I enjoy my time in Gdańsk.  Its location on the Baltic makes it different from other Polish cities I have visited. Although I know that it is more than just the shipyard town made famous in the 1980s by the rise of the Solidarity union, I am still surprised how beautiful it really is.


Old Town

The city, now home to almost 500,000 people, was largely destroyed at the end of the Second World War and had to be rebuilt in the 1950s and 1960s. The restoration of the old town is very impressive; it is hard to imagine that the buildings are not 100% originals. There are gabled buildings with beautiful ornate doorways lining the streets; everything is painted in a variety of different colours. 



Inevitably though, it is very crowded with tourists.  Judging from the language spoken most of the visitors seem to be Polish but I also hear several other European tongues.  Long Market, Długa’, is the wide pedestrianised street that runs from the Green Gate on the waterfront to the Rathaus (town hall).  It is the main tourist drag and whilst a walk along it is pleasant at first, I soon get tired of the crowds and the restaurant touts.



The Rathaus itself was built in the 15th century and contains the Gdańsk Historical Museum.  The Museum is an excellent introduction to the city and its long and complicated story.   Better still, it is free to visit on Mondays.  Just in front of the Rathaus is the Neptune Fountain. 



Connected to the Long Market is Long Lane which features more gabled houses including Uphagen’s house, the only 18th century merchant’s home in Poland that is open to the public.



Nearby is St Mary’s Church, one of the largest brick-built Gothic cathedrals in the world, worth a look inside for its beautiful interior.  Mariacka Street runs from the church towards St Mary’s gate on the waterfront.  With its elegant facades and old street lamps it is considered one of the most beautiful thoroughfares in the city.   



Gdańsk / Danzig: 1454-1918

The city of Gdańsk has an extremely complicated history, although it is possible to make some sense of it by visiting the beautiful museum housed in the Rathaus.  The city was first incorporated into the Kingdom of Poland in 1454 at the request of King Casimir IV.


It enjoyed special status in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth from the late 16th century.  Many of its inhabitants were bi-cultural and shared both Polish and German influences.


The city declined in the 18th century and was eventually taken by the Russians in 1734.  It was first annexed by Prussia in 1793 as the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was partitioned out of existence.


After being besieged and captured by French-led forces in 1807 and then becoming a free city, Danzig was once again integrated into Prussia in 1815.


The city spent the next 100 years as first a Prussian and then, after 1871, a German city.  By the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 most of its residents were German speakers.   


Gdańsk Port

Gdańsk has been an important shipbuilding centre, port and trading centre since the Middle Ages.  In the 14th century it became a member of the Hanseatic League. 


The whole of the old town is orientated towards the waterfront. Dating from the 14th century, it’s promenade was originally made of wooden platforms and used to load and unload ships.  Today it is lined with bars and restaurants.



The National Maritime Museum is located here and comprises of several branches, including the medieval port crane, and the first ocean-going ship built in Gdańsk after the war, the Soldek.   This is the Motlawa River and it leads out into the Baltic Sea.  There are various ferries and so-called water trams that provide a way of travelling out from the waterfront, through the port and out towards the sea.  



I board a ferry to get a closer look at the port and I spend a fascinating hour or so passing lines of ships loading and unloading. Although slightly overshadowed by neighbouring Gdynia, Gdańsk is still one of the largest ports on the Baltic, handling around 50 million tons of transhipments a year. The port has handling and storage facilities for bulk and general cargo as well as grain, coal, lumber, ore and the inevitable containers.  



Free City of Danzig: 1920-1939

The Free City of Danzig was created out of the Treaty of Versailles of 1919 at the end of World War I.   The story is told in depth at the Municipal History Museum.    Comprising of Danzig (Gdańsk) and nearly 200 towns and villages in the surrounding area, the Free City lasted from 1920 until 1939.   It was created as a compromise solution to avoid giving Danzig and its 98% majority German population to Poland, whilst at the same time granting Poland access to an established port.   


The city had its own currency and passports.  It was represented abroad by Poland and was in a customs union with it.   Its former German railway lines were administered by the Polish as was its Post Office.


The solution did not work well.  The Poles ended up building the alternative port of Gydnia further up the coast, whilst calls for the city to re-join Germany got louder as time went on.  By 1936 the city’s senate had a majority of local Nazis.  By 1939, solution of the Danzig question had become the biggest threat to world peace.  



On one of my afternoons in Gdańsk I take a short side trip to nearby Sopot.  I get there on one of the little blue and yellow SKM trains. Officially part of the tri-city (Gdańsk, Sopot and Gdynia) rapid transit rail system, the trains run alongside the main line.


It is a 30-minute journey out to Sopot.  I walk down from the station to the beach. It is busy here and there seem to be a mix of Polish and International visitors.  The atmosphere is not unlike an upmarket English seaside town. 


Sopot (then Zoppot) grew into one of the most famous seaside resorts on the Polish coast during the 19th Century.  I walk along the pier, the longest wooden one in Europe, and look back towards the coastline.  As the sun begins to set, I walk south for a couple of miles along the beach, stopping off for a few drinks along the way. 



The Second World War

I venture out to Westerplatte to learn more about the start of the Second World War. it was here at 04:45 local time on September 1, 1939, that the Germans launched their attack on the Polish garrison just outside Danzig.  200 Polish soldiers came under intense bombardment by air and sea and by 3,500 troops on the ground.


The Poles were supposed to hold the garrison for 24 hours but ended up only surrendering on September 7th.  The site is now a historical park and includes the shelled-out bunkers and a small museum.  The Westerplatte Memorial was completed in 1966 and is the scene each year of events to commemorate the start of the war.  


Almost at the same time as the attack at Westerplatte, the Germans began an assault on a small post office at Hevelius Square in the centre of Danzig itself.  The story is told by a fascinating small museum staffed by friendly guides that has been built at the site.


The Post Office of the Free City, operated by the Poles, was seen as a centre of Polish espionage by the Germans.  Within hours of the start of the conflict, moves were made to remove Polish post boxes from the city.  


At Hevelius Square the Germans laid siege for 17 hours shelling the building until part of it began to collapse.  30 of the original 50 postal workers inside were sentenced to death a month later. Their bodies were only discovered in 1991.  


Given its role at the start of the conflict, it might be expected that Gdansk has a museum covering World War II.   Even so, the Museum of the Second World War which was only opened in 2017 still manages to exceed my expectations.  It is housed in an award-winning building and its extensive permanent exhibition is split into three parts – Road to War, The Horror of War and The Long Shadow of War.


In total there are 18 different rooms all sub-divided into themes or sections.  I easily spend 3 hours here and feel I have only scratched the surface.   If I have a criticism, it is perhaps that the museum casts its net a little too widely.  There is plenty of the story of what happened to Poland and her people during the war, but I feel that detailed stories on the Pacific War are perhaps a little out of place.



By 1945 Danzig was in ruins.  In accordance with the Potsdam Agreement, surviving German citizens who had not already fled were expelled to West or East Germany. Meanwhile members of the pre-war Polish ethnic minority started returning and new Polish settlers began to come.  Slowly they began to rebuild the devastated city. Gdańsk suffered severe underpopulation as a result of these changes and did not recover until the late 1950s. 



Food and Drink

Whilst few would yet regard Poland as a gastronomic destination, its food is certainly very tasty and of excellent quality.  Whilst in Gdańsk I eat almost exclusively at the small restaurants known as milk bars (Bar Mleczny).


The milk bars operate on a cafeteria system with customers choosing from dishes on display.  The menu is usually only in Polish, and the staff don’t normally speak too much English, so a lot of pointing is needed.



The food, featuring Polish classics such as  Pierogi (dumplings) gołąbki (meat-filled cabbage rolls with tomato sauce), kotlet schabowy (pork cutlets) goulash and ham hock is all excellent. 



Most of the milk bars are not licenced, but the city is home to some wonderful bars and, I get the chance to sample some excellent local craft beer. 




In the 1980s, Gdańsk was the birthplace of the Solidarity movement, which played a major role in bringing an end to Communism in Poland. The events helped precipitate the collapse of the Eastern Bloc, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact.


The whole story is told at the European Solidarity Centre (ECS),  housed in a rust-coloured 5-storey building just outside the Gdańsk Lenin Shipyard. It was opened back in 2014. The centre sits opposite the Monument to the Fallen Shipyard Workers of 1970. Unveiled in 1980 it was the first to be erected to the victims (42 died here in 1970) of a communist regime ever to be erected in a communist country.



The permanent exhibition at the ECS occupies seven different halls across two floors.  The story is impressively told via a variety of methods including reconstructed living rooms and interrogation cells. There are 3D projections and plenty of photographs and film footage to tell the story all the way from the unrest of the 1950s to the fall of the Berlin Wall and beyond.



The widespread strikes of 1980, the rise of Lech Walesa, the government clampdown and the role of Pope John Paul II’s visits to Poland in the subsequent decade are the centrepiece. The story ends with democratic elections in Poland and other European nations, and the collapse of the Soviet Union.


The whole thing is excellent, and I spend 3 hours wandering around guided by another GPS-assisted audio headphone system.  At the end I make a trip up to the roof-top terrace and enjoy great views of the surrounding shipyards.



Return to Berlin  –  Bryza