At some point in my twenties, the city of Gdansk became inextricably linked with one of the most impressive examples of facial hair seen anywhere in the 20th C.
Lech Walesa, the Polish electrician with the walrus moustache, came from Gdansk. Throughout the 1980s the world’s TV’s beamed harrowing images of down-trodden Poles in the grips of rationing and deprivation, striking at Gdansk’s Lenin shipyard, while shipyard workers and civilians were targeted by tanks and water cannon on the city’s streets.
Millions were witnessing the instrumental role in the fall of communism sparked by the first independent labour union in a Soviet-bloc country, Solidarity, (Solidarnosc), headed up by Walesa, and the tidal wave of change that came with it. Today, being able to travel to former communist cities is a tiny part of the change, although the role of tourism in a modern world for a city, like Gdansk, which no longer has its ship-yards, is significant.
Former shipyard electrician Lech Walesa’s historical trademark moustache is now grey, and I am old enough to be a member of Silver Travel Advisor.
Unlike other former communist cities such as Estonia’s Medieval walled capital Tallinn, Slovakia’s cobbles and castle in Bratislava and Slovenia’s picturesque riverside city of Ljubljana, I was expecting Gdansk to still be sporting the sombre robes of socialism, as grey as Lech’s moustache and dull and cold by comparison.
Memories of the 1980s images of striking workers and a nation of oppressed people watched on TVs the size of dog kennels, do nothing to help the tourist board’s cause.
I was utterly taken aback by the beauty of Gdansk. The heart of the city is flanked by a pretty waterfront on the River Motlawa and bisected by the `Royal Route’, down which Polish monarchs progressed during the Kingdom of Poland, bordered by grand gateways.
I entered the Middle Town, the old part of the city, through one of the four arches of the Green Gate, Gdansk’s most ancient of gateways, where former Polish president Lech Walesa has an office. It’s said that if you know the secret knock, he’ll let you in, and you can try on his Nobel Peace Prize. I didn’t, so I passed through to the strains of a horn concerto being played beneath the arch by a busking classical quartet.
The bright scene that met me was framed by a long, wide street lined with tall, renaissance and Medieval style narrow buildings, ornately adorned with painted gabled and elaborate carvings; a street lined with bars, restaurants, art galleries and shops selling amber, souvenirs and Gdansk’s famous gold leaf liqueur, Goldwasser.
Gdansk Middle Town’s main street (Dlugi Targ) is the antithesis of a dull, grey, communist city. The contrast in the Baltic summer sun is quite ludicrous. But as might be expected from a city that has historically been the most important port in Northern Europe, there’s more to the façade than meets the eye.
In fact, each one of the buildings is not much older than I am. The city was rebuilt almost in its entirety in the 1950s and 1960s, having been severely bombed during WWII. The city today lends its style more to the Italian, Flemish, French and Dutch influences of its past, than to Prussian and German traditions.
One of the most significant buildings along the Royal Route is the Town Hall, dating back to the 14th C. Its beautiful towering spire forms a central landmark in the old town. At the end of WWII, bombs, fires and gunfire had damaged the building so significantly that even a storm would have threatened the structure. Work started immediately after the war and the results were unveiled in 1970, with an outstanding 37-bell peal installed in 2000. Today the chiming bells are the city’s voice, rivalling events, buskers and the hubbub of tourists.
Adjacent to the Town Hall is Neptune’s Fountain, Gdansk’s answer to Copenhagen’s Little Mermaid and not much larger. He draws the crowds for photographs beneath his toned bronze torso, his modesty kept intact by the surreptitious positioning of a serpent’s tail. Happily, he made himself scarce during WWII and came out of hiding in 1954, so looks much the same as when he first took up his position in Dlugi Targ in 1549.
A spectacular view of both the Town Hall and Neptune’s Fountain can be found from the top of the tower of the awe-inspiring St. Mary’s church, just a narrow street away. More correctly titled the Basilica of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the building – which can accommodate up to 25,000 people – is the largest brick church in the world, and one of the largest gothic brick structures in Europe, and that includes castles.
For 5 Polish Zloty (about £1) you can climb to the top of St. Mary’s church tower for an awesome view of Gdansk. I debated, tossed a 5 Zl coin, lost, and climbed. 410 steps later, including the first hundred or so spiralling a tiny cylindrical space, and I was up among the pigeons. Gdansk’s strategic position as a Baltic port can be appreciated fully up here, with views to the Baltic Sea, to the harbour mouth and the strategic trading channel formed by the Motlawa river, the criss-cross of the streets and the teaming tourists way below.
Just behind St. Mary’s is Mariacka Street, known as Poland’s prettiest street. Approached through an arch from the waterfront, this is another phoenix that rose from the rubble. Reconstructed in its original Gothic style, Mariacka Street has an old world atmosphere and is lined with tall, elegant buildings with decorative porches, adorned with gutters and drains in the shape of fish, dragons and gargoyles. It is prettiest in the evenings, when the amber jewellery shops and the bars are lit up by lanterns, but is well worth a wander from the main route any time of day.
I was so taken with the city that I started my second day in Gdansk by retracing my steps and then debating a boat trip to see the city from the water. The hourly boat trips also pass by the narrow strip of land at the mouth of the harbour where the first shots of WWII were fired immediately after the German invasion of Poland in 1939. When it comes to roles in world history, Gdansk doesn’t do things by halves.
Instead, I headed further out towards the Lenin Shipyard to see the tenement blocks, clanging trams, barbed wire and grey stone walls that characterize that part of the city.
In Gdansk in 1980 the shipyard strikes and uprisings were driven by human deprivation, compounded by the authorities’ initial refusal to allow the workers to erect a monument to the 45 fallen civilians from the 1970 Polish protests.
Approaching the old shipyard on a route that passed the present Solidarnosc offices (the fluttering red and white banner took me right back to the dog kennel TV scenes) I saw three towering steel crucifixes, 42 metres tall, which harpoon the grey sky-high above. They are positioned on the spot where the first three victims of the 1970 protests fell. They are stark, grim and have a silencing effect.
Behind the Monument of the Fallen Shipyard Workers is a long wall inset with gravestones and inscriptions and a solitary statue of a shipyard worker behind which bright flowers left on a memorial provide the only colour in a grim, grey tableau of 20th C events.
A photo exhibition in the square reminded me of the blow-by-blow events that were overtaking Europe, in particular Northern Europe, in the 1970s and 1980s. A young Lech looks out from the photographs like a familiar uncle.
A more in-depth reminder of recent history can be found in the nearby subterranean Roads to Freedom exhibition. It charts the fall of the Soviet Bloc through Poland’s perspective and the rise of Solidarity that sparked such change. For 6 zloty (just over £1) it’s worth buying the guide book as the commentaries are otherwise in Polish. An audiovisual presentation of how each country within Europe freed itself from the bonds of communism was one of the highlights and reminded me just how much I had forgotten and just how much I take for granted travelling through Eastern Europe nearly 25 years later.
As I re-emerged back into 2012 the skies were grey and so was the rain. I sheltered by the Solidarity HQ building beneath that icon of graphic design, the unforgettable free-hand word ‘Solidarnosc’. Today it is emblazoned on banners and posters shamelessly and without fear. It seemed fitting that my visit to this part of Gdansk should have instilled both a physical and an emotional chill within me. And fitting that as the rain eased slightly, and I walked back towards the towering spires of St. Mary’s church and the Town Hall, the warm sun broke through, and I was back amid the colour and the magic of the Royal Route and the charm that is uniquely Gdansk.
Where to stay
Mary Stuart-Miller stayed at the Old Town Hostel, Gdansk, as a guest of HostelBookers.com, who offer affordable accommodation in 3500 destinations worldwide.
How to get there
Wizz Air fly direct to Gdansk from Luton. Ryan Air also has a direct route to Gdansk from London Stansted.