Tuesday 16th September 2008, Sopot, Near Gdansk, Poland
Yesterday it turned very cold and we spent the day wrapped in jackets walking the streets of Gdansk against a stiff sea breeze straight from the north. In England you were reporting sunny temperatures around 20 degrees while here it never reached above 10. The summer now seems over in Eastern Europe.
(Incidentally, while in Uppsala, Sweden, we discovered the final resting place of Anders Celsius, while here in Gdansk, we stumbled by chance upon the house in which his rival thermometrician, Daniel Fahrenheit, was born.)
Polish train carriages are huge, old and battered but they do the job and it is very cheap to use them. Thirty minutes after leaving the campsite we walked out of the attractive central station, with its countless stalls of large stodgy buns run by large stodgy ladies, into the heart of Gdansk.
You could be forgiven for not realising that the city was almost completely destroyed by the Nazis, Allied bombing and Soviet advancement during the 1940s. Countless thousands lost their lives and there were only 37 houses left undamaged in the entire city centre! Despite this, we found ourselves standing in the heart of a beautiful medieval merchant city, its ancient walls complete, its churches magnificent and its paved squares lined by civic buildings, guild houses and rich merchants' homes. It beggars belief that such a massive reconstruction project can have been so skilfully undertaken and that none of these buildings were more than sixty years old!
Despite the very real urgency of providing emergency housing for displaced Poles in the immediate after-math of the war, it was a matter of national pride for the people of Gdansk to rebuild something of their magnificent heritage. That they achieved it is nothing short of a miracle with so many demands to throw up quick, ugly concrete housing blocks instead. Naturally the entire city cannot be rebuilt, though much is still continuing. Instead they have concentrated on reconstructing a number of the principal streets in the old town, together with many of the major buildings. The astonishing thing is that they have done it so that it doesn't look new at all. The bricks are old and weathered and even the mortar looks old. We assume they used the rubble of some buildings to rebuild others.
Never, except perhaps in Venice, have we walked a city, of any age or authenticity, where we have gorged on so much continuously rich architectural eye candy. The tall, colourful facades of the houses are stunningly beautiful with impressive steps leading up to huge carved, ornate and gilded entrance doors with decorative stone pipes and lions-head drain-spouts. In some of the side streets the gates and steps are all that is left, with bare spaces behind where blocks of buildings have not been reconstructed.
Down on the waterfront stands the largest medieval crane in Europe, still in working order. It was used for hoisting goods on and off of the merchant ships that moored at the city gates. It was powered by men walking around inside massive wooden wheels.
On Mondays the museums and most public buildings are closed. This is just as well as we still hadn't seen more than the very heart of the city by evening. There is just so much to see and do. There are also many surprises. Having admired the huge mediaeval Great Mill building from the outside we discovered an open door and peeped in. Stunned we found ourselves in a modern commercial centre with sportswear shops selling Adidas and Nike products, an Italian restaurant and a coffee shop where customers were licking Häagen Daas ice creams!
Why did we not have the same enthusiasm for rebuilding and restoring our city centres in western Europe? Weimar and Meissen, in former East Germany, have been beautifully restored or rebuilt, while the city centres of such places as Frankfurt, Bonn and Cologne have been largely redeveloped. Think how charming Coventry might have looked, and anything that had prevented the development of Plymouth as it is today would have been welcome!
At the tourist office, also housed in a reconstructed building opposite the "ancient" Main Town Hall, we picked up a free booklet in English. Browsing through it later over lunch, we wondered whether Gdansk city council are aware of what was written in it. In addition to providing excellent and accurate information about the city and its history it was overtly critical of the council's short-comings and self-complaisance.
Our lunch was delicious. Down in the warm, atmospheric cellar of the mediaeval Old Town Hall we were served a thick, hot soup of tomatoes and beans followed by sliced pork in a creamy mushroom and onion sauce accompanied by roast parsley potatoes, red cabbage and peppers. With it we had Polish beer, and coffee to follow. The entire lot for both of us was less than £12 and as a bonus we enjoyed a chat with the charming Polish waitress, happy to practice her English. Left largely intact after the war, this 16th-century renaissance building has served a variety of purposes - the offices of the Polish astronomer Johannes Hevelius, the city council, the Soviet army after "liberation" and, for a while, the offices of Lech Walesa.
Needing to walk-off such a heavy meal we set out in search of the Gdansk shipyards. On the way we stopped at an ATM cash machine. Our card was rejected. It was the same story at each one we tried! Panic was setting in fast. We asked inside one of the banks where we were told it was because we had chip-and-pin. They have not yet been widely introduced in Poland and their cash machines cannot cope with them. We'd had no trouble in any other country so this is something of a surprise. It took five different banks in this major commercial city before we found one prepared to feed our habit for money. Now the campsite tells us it will only accept cash so we need to return to ensure we have "loadza zloty" to see us through to Germany as presumably garages will also only take cash.
The gates of the Lenin Shipyard are perhaps where Communism first started to totter. The original strikes took place in the 1970s and were ruthlessly quelled with the deaths of several workers. Unrest simmered here and erupted again in 1980 with the workers successfully calling for a series of all-out strikes. Outside the gates are three huge crosses to those killed in the 1970s riots. They were made and erected by the strikers of the 1980s as part of the terms of agreement reached with the government. Today they are a focal point for visiting dignitaries who are brought here to lay flowers at the base.
Ironically, despite being the catalyst for change and sharing responsibility in national politics during the move towards a capitalist society, such old, heavy industries as ship-building have been left behind as the world has moved into the age of new technology. There have recently been several unsuccessful attempts to close down the shipyard which struggles on as no more than a shadow of its former role as a harbinger of change.
Today we took the train down the line in the opposite direction to explore Gdynia which is just about as different as it gets from Gdansk. Originally it was just a little fishing village but at the end of the First World War it was catapulted into importance when Danzig, as it then was, was made a free city and Poland was granted a narrow corridor to the sea and needed a port and shipyard of its own. (In later years this became Hitler's excuse for marching into Poland and re-establishing the pre-1918 boundaries, taking both Danzig and the Polish corridor back into Germany, precipitating the rest of Europe into World War 2.)
What has Gdynia to offer the tourist? Other than a marine aquarium, a commemorative plaque to the writer Joseph Conrad, who was born in Poland, and a WW2 warship that saw active service off Cowes on the Isle of Wight, not a great deal. It is a long sprawling city of uninspiring flats that follows the coast. There are several parks and more shops than we have seen for weeks. It is probably pleasant enough as somewhere to live but it lacks charm. Our guidebook mentions that many of the building date from the 1930s and some are pure Bauhaus. We only found faceless blocks of flats, though they were in a perfectly reasonable state of repair.
We found a simple café for lunch and with the help of the waitress selected a couple of typically Polish meals. Ian had a hollow doughnut of minced pork filled with mushrooms in a creamy sauce while I selected cabbage leaves stuffed with minced meat and onions coated in a herb and tomato sauce. Both meals were good and cost around £3 each.
Having exhausted the possibilities of Gdynia we returned down the line towards Gdansk as far as Oliwa, a suburb that escaped relatively lightly from the war. It is a very pleasant area with a large and beautiful park and botanical garden. It has lakes, waterfalls, tree-lined walks, colourful flowerbeds and a hothouse. It is also home to a couple of museums and has a curious feature known as the Ears of Dionysus - a couple of facing cavities across a sylvan pathway. We could hear each other easily as we each stood in one and whispered across to each other.
The main reason tourists visit Oliwa though is to see the cathedral. Why it is there rather than in the city we are not sure but it is certainly a very beautiful gothic building. Inside, the dark baroque furnishings blend successfully with the high slender ribbed roof, spangled with tiny stars. Over the baroque altar a cloud of carved angels look down on the church while the beautiful organ above the entrance was once the largest in the world.
Our Weimar friend Hubert is something of an intellectual and like many of his German compatriots takes culture rather more seriously than we do. Although we'd managed to track down Johann Gottfried von Herder in Riga for him, due to our curtailed visit we'd failed to locate the explorer and scientist Georg Forster, the subject of his doctoral thesis, in Vilnius. Hubert actually whiles away the winter evenings browsing through the works of German philosophers, and Nietzsche and Kant are household names for him. He would never forgive us if he were to read in this blog that we'd visited Oliwa and failed to track down the home of the 18th century philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer! "Arthur who?" I grumbled as Ian marched me off across the park to the residential streets beyond, stopping at each corner to consult his map. When we found the street there was a vegetable and second-hand furniture market in full swing on the corner. Tarnished candelabras and organic beetroot seemed a far more exciting prospect to me. The street numbering was in our favour. "This is 134 it's just a few houses down here at 122, Hubert will be so happy to have a photo of the house" cried Ian breaking into a run. Soon we reached 125 and after a long gap 124, followed by some woodland, an open field, a BMX bike track and eventually 123 which was a large block of flats. Next came blocks 123a, b and c. By this time we'd walked a couple of kilometres and I was ready to mutiny when we finally stopped at an open gateway numbered 122. Beyond we could just see, beyond a 10ft high wire mesh fence topped with razor wire, the façade of a building that just might once have been an 18th century home but now looked more like a factory warehouse. We moved in through the entrance gate hoping to get Hubert his photo through the wire fence. Hearing a noise we turned to see the huge gate, also topped with razor wire, automatically closing, with us on the wrong side and nobody around to rescue us! Sorry, Hubert, we forgot completely about Schopenhauer in our mad scramble to get back through the gate before it slammed shut and crushed us, just like the witch in Rider Haggard's King Solomon's Mines. We almost lost the rucksack on Ian's back but made it just in time. It would have been a chilly night trapped on the wrong side. There was a notice on the gate but as we didn't understand it we'd ignored it. You'd think they'd have had a multilingual warning notice up for the hordes of German intelligentsia who must regularly turn up seeking the great philosopher!
Deciding we'd had enough excitement to last a couple of pensioners for the day we returned to the station and fought the usual battle with the ticket machine, guessing the buttons until it spewed us out a couple of amazingly cheap senior citizen tickets. It's as well we did as we were stopped for a random check on the train. It's also fortunate it wasn't yesterday when we bought the ticket home first thing in the morning and it was only when we were on the train coming home that evening that we realised it was only valid for one hour!
Wednesday 17th September 2008, Sopot, Near Gdansk, Poland
The dry weather ended during the night. Today it has been cold and wet. Until now it has only been cold or wet. It also seems to be getting dark so much earlier than in Lithuania, but that's due in part to having moved to a different time zone.
We have enjoyed this area so much we are reluctant to move on, particularly as there are no helpfully located campsites this side of Germany which is too far to reach in a day, if the roads are anything like as bad as they have been.
So we decided to linger another day, taking the train into Gdansk where we visited a couple of museums and the interiors of several buildings that had been closed when we were there on Monday. The first place was the magnificent reconstructed Main Town Hall building where the old portraits of the early Polish kings that hung so imposingly in the council chamber were neatly signed and dated 1998 in the bottom corner! The ceiling panels too were recent but unless you were an expert you'd never realise. The building is now used as a museum of the history of the free state of Gdansk. Upstairs there are photos taken in 1945 showing the destruction of the city with others taken from the same positions in 1995 showing the reconstructions. There is also a large exhibition devoted to the Kashubians. They are the indigenous people of the area to the west of the city in roughly what was once Pomerania. They have a distinctly separate language. During the war many sought refuge in Canada and there is now a large Kashubian community established there carrying on their same language and traditions. The exhibition showed Kashubian achievements in literature, art and science. The only name familiar to me was Gunter Grass, author of "The Tin Drum".
We returned to the small, 16th century Old Town Hall, spared from damage during the war so everything here at least was original. The renaissance building was the work of Dutch architects, as are many of the buildings in Gdansk. The rooms reflect this influence where the walls are covered in blue and white Delft tiles. We were free to wander around upstairs admiring the ceilings, fire places, paintings, spiral staircase, heavy wooden furniture, carpets and soft furnishings.
We also took time out from the rain to watch a free film in the arts centre on the ground floor of the Old Town Hall. "Birth of a Nation," made in 1915 as a rather jerky silent movie, it told of the assassination of President Lincoln and the ensuing struggles between the black and white population of the southern states of North America and the rise of the Klu Klux Klan.
We returned to the Ratskeller down in the cellars below the building for lunch where we had the same friendly waitress as last time. There is no choice as only one dish is prepared each day. Today we had large bowls of mushroom soup with brown bread followed by liver and onions accompanied by red cabbage with apple, spinach with cream and potatoes. We reflected that the food in Poland is perhaps the best prepared, interesting, copious and cheapest we have found anywhere in our travels. For that alone we will be sorry to move on!
During the afternoon we visited the Solidarity exhibition "Roads to Freedom" charting the events that led up to the shipyard strikes and the eventual collapse of Communism throughout the different countries of Eastern Europe. In 1960s and 70s Poland, ordinary, everyday life was very grey and miserable for people, oppressed by a totalitarian government and always afraid of arrest and punishment. Food and essentials were in short supply and people queued for hours in the hope of buying anything at all knowing they could later barter it in exchange for food or even toilet paper – almost impossible to purchase. Strikes, uprising and riots were quelled with ruthless efficiency without regard to life or injury, the ring-leaders rounded up and very severely punished.