Published: 18/08/2015 12:46 - Updated: 18/08/2015 12:53

Gdansk - the pearl of the Baltic.

Written byRon Smith, travel writer

In July Wizz started a new service flying from Aberdeen direct to Gdansk, on Fridays and Mondays. This is good news for us in the north of Scotland, it not only opens up a new hub in Gdansk for onward flights to so many places, it provides a long overdue connection for people with Polish connections to travel there, plus it lets us visit wonderful Gdansk!

Clock Tower ... another landmark of Gdansk
Clock Tower ... another landmark of Gdansk

Wizz started in 2004 in Hungary. It is a low cost, low fares airline. Today its head office is in Geneva. It has 63 ‘planes, flies to 38 countries and 112 destinations, and is growing fast. Last year it carried 16 million passengers. To connect to other services at Gdansk you have to collect your luggage and go round and check in again - which is a tooter but keeps costs down. I flew in early July, and the plane both ways was full - a good sign and surely the service will expand to more flights soon.

Landing in Gdansk, you see the brand new railway station attached to the new terminal - this opens on the 1st of September and will make it so much easier to get to the town centre. Trains will run every 15 minutes to the town centre, and every 30 minutes through to Gdynia. Meanwhile, buses run every hour, or taxis are available, and they are not expensive at all.

A wee bit of history is essential to understand some of what you will see in Gdansk. The Poles have had a hard time throughout history. After World War 1 Polandwas re-established as a country, with a corridor of land to Gdansk(known as Danzig then) to give them access to the sea for the vital trade routes. Gdansk sits at the mouth of the Vistula river, which brought trade from central Europe to the Baltic, and vice versa, the taxes on this made the city rich and desirable. World War 2 started here. The first shots were fired from the upper windows of the main lighthouse across the river to Polish troops on the other side. Nazi Germany wanted the territory and took the whole of Poland, starting the War. During the War poor Gdanskwas just about destroyed. By 1945 only 7% of the original population were still here (the majority had been Germans and any left were forcibly evicted by Stalin). Polish people were sent here from the East where the Russians kicked them out and took over their land, which they still own today.

It is unbelievable that when you go around the city today, the wonderful buildings were all rebuilt in about 10 years in the same style as pre-war. The river is still the focus of the city. There are two large artificial islands, reclaimed from the sea, which were used for grain storage; today these have developed into houses, hotels and so on. The river bank has large gates, through which the goods, coal, timber, leather, food, animals, went up through streets lined with merchant’s houses to their own individual market place - one market place would never have been sufficient. The merchant’s houses resemble Dutch houses, and this reflects the Dutch influence, as many Dutch traders established themselves here. The buildings are not too high, as you only have to dig down a metre or two to hit water -with such a high water table it is not possible to make foundations to support high rises!

On the river bank quays there is one remarkable survivor. This is a huge medieval wooden crane. The motive power is provided by teams of men inside large wooden wheels - like the ones seen in hamster’s cages. These walking men, with ropes and pulleys, could lift nearly two tonnes of goods out of the ships onto the shore. The river side is also a great place to eat, especially the fish market, where, of course, fish is a speciality! Great food at good prices, good service and also good tea! Tea is as popular in Polandas it is here, including getting cold milk if you ask. Mind you - beer, also excellent - is actually cheaper than tea...what a dilemma!

From the river bank you can see the cargo ship S.S. Sodek. This was built in the famous Gdansk shipyards, and launched on 6.11.1948. She is the first sea going ship and the first built in Gdansk after the war for the Baltic trade. Today she is a museum.

The Golden Gate ..... an imposing entrance to the city
The Golden Gate ..... an imposing entrance to the city

Boats also go regularly from the quays for river cruises, (including a replica pirate ship with loud canon firing!) and boats to go to Gdynia, Sopot, further up the coast, or over to Hel. The three towns are close to one another, and are connected by local trains every 15 minutes, or by these boats. The towns line the wide sandy bay. At one end of the bay, a 35 km. spit of land curves out into the sea, protecting the bay. At the end of this spit is a bulge, this is Hel. You can go there by train, taking around 2.5 hours, or cut across by boat. Hel was the last place to fall to the Nazis, Polish soldiers carried out a formidable defence there. Then in 1945, it was the last place that German soldiers resisted - not giving in until 5 days after the German surrender. Hel is very popular with surf boarders, being rated one of the best places in the world, so the narrow road to it is usually congested in summer. It makes "go to Hel"something quite different!

A good tip is to get the Gdansk card, see I bought mine at the airport tourist desk. This card then gives you loads of discounts, over 150, at attractions and restaurants and shops. It also gives you free transport to and from the airport on the buses (and hopefully the train when it opens) plus trams and buses in the city. The tram network is dense, with services fast and frequent. It is a great way to get around. Every weekend in the summer an historic tram does a circular ride twice a day. With the card, I had a discount, so I paid 4.50 zloty (no Euros here yet) which is about 80 pence - a bargain! The tram trundles along, in amongst the ordinary service trams, lurching over pointwork to keep to its own route. It stops at one place for you to get off and go to see the lighthouse. This is the one where the first shots of WW2 were fired from. You can also see the many tourist boats going to and fro. The tram then picks you up again to go back into the centre. Parts of the route show the other side of Gdansk, the severe communist era blocks of flats and some of the vast derelict dock areas.

Using the ticket, you can take the local trains too. I went up to Gdynia, about half an hour away. The trains shuttle every 15 minutes, so you never have to look at a timetable or wait for long. Gdyniawas built with a vast port area to complement Gdansk. In the harbour was a destroyer, the Blyskawica. It is still in the Polish Navy, but as a monument. It was built just before WW2, and so that the Nazis didn’t get their hands on it, the Poles brought it here and it saw action in almost every naval battle in and around the Atlantic. In front of it is the huge tall sailing ship the Dar Pomorza. Both ships can be visited. Gdynia also received incredible damage in WW2 but was rebuilt in a modern style, so it is not so attractive really. However, there is much there for families, including a fun fair. Ferries go from here too, giving opportunities to visit Sweden for a day!

Leaving Gdynia, I went half way back to Sopot. The Poles locally called it their Blackpool. The vast sandy beach was totally packed with families. There is a long pier (the water is shallow here and full of bathers) with the shuttle boats calling at the end, going to Gdansk, Hel, and also "trips round the bay" and fishing trips. There is every conceivable activity here on the beach and the water. On-shore there are loads of attractions for children, shops and eating places and everyone was having a great time.

The new railway station in Gdansk.
The new railway station in Gdansk.

Returning to Gdansk it was time to take the free walking tour (in English). This departs from the Golden Gate and Amber Museum every day at 10.30 am, with a tour focussing more on the war and Solidarity at 3 pm. The tours give you an excellent background to Gdansk, Polish history, and insights into the local specialities, like the Amber trade (amber from the Baltic) and Goldwasser- a local powerful drink.

There are so many buildings to visit - too many to list here, to mention just a few - the Cathedral is the biggest brick church in the world. It took about 150 years to build it, and it can hold 20,000 people (some sources say 25,000 people!) which was roughly the population of Gdanskat the time. It has a magnificent peal of 80 bells, and at noon the chimes are superb, and figures appear and circulate. There are a lot of magnificent churches, all busy with Masses, and also with concerts. Music abounds in Gdansk! The Armoury building is so ornate that it takes you a while to take in all the figures and symbols that explain its origins and usage. The Golden Gate and its accompanying gates are massive, an imposing entrance to the city (although today they open onto the road and tram lines). Every corner turned reveals something special, an old lighthouse, a leaning church (the high water table again) a tower that was one of the corners of the fortifications, the Town Hall with its tower, and the market house must be the best in Europe for style. Of course there are mega supermarkets outside the old town, but there are so many small shops and kiosks as well, that you can easily find that special something to bring home.

The Armoury building .... figures and symbols that explain its origins and usage.
The Armoury building .... figures and symbols that explain its origins and usage.

There is a huge building commemorating the Solidarity movement. This was when the Gdansk shipyard workers defied the might of the communists and brought down their hated regime. Poland was freed again - and still is today. I recommend a visit to this museum to learn of the heroic and brave people who stood firm against totalitarian oppression.

I went there on a Friday morning, returning on the Monday morning, thinking that this would be enough to see everything. I was wrong. You will certainly not run out of things to do. The sports facilities are good - bicycle hire (or boat or fishing boat or water skis and so on) are all available. The excursions to round about places are also well worth doing to see so many interesting places, including Malbork, the largest Gothic castle in the world.

The flights, the hotels, and eating out are all very good value for money for us Brits. English is spoken everywhere. There are a good many public toilets dotted around, well signposted. Expect to pay 2 or 2.50 zloty to a granny who guards it (about 45pence). This is value for money, as the toilets are impeccable, clean and well cared for.

Gdansk is a great destination to discover, with such potential to add other Polish places as well. Go there!

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