Gdánsk: August 31 to September 3, 2018

My spacious and airy Airbnb was centrally located in an old apartment building. After completing my self check-in, I trudged up 3 flights of stairs to my apartment just behind a German couple returning to their unit. They invited me in for drinks and suggested several restaurants. I enjoyed their company and was disappointed that they were leaving the following day.

The next morning, September 1st, was the 79th anniversary of the beginning of World War II. At the time Gdánsk was the German Free State of Danzig, an ancient member of the Hanseatic League. German overland access to Danzig was one of Hitler’s demands to Poland. Later that day, I would come across a memorial service marking the invasion of Poland.

I enjoyed the outdoor breakfast so much at Klatka that I returned every morning. After breakfast I strolled around the harbor area and walked into St. Mary’s Basilica. It’s important to understand that the Red Army nearly razed Gdánsk to the ground after capturing it from the Germans in March 1945 before handing it over to the Poles. The Poles painstakingly rebuilt the entire historic core based on old architectural drawings and photographs. The majestic churches, therefore, have no stained glass windows and much of the interiors were lost. Considering how relatively poor Poland was under 40 years of communist rule, the restoration is remarkable.

Around noon, I joined a walking tour of the old town with our enthusiastic guide, who was clearly in love with his city. Walking around the old town was wonderful. One can see how prosperous this old port city was in the past. There were also several shops selling amber, for which this part of Poland is famous. The Polish word for amber is bursztyn, or “burning stone”. I realized then that many surnames in the US, like Burstyn and Bernstein, derive from the name of this gemstone of fossilized tree resin.

The walking tour ended at the Post Office, where our guide pointed out the bullet holes in the wall surrounding the garden behind the post office. Although Danzig was a German Free State, the Versailles Treaty gave Poland control of the post office and customs. The war came to Gdánsk when the German battle cruiser Schleswig-Holstein opened fire on the Polish base at Westerplatte. Shortly afterwards, a German militia group attacked the post office and executed a number of postal workers in the garden.

After watching part of the solemn commemoration, I walked over to the highly-recommended World War II museum and spent several hours wandering through the remarkable galleries. There was a large collection of Soviet and Fascist poster art, which I found fascinating.

From the museum, I walked a kilometer to the site of the famous Lenin Shipyards, where iron worker Lech Wałesa launched his mass Solidarność (Solidarity) movement in opposition to the communist dictatorship. After nine hard years, Solidarity finally prevailed when the communist state collapsed in early 1989. Wałesa was then elected the first president of free Poland.

That evening I went to an “underground” cocktail lounge recommended by our tour guide. It wasn’t too crowded and I enjoyed a few drinks and charcuterie with some locals, who suggested I rent a bike and ride out to the Baltic Sea resort of Sopot the next day, which was predicted to be sunny and mild.

It was a bit of a hassle renting the bike by the main train station. The owner showed up after I waited for a half hour; but finally I was on my way to Sopot.

The route northwest to Sopot wound through some impressive city parks and broad boulevards and took about 45 minutes. Sopot has been a getaway for centuries and was a famous spa in the 19th and first half of the 20th century before going into a slumber during the communist period. It was Germanicized after the partition of Poland in the 18th century and remained so until the end of WW2. It has the longest boardwalk in Europe, a number of restored spas and villas, and beautiful white sand beaches, surrounded by conifer forests.

That night I went to a vegan restaurant outside of the old town for a much needed break from the heavy Polish cuisine. The food was excellent and the walk back at dusk was pleasant. I looked forward to a quiet night at the apartment before my flight to Warsaw the next morning. I was quite pleased to have added Gdánsk to my Polish itinerary.

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