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.