Poland’s Gdansk has never featured on my list of ‘must visit destinations’. That list is long and is prioritised and reprioritised regularly. Destinations making the cut range from nearby Scottish islands to the remote and harsh environment of Antarctica. Gdansk was never a consideration. With a looming Easter weekend offering the chance of a short photographic trip however, combined with a limited selection of flights that would fit that window of opportunity, Gdansk suddenly became a forerunner on the travel list. A short two-hour flight on the Thursday evening after a day in the office saw my husband John and I touch down on Polish soil by nightfall, giving us three full days to explore this compact port city on the Baltic Coast.
Somewhat embarrassingly I have to admit, I knew very little about Gdansk before deciding to visit. I didn’t know that it dated back to 997 or that during the Renaissance it was the most prosperous port on the Baltic, due to its strategic location between Northern and Western Europe. I didn’t know that by 1754 Gdansk, or rather ‘Danzig’ as it was then known, had the largest population of any Eastern European city, with an economy underpinned by grain exports of 200k+ tonnes per annum. Mostly importantly however, I didn’t know the critical importance of Danzig in one of the most monumental events of our times, World War II. Clearly, I should have paid more attention to history lessons when at school.
Danzig had been under the German Empire from the early 1800’s until the end of World War I. In 1919, the Treaty of Versailles, the peace treaty that brought WWI to an end, imposed punitive terms on defeated Germany, with German controlled West Prussia to become part of the newly formed Poland. Danzig, largely ethnically German at the time, became a semi-autonomous ‘free city-state’, governed under the auspices of the League of Nations. Situated on Poland’s Westerplatte peninsula, it consisted of the Baltic Sea port of Danzig and nearly 200 towns and villages in the surrounding areas. Special administrative ties to Poland were put in place, most notably via the Polish Corridor, a thin strip of land which provided Poland with access to the Baltic Sea.
This realignment of territory effectively meant that large numbers of German speaking people, if not evicted post the war, came under Polish rule. German transport between East Prussia and Germany through the Polish corridor also became restricted. Queue building tensions in advance of World War II. In the Spring of 1939, Hitler demanded the annexation of the Free City of Danzig back to Germany. He also called for rail access for Germany across the Polish corridor. With no concession to be made by Britain and France, the Nazi battleship SMS Schleswig-Holstein opened fire on Danzig’s port on 1st September 1939, marking what was to become the first battle of World War II, the Battle of Westerplatte. Seven days later, Poland fell to the Nazis.
The ensuing 6 years saw rapid escalation of the war, Allied Powers vs. Axis Powers tearing up lands across the world and leaving 70 million people dead. Danzig was razed to the ground, 90% of the historical buildings in the City Centre destroyed. After the war Gdansk was incorporated into Poland once again. Germans either fled or were expelled and the Poles renamed the city ‘Gdansk’. The reconstruction of Gdansk continues to this day.
Modern Day Gdansk
For our short break exploring the city, we decided to base ourselves centrally at the modern IBB Dlugi Targ hotel, overlooking the main Square of the old town. Having arrived late in the evening, we enjoyed a leisurely start to Good Friday, savouring a late breakfast of sausages, eggs and bacon, washed down with steaming hot cups of tea. Satisfied and ready for a day of exploring with the cameras, we ventured out to see what modern day Gdansk had to offer.
My immediate impression was that of a city with a beautiful simplicity to its architecture, reminding me very much of Amsterdam. As we wandered the cobbled main street of Dlugi Targ (Long Market), dwarfed by tall colourful buildings, I marvelled at the ornate paintings on the building facades. Like a phoenix from the flames, the old town of Gdansk has been painstakingly rebuilt, with many of the buildings said to be exact reconstructions of that destroyed in the war. A feeling of stepping back in time befell me as I soaked in the atmosphere of this historic little city.
We photographed the iconic landmarks that the city is well known for on what was a crisp and sunny day. The Fountain of Neptune, the 1633 bronze statue of the ‘King of the Seas’, now a defining symbol of Gdansk. The Golden Gate, marking the start of Gdansk’s famous Long Market, the sightseeing heart of the city. The Main Town Hall, which today is the seat of the Gdansk museum. The restored 15th Century wooden Port Crane, once the biggest working crane in medieval Europe.
The city had a relaxed feel as we explored. It was busy but not overly so for what was a bank holiday weekend. I sensed Gdansk had yet to build up the tourist pulling power of other major European cities. This simply added to its charm. The comfort with which we could walk around, without having to push through crowds or bump into people, was an unexpected pleasure. When our feet tired from the hours of walking, taking a well-earned refreshment in a nearby bar that was not overly crowded was also very welcome.
Whilst the Old Town of Gdansk will enthral even the most travelled of tourists, stepping just a few streets away from the main thoroughfares reminded me of the harder side to living in Poland. The townhouses rapidly started to lose their ornately painted facades. Tired buildings decorated in graffiti became the common view and garden areas lay untended. It was a stark and important reminder that living standards here still fall below many western European counterparts. Whilst progress is consistent, Poland becoming the first country of the former Soviet bloc to be graded as a developed economy by the FTSE in 2018, many Poles still continue to cut ties with their homeland in search of better prospects elsewhere in Europe. Those who remain carve out for themselves an often-hard living. Average income after tax in Poland was only £700 per month in 2018, offset of course by the lower cost of living, 43% lower than the UK.
Poland’s lower living cost can be a magnet for bargain hungry tourists seeking value for money, a mid-range three course meal in a restaurant costing approximately £20. Gdansk’s cuisine offers something for all tastes. Numerous restaurants and café bars entice passers-by with generous helpings of local and international delicacies. We enjoyed an exquisite meal at Café Bar Mon Balzac, one of the best we have had in years of travel. Fresh scallops and prawns to start, traditional duck dumplings for a main, and of course the obligatory chocolate brownie for dessert. All washed down with a couple of house special cocktails that made for a magical send off on our last evening.
Our three days in Gdansk had passed in a whirlwind of walking, photographing, eating and drinking. We travelled home a few pounds heavier than when we left, but happy. Most importantly, we had a new found knowledge and respect for a brave little city on the Baltic coast that will live in our memories for some time.