Rupert Parker discovers that Gdansk is not the grey industrial city he thought it was.
People familiar with recent history will remember the struggles against communist rule starting with strikes in the shipyards in 1980. TV viewers saw Gdansk as a bleak industrial city, blighted by Soviet-style architecture, but happily, that image was completely wrong.
With 1,000 years of history, Gdansk is Poland’s maritime capital and one of the largest ports on the Baltic Sea. The docks have now moved away from the city centre and the tight network of medieval streets on the Motlawa river preserves the atmosphere of the Hanseatic settlement as it was at the end of the 18th century.
Gdansk has been at various times Polish, Prussian and German, and experienced periods of autonomy as a free city-state. Different rulers mean different names and the Germans called it Danzig until it reverted to Gdansk at the end of WW2. The first shots of WW2 were fired here and when the Russians arrived at the end of the war, they knocked it flat.
Extensive reconstruction took place in the years afterwards and the historic Main Town has been completely restored. The legendary Długi Targ, known as the Long Market, is the main thoroughfare and is packed with colourful pastels buildings, buzzing bars, underground restaurants, and the iconic Neptune Fountain. At its eastern end, the medieval Green Gate opens onto the Motlawa River embankment where a replica pirate galleon offers trips to the surrounding area.
St Mary’s is one of the largest brick churches in the world and its 78m high tower dominates the Gdansk skyline. You can climb its 408 steps for glorious views over the city and the Baltic Sea. Inside is a fascinating astronomical clock dating from 1464 and at 14m high it may well be the largest clock in the world. Go in on the hour to hear strike and watch biblical figures come out to play.
Gdansk is known as the capital of Amber and a new museum inside The Grand Mill details the history of Baltic Amber with multimedia installations. Exhibits on two floors include “inclusions” (where bugs or plants are caught inside the amber) and many amber creations, including a stunning Fender Stratocaster guitar, show the material’s diversity. A large open room at the top of the building houses an impressive array of modern amber jewellery and of course, there’s a shop where you can buy your own to take home.
10 km downriver on the Baltic is the peninsula of Westerplatte. On September 1, 1939, the German battleship Schleswig-Holstein started WW2 when it opened fire on the Polish garrison. They managed to hold out for 7 days, hoping for support from France and Great Britain which never came. Heavily outnumbered by 3500 troops on the ground, they surrendered after a loss of 15 Polish lives. Today an imposing 25m monument commemorates the fallen and the area has been turned into a historical park, complete with burnt-out ruins and bunkers.
At the same time, in the Old Town, the large brick building of the Polish Post Office came under attack. Fifty armed postal workers were trapped inside, but after a 17-hour siege, the thirty-four who were still alive surrendered. They were subsequently tortured and executed by firing squad. Outside a stainless-steel monument remembers their sacrifice and inside there’s a small museum telling the story.
200m away is the huge modern WW2 Museum, opened in 2017, its jagged glass and terracotta structure resembling a giant bomb hitting the earth. Yet the main exhibition is housed underground in themed cavernous spaces which take you through the history in chronological order. The museum’s 2000 objects include an American tank, a Soviet tank, and a wooden German railway car displayed in faithfully recreated locations. Particularly moving is a wall of stacked suitcases next to a huge blow-up of the gates of Auschwitz.
Gdansk also had a starring role in the collapse of communism. In 1980 the Solidarity movement, led by Lech Walesa, closed the shipyard with strikes which spread all over the country. The world held its breath as it waited to see if the Russians would intervene. Fortunately, all was resolved relatively peacefully, and Walesa received the Noble Peace Prize in 1983.
He went on to become Polish President and still works inside the Lenin Shipyard – not in the docks but in the mammoth European Solidarity Centre which opened in 2014. It tells the story of Solidarity and the other opposition movements of Communist Eastern Europe. There are over 2,000 exhibits, and the library contains around 100,000 books and documents.
On the outside the museum is encased in rusted metal cladding, echoing the scale and size of the ships that used to be built here. The theme is carried on inside with leaning steel plates lining the corridors. Film and photographs are used in a creative way and there’s a military truck parked in front of twisted barricades as a reminder of the struggles.
These days the shipyards are quiet, but the famous Gate #2 still stands, preserved exactly as it was in 1980, with a list of workers’ demands chalked up on a piece of plywood. Next to it stands the Monument to the fallen Shipyard Workers 1970, an impressive forty-two metre, 13-tonne steel sculpture commemorating the forty-two workers who died in an earlier protest.
Gdansk is an ideal destination for a long weekend, with most attractions easily walkable and easy access to cafes, bars, and restaurants. The museums are of world quality, and you can easily spend a day in each of them. Even better is to take it easy and just hang out on the waterfront watching the world go by. And don’t forget to take home a piece of amber jewellery.
TELL ME MORE ABOUT GDANSK
There are direct flights to Gdansk from London Stansted,
Poland Travel has information about the country:
Visit Gdansk has information about the city.
The Radisson Hotel & Suites makes a good base on the riverfront.
Chmielna Restaurant has good fish.
Restauracja Kubicki is the oldest restaurant in Gdansk
Restaurant Fino serves inventive modern cuisine
Gdanski Bowke is a traditional restaurant.
Restauracja Gvara has good food and music
Grand Blue Sopot offers refined dining in the Grand Hotel Sopot.