1).

Lithuania proper was a country of vast forests and swamps, difficult to penetrate for the mounted Teutonic Knights, or the horse archers of the Golden Horde who never ventured that far. The grand duchy of Lithuania developed during the 13th century from a bunch of feuding Baltic tribes. The pressure of the raids by the Teutonic Knights may in fact have added to this development. By the time of Gediminas (ca. 1275 - Dec. 1341), a dynasty of local rulers, mostly members of the extended family, governed the Lithuanian commonwealth - to use a modern word for the Mediaeval conglomerate of duchies of different people and religions - under the supreme rule of the Grand Duke. Surprisingly, the system worked under Gediminas as well as his sons. It may have helped that the ongoing expansion offered the chance for younger sons and cousins to gain some land.

Lithuanian rulers used the Ruthenian written language (Lithuanian was no written language at the time) and government structures which were better developed than their own. With the Ruthenian lands came the Orthodox religion, but the Lithuanians remained pagans. Though the princes sometimes used the promise of conversion to the Catholic faith in their dealings with the Catholic Order of the Teutonic Knights and western rulers (2). Once, Gediminas even played the Pope against the Teutonic Knights (and married his daughter to the crown prince of Poland, Casimir III). Intermarriage between the ruling Lithuanian and Ruthenian elites became frequent, and some Lithuanian nobles accepted Orthodox baptism.

Lithuanian Forest

After Gediminas' death, two of his sons ruled jointly (after they ousted the obviously incompetent brother who had inherited Vilnius): Algirdas (ca. 1296 - May 1377) and Kęstutis (ca. 1297 - Aug. 1382). Algirdas inherited the duchy and town of Vilnius and was responsible for the defense - and possible expansion - of the eastern Ruthenian duchies and dealing with the Golden Horde. He already had inherited Vitebsk (today in Belarus) from his first wife and had ties to Tver in Russia by his second wife, Uliana of Tver.

Kęstutis (who was married to Birute of Samogitia) held the duchy and castle of Trakai; his responsibily lay in the west, the dealings with Poland and Hungary and the fight against the Teutonic Order. The latter included an adventure when Kęstutis, held in honourable captivity in Małbork Castle, escaped by climbing up a chimney, snatching a white cloak with the black cross and galloping off on the grand master's own horse, a feat he accomplished at the age of 60something.

Algirdas designed Jogaila (ca. 1350 -1434), the eldest son of his second marriage, as heir; Kęstutis his son Vytautas (ca. 1350-1430). Both youths seemed to have gotten along well as boys, but when Algirdas died in 1377, the precarious power balance broke. The eldest son from Algirdas' first marriage, Andrej of Polotsk (today in Belarus), who had accepted Orthodox baptism, rose against Jogaila. Moreover, Kęstutis wanted to become sole Grand Duke and not rule jointly with his nephew.

Małbork Castle, the main gate

Jogaila sent his younger brother Skirgaila to take Polotsk. Andrej fled to Moscow where he forged an alliance with the Grand Duke Dmitry Donskoy and the Livonian branch of the Teutonic Knights who attacked Samogitia and threatened Vilnius. Kęstutis had no choice but to make a truce with the Teutonic Knights and his nephew (Sept. 1379). What followed was a game of double dealing diplomacy that would not be misplaced in A Song of Ice and Fire. In February 1380, Jogaila made a separate truce with the Order that protected his own possessions, but not the lands held by Kęstutis, and put an end to the Order supporting Andrej of Polotsk who was still sulking in Moscow. Three months later, Jogaila and the Grand Master Winrich of Kniprode signed the Treaty of Dovydiškės which went a step further, stating that Jogaila would not interfere if the Teutonic Knights attacked Kęstutis or his children.

The treaty may have served to keep Jogaila's back free in dealing with both his half-brother Andrej and the rebellious inhabitants of Polotsk who had driven Skirgaila out, but it could also be seen as a step towards opening the country to Catholicism and bringing Lithuania into the fold of European kingdoms - something 80 year old Kęstutis was firmly set against.

Meanwhile, Kęstutis had received a warning about the Dovydiškės treaty (3). While Jogaila was busy sorting things in Polotsk, Kęstutis took Vilnius and the title of Grand Duke. Jogaila was taken prisoner on his way back to Vilnius and had to pledge loyalty to his uncle. He was given the patrimonies of Vitebsk and Kreva.

Małbork Castle, decorated arcades in the inner bailey

But Jogaila wasn't the man to dangle his legs in Vitebsk for long. In June 1382, while his uncle was away on business in Novgorod and his cousin Vytautas enjyoing his rule in Trakai, Jogaila retook Vilnius and the throne, welcomed by the merchants who didn't like Kęstutis' politics that harmed the trade with Livonia. Upon hearing the news, Vytautas fled to Samogitia. He and Kęstutis gathered and army and marched towards Trakai.

The armies of Kęstutis and the alliance of Jogaila's troops, supported by a contingent of Teutonic Knights, met near Trakai in August 1382. Both sides agreed to negotiations, but when Kęstutis and Vytautas arrived in Jogaila's camp, he took them captive and sent them to Kreva Castle; the Samogitian army disbanded. A few days later, Kęstutis was found dead (4). Vytautas managed to escape a few months later by disguising as his wife, who had been allowed to visit him. He eventually fled to his former enemies, the Teutonic Knights.

The Teutonic Order was none too keen on having a strong grand duke in Jogiala and tried to inflict such harsh terms on him if he wanted to continue the truce (for example, he was not allowed to start any war without the Order's permission, which would have made it impossible to deal with Andrej of Polotsk) that he refused to ratify the Treaty of Dubysa. So the Order was not unhappy to make a peace deal with Vytautas instead, playing the cousins against each other. Vytautas promised to become a vassal of the Order and cede Samogitia to them - harsh terms as well, those.

The Grand Master's Palace

Jogaila understood that he needed to bring his country into the fold of the Christian states in order for Lithuania to survive. An alliance with the duchy of Moscow and marriage to a Moskovitian princess was discussed, but accepting the Orthodox faith would have opened the door to the claims of his elder half-brothers and threaten a dominance of the Ruthenian parts of the duchy. A Catholic conversion on the other side, would pull the teeth of the Teutonic Knights who called their ongoing raids into Lithuanian territory a crusade against heathens, and give the Cathoic part-to-be of the nobility and populace an identity of their own.

Thus the interest of several Polish nobles to consider Jogaila as husband for their queen Jadwiga (Hedwig) came at the right moment. The Poles needed a king with a strong backing to hold out against the other strong dynasties like the Luxemburgians in Bohemia and the Angevins in Hungary. A local Piast prince with little actual power would not do, and certainly not that Hapsburg boy Jadwiga had been betrothed to (5).

Jogaila contacted his cousin Vytautas in secret and offered him a vague promise of returning Trakai to him once Skirgaila had established himself in Polotsk. In July 1384, Vytautas abandoned the Teutonic Knights, burning two of their castles on the way back home, and a month later he put his name on the Treaty of Krevo. In 1386, Jogaila, now baptised Władysław Jagiełło, was crowned King of Poland.

The summer refectory

Jagiełło now spent most of his time in Poland. Andrej promptly saw another chance in gaining Polotsk, or even the throne of Lithuania. But Jagiełło marched with an army to meet him faster than Andrej thought possible; moreover Vytautas cooperated for a change. Andrej was defeated and brought to Poland in chains. But Jagiełło needed a trusted man to rule Lithuania for him. The one he trusted best was his brother Skrigaila, so Jagiełło appointed him regent - which included the possession of Vilnius and Trakai (besides Polotsk). That irked Vytautas who had been promised Trakai, and not the provinces Jagiełło offered him in recompensation.

Skirgaila may have been an apt administrator, but he failed to gain the acceptance of the populace in Vilnius as well. Vytautas, who must have had a great deal of charisma, received clandestine support, but he failed to take Vilnius and had to flee Lithuania once more. The Grand Master of the Teutonic Knights looked a bit askance at him, not having forgotten his earlier defection and the destroyed castles. He demanded pretty much all of Vytautas' extended family as hostages and Samogitia as price, should they aid Vytautas again.

Technically, Lithuania was now a Christian country, a fact that would have made it impossible for the Teutonic Knights to call the war a crusade. But they argued that the baptism of Jogaila (and Vytautas, but that little inconvenience was conveniently overlooked) and other nobles was a ruse, that the people still practiced pagan rituals, and that a newfound monastery somewhere had been attacked. So this was still considered a crusade and advertised as such in Europe. One of those to follow the call was Henry Bolingbroke, the future King Henry IV of England.

The Teutonic Knights with their allies, followers of Vytautas from Lithuania and Ruthenia, as well as the visiting guest knights, laid siege to Vilnius in September 1390, but failed to take the town. Only the outer castle was destroyed. Disease broke out in the besieger's camp, supplies ran out and the autumn rains set in, therefore the siege was lifted after five weeks.

Lithuanian forest

But Jagiełło had to consolidate his power in Poland which was not uncontested until he produced an heir (6), and therefore wanted a solution to the Lithuanian problem. He contacted Vytautas in secret through his envoy, Henry of Masovia Bishop of Płosk. Vytautas was offered to become Grand Duke of Lithuania while Jagiełło would be Supreme Duke. That made Vytautas his cousin's vassal, but with considerable power of his own.

Vytautas had to tread carefully since the grand master of the Order, Konrad of Wallenrode, did not really trust him. But Vytautas managed to get most of the members of his family who stood in as hostages, to safe places by summer 1392. He had been given the - hastily erected - timber castle of Ritterswerder on an island in the Nemen (Memel) river as residence. Since the negotiations took place in secret, the Teutonic Knights must have been rather surprised to find the burnt ruins of the castle one morning, and Vytautas and his retainers gone, leaving behind a trail of some more destroyed fortresses - quite a habit of his by that time.

Jagiełło and Vytautas (who had been baptized Vitold Alexander; 7) signed the Ostrów Agreement in summer 1392. Vytautas ruled Lithuania as Grand Duke for 38 year and henceforth remained at peace with his cousin. The quarrels with the Teutonic Knights over the possession of Samogitia did not end in 1392, though. But the Order now faced two powerful men and countries acting together. The alliance would eventually lead to the the Battle of Grunwald in 1410.

The Teutonic Knights at war, 19th century fresco in Małbork Castle

1) That's a rather simplified summary, of course, but I don't want to trouble the readers with yet another set of unfamiliar names and strange places. One of the duchies that rose out of the Kievan Rus after the disintegration of the Golden Horde was the Grand Duchy of Moscow. It would clash with the Polish-Lithuanian Union more than once.
2) Playing the Catholic against the Orthodox faith was a game that worked pretty well, since the Catholics considered the Orthodox to be incorrigible apostates who refused to acknowlegde the supreme authority of the pope in Rome, while the Orthodox deemed the Catholics to be a miserable bunch of heretics because they had added the word filioque to the Nicaean Creed (thus claiming that the Holy Spirit descended through father and son).
3) The most likely candidate to tattle the tale to Vytautas was Günther von Hohenstein (yes, a member of that family), the Komtur of Brandenburg, who was the godfather of Kęstutis' daughter Danuta Anna who had married Duke Janusz of Masovia.
4) As usual in such a case, there were rumours that Jogaila had a hand in his uncle's death, but it was never proven. Suicide or simply death of old age - he was in his 80ies, after all - are possible scenarios as well. He got a splendid pagan funeral, incremated on a pyre together with his favourite horse and dogs, and even a slave or two.
5) Wilhelm of Hapsburg slunk back to Austria, refusing the recompensation money and muttering curses about that 'Lithuanian Saracen'. Young Jadwiga soon recovered from the shock of having to marry an man almost three times her age instead of her childhood friend, and took her part in ruling Poland.
6) His marriage with Jadwiga would not produce any living offspring. He married three more times and had several sons with the last wife, Sophia of Halshany, daughter of Ivan Olshansky, a close friend and brother-in-law of Vytautas.
7) He used his Christian names only in official documents.

Robert Frost: The Oxford History of Poland-Lithuania, vol. 1, The Making of the Polish-Lithuanian Union 1385-1569; Oxford 2015, paperback ed. 2018
Jürgen Sarnowsky: Der Deutsche Orden, München 2007
William Urban: The Teutonic Knights. A Military History, 2003; reprint by Frontline Publ. 2018


  A Virtual Tour through Mediaeval and Renaissance Gdańsk / Danzig

After the history lesson below, let's now have a little walk through Gdańsk / Danzig. Most of the famous landmarks are situated not in the Old Town, but in the - much older - Rechtstadt (Town of the Law), the part of Danzig which held town rights since 1224.

Much of Gdańsk had been destroyed during WW2, but was restored in the years after the war, with its various town gates, beautiful late Gothic gabled houses and decorated Renaissance buildings that once had been the homes of wealthy merchants and burghers, a lot of whom were of German origins. A considerable number of Germans lived in Danzig and Pomeralia (later known as East Prussia) since the early 12th century and remained there until the end of WW2.

Crane Gate

One of the iconic buildings is the Crane Gate. A timber gate with an integrated crane function had been built in 1367, but it was destroyed by a fire in 1442. A new and larger brick gate in Gothic style replaced it immediately afterwards. The wealthier burghers of Danzig collected money to its construction, and they successfully faced off the protests of the Teutonic Knights who felt their nearby castle to be threatened.

The new crane is a double one and was once the largest in Europe. The upper crane could lift weights to a height of 27 metres and was used to put up the masts on boats. The lower crane could lift a weight of four tons up to 11 metres. The cranes were moved by hollow drums of 6 metres in diameter placed inside the gate; usually prisoners worked those threadmills. Ropes wound around the shafts of the drums and passed over the beams. The crane hooks were made of metal. The sturdy towers of the crane gate show that it served as defense of the town as well.

Green Gate

The Green Gate with its flamboyant Renaissance decorations is a very different gate compared to the Gothic Crane Gate. It replaced an older gate guarding the drawbridge (which had been known as Green Bridge) across the Motława river at the site of the old Amber Road crossing, today it marks the end point of the Długi Targ, the Long Market.

The architects were Hans Kramer and Regnier of Amsterdam, thus the strong Flemish influences. Four vaults lead through the gate. The building above makes the gate look more like a palace and indeed, those rooms were intended to serve as quarter for the Polish king when he visited Danzig, though they were seldom used.

The Milk Can Gate

The Milk Can Gate, nicknamed for the shape of its twin towers (one now is shorter because it was not restored to full size after WW2) was built in the 15th century to protect the Granary Island outside the main town. It consists of two towers connected by an overhead passage. The larger tower is today 28 metres high, its walls are 4 metres thick and with small windows - quite a sturdy thing compared to the elegant Green Gate.

Restored storehouses on Granary Island at the Motława

The Motława river is an estuary of the Vistula (Weichsel in German) and connects Gdańsk with the Baltic Sea. The delta of the Vistula changed over time so that the coast today is further away from the town.

While a lot of the historical Danzig had been rebuilt in the 1950ies/60ies, there were still some ruins left at the beginning of the 21st century. One of those were the granaries on the Granary Island (Speicherstetten, Polish: spichlerze). Those are undergoing repair right now, and when I visited in 2012, a set of the Gothic houses had been reconstructed with the exterior mostly according to the old plans, but converted into hotels, shops and appertments.

The first buildings on the island in the Motława river were those not wanted inside the town, like a slaughterhause (dating to the 14th century), tar cookery, and other smelly and dirty occupations. Granaries and storehouses that gave the place its name were soon added. In 1576, the Motława canal and earth fortifications were built to protect the site from attacks. At that time, the number of granaries amounted to 315. 250,000 tons of grain could be stored there, worth 200 ship loads. No wonder Danzig became one of the richest cities in Europe.

Torture Chamber Gate

But we're not finished with those gates yet. Most of the town walls of Danzig that were destroyed have never been restored, but the more famous gates underwent a lovingly done reconstruction. I got some more for you.

Prison Tower

The gate with the charming name of Torture Chamber Gate (German: Peinkammertor) and its matching Prison Tower (Stockturm) were erected in the 14th century as tower with a passage beside a former gate in the Gothic style - now the Golden Gate, see below - to protect acces to the main road Ulica Długa, the Long Lane. The gate got another storey in the 15th century and some Renaissance decorations at the end of the 16th century. The tower was enlarged twice in 1418 and 1509 when it gots its tent shaped roof and those pretty arcades. The tower was damaged during the siege of Danzig by King Stephen Báthory 1577. Danzig won the siege, but it marked the beginning of the end of traditional town fortifications which would not hold against modern cannons.

After they lost their function within the town fortifications in the 17th century, the gate and tower served as prison (yes, including a torture chamber), hall of justice - for the cases that didn't require a big public show - and place of execution. Today they host an amber museum.

Golden Gate

The Golden Gate (also known als Long Lane Gate) replaced an older one. It was erected in 1612-14 and takes it name from the gilded decorative pillars. At that time, town gates were more than defense features; they also served to showcase the wealth of a town (which could afford to use gold on a gate).

Main Town Hall

The oldest part of the Main Town Hall (that is the one in the Town of the Law; there is another town hall in the Old Town) dates to the 1330ies. That first building was much smaller. The first expansion took place in 1378-82, and another enlargement was done in the wake of the visit of King Casimir IV Jagiełło in 1457. The 81 metres high tower was added in 1488. In 1556, a fire severely damaged the town hall which was rebuilt by Dutch architects and today shows a number of Renaissance elements.

Gabled houses in the Ulica Długa (Long Lane)

The Ulica Długa (Long Lane) and Długi Targ (Long Market) together form the main street of the Town of the Law since the 13th century. In the Middle Ages, they were considered a single street, the Longa Platea, connecting the Golden Gate with the Green Gate. As such, the street was part of the Amber Road.

Since the celebrations during the time when King Casimir IV Jagiełło stayed in Danzig in 1457 (after Danzig had joined the Prussian Confederation that offered King Casimir souzerainty in order to better withstand the Teutonic Knights, see history post), the street is also knowns as Droga Królewska, the Royal Road.

The Długi Targ (Long Market)

Long Lane and Long Market had always been the place where the most important and wealthy citicenzs of Danzing lived, and shows the prettiest and most impressive houses. The Long Market is also framed by the public buildings of the Town Hall and Arthur's Court.

But it was not only a place for fêtes and fireworks, but also for public executions of criminals who were nobles or citizens, including those accused of being witches and heretics. People of lower rank were put to death in the Torture Chamber Gate or on the gallow hill outside the town.

The Golden House at the Długi Targ

One of the outstanding houses at the Long Market is the Golden House or Speymannhaus, which was built in 1609 for the town major and wealthy merchant Johannes Speymann.

The Artus Court at the Długi Targ

The Artus Court (Artushof) was the name of a meeting place - sort of a club *grin* - for rich merchants and nobles (craftsmen and stall-keepers were not allowed). It took the name from the popular King Arthur, symbol of chivalry. There were Artus Courts in other countries as well. Citizens and visitors of standing would meet there in the evenings, attending performances of musicians and jugglers, dining and gambling (albeit the latter was officially forbidden) and discussing business (though that was officially forbidden as well). Sometimes they held parties lasting several days to entertain foreign visitors of importance. The peak of popularity of the Artus Court was in the 16th and 17th centuries. The building was the seat of the bourse of Danzig since 1742.

The first brick house of the Curia regis Artusi was built in 1380, though the name dates to a charte of 1357, refering probably to a simpler half-timbered house. After a fire, a larger house in the late Gothic style was erected in 1478. The splendid Renaissance facade was added in 1617.

Neptun's Fountain

Neptun's Fountain was erected in front of the Artus Court in 1633. The town major Bartholomäus Schachmann had been to Italy and took a liking to Neptune figures, so he wanted to have one in Danzig. The god of the sea would be a fitting symbol for a town that got most of its wealth by sea trade, after all.

Great Armoury

The Great Armoury dates to 1600 and is a fine example of the Flemish Renaissance style which was popular in Danzig at that time. The leading architect was Anton van Obberghen who was also involved in the Renaissance makeover of other buildings in Danzig. He hailed from Antwerp and was responsible for the construction of a number of famous buildings in northern Europe, including Castle Kronborg in Helsingør (Hamlet's Elsinore).

Houses in the Mariacka Street (Our Lady's Street)

The Mariacka Street (Our Lady's Street; German: Frauengasse), named after the St. Mary's Church you can see in the background, is a bit less showy compared to the Long Lane, but still one of the oldest streets in town. It was also settled by well-off citizens. The street had been completely destroyed during WW2, but was restored in the 1950ies and 60ies. Due to its genuine Mediaeval look it sometimes serves a set for movies.

Another view of Mariacka Street with terrassed houses

A typical feature of the houses in the Mariacka Street are the terraces that lead to the entrances, often decorated with richly wrought iron ornaments. In former times, those terraces could be found in other streets in Danzig as well, but most have been dismantled because they get in the way of modern traffic. On fine days, inhabitants of the houses set up small impromptu shops on the terraces and sell hand made stuff to the tourists.

St.Mary's Church, interior

St.Mary's Church, or more formally, Basilica of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, is on of the largest hall churches in the world and one of the largest brick buildings in northern Europe. It is a triple aisled church with a transept, measuring 105.5 metres (346 foot) in length, a width of 66 metres (217 foot) and a heigth of 26.5 metres. Particularly the vaultings are a piece of fine architecture and art: the main nave and transept are covered by net vaults, the aisles by crystal vaults.

Like in case of many other churches, there had been a Romanesque basilica on the site which proved too small for the increasing number of inhabitants. The construction of the Gothic church started in 1343 and was finished in 1502. But parts of the church had been in use already during the later stages of construction (churches usually were built in parts, not upward from the foundations in one go). A chapel for the King of Poland was added in 1466.

When the Reformation reached Danzig, the church was used for Roman Catholic and Lutheran services simultaneously for some years - quite a unique act of tolerance. Since 1572 to 1945, St.Mary was a Lutheran church - the second largest in the world. After WW2 it became the main Catholic church of Gdańsk again.

Fresco on a house in Długa Lane

This fresco on a house in the Long Lane depicts a scene of merchants from various contries - shown by the different local costumes - discussing trade and ship building. Danzig must once have been alive with scenes like this.

If everything goes according to plan, I might be able to add two more Polish towns to my list in April: Krakow and Wrocław / Breslau.

The Lost Fort is a history blog based on my journeys in Germany, the UK, Scandinavia, and central / eastern Europe. It includes essays on Roman and Mediaeval history and architecture, as well as some geology, illustrated with my own photos of old castles and churches, Roman remains, pretty towns and beautiful landscapes.

This blog is non-commercial.

All texts (except comments by guests) and photos (if no other copyright is noted) on this blog are copyright of Gabriele Campbell.

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Location: Goettingen, Germany

I'm a blogger from Germany with a MA in Literature and History which doesn't pay my bills, so I use it to research blogposts instead. I'm interested in everything Roman and Mediaeval, avid reader and sometimes writer, opera enthusiast, traveller with a liking for foreign languages and odd rocks, photographer, and tea aficionado. And an old-fashioned blogger who still hasn't got an Instagram account.
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Absolute Write
National Novel Writing Month


05/2005 / 08/2005 / 09/2005 / 11/2005 / 12/2005 / 02/2006 / 03/2006 / 04/2006 / 05/2006 / 08/2006 / 09/2006 / 10/2006 / 11/2006 / 12/2006 / 01/2007 / 02/2007 / 03/2007 / 04/2007 / 05/2007 / 06/2007 / 07/2007 / 08/2007 / 09/2007 / 10/2007 / 11/2007 / 12/2007 / 01/2008 / 02/2008 / 03/2008 / 04/2008 / 05/2008 / 06/2008 / 07/2008 / 08/2008 / 09/2008 / 10/2008 / 11/2008 / 12/2008 / 01/2009 / 02/2009 / 03/2009 / 04/2009 / 05/2009 / 06/2009 / 07/2009 / 08/2009 / 09/2009 / 10/2009 / 11/2009 / 12/2009 / 01/2010 / 02/2010 / 03/2010 / 04/2010 / 05/2010 / 06/2010 / 07/2010 / 08/2010 / 09/2010 / 10/2010 / 11/2010 / 12/2010 / 01/2011 / 02/2011 / 03/2011 / 04/2011 / 05/2011 / 06/2011 / 07/2011 / 08/2011 / 09/2011 / 10/2011 / 11/2011 / 12/2011 / 01/2012 / 02/2012 / 03/2012 / 04/2012 / 05/2012 / 06/2012 / 07/2012 / 08/2012 / 09/2012 / 10/2012 / 11/2012 / 12/2012 / 01/2013 / 02/2013 / 03/2013 / 04/2013 / 05/2013 / 06/2013 / 07/2013 / 08/2013 / 09/2013 / 10/2013 / 11/2013 / 12/2013 / 01/2014 / 02/2014 / 03/2014 / 04/2014 / 05/2014 / 06/2014 / 07/2014 / 08/2014 / 09/2014 / 10/2014 / 11/2014 / 12/2014 / 01/2015 / 02/2015 / 03/2015 / 04/2015 / 05/2015 / 06/2015 / 07/2015 / 08/2015 / 09/2015 / 10/2015 / 11/2015 / 12/2015 / 01/2016 / 02/2016 / 03/2016 / 04/2016 / 05/2016 / 06/2016 / 07/2016 / 08/2016 / 09/2016 / 10/2016 / 11/2016 / 12/2016 / 01/2017 / 02/2017 / 03/2017 / 04/2017 / 05/2017 / 06/2017 / 07/2017 / 08/2017 / 09/2017 / 10/2017 / 11/2017 / 12/2017 / 01/2018 / 02/2018 / 03/2018 / 04/2018 / 05/2018 / 06/2018 / 07/2018 / 08/2018 / 09/2018 / 10/2018 / 11/2018 / 12/2018 / 02/2019 / 03/2019 / 04/2019 /

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