Formerly known as Danzig, a free city for many years, Gdansk is a moving tribute to human resilience and the spirit of freedom. In the cosmopolitan air of this city, several notable figures lived and taught, including philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, Nobel Prize author Gunter Grass and Daniel Fahrenheit. Home to many minorities, before World War II Gdansk saw Germans, Poles, Scandinavians, and Scots living together peacefully for centuries. When Hitler invaded Poland in 1939, however, Gdansk was the first city attacked. Gdansk was returned to Poland in the postwar settlement of 1945.
Here, Lech Walesa and other brave shipyard workers launched the Solidarity movement, contributing to communism's decline in Poland, auguring the end of the Soviet Union. Today the city has been reconstructed beautifully, the Old Town looking as splendid as ever. Walesa, Poland's first democratically-elected president, now lives in a posh part of town, a far cry from his modest apartment as an electrician in 1980.
Gdnask is a thoughtful city that has a Cemetery of Nonexistent Cemeteries, honoring the dead whose resting places were destroyed in storm and war, or even paved over. Catholics, Protestants and Jews alike are memorialized here. Several authentic tombstones form an altar base while stone columns shaped like splitting dead tree trunks rise alongside real trees.
In the summertime, Gdansk features ten major annual events. Here are just a few: July and August sees the Gdansk Musical Summer, with concerts in an impressive theater alongside the Motlawa River; the International Festival of Organ Music at the Oliwa Cathedral, with a magnificent organ and well known artists; and the International Festival of Organ, Choir and Chamber Music on Fridays in the huge St. Mary's Basilica. The FETA International Festival of Open Air & Street Theater is in the Old Town in July. At the end of July and beginning of August is the Gdansk Carillon Festival, at the Town Hall and St. Catherine's Church. The first three weeks of August sees the St. Dominic Fair, which reportedly began in the 13th century, featuring many cultural programs.
In the neighboring suburb of Sopot, a beach resort in summer, there's an Opera Festival, nicknamed "a little Beyreuth," in an outdoor amphitheater. A ballet group from St. Petersburg, Russia also performs here every summer.
Long Street, also known as the Royal Route or the Royal Way, is the most impressive site in Gdansk. I think this is Eastern Europe's most impressive avenue, certainly its most beautiful pedestrian mall. Gdansk has been gorgeously reconstructed, though 85 percent of the Old Town was destroyed in World War II. Albercht Durer, the famous German Artist, produced a 25-volume book of Gdansk sketches that aided the Old Town's reconstruction. Walking west to east on the Motlawa River, from the Golden Gate to the Green Gate, there are several dozen magnificently restored buildings, with many restaurants and shops.
Highlights on Long Street include the Golden Gate itself, dating to the early 17th century, with statues of eight "virtues" or ideals -- peace, freedom, wealth, fame, concord, justice, piety and reason. The Uphagen House (late 18th century), now the Museum of Townhouse Interiors, is well worth a look. The biggest site on Long Street is the Town Hall, dating to the 13th century, but with many modern additions and postwar reconstruction. Inside is the small but memorable History of Gdansk Museum. The Great Council Hall (known as the Red Chamber) is absolutely gorgeous. Sit down for a better look at the 25 symbolic ceiling paintings by Izaak van den Blocke. The large central oval painting with the rainbow is "The Apotheosis of Gdansk." Note that there are two Town Halls, one in the Main City, another a mile away in the Old City.
Farther down Long Street is the Neptune Fountain (1633). Behind is the Artus Court, which housed local guilds and entertained important visitors, the latter is still done in the imposing Main Hall today. The world's largest Renaissance (1454) tile stove rises in a corner. The Long Market is in a widened part of Long Street. The Green Gate is a four-story structure built in 1568. Intended as a residence for visiting royals, it was used for that purpose only once, in 1646. Today it houses exhibits and the office of Lech Walesa, the Nobel Peace Prize winner and first president of the Third Polish Republic (1990-1995).
Outside the Green Gate is the Moltlawa River. Turn left and walk along the bank until you find Mariacka (St. Mary's) Street, reached through an archway on the left. In addition to being an utterly charming street, it leads to St. Mary's Basilica, the largest brick church in Europe, perhaps the world. Dating to 1502, it features many works of medieval and Baroque art, including the main altar itself. Climb the tower's 400 steps for a panoramic view of the city. Be outside at noon, when the clock doors open revealing figures of the Three Magi, the Apostles, Adam and Eve, and Death.
Back to the river, left again, and you reach that ugly building you have been wondering about. It's The Crane, a symbol of Gdansk, dating to the Middle Ages when it was the largest port crane in Europe and served as a city gate. Until 1945, the crane was operated by men walking inside a huge wooden wheel, pulling and letting out ropes to haul produce from ships. The top crane could lift two tons almost 85 feet high, the lower crane lifted four tons almost 35 feet. Opposite The Crane today is the National Maritime Museum, in Lead Island's old granaries.
In Oliwa, a posh residential area, is the imposing Cathedral. Don't miss one of the daily concerts on its magnificent Rococo organ (1755), containing 7876 pipes altogether. The church, the longest in Poland, is bright and cheerful and well complemented by the music. Concerts of 30 minutes are given at 11, 12 and 1, and later in the afternoon.
Sopot is home to many spas, the oldest founded by a doctor who deserted Napoleon's army on its retreat from Russia back in 1812. He married a local girl and the result is Haffner's Hotel (Haffnera 59; tel. 48-58-550-9999; www.hotelhaffner.pl), with its Institute Spa and Salon. There's a techno gym, an exercise room, and dozens of treatments, with a sauna, pool and more.
Opened recently (March 2006), the Wolne Miasto (Ul Swietego Ducha 2; tel. 48-58-305-3355; e-mail: email@example.com) ("free city") is a pleasant combination of boutique hotel attitude and reasonable prices, with a good restaurant (the Zeppelin) and eager-to-please service. Right in the Old Town near the Armory. This establishment has 43 rooms, a double going for Zl 290 to Zl 340 (about $95 to $111), depending on the season, with breakfast included.
Also fairly new is the Hanza Hotel (Ul. Tokarska 6; tel. 48-58-305-3427; www.hotelhanza.pl), a modern building that blends nicely with the reconstructed waterfront houses in the Old Town. Restaurant and fitness center as well as 60 rooms, doubles from Zl 465 to Zl 695 (about $152 to $227).
Probably the finest restaurant in Gdansk is Pod Lososiem (Ul. Szeroka 52-54; tel. 48-58-301-7652; www.podlososiem.com.pl). ("Under the Salmon"), where such notables as Pope Jean Paul II, George H.W. Bush, Princess Anne and Margaret Thatcher have eaten such delicacies as salmon mousse, mushroom soup and braised pork, all of which I enjoyed as well. Founded in 1598 by a Dutchman who manufactured Goldwasser, the vodka containing little flecks of gold leaf, the restaurant has thrived ever since, except a few closings during wartime. Enjoy elegant, old ambiance and nearly impeccable service. Average entrÃ©e price about Zl 60 to Zl 90 (about $20 to $30).
A sweet and cozy place for a real Gdansk-style lunch is Pierogarnia on Ul. Dzika, near St. Mary's Basilica, featuring pierogi stuffed several ways. I had ten fine mushroom and cabbage pierogi for Zl 15 (about $5), a half liter of great local beer for Zl 7 (about $2.25), with a side order of crisp pickles for Zl 3 (about $1).
Gdansk calls itself the world capital of amber, believably when you see the workshops and galleries on St. Mary's Street (Mariacka). Souvenirs worth pursuing include badges, flags and posters of the Solidarity Movement.
For all things Gdansk, go to the town's website, www.gdansk.pl.
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