Counter-tourism memories

Malbork Castle in Poland, built in the mediaeval period by the Teutonic Knights, is the largest castle in the world by surface area, and the largest brick building in Europe. I visited with a friend in 1992, when we were inter-railing around eastern Europe after finishing our MSc.

Although the Iron Curtain had been drawn back for a few years, its full ‘tourism potential’ had not yet been exploited. The tour was through a series of rooms. In the interest of full-employment and limiting our freedom of expression, every room had a presence, a babushka / secret service cross.

One room had a huge walk-in fireplace, and I noticed an iron bar running across inside, above the level of the lintel. So while my friend was distracting the KGB-babushka, I channelled my primary school persona, rolled up onto the bar, and disappeared from view. She was so cross and concerned when she thought she’d lost me, and when I finally emerged, I got a real scolding.

Later in the tour, we got through a door we probably shouldn’t, and found ourselves in a wonderland of secret brick passageways. I presume they were the real castle, the walkways the defending knights would have used. They were very narrow – the defenders must have been small and couldn’t have been clad in bulky plate armour – giving a thrill of mild claustrophobia. And we had no idea where we were going, and whether we’d be caught and thrown out. But there was no-one to be seen, and eventually we emerged into a small courtyard and back onto the tour.

Counter-tourism is about a playful engagement with sites that might otherwise by overly controlled and interpreted. Since 1997, Malbork Castle has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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