Poland: Chapter 1 – Gdansk

A few steps from St. Mary's in the old city of Gdansk a brass band has attracted a small crowd. Inside the cathedral a bride and groom are saying their vows. Out in the street it's the Birdie song. Inside it's Ave Maria and Panis Angelicus.

GdanskWe have downed a quick lunch of zurek – sour soup with chopped boiled egg and wandered into the Amber Gallery on Ulica Dlugi Targ, which translates as Long Market Street. Gdansk, close to the Baltic coast of Poland, lays claim to being the world capital of amber, which is the solidified sap of petrified wood. A helpful employee shows us how it's polished and explains that the real McCoy floats in salt water, while the phoney stuff, which might be plastic, sinks.

In the communist era scavengers would dig it up on the seashore. Now the beaches are more tightly protected, so amber is no longer such a bargain, but there is beautiful jewellery to be bought here. The lighter the colour, we are told the older it is. I admire a bracelet, priced at £180. Well, maybe we'll come back.

On a nearby market stall they are selling bottle containing small pieces. Our guide, Malgorzata, says this is used locally as a cure for several ailments, including heart conditions and rheumatism. Soak it in six times its depth of pure alcohol – or perhaps unflavoured  vodka – leave it for six weeks in a dark bottle and if it doesn't work, she says "you really do need to go to hospital".

GdanskLike most of the city, St. Mary's was badly damaged when Soviet and German forces fought their last battles of the Second World War in 1945. But as Malgorzata observes, the Nazis may have been evil but they weren't stupid. When hey still believed they might wind up masters of Europe they moved some of the cathedral's treasures to outlying villages, fearing they might by destroyed in allied bombing raids. Those saved included the magnificent, gold painted altar where the wedding couple stood, crafted at the beginning of he 16th century to rival one in Krakov.

Pretty well everyone now gets married in church again now, says Malgorzata. In Poland, it's traditional for the bride and groom walk up the aisle together, though some couples, who have seen it done differently in British or American movies, think its smart  to break with that tradition.

It's the bilberry season. They are picked in the forests and sold all over town. We cannot resist ducking into a cake shop and sharing a pastry filled with the little teeth staining fruit.

GdanskGdansk's heart may have been ripped out by wartime shelling but the facades of buildings in this once fabulously rich mercantile centre, many of them with elaborate Dutch renaissance gables have been painstakingly restored. We would like to linger longer and admire them, but Britain is not the only place where it rains. The heavens open, we shelter amid the baroque and rococo of St Nicholas Church, said to have been spared destruction after the priest plied the German commander with moonshine vodka. Between downpours we head along the river promenade to see huge wheels, once part of a giant 15th century crane mechanism powered, which were once turned  by men working within them, like hamsters. And we scurry for our hotel.

  • Read Poland: Chapter 2 – Gdansk
  • Read Poland: Chapter 3 – Sopot, the summer capital
  • Read Poland: Chapter 4 – Warsaw
  • Read Poland: Chapter 5 – more Warsaw
  • Read Poland: Chapter 6 – Zakopane
  • Read Poland: Chapter 7 – Krakow
  • Read Poland: Chapter 8 – more Krakow 
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Roger Bray

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