The Lure Of Reszel
Who can fail to be enraptured rolling into Reszel. As far as arrivals go, it’s the kind of entrance that sends spirits soaring: puttering across an arcing Gothic bridge that spans the River Sajna, cars pootle past neat lines of townhouses before coming to a standstill in front of a hulking fortress. Even in the warm glow of a summer sunset, there’s something about it that feels ominous and heavy.
Perched on a solid chunk of rock, 14th century Reszel Castle was built with the Bishops of Warmia in mind: later occupied by the Teutonic Knights, its brooding Gothic form dominates this town of 5,000. For the last couple of decades, it’s fallen under the stewardship of Bolesław Marschall, a sculptor who has turned the town’s principal calling card into a rambling hotel – not to mention a showcase for his own whimsical works of art. Through a portcullised gateway, guests enter a shadowy courtyard to check-in before climbing creaky, old steps to their lodgings for the night: that could mean a medieval turret built into the ramparts, or a more basic room in the main complex itself. Eschewing the luxury style favored by many of Poland’s castle hotels, this one feels a tad spartan and cobwebbed. But if anything, that’s actually an advantage: in Reszel, you’re never allowed to forget that vicarious thrill that comes with sleeping in a castle.
But even if you do forget, Reszel’s murky past is never far away. Barbara Zdunk, the last woman in Europe to be incinerated for witchcraft, was held captive in the cellars before her fiery death, and her ghost is now said to haunt the corridors and crypts. Don’t believe me? Then do at least believe the crew of Ghost Hunters International. Visiting here a few years back, their stay was marked by several hair raising moments when things went bump in the night. Not all of these incidents were attributed to Zdunk. The vaulted restaurant, for instance, was deduced to contain the spirit of a recently departed regular that once perched by the bar. Make the mistake of sitting on his favorite stool and you too may feel the icy touch of death.
For all of this, don’t make the mistake of thinking of Reszel as some ghost geek, Scooby Doo theme park. Glorious in many aspects, few things match the delicious vista from the castle tower. Nestled up a vaguely terrifying set of wooden steps, the vertiginous views seem to stretch out forever: the church towers and red tiled roofs below give way to flat, verdant countryside that’s eventually swallowed whole by the sticky evening haze. It is a panorama not of this time; stare long enough into it and you end up double-checking as to what century you’re in.
Back on ground level, the town itself makes for a pleasing evening stroll. Largely reconstructed following a great fire in 1806, it’s a place that’s compact but charismatic and full of little twists: literally. Taking the looping, lolloping pathway down the hill, visitors emerge under a narrow bridge set on long, thin legs that reach high into the sky. Like a slice of Swiss cheese, a hole in the structure is a surviving remnant from the time that this crossing doubled-up as a prison.
Beyond it, a leafy footpath follows the meandering route of the river to its flank. Cut into the forested gully, mysterious pathways disappear deep into the woods, and the only sound one hears are the plaintive calls of nature; with dusk drawing in your solitude is complete.
Of course, you are not alone. If not for Reszel Castle, visitors flock to this area for the miraculous healing properties of Święta Lipka close by. Found approximately ten kilometres from Reszel, the town’s church has been drawing pilgrims ever since the 13th century. So the legend goes, a prisoner of Kętrzyn Castle was pardoned on the eve of his execution after the judge saw a spectacular religious carving that the convict had made. Making his way home, the prisoner hung the carving from a linden tree as an offering to God and miracles have occurred on the spot from that moment since. First came a wooden chapel to handle all the incoming visitors, and then the stunning Baroque complex that you now see today. Passing it on the way back from mystical Reszel, one can’t help but think that maybe miracles exist – after all, you’ve just visited somewhere magic.