An industrial port on the edge of the Baltic may not sound like an ideal spot for a mini break, but with his cobbled streets and pastoral coloured Flemish buildings, Gdansk is full of surprises. And right now, is the time to go, before it starts attracting anywhere near the hefty number of visitors Polish hotspot Krakow does. From a tourist’s perspective, it still feels almost undiscovered.
For its size, Gdansk has played a big part in 20th century European history. The German invasion of the city (then known as Danzig and an important port) effectively began the Second World War. And when the Cold War that came later finally ended, the anti-Communist solidarity movement born in the Gdansk's huge shipyards was given widespread credit for this role in the collapse of the Soviet Union. Now the restored old town in the north of the city is a beautiful place, which richly decorated facade, elaborate gable ends and historic religious buildings, such as Saint Mary‘s, the world's largest bridge church. The overall impression as you get more of what do you do expect from Belgium is Bruges than the eastern bloc, but it is less tree and a lot cheaper. And after an injection of funds a head of being a host city for Euro 2012, it’s looking better than ever.
I begin my day with a mid morning pirate galleon cruise, which takes in some of the city's best views from the water. The 90-minute trip only cost a fiver, and despite the pre-lunch hour, a few of my heart is shit needs are clogging £2 pints of beer as soon as we board. Departing from near Gdansk's famous wooden medical crane, we head down river, away from the old town and towards the sea, passing the modern shipyard cranes and famous Lenin shipyards, which spread as far as you can see. I make a mental note to visit there later, but the destination for now is the westernplatte, And peninsula in the Baltic Sea.
The preserved bunkers in this bleak area where outmanned and outgunned Polish soldiers did their best to repel Nazi troops on September 1, 1939, starting the war. That occupation was just a start for the Poles – when Hitler was beaten and the Nazis kicked out in 1945, Soviet forces under dictator Joseph Stalin took over their rule.
The country’s eventful liberation came led by a local electrician named Lech Walesa who formed the Solidarity group and led a mass strike at the Lenin Shipyards. He would later win the Nobel Peace Prize and become Poland president. I am told this tale while trundling around the docks in a rickety 1984 Czech bus dubbed the ‘cucumber’ as part of the subject is the bus line tour. Our young guide, Michal, translates for a Polish shipyard worker, who tells us worked here for more than 40 years. He saw the uprisings first hand and tells visitors to solidarity story as we drive past Walesa’s workshop. “Look at the glass, it’s frosted,” he says. “Workers Wales past every day just to see him [Walesa] and the authorities did whatever they could to stop it. So people left the flowers on the window ledge instead.”
The bus tour is run by the Wyspa Institute of art, which is tucked away inside the vast semi wasteland of the shipyard. It’s unlikely, if edgy, setting for contemporary art and where you’ll also find Gdansk’s hippest club, buffet, which attracts a discerning, artistic crowd – although it’s reign may be short lived, with the Lenin shipyards that surround its slated for redevelopment.
I return to the old town for a drink at Buddha Lounge, where the friendly staff are enjoying a boom following year 2012 success, especially with an influx of Irish fans.
“They drink for 22 hours then rang home to tell all their friends to get over here, because it was much prettier than expected,” the barman says. “We’ve had loads more tourists since then.”
My next stop is an inn called Notocyk for a late night snack. This is one of the Old Town’s is Trendy yet ironically communist-themed hostelries. Gdansk’s past may not hit a raw nerve any more, but the meat does, with traditional ‘tartar’ beef coming with a raw egg garnish. I hastily wash it down with an 80p vodka shot.
As I sit under an austere portrait of General Jaruzelski, Poland’s Last Communist era dictator, I decide that it’s because it’s not as polished as Krakow that Gdansk has an unusual and unique charm of its own.