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Gdańsk's old town
Solidarność monument
Chunk of the wall that once divided East and West Europe

Today was a typical city break day of wandering around the city and doing some very pleasant sightseeing. We started by walking the short distance into the centre of Gdańsk’s old town. The weather was lovely and warm, sandal weather, yet it still managed to feel clean and fresh. Oh, I forgot to mention the building work that woke us so early in the morning. The hotel receptionist had told us they wouldn’t really start before 10am but by 7am the stonecutters and drills were already fired up. Anyway, we walked into town, past/along/across a canal with some pleasure yachts moored, and with lovely views of the many spires and tall cathedral towers, and the remains of old brick buildings in the foreground, a section that hasn’t been restored yet.

We learned throughout the day how Gdańsk was rebuilt, reconstructed and restored following WWII when both the Allies and the Soviets took it in turns to bomb the place and effectively reduce it to rubble. Hard to believe now as the town centre was full of lovely “old” buildings, very much like Amsterdam.

First we visited the Maritime Museum, housed in three large former storehouses by the main canal. They resembled large barns. Inside there were many rooms with interesting displays covering Gdańsk and Poland’s history, its centre as a shipbuilding centre, military history as Poland changed over the centuries, etc. In each room you could pick up a little booklet with laminated pages containing a map of the exhibits and translations of the captions, handy as the ones in the display cases were only in Polish. I wasn’t too bothered to read everything in detail and was quite happy just reading the odd bit here and there, happy to let if flow over me in general impressions of Polish and Gdańsk history.

Afterwards Ness went to have a look around the SS Soldek, a ship moored along the quay while I just had a coffee and watched the goings-on along the canal. Across the water was the famous medieval crane (also partly, or possible even wholly, rebuilt though you wouldn’t know it), and a tiny ferry was going back and forth across the canal, with Polish playing over the loudspeakers, something suitably atmospheric and nautical, sounding like an accordeon player or a slow ferryman’s song. We took the little ferry across and next went up inside the crane. This used to be driven by manpower, by men walking inside the big wheels inside the crane, hoisting weights of up to 2,000kg.

We skipped the final wing of the Maritime Museum, which was all about various types of boats, and instead strolled along the canal and then along the royal route, Gdańsk’s premier touristic street. This is a wide avenue lined with some magnificent “old” buildings in elaborate Mannerist styles, including an imposing brick town hall with tall turrets, a richly decorated house next to it, the Neptune fountain, and lots more, and of course many ambling tourists. We got the impression there was a cruise ship in town and I did hear that typical American retired person’s drawl (“Marty, I’m jes’ goin’ over here”, etc.) We both kept saying how this was so very different from our vague expectations. Lots of streets artists too, dressed up in all kinds of costumes.

We walked to the other big gate at the other end of the royal route and meandered around a little through the streets of the old town and then went for a drink and a snack at a pleasant little café on one of the less busy streets parallel to the royal route, a tasty beer and pierogi, Polish dumplings. Ness still had dodgy guts and passed on it.

From here we made our way through the central streets, past some more pretty streets, churches and squares, the old mill (a large brick building with a large tall red-tiled roof), and towards the Solidarność museum and monument to the fallen shipyard workers. It was in a quieter part of town, a now residential, former industrial area, and it struck me how few people there were coming or going the same way. Surely this was the main reason for coming to Gdańsk I had thought, to come and see and learn about where the collapse of communism in Europe had all begun. We found the small museum, housed in a small brick building that had previously formed part of the shipyards. Some way behind it we could still see cranes and other shipyard buildings. I think the shipyard might still be open, even though they are totally unprofitable, but it would be political suicide to attempt to close them down. Outside the museum there were large black and white photographs on large rust-coloured metal plates dotted along the path, showing images of the shipyard workers on strike.

It really hit home somehow, as I recalled seeing images like these on the news when was a child, and how it was a part of the history of “my” Europe. (Another thought was how for at least some of those involved, caught up in the sequence of events, there must have been really no option but to go along with the momentum, whether they wanted to or not, how the movement acquired a will of its own.)

Inside the museum was very well presented, with a realistic mock shop from the 1970’s/80’s, as a reminder to people of what things used to be like – a few bottles, two jars of gherkins, a few loaves of bread, was all that was to be found on the empty shelves, and it all looked so basic and bare. There were video clips, slideshows, radio broadcasts and various documents and related bits, like the wooden panels with the “21 Demands”, and at the end the hall was set up just how it had looked during the days of the strike and when finally an agreement was signed to permit free trade unions (not originally one of the demands of the strikers, but the one that came to be at the centre of the dispute). Also lots of historical context on what had preceded: uprisings in other parts of Eastern Europe, and the 1970’s crackdown on a strike, which could be said to have been the real turning point, as well as what happened subsequently – the imposition of martial law and the end of the sixteen months of “freedom” in 1981, and later the tumultuous events of 1989 when Eastern Europe was like a house of cards as one country after another changed.

Yes, it did touch me to realise the changes that had happened and how it had started here. I’m still amazed that there weren’t more visitors. They said they had had 300 earlier in the day – didn’t seem like a lot. I stubbed my big toe when I was trying to take an artsy picture of the tall monument on the square outside (over the next months it turned all sorts of colours!) Then we walked back into the old town and stopped for a few drinks and a plate of herring at a nice café by the mill, a pleasant courtyard with weeping willows, surrounded by a low hedge so you could look across, a super spot for a few games of gin rummy. A few LP’ers were there too.

We continued back to the area around the royal route and found a nice bistro on the same street as before, and had a tasty meal in the warmly decorated tall room, and thankfully no hordes of tourists. In fact, even though it was only about 8pm the city felt very quiet and empty, except for the ul. Durga, the royal route, where there were still some tourists. Locals obviously go somewhere else in the evening. At the hotel we had a final Sobieski sweet bitter, while mozzies feasted on us, and then hit the sack not too late. A super day in Gdańsk!