They were known as the keepers of the Holy Grail, a sometimes mysterious band of religious warriors whose exploits across Europe and the Middle East have inspired modern-day conspiracy theories and movie plots.
But, like all great travelers, the Knights Templar of medieval times eventually needed somewhere to lay down some roots, wash their socks, polish their armor and maybe build a few castles or cathedrals.
Famous examples of these 13th-century Gothic and Romanesque structures can be found all over the UK, France, Italy, Portugal and Spain.
Lesser known are the spectacular chapels and fortifications they constructed in western Poland, where the Knights Templar and other crusaders colonized land and set about weaving their own mythology into the idyllic rural landscape.
A trip into the West Pomeranian region and the villages of Chwarszczany, Myślibórz and Rurka — close to the border with Germany — is an adventure into an overlooked destination where historical secrets are still being uncovered.
And, according to at least one local legend, it’s here that the Holy Grail, the cup that Jesus Christ drank from at the Last Supper and that later held his blood, could still be hidden.
The road to Chwarszczany, a village lost among fields and forests, is little used by anyone but those who live there. The village itself is a collection of faded houses with fewer than 100 residents who keep chickens and grow tomatoes in the summer.
Farms are laid out in a ruled grid, the houses built in a traditional German style, testament to the geopolitical upheavals that have affected the region over the centuries.
It’s here that the Templars established a place of worship.
Constructed of red bricks on a base of granite, the chapel of Saint Stanislaus was built in 1232 on a secluded spot.
The chapel is laid out according to the Rule of the Templars, an intricate codex that the knights obeyed under fear of banishment from the brotherhood. The building’s appearance is defensive, its tall walls built to withstand attack, as well as the ravages of time.
It’s still in use as a place of worship, although Sunday mornings in Chwarszczany are quiet affairs, typically seeing about 30 parishioners gather inside the chapel in private prayer and Roman Catholic services. On the walls are two restored frescoes.
Discoveries are still being made here that shed new light on the lives and deaths of the knights and their acolytes. Among the finds beneath the chapel’s sanctuary are the bodies of some of the knights themselves and a possible clandestine passageway.
Przemysław Kołosowski, an archeologist working to preserve Chwarszczany’s medieval heritage, says that during excavations in 2019, researchers discovered more fortifications and a graveyard using ground penetrating radar.
“Our GPR has detected gothic crypts with the remnants of Templar knights beneath the chapel,” Kołosowski tells CNN Travel. “According to legends and medieval documents, there was a well in the vicinity of the chapel. Rumor has it that the well served as an entrance to a secret tunnel. This still requires an exhaustive archeological investigation”.
Indiana Jones inspiration
The Knights Templar have long fascinated historians and archeologists, partly because of the shadowy aspects of some of their practices.
Founded in Jerusalem in the 12th century to protect Holy Land pilgrims, the order became a powerful force across Europe, enjoying papal privileges, tax breaks and lavish donations while also accruing legendary status.
They’re said to have become the protectors of the Holy Grail and the Ark of the Covenant, a chest said to contain remnants of the 10 Commandments — stories that have inspired plots in the Indiana Jones movies and Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code.”
“The Knights Templars are always involved,” wrote Italian author Umberto Eco, in his book “Foucault’s Pendulum.”
That certainly seems to be the case in the 12th and 13th centuries in Europe. In western Poland, landowners decided to preempt that involvement by inviting the knights to settle in what was then known as the Pojezierze Myśliborskie region.
When travel is possible, the few visitors who make it to this bewitching corner of northern Europe have a couple of accommodation options, thanks to local taverns Oberża Templum and Komandoria Chwarszczany, which are now trying to attract history aficionados and medievalists, particularly from neighboring Germany. (Oberża Templum Chwarszczany 3 B; +48 792 241 731. Komandoria Chwarszczany Pokoje Gościnne, Chwarszczany 3B.)
Political power struggles
About 40 kilometers (25 miles) north of Chwarszczany, another Romanesque-style building owes its existence to the medieval order.
The Chapel of the Knights Templar in Rurka is a rough stone building that dates from about 1250, built in the architectural style of the German Saxony region.
Sitting in a secluded woodland spot, the Rurka chapel was sold into private hands in 1999 and is closed for renovation.
Heading further northeast, after 25 minutes of driving, travelers will reach Myślibórz, a tight community of narrow streets and surrounded by woods and four lakes.
It’s an idyllic spot, but the scene here is stolen by the town’s remarkably preserved fortifications, which look today pretty much as they probably did during the Crusades.
Myślibórz’s defensive architecture provides a glimpse into what life was like during the times of the Templars, when communities lived under fear of warfare and political power struggles.
Historical documents place the Templars in Myślibórz from about 1238, when the land around the town was granted to them by local aristocrat, Duke Władysław Odonic.
“Back in those days, the appearance of Knights Templar on this soil was a popular trend,” Marek Karolczak, a local historian, tells CNN Travel. “This is the time of Crusades. Local rulers wanted to strengthen their power by inviting military orders to settle on their land and build commanderies.”
In medieval Europe, commanderies were the smallest administrative units of land and property governed by a military order.
“The research shows that there were three commanderies on this territory: in Myślibórz, in Chwarszczany and in Rurka. The distance between them was approximately four hours by horse,” says Karolczak.
The fortifications around Myślibórz were built in the 13th and 14th centuries. The town has maintained its medieval urban planning, with a square in the middle. Around this marketplace there’s an 18th century Rathaus, or town hall, and housing.
Even today, the main entrances to the town are via two medieval portals, the Pyrzycka Gate and the Nowogródzka Gate, were built at the turn of the 13th and 14th centuries. Modern roads allow cars to enter the town through the gates.
Within the fortifications stands a stone brick cylindrical tower topped by crenelated battlements.
Visitors should ask about a secret underground tunnel that runs beneath the town from the large church located in the market square to the Dominican monastery which, according to Karolczak, was initially the location of the Templar Knights castle.
After the Templar Knights were expelled from Myślibórz at the end of 13th century, their legendary treasure disappeared.
Karolczak says that according to local lore, the treasure was sunk by Templars themselves in a nearby lake.
“The legend says that Templars, under cover of darkness, sunk a wooden box with golden coins and the Holy Grail,” he says.
“The lake, which used to be located near the village of Świątki — also owned by the Knights Templars — has dried out and the treasure has either been stolen or lost forever in the swamp.”