Gdansk is the fifth most populous city in Poland. However, it is growing in popularity and has a booming tourist trade, with many labelling it as the ‘Next Big Thing’ for European city breaks. It boasts an Old Town (Stare Miasto) twice the size of Krakow’s, and beers half the price of London (or less). Something which could easily be forgotten when overwhelmed by the beauty of the city centre, however, is the pivotal role the city and its people played in World War II and the Cold War.
The architecture of Gdansk is simply stunning. Its skinny, colourful buildings and cobbled streets are reminiscent of other European cities such as Hamburg, Copenhagen, and to a certain degree Amsterdam. Great churches and cathedrals crane their necks over the narrow streets, their gothic styles a stark contrast to the houses dwarfed below. Surprisingly vast, you can easily get lost in the labyrinth of cobbles and colours. It is often easiest to gather your bearings at the river, and if you can see a church, you should be able to navigate from that.
I watched a pro-EU rally in the main square of the Old Town, overseen by a statue of Neptune that forms a famous centrepiece for the city. The rally consisted mainly of flag-waving and chanting, but rallies and protests are in this city’s blood.
Gdansk is proud of its history, particularly the role it played in World War II and the latter end of the Cold War. The protests which began in the Lenin Shipyard, pictured above, set in motion a chain reaction of strikes across Poland. Eventually, with much resistance, they led to the founding of the Solidarity movement and better worker’s rights across the country. No matter what you already1 know upon arrival, there is always more to learn, and at least half a day should be spent at the European Solidarity Centre out of respect, if not interest.
The European Solidarity Centre explains the 20 year struggle a lot better than my 2 sentences. The building itself is imposing and bold, obvious in the midst of the shipyards and docks, a little away from the Old Town. You could spend hours reading every titbit of information, studying artefacts and listening to accounts from the time. A monument to fallen workers stands outside, to be seen and remembered for miles around. The museum makes the city’s history clear to any visitor, and is more than a tourist attraction. It represents everything the people of Gdansk have stood up for, and why their city is as beautiful as it is – the people are spirited and proud.
The docks border the Old Town, a reminder of Gdansk’s former primary source of income. Soon, it will be tourism. Despite the fact that much of the Old Town was reconstructed after World War II, you could easily believe it had been stood there for 500 years. I’m sure the beautiful location and the cheap beer will soon attract Stag Dos and party holidays. Yet, Gdansk is embracing this new culture of tourists, and whilst accommodating them, it offers plenty of reminders of its great past as a port and as a society that stands together. The Gdansk Panoramic Wheel is nestled amongst the docks, a brutal reminder of the industry that is taking the place of the shipyards in which so many fought for their rights. I can tell that the people of Gdansk will not let the tales of their past be forgotten, and there is a duty for every visitor to respect the former struggles of what will soon be a very prosperous city.