There is more to the charming Polish city of Gdansk than being the birthplace of Solidarity
To be honest, my reasons for visiting Gdansk weren’t exactly highbrow. Firstly, it looked like a cheap weekend break, with low-cost flights and low-cost beer. And then there was Lech Walesa and that heroic moustache.
For most people of my generation, who grew up in the 1970s, the name Gdansk will forever be associated with the Solidarity movement. In 1980, Lech Walesa, an unemployed electrician, scaled the walls of the Lenin Shipyards and led an illegal strike that eventually led to the downfall of Soviet-era communism.
But the history of Gdansk, on the Baltic coast of Poland, goes back a lot further to a time when it was known as Danzig, a Hanseatic trading capital. It was during the 16th and 17th centuries that the old town – the Glowne Miasto – was built, a beautifully restrained symphony of gothic spires, renaissance facades and merchants’ houses that would look at home in Amsterdam. Although much of it was destroyed during World War II, it was rebuilt to exacting standards.
The result today is enchanting: a medieval town centre that has thrown off the shackles of communism yet resisted the gaudy paraphernalia of capitalism. Narrow streets buzz with cafes, bars and ice cream parlours (it’s never too cold in Poland for an ice cream, nor too early for a beer), rather than McDonald’s. There are galleries and antiques shops but no Gap or Benetton.
Nor are there yet many tourists. So you can wander the cobbled streets alone, gazing up at pointy gabled roofs and watching the sunlight slant off ornamental clock faces, gold sundials, church spires and weather vanes.
If you’re feeling fit, climb to the top of St Mary’s Church, a dizzying, thigh-burning hike up 400 steps to a small terrace high above the rooftops. The views are sensational, down into hidden gardens and across rivers and canals to forests, fields and the dark Baltic.
The old town hall, now a history museum, is a must, both for its painted panelled ceilings and an exhibition of photographs of the city before and after 1945. And a couple of the grander merchants’ houses have been turned into museums, the best of which is the extravagantly rococo Dom Uphagena.
It’s a 15-minute walk from the old town to the shipyards where Solidarity was born. Outside the main gates stands a monument to workers killed in the first strikes of 1970s, a soaring steel structure that appears to burst from the paving stones beneath it. Inside is a graphic and absorbing museum, Roads to Freedom, that recounts the rise of the union movement in Poland. Among the exhibits is a recreation of a Soviet-era grocery shop (bare shelves bar a few slabs of lard, stale bread and vinegar).
Today’s Poland is very different. Walking back into town from the shipyards, you pass the market hall, the Hala Targowa, built in 1896 and renovated in 2005. The ground floor is full of boutiques and shoe shops and the basement, where archaeological remains discovered in the recent dig have been preserved behind glass, is crammed with butchers, delicatessens and cheese shops.
Poland may be no gastronomic superpower but the food is hearty and fresh. The fish is outstanding and you’ll kick yourself if you leave without trying pigs knuckles, pierogi (stuffed dumplings) and beetroot soup.
Drinking is a serious business. A typical evening might start with a couple of glasses of strong and foamy Okocim beer and finish at the bottom of a bottle of vodka. The vodka to go for is Zubrowka, named for the fragrant bison grass that grows in the east of the country, a blade of which is placed in each bottle. (Locals claim the flavour comes from bison urine. They’re kidding.) Make sure you also order a glass of goldwasser, a clear, herb-flavoured liqueur infused with tiny flakes of 22-carat gold leaf. You won’t get rich catching the flakes on your teeth, but you can have a lot of fun trying.