Weekend In Gdansk

You might think that Gdansk is all shipyards, but there's a lot more to the Baltic port than just Lech Walesa. David Gordon Smith takes a tour round the city and tries the classiest booze in Eastern Europe.

Say the name Gdansk to most people over 30 and they will immediately think of moustachioed union leader Lech Walesa and the Lenin shipyard which was home to the illegal trade union Solidarity. Surely such a bastion of heavy industry is no place to go for a weekend break?

However Gdansk has a lot more to offer than just shipyards and strikes, and Walesa's struggles with the authorities during the 1980s is just one episode in the port's 1000-year history.

And what a history that was. Few cities have re-invented themselves (or been forcibly reinvented) as often as Gdansk. It's been a free city. It's been part of the Hanseatic League.

It's been owned by Poland, by the Germans (who still refer to the city, with an alarming disregard for political correctness, by its old name of Danzig), and by the shadowy Teutonic Knights, whose headquarters were in nearby Malbork Castle.

World War Two started here (an episode immortalised in Guenter Grass's classic novel The Tin Drum), as did the downfall of Eastern Bloc communism, precipitated by Walesa and comrades.

Given such a chequered history, you might expect the city to be somewhat schizophrenic. However, walking around Gdansk, one has the feeling of a place with a strong sense of its own identity.

Its past as a Hanseatic trading port specialising in amber (a product nowadays found mainly in the trinkets on sale in the city's many tourist boutiques) has clearly helped form modern Gdansk the inhabitants have an open, cosmopolitan outlook and obvious self-confidence, with the city's past wealth still very much in evidence in its historic buildings.

The best place to start a walking tour of Gdansk's picturesque old town, which rivals that of Krakow, is the main square Dlugi Targ (Long Market).

Don't be surprised if the colourful narrow townhouses remind you of Amsterdam they were built by Dutch merchants in the 16th century. Or rather, that's when they were built for the first time.

The reason for their remarkably good condition is the simple fact that they were completely rebuilt after World War Two reduced much of Gdansk to rubble.

A city like Gdansk has to be able to adapt flexibly to its changing fortunes; this time around, the Baltic port has reinvented itself as its 16th century incarnation.

Dlugi Targ is also home to the Neptune Fountain, which represents Gdansk's links to the sea and has become a symbol of the city itself.

It's popular with Poland's seemingly endless supply of young couples as a location for wedding photographs; shimmering brides pose next to sullen grooms as groups of tiny giggling bridesmaids run around.

Religion is one of the few constants in Gdansk's turbulent history. Near the Dlugi Targ is the colossal mass of the St Mary's Church, the largest brick-built church in the world and a monument to the city's piety and wealth.

During a service the enormous white-washed interior echoes to the haunting sound of Polish hymns, an experience the congregation obviously want to keep to themselves - a sign informs visitors in eight languages that "walking up and down the church during mass is not allowed."

Not even such a sacred place as St Mary's is entirely free of that breed of antiquated technology which the visitor to Poland finds so endearing; for two zloty you can view illuminated slides of the church and listen to an accompanying commentary on a machine resembling a 1970s public phone.

St Mary's Church forms the southern end of Gdansk's most famous street, Ul. Mariacka (also known, like many things in Gdansk, by its German name of Mariengasse), whose merchants' houses with their typical stone steps and carved stone animals were also meticulously rebuilt after the war.

Although the reconstruction was deemed so successful that the street was used as a location during the filming of Thomas Mann's Buddenbrooks, the sharp-eyed visitor will spot architectural details that give the street's youth away. The feeling of being one step removed from Disneyland is never far away.

Coming to the northern end of Ul. Mariacka, you pass through an old arch (now home, disconcertingly, to a disco) and arrives at the Stara Motlawa canal.

Granary Island is on the other side of the canal, its derelict warehouses targeted for the inevitable conversion into apartments and restaurants.

Home to several shops and restaurants, the street Dlugie Pobrzeze runs along the canal and is dominated by the curious tourist attraction of the Zuraw Gdanski, an enormous 15th century wooden crane, also - you guessed it - rebuilt after the war.

Dlugie Pobrzeze makes a good place to finish your walking tour with a meal and a few drinks at one of the street's upmarket but affordable restaurants.

National specialities such as pierogi (dumplings) are on the menu at most places and - as you might expect in Eastern Europe portions tend to be large and filling.

The young wait staff all look like moonlighting university students and generally speak both English and German, although they are naturally pleased if you try to order in Polish.

An enthusiastic Smakowalo! ("That was delicious!") at the end of your meal will hopefully impress the waiter, prompting extravagant compliments on your linguistic abilities which only the cynic would believe are designed to increase the size of the tip.

Round off your meal with a glass of the exotic local spirit Goldwasser ("gold water"), a clear herbal liqueur permeated by floating flakes of 22-carat gold. Made by the firm Der Lachs since the 1700s, Goldwasser's origins are shrouded in mystery.

Legend has it that the drink miraculously appeared in the Neptune Fountain, a gift from the benevolent sea god in return for the gold coins deposited in the water by the local populace. (At almost 40 percent alcohol, it would take only a few shots to induce the tourist to dive into the fountain looking for the truth of the legend.)

So what does gold taste like? Nothing much, is the disappointing answer - the flakes slip imperceptibly down the throat. Fortunately the drink itself is extremely palatable, tasting mainly of cinnamon and cloves and warming the chest marvellously.

Whether Lech Walesa and his fellow shipyard workers would approve of such a decadent tipple is another question.

How to get there

Poland's budget airline Air Polonia (www.airpolonia.com) has flights from London to Gdansk. Lufthansa and SAS fly between Frankfurt and Gdansk. Travelling to Gdansk by train is cheap and comfortable and offers the additional attraction of retro restaurant cars run by the Polish railway catering company Wars (slogan: "Welcome to Wars").

Where to stay

With its endless corridors and penchant for the colour brown, the Novotel Gdansk Centrum on Granary Island is authentically Eastern European. Whether this is a good thing or not depends on individual taste, but in any case the hotel is near the centre of town and often has special weekend offers.

Guenter Grass stays in the upmarket Szydlowski Hotel (Ul. Grunwaldzka 114) when he's visiting his birthplace; he was born in the city in 1927, when it was still Danzig.

Where to eat

The specialist dumpling restaurant Pierogrania U Dzika has the best pierogi in town, not to mention boar's heads (fortunately on the walls rather on the plates). The elegant Restauracja Euro is one of Gdansk's classier restaurants and serves up superior Polish cuisine with old-fashioned charm.

Where to drink

Named after the signature Gdansk drink, Goldwasser (Dlugie Pobrzeze 22, www.goldwasser.jakr.pl) is a cosy rabbit's warren of rooms which often features live piano music. Like a lot of Gdansk, it looks like it's been there for a hundred years, but is actually less than five years old.

Pi Kawa (Ul. Piwna 5/6) is a comfortable caf bar perfect for whiling away an afternoon writing postcards.

The only thing authentically Scottish about U Szkota (Ul. Chlebnicka 9/12,www.trojmiasto.pl/uszkota) is the dour service, but lovers of kitsch may appreciate the surreal atmosphere of Gdansk's (and probably Poland's) only theme Scottish bar.


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