For those of my readers who have not been to Poland, what are the images in your mind’s eye? Apart from pierogi and borscht, what are your associations with Poland? What do you know about this country, that shared so many wonderful surprises with us on our all-too-short port call on the 4th of July? Yes, almost everyone will mention Lech Walesa (whose house and office we saw from the outside as we toured around Gdansk), but did you know that Fahrenheit was born in Gdansk? That important historic events took place here? That the Dutch had a huge influence on the commerce, culture and architecture of the area? That globalisation and consumerism has taken such a firm grip on the nation that Gdansk’s extremely modern and flash 200-shop mall would not be out of place anywhere in the world (and only soon to give pride-of-place away to an even bigger mall)? That walking along the front and down the long pier in Sopot you could think you were on the shores of Scheveningen, Lake Geneva or Lake Como?
Yes – the tri-Cities – Gdynia, Gdansk (Danzig) and Sopot, nestled on the southern shores of the Baltic Sea, had many surprises for us which our wonderful guide, Barbara and our driver so warmly and so keenly showed us.
Collected shipside at the port, we first drove along the main street in Gdynia, a wide thoroughfare lined with shops occupying the ground floor spaces of soulless, non-descript and somewhat Communist-era looking low-rise buildings. But amongst these shops were recognisable names – clothing shops, global fast-food chains (yeah, the usuals), banks. However, soon we were in Sopot, a lovely seaside resort, with a very European, majestic Grand Hotel (as indeed it is called) sitting elegantly and proudly at the start of the resort’s wooden pier.
Nearby are some other large, architecturally sympathetic hotels such as the Sheraton, but also some smaller hotels, all contributing to the attractiveness of the resort. Sopot is famous for its saline – its salt waters, sought by many for its wellness and beauty properties. A spa founded by Dr Haffner in 1823 – just after Napoleon’s defeat in Russia – continues to give this charming town its character today. Sandy white/pink beaches attract sun- and water-seekers, whilst the town’s streets provide many many choices for dining and drinking. Everything is available – from sushi to traditional Polish cooking.
Sopot has its very quirky side as we found out during our delightful walk. Your senses of straight lines, vertigo and architectural pre-conceptions are all assaulted when you come upon the “Curved House.” Located in the charming, commercial Monte Cassino Street, your eye will not find a straight line on the façade, although it is a new, functioning commercial building.
Time to leave this charming seaside town but not without an extraordinary reason. The Gdansk district of Oliwa is one of the most beautiful quarters of the city, with its Adam Mickiewicz Park (named after one of Poland’s most celebrated poets). Half of the park is landscaped in the very manicured style of a French formal garden while the other half reflects a more natural English garden. Avenues sheltered by tree arcades, hollows offering green sanctuary from the bustling city around, waterfalls and gentle winding pathways all comprised peaceful gardens for the Cistercian monks. On our way to the Cathedral – our destination – we came upon the Palace of the Abbots, built in 1754-1756 in the Rococo style and now the city’s Museum of Contemporary Art.
Our destination, though, was to be the 18th Century Gothic Oliwa Cathedral with its white-washed walls, billowing vaulted ceiling and most notably, its magnificent pipe organ. Consumed by the atmosphere of this historical cathedral, we sat for 20 minutes, listening to this magnificent organ playing familiar hymns, delightful songs, and of course, the main theme from Phantom of the Opera – filling the entire church.
We next found ourselves high above the city of Gdansk, on a lookout hill marked by a tall, imposing stylised dagger in the form of a cross. From here, we had sweeping views of the city, the surrounding greenbelt, the ornate railway station, the shipyards and in the further distance, yes, the omnipresent wind turbines.
Our next stop was Gdansk itself, entering its charming old town by the 16th century Upland Gate as our gateway to Long Street. To describe our wonderful walking tour of this historic, riverside district would consume many many pages but following are some of the highlights.
One of the first things that struck me was the obvious, Dutch style of the tall, thin houses – many with gingerbread, ornate gables. Many Dutch indeed came to Gdansk, to flee the religious tension in the Netherlands. Almost medieval in character, a keen eye can spot its many city emblems, gargoyles, statues and other architectural adornments.
We walked through the streets, streets full of restaurants, cafes and shops (mostly geared to tourists, one has to say!), disused granaries and eventually came upon the Crane, a city landmark. Perhaps a pun, it is a crane in two respects: it is guarded by a statue of a crane at its peak, but within its austere and angular walls is a port crane – an incredibly good example of historic port facilities. Its still working mechanism can lift enormous weights from both its lower and its upper lifting mechanisms. In the Middle Ages, this incredible piece of engineering was the largest port crane in Europe, used for both lifting cargo and erecting ships’ masts.
During our walk, the information plaque outside Lech Walesa’s office was pointed out to us, as was his house during our drive earlier in the day. Lunch was sublime. What else, but Polish soup served in a cob roll, pierogi and a cold glass of Polish beer!
After lunch, more walking, more absorbing the city’s sights, sounds and history – and a drive wending our way back to Gdynia, to bid a sad farewell to our extraordinary guide and driver, leaving not as a day’s companions, but as friends.