A vibrant city of old and new

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Grainy black and white television footage of vast shipbuilding hangars, huge steel cranes, smoke-spewing factory chimneys, striking workers demanding improved wages and astronomical lower food prices. It was my first glimpse of a remote, repressed Eastern European city called Gdansk in the dawn of time.

Older people will remember the Solidarity movement, led by a charismatic shipyard electrician, Lech Walesa. It was a monumental struggle in which murder, torture and repression by the communist regime lasted nearly two decades, until the birth of a free Poland in 1989.

I visualize a dark industrial metropolis, dilapidated brutalist apartments towering over dreary suburbs. So, to put it mildly, I am amazed to be greeted by a vibrant cosmopolitan city of old and new that stretches in perfect symmetry along the charming waterfront of canals and river. Gdansk is now more affordable and unspoiled than Krakow, so far Poland’s star tourist attraction, it is said.

Add some world-class museums, such as the exceptional WWII museum, impressive churches and other monuments, plenty of budget restaurants and bars, and proximity to beautiful seaside resorts on its doorstep. The historic little town of Gdansk deserves to be on more weekend lists and it’s no wonder my early summer direct Ryanair flight from Cork was fully booked.

On the way back, my neighbor told how she and three friends paid €400 each, including four nights’ accommodation each with their own rooms in the heart of the old town, with taxi transfers and return flights. “I would have paid that for two nights in a hotel back home,” she said, “we couldn’t believe how affordable and charming Gdansk was.”

The historic center of Gdansk was reduced to rubble during bombing during the Soviet takeover after the end of World War II in 1945, although you would never know it when strolling through its splendid cobbled streets. Drawing heavily on the style of the Dutch Renaissance, the richly decorated gabled townhouses could have stood here for hundreds of years.

Gdansk is a vibrant cosmopolitan city of old and new.

The Old Town is one of the largest and most unique historic centers not just in Poland but in all of Europe, says Michael Gannon, a Roscommon man who works as a tour guide (www.toursbylocals.com ). We chat over a local lunch staple, a hollowed-out slice of bread filled with soup made with pickled cabbage and white sausage – a definitely acquired taste, he agrees.

Michael also introduces me to one of the best “milk bars” in town, cheap subsidized cafeterias like fries, but don’t ask for milkshakes or ice cream. Think hearty dumplings and thick stews served in substantial portions but costing you no more than around €6 at Turystyczny on Szeroka Street. “Good authentic food at reasonable prices,” says Michael.

What were once state-of-the-art warehouses, workshops and factory spaces at the time are now museums, restaurants, cafes and storefronts along islands divided by interesting swing bridges. Mariacka (rue Sainte-Marie) is locally nicknamed 5th Avenue, lined with artisanal retailers selling Baltic amber. To marvel at the best examples and hear the story of the creation of this 40 million year old fossilized tree resin, native to coniferous forests, be sure to visit the Amber Museum on St. Dluga, a work of art filled with amber and one of the main attractions of the city. I notice that the prices for amber jewelry in her shop are quite competitive.

Mariaka Street in Gdansk.
Mariaka Street in Gdansk.

Crowds of amber hunters descend on the beaches of the Baltic in the hope of finding some. Wading knee-deep, searching the seabed and combing the seaweed along the Baltic Riviera, my own search for a tiny piece of the precious resin came to nothing. The weather – sunny, calm and warm – was not at all conducive to an amber hunt.

My best chance of finding amber will be to arrive just after dawn, wearing a headlamp with a net to help me cross the sea following a storm, says our guide Izabela Daszkiewicz. According to the Polish Geological Institute, about 5.5 tons of amber are found on their beaches every year, compared to just one ton mined from underground deposits. Poland is currently the largest producer of Baltic amber jewelry in the world.

Once you get your bearings – quite easily in Gdansk – you can’t miss the old shipyards, where events that changed history led to the birth of Solidarity (Solidarnosc) and much later the break-up of Soviet Union.

The gates of the European Solidarity Center at Lenin’s former shipyard are a shrine displaying photos of slain activists, flags and bouquets of flowers tied to the railings. Images of Pope John Paul II and the Black Madonna also serve as a reminder of the important connection between Catholicism and politics in Poland. The most visited museum in Gdansk is “The Paths to Freedom”. The superb permanent exhibition explores the first cracks in a system that was about to collapse, the birth of the Solidarity movement and the path to freedom.

Our guide stops at an old TV newsreel when the imposition of martial law was announced in December 1981, dashing the hopes of millions of Poles who campaigned for democratic change. She recalls “I cried because they showed a man in uniform with big black rimmed glasses instead of my favorite cartoons. My parents cried too, but for another reason”.

Another exhibit shows a model grocery store, from the Soviet era, with shelves empty except for a few stale breads and withered vegetables.

“I remember my mother buying a banana a month,” says Izabela, “we had to collect three kilos of newspapers to hand in for a roll of toilet paper; those were very hard days.”

When visiting Gdansk, don’t miss a boat ride from the quay – there are water taxis and also short cruises aplenty. Cross the water to the site of heroic resistance Westerplatte where World War II began on September 1, 1939 after Germany launched a battleship bombardment. Two hundred vastly outnumbered Polish soldiers resisted the Nazi invaders for a week.

The Baltic Riviera is another must-see, in the summer for sunbathing and people-watching and in the winter hoping to salvage pieces of stranded amber. Sopot has the longest wooden pier in Europe and good nightlife.

Gdynia has a quieter vibe, sandy beaches and a great emigration museum. Sopot and Gdynia are close by train and tram.

The Sopot pier is the longest wooden pier in Europe.
The Sopot pier is the longest wooden pier in Europe.

Travel Notes

A 3-course meal costs around €20; €2 a beer. €3 for a glass of wine. The restaurants specialize in farm-to-table dishes and fresh Baltic fish.

For upscale dining, head to Fino (www.restauracjefino.pl) and Filharmonia overlooking the water (www.restauracjafilharmonia.pl) for venison and wild boar from the Pomeranian forests.

  • She stayed at the historic Hotel Almond (www.hotelalmond.pl) a 10-minute walk from the Old Town, renowned for its rich breakfast buffet, beautiful swimming pool and spa. double from €68 pn.
  • Direct flights with Ryanair from Dublin four times a week and from Cork twice a week on Thursday and Monday until October 31. Ryanair flights on Friday and Monday from 1 November. See www.ryanair.com
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