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When touring Poland and some of its northern neighbors, it seems the past is closer to you than in other, more Western, parts of Europe. That's because World War II, for example, did not end in 1945 for most Eastern Europeans, but in 1991, when the Soviet Red Army finally went home. Kept in isolation from their Western European neighbors, and in institutional near-poverty by their masters, people here felt the breath of freedom only recently, 15 years ago, to be exact. Their love for Americans is still strong, despite some bumps in the road of good relations with the giant superpower across the Atlantic.

The ancient, or glorious, past, however, is still alive in such visible symbols as the mighty Malbork Castle, in its own time a super power of northern Europe. It's the main reason to visit this part of Poland, known as the Warmia & Mazury district. It includes the Mazury Lakes, a haven for Poles who want to relax in a forest setting, and is utterly bucolic. Strolling alongside a lake one evening during my visit, I followed the sound of accordion music and ended up a guest at a gathering of locals entertaining Polish visitors with beer, sausages and polkas. This was observed with only slight interest from the host's gaggle of goats, one of which sensibly spurned a proffered sausage and turned back to her healthier salad of grass.

Events

In June, Malbork Castle stages its International Festival of Old Culture, including medieval music, theater and dance (8th to 11th) and its Eurofolk Festival on Midsummer Night's Day, with modern music and dancing (23rd to 25th). From July 21 to 23, there is the recreation of the Siege of Malbork in 1410, with costumed warriors and fireworks.

Sights

The Mazurian Lakes here contain the largest, the longest and the freshest of Poland's inland water sources, and are a delight of emerald and blue green spaces. But more than a source of beauty, the area is also culturally prominent, being the birthplace of Copernicus and the venue today of many early music concerts, for instance. In particular, the Summer Concerts have been held for the last 15 years in castles, churches and other historic buildings in the area.

Malbork & Its Castle

Home of the fearsome Teutonic Knights, Malbork Castle (www.malbork.pl) was, in the 14th and 15th centuries, at the height of its powers and the largest castle in the world. It is still the world's largest castle at nearly 52 acres (Windsor Castle has 13 acres, Prague 18) and is also the largest Gothic fortress in Europe. The official name is St. Mary's Castle, and it was founded in 1270 by the German order of knighthood after the crusaders were finally expelled from the Holy Land and a subsequent decline in the order's power while based in Venice. Searching for something to do, the warrior monk/knights hit upon this part of the world, still a hotbed of paganism, so set off to do good, and did well, as is often the case. (For history buffs, Malbork was known as Marienburg when under German control for much of its life, in this area formerly known as East Prussia.)

The castle, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, covers nearly 52 acres and the monk-knights in charge made it the center of their monastic state, blanketing the country with a network of 120 strongholds in the 13th century. The complex consists of a High Castle, open only to the knights, as it was also a monastery; the Middle Castle, where most of the business of the order and state were conducted; and an Outer Bailey, where the peasants toiled to keep the place going.

Among the castle highlights that you can see today are the magnificent Chapter Room, where the Grand Master held sway; St. Mary's Church (still under reconstruction, note the 14th-century murals), both in the High Castle; and the Palace of the Grand Masters and the splendid Great Refectory in the Middle Castle. Even more appealing is the Summer Refectory, its ceiling supported by a single column. In this room, used as a hospital by Napoleon, a drill room by Prussian kings, but intended as a dining hall, the original stained glass was destroyed and has been replaced by plain and tinted glass, giving the room now an airy and bright ambience that is almost magical.

The Chapter Room was the seat of governance, its four walls holding benches for the knights, the Grand Master dispensing laws and justice. By the 16th century, Polish kings had taken over the castle, defeating Grand Master von Hohenzollern, who secularized the order and swore allegiance to the king, thus establishing the Duchy of Prussia. The order survived in Western Europe, which refused to recognize the secularization, taking refuge in Vienna, until 1929, when the Pope converted the order into a spiritual congregation. The last Grand Master resigned in 1923. Admission to the castle is Zl 30 (about $10), which includes a guided tour.

A fun side note: a costumed coiner (falsifier of coins) manufactures copies of 14th-century coins in the courtyard of the High Castle on a regular basis, selling a complete set for only Zl 5 (less than $2). More fun: you can rent all or part of the castle for functions or whatever, with or without a fine chamber music ensemble, the Capella Antica. For medieval life fans, there is a Route of Polish Gothic Castles, involving 11 such places, all in this area. Check out www.zamkigotyckie.org.pl for details.

The town of Malbork, which grew up around the castle, has a few sites worth looking at if you have time, including the Church of St. John (1468) and the Old Town Hall (1365, rebuilt in 1958).

Mragowo

The Mragowo Lakeland is one of three lake districts in this part of Poland, and is perfect for outdoor activities, including hiking and camping in summer, skiing in winter. There are about ten hotels and more than two dozen restaurants. Most visitors are here because Mragowo is the biggest town near Hitler's Wolf's Lair.

The Wolf's Lair

For historical inclinations, visit the Wolfsschanze (www.wolfsschanze.home.pl), meaning Wolf's Lair, so called because Hitler imagined himself a powerful wolf, naming four of his headquarters with variations on the word. Most important, of course, is the fact that the only near-successful attempt to assassinate Hitler took place here on July 20, 1944, when a group of conspirators led by Count Claus Schenk von Stauffenberg, planted a bomb under a conference table. An unknown officer moved the count's briefcase after the latter left the room, ostensibly to take a phone call, and when it exploded, Hitler was only slightly wounded in the right arm. The plot, which its sponsors hoped would turn into a coup d'etat, ended with its leaders, including von Stauffenberg, killed by midnight of the same day. A total of 7,000 were arrested and 5,000 executed from then until April, 1945, including 150 high officers, according to a recent guidebook to the site.

The complex today is privately owned, and can be toured for Zl 8 or about $2.60 (Zl 5, about $1.62, for seniors). It's best to go with a guide, who can provide answers to any questions you may have, for an additional Zl 50 (about $16). Highlights of the 80 buildings and surroundings are the Conference Room, Hitler's private bunker, and monuments to Von Stauffenberg and to members of the Polish resistance who fought against the German occupation. The retreating Germans themselves blew up the place, which successfully escaped bombing by either Russian or Allied planes, so what you see here today are huge ruins, tilted slabs of concrete and unlit interiors (bring a flashlight). There are some 50 bunkers, all above ground, as this is a marsh. Seven of the bunkers have walls 24 feet thick and roofs 30 feet thick, less important ones with tops only six to nine feet thick. Camouflage overhead included netting hung from artificial trees with plastic (bakelite) leaves.

Today you can stay in the former bunker of Hitler's security officers, which is now a cheap hotel, and buy souvenirs and books in the parking lot. There are about 200,000 visitors a year, many of them German, said our guide. The nearest village is Ketrzyn, about five miles distant.

Olsztyn

You can walk in the footsteps of Copernicus here, especially in the town's castle or the imposing St. James Cathedral. The highlights here are all in the Old Town, with the castle, the cathedral, the city walls and the Old City Hall topping the list. Nicholas Copernicus, when he wasn't observing the planets, was administrator of the district and lived in the castle from 1516 through 1521. Built in 1346, the castle became a museum in 1921 and today has a display of Copernicus' work and several rooms full of church silverware (chalices, monstrances, etc.).

The Cathedral Church of St. James the Elder was build in the 14th century, replaced by a new one in 1596, but much of the interior was damaged over the years. The City Walls were built also in the 14th century, its High Gate the most beautiful of several entrances. It's now a tourist-class hotel. (Note for history students: During the town's period as part of Germany (ending in 1945), it was known as Allenstein.) More information at www.um.olsztyn.pl.

The Little Canal That Could

When you see a ship floating along the Elblag-Ostroda Canal, youÂ?ll think nothing of it until the craft climbs out of the water and settles on rail tracks running up the hill. The ship passes you on its wheeled trestle, then heads downhill to the next lake in a series of links that runs 81 miles across several bodies of water. It's all powered by the flow of water in the canal, and it's been in action (wartime excepted) since 1860! You can take a tourist boat that traverses the entire length in 11 hours, and enjoy sailing, railroading of a sort, then sailing again you may also book for shorter trips between two of the five landing stages. The boat operates from spring through autumn. At Buczyniec, there's the Elblag Canal History Museum (www.zegluga.com.pl), worth a look, too.

Accommodations

In Mragowo, consider two hotels, the Mazuria and the Mercure, each rated 3-stars. The Mazuria (tel. 89/741-2975; www.mazuria.oit.pl; e-mail: mazuria@oit.pl; Ul. Jaszczurcza Gora 18) is smaller, but right down on the lake, with nice views and an interesting bar/patio. The breakfasts are chaotic if a group tour is staying, the service rather feckless most of the time. 170 beds, with double rooms costing Zl 190 (about $61), including buffet breakfast.

High above the lake is the Mercure chain's sleek Mrongovia Resort & Spa (tel. 89/743-3100; e-mail: mer.mrongovia@orbis.pl; Ul. Gizycka 6), with double rooms going from Zl 320 to Zl 450 ($104 to $146), depending on the season. 215 rooms, restaurant, nightclub, the works.

Dining Out

Specialties of this area include liver with apples, ring-shaped game sausage, smoked chicken (or ham), and blood pudding, not to mention dumplings or cabbage soup.

If you're ever in Olecko, on the road to Lithuania or Russia, for instance, you might enjoy lunch or dinner at the Hotel Mazury (www.mazury-centrum.com.pl). They feature Polish specialties, such as the delicious bigos (baked ham, mushrooms and sauerkraut, only Zl 5, about $1.62) I had, or the homegrown vegetables that made up a fresh salad. In the evenings, the owners play for your musical entertainment. You can also stay in one of its 45 rooms for Zl 60 to Zl 80 (about $19 to $26).

In Olsztyn, a neat place to have a meal is the Sphinx, right on the main street of the Old Town, and famous for its sandwiches and warm salads. (I had a marvelous mushroom and zucchini salad at Zl 13 ($4), which went well with a cold local beer, Zl 8, $2.60.) Ul. Koiiataja 14.

Note

The country telephone code for Poland is 48.

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