Poland first stole our hearts during our 2014 visit to Krakow and our affection only deepened with a trip to Warsaw last summer, which I unfortunately failed to find time to post the pictures from!
We have now just returned from Gdańsk and will be sampling the pleasures of Wrocław before the end of summer. Knowing we had at least two Polish breaks planned for 2019, I set myself the target of learning some of the language but, even with daily practise, I am still finding it rather difficult!
Gdańsk is a stunningly beautiful city which, due to its strategic position on the Baltic coast, became a pivotal part of the Hanseatic League. The wealth and architecture of this era is still very much in evidence and this, combined with the knowledge of the terrible suffering Poland endured during WWII and subsequent Soviet era, makes the city a very thought-provoking and unique destination.
We stayed in the Radisson Blu hotel which is situated in the heart of the old town on Dlugi Targ (Long Market Street) so we could literally fall out of the hotel and be surrounded by elegance at each and every turn!
Dlugi Targ is also known as the 'Royal Way' as it was the route taken into the city during processions by Polish monarchs. Unlike Krakow and other Polish towns, Gdańsk does not have a main market square so this pedestrianised street is the social and commercial heart of the city. The picture below shows us wandering towards the Złota Brama (Golden Gate).
One of the most famous sights in Gdańsk is the Crane, a magnificent symbol of the city’s trading heritage. It was once the biggest working crane in the world, and was entirely powered by men walking inside its huge internal wooden wheels!
The Crane was 80% destroyed in 1945 during the Battle for Gdańsk but was later rebuilt and now houses the Polish Maritime Museum. The ship on the opposite side of the river Motława is the Sołdek, the first steamship built in Polish Gdańsk after 1945 in what was to become the Lenin Shipyards.
A wander along the river banks also takes in some of Gdańsk's more modern sights including the new pedestrian swing bridge (pictured in the 'raised' position below), the Polish Philharmonic Hall, and iconic Gdańsk sign.
Our weekend in Gdańsk coincided with St. Dominic's Fair, the largest event in the city's cultural calendar, which attracts between 6 and 8 million visitors annually. It dates back over 750 years having been established by Pope Alexander IV in 1260, when attending the Fair's pardon mass promised to cut your stay in purgatory by 100 days!
The streets were packed with musicians and entertainers along with over 1,000 stalls offering handicrafts and traditional Polish delicacies such pierogi (dumplings), bigos (hunter's stew) and golonka (stewed pork knuckle).
We loved the carnival atmosphere generated by hundreds of thousands of people filling the streets! The revelry continued well into the evenings and you can get an idea of the crowds in this picture of my husband taken at dusk looking towards the beautiful 16th century Town Hall.
The throng made getting pictures of some of Gdańsk's most famous sights difficult, we wanted one showing the full view of Neptune's Fountain but the sheer numbers present ruled this out. Instead my son captured this shot at sun down, complete with a balloon seller's Minion themed wares!
For many of us Gdańsk is perhaps most famous as the birthplace of Solidarity, the trade union formed by Lech Wałęsa, which would ultimately prove to be the catalyst for the fall of communism in Poland and in the rest of the former Soviet Bloc.
A gentle stroll along the banks of the Motława took us to the shipyards and the European Solidarity Centre, an immense building housing a museum and library dedicated to the history of Solidarity.
The huge rust coloured walls dominate the skyline and were designed to evoke memories of the hulls of the ships built by the workers at the shipyards.
The inside of the building was equally impressive, with five floors and a viewing platform to explore.
The museum tells the story of Poland's struggle against the Soviet occupation, in which one of the pivotal moments was the signing of The Gdańsk Agreement.
This event took place on 31 August 1980, with Lech Wałęsa using a giant commemorative ballpoint pen decorated with a picture of the then newly elected Pope John Paul II!
Just outside the centre is the Monument to the Fallen Shipyard Workers, a 139 tonne steel tribute to those who lost their lives in the struggle for democracy. Lech Wałęsa described it as harpoons “driven through the body of a whale. No matter how hard the whale struggles, it can never get rid of it.”
I attempted to photograph my son, dwarfed by its 42 metre towering height, in order to give you just a small sense of its sheer scale.
After an enjoyable afternoon of culture and learning we made our way back to the old town, where we were more than happy to indulge in a local Polish beer or two!
Even Gdańsk's side streets are set up for café culture, with numerous picturesque little places to sit and enjoy a quiet moment of contemplation as evening fell.
Then, when we passed the same spot the next day, I suddenly noticed a sign on the neighbouring store and attempted to impress the kids by being able to translate it as 'Mother and Daughter'. Whilst they were not blown away by my linguistic skills we did at least get a quick picture!
On the Sunday of our visit we left the hustle and bustle of Gdańsk behind and headed for the nearby resort of Sopot. This gorgeous gem is sometimes referred to as 'Poland's Riviera' and it certainly lived up to its reputation with mile upon mile of soft golden beaches.
Sopot's lighthouse is seen below however it is actually really a clever disguise, built in 1904, hiding the chimney for the boiler which heated the waters at the local Spa!
The lighthouse(!) is situated next to Sopot's wooden pier which stretches 511 metres into the Baltic Sea and is the longest wooden pier in Europe (quick trivia, England's Southend-on-Sea is the longest overall!).
In its heyday Sopot entertained such notable guests as Charles de Gaulle, Fidel Castro, Greta Garbo, and Marlene Dietrich, we too fell completely in love with its gentle elegance and charm!
We are now excitedly awaiting our trip to Wrocław later this month, which like Warsaw and Gdańsk was almost totally destroyed during WWII but rebuilt to arise like a phoenix from the ashes.
I am also looking forward to practising more of my Polish. The locals are so kind and appreciative of my dreadful efforts. In fact, after I had ordered our meals in two restaurants in Gdańsk we were given free drinks - A totally unnecessary gesture especially as I know I butchered their beautiful language....but we did at least make the difference up in our tips 😄