Sketches from Gdańsk

Tmb1

Poland April 2006

Gdańsk, on the southern coast of the Baltic Sea, is world famous as the
birthplace of Solidarity which, under Lech Wałęsa played its part in bringing an
end to Communist rule in Europe.
 
My wife and I and our two daughters left the kindergarten blue and yellow
of a Ryan Air cabin, and walked through the small portakabin of Gdańsk airport,
into a cloudy grey morning. We were collected by Bartek and his friend, Bartek,
on the assumption that three women and a man, with a strong feminine side, would
have lots of luggage. ‘Bartek 1’ gave a running commentary about the local
attractions as he whisked us through the forests and to the Pensjonat Willa
Albatross, 8 km from the city centre. Meanwhile in the second car ‘Bartek 2’
sang along to Abba songs playing on the radio.
 
Willa Albatross is like a Southend-on-Sea villa and, in fact, is only 30 or
so minutes walk from the sea. We settled in quickly and headed into town. The
local trains, which conveniently turn up every time you set foot on the
platform, take you to the city centre in 10 minutes for 50p.

Tmb2

In a strange city a familiar restaurant brand is justified for the first
meal: lunch at TGI Fridays was excellent. However, Megan pointed out we could
have enjoyed the same meal in High Wycombe, subtext being ‘Why have we come to
Poland?’
 
Great gothic and renaissance architecture is one reason. Glowny Station,
for example, rivals its red-brick cousin, St Pancras in London for gothic charm.
The whole city, with neat and tidy streets is crammed with renaissance, baroque
and Dutch styles. Gdańsk has always been an important port in the region
attracting much wealth. So putting up fine buildings is as good away to spend
money as any. Every building has been beautifully restored and given a new lease
of life. The Great Armoury built in the Dutch Mannerism style is now a
Morrisons-style supermarket.

Tmb3

In contrast to northern renaissance splendour are the 12 – 15 storey
apartment buildings in the suburb of Oliwa where we stayed. Built in the
communist era these high rise towers are now decorated in pastel shades, each
one bearing its own name and number high on the side wall, taken from its
nearest street, for example ‘Pomorska 12’. Several I settled down to draw had
wave-like floor plans, some 700 meters long and appeared to curve away in
elevation, fascinating and difficult to get down on paper! Each block is
beautifully maintained with communal play areas, gardens and trees; several
adjoin parkland, running down to the sea.
 
Ten minutes walk from the Albatross was Oliwa Park. The place is
beautifully kept by a legion of gardeners in uniforms of green check shirts and
green trousers. In the grounds is the Abbott’s Palace, which now houses a modern
art collection and ‘approved’ paintings from the communist period.

Tmb4

Five minutes further you come upon Oliwa Cathedral founded by Danish
Cistercians in the mid-12th century and ransacked, on numerous occasions, by
Teutonic Knights. The organ is famous (recitals every Wednesday) with its 110
registers and decorated with Rocco wood carvings. While we were there someone
began practising; the bright brittle organ notes mixed with the sun streaming
through the windows in the impossibly high chancel walls to make a heady
cocktail for us tourists.
 
Catch the train in the opposite direction to Gdańsk and the first stop is
the seaside resort of Sopot. In the warm spring sunshine we strolled up the
pier, built in 1928, when Sopot was a playground for the rich. Forty years later
Sopot gave birth to Polish beat music.
 
Most cities have their ‘must-see’ places of worship. Here in Gdansk you
visit St Mary’s Basilica, reputed to be the biggest brick-built church in the
world. Inside it is all gorgeous renaissance and baroque and, like Oliwa, has
that wonderful sense of height and space with its white washed walls and
ceilings.
 
On our last morning the sun shone as I left early for another walk to
explore around the tower blocks. I happened on a massive open air market setting
up for the day. A rich smell of grilled sausage drifted across the stalls.
Everything imaginable was on sale; shoes, underwear, shirts, lingerie, jackets,
shirts and all manner of head gear. Old women picked through and sorted the
contents of huge black plastic bags, deciding what to display and what to keep
under the counter.
 
Gdańsk is a great ‘city-break’ with its renaissance restorations, the added
bonus of communist urban architecture, easy transport and history ancient and
modern.

Tim Baynes

Visit his website

Images and text  © TB

One thought on “Sketches from Gdańsk

Comments are closed.