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Think Gdansk and think home of Solidarity: the labor union that struck a shipyard and started a movement that eventually led to the fall of Communism in Poland and elsewhere in Eastern Europe.
Over the years, Gdansk was dominated by Prussians and Hanseatics, and was one of the most important ports in the Baltics. For a time after World War I, the city was known as Danzig. The Nazis were here for five years during World War II and battles to liberate the city in 1945 resulted in its near total destruction. Miraculously, the historic center, known as Main City, was rebuilt during the post-war Soviet era with great reverence -- literally brick by brick -- and today it is a lovely architectural venue. Entering the historical quarter is like walking back into history -- in this case, a medieval merchant settlement. Gdansk was once Europe's major center for grain trade.
Huge stone towers are located at the entrances to the city. Solidarity leader Lech Walesa's offices are in the tower known as the Green Gate (there's a plaque out front) and the main square is full of colorful, Dutch Renaissance-style mansions. St. Mary's Church in Main City is reputedly the largest brick church in the world and can hold 25,000 for services. The seven-story Great Mill on the waterfront (on Motlawa River) was once the largest mill in medieval Europe. It's amazing to stand on Long Street (ul Dluga) and imagine that what you see now was all rubble after the war. More recently, after the shipyard strikes in the 1970's and 1980, and a 1980 agreement, 10 million Poles (out of about 36 million at the time) joined Solidarity, and Walesa went on to become the first democratically elected president of modern Poland.
Although Gdansk is not the capital of Poland (that is Warsaw to the southeast), it is Poland's largest northern city -- origins dating back to the 10th century -- with a population of 465,000. Gdansk, together with Gydnia and the resort town of Sopot, is known as the Tricity. Gydnia, where the big ships dock, is a former fishing village turned major seaport. It was a Nazi stronghold during the war (a major Naval port where Hitler once planned to build 100 subs before his plans were scuttled by major bombing by Allied Forces and the end of the war). Today it's an industrial and naval town. Sopot, located between Gydnia and Gdansk, is a resort town popular with Poland's jet set.
On the drive to Gdansk you pass a Kentucky Fried Chicken sign (in Gydnia you may also pass a branch of Citibank) and a McDonald's, and after you see the big block apartments built by the Soviets (one more than a half mile long, and another where Walesa raised his eight kids), you come to a Holiday Inn with a TGI Fridays.
Poland, today and yesterday.
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Where You're Docked
Cruise ships dock in the city of Gydnia, about a 45-minute ride from Old Town Gdansk. Some small ships may dock at Oliwskie Pier in the New Port of Gdansk (about four miles from the town center).
Taxis: available in limited supply at both piers. Make sure you negotiate a price before departing. A cab from the Gydnia port will run $25 - $30 each way.
Shuttles: At the Gydnia port, shuttles may be provided to a waterfront area of that city with cafes and shops, about 10 minutes from the pier.
Trains: There is also train service between Gydnia and Gdansk. Once in Old Town, explore on foot (most streets are for pedestrians only).
Note: According to Polish regulations, you must carry your passport with you in Poland.
Aside from a few shops a short shuttle ride (or 20-minute walk) from the Gydnia pier, all attractions are in Old Town Gdansk.
Watch Out For
As always, be sure to protect yourself against potential pickpockets.
Polish. People tend to speak a little English or German (more at the tourist shops, less on the street).
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The local currency is the Zloty ($1=3.6PLN), but some shops take euros (some even take dollars) and most take credit cards.
Baltic amber is a good deal here, as is crystal and embroidered items. At the Solidarity museum you can pick up a T-shirt or banner with the union logo.
The Roads to Freedom Exhibition (ul. Doki 1, open 10 a.m. - 5 p.m, Tuesday - Sunday) is located right at the Gdansk Shipyard, the very shipyard where Solidarity was born. First, you pass the Monument to the Shipyard Workers' memorial: impressively tall with anchors on top -- a striking tribute to 44 shipyard workers who died in 1970 when military police attacked strikers. Nearby are large-scale news photos from the 1980 strikes, displayed outside against the shipyard's cranes and buildings. It's particularly poignant if you remember the news coverage -- and remember fearing the Russians and Polish military were going to react violently. The inside of the museum displays videos of the protests and the signing of the political accords that started the movement. Walesa and Solidarity are still very much alive (the pen Walesa used is even on display).
Head to the historic city center. St. Mary's Church (also known as Church of Our Lady) was built in 1343 and reached its present, gigantic size in 1502. Inside are an impressive 30 chapels filled with artworks. Some 300 tombs are in the church's floor. The impressive astronomical clock dates to the 1460's (note Adam and Eve at the top). The Town Hall is of Gothic and Renaissance design and dates to the 1330's. The tower was once the tallest in town, and the building is now home to the Gdansk Historical Museum (open 10 a.m. - 5 p.m., Tuesday - Friday), with paintings, historical furnishings and more. Next to Town Hall, the Neptune Fountain -- an elaborate bronze work paying homage to the Sea God -- was completed in 1613 and is the oldest secular monument in Poland. Lovely Artis Court with its white face is where the wealthiest merchants held their meetings and banquets (it dates to the 15th century and the impressive Mannerist façade was added about 30 years later). The Court interior is open to visitors (10 a.m. - 5 p.m., Tuesday - Friday). Considered the most beautiful building in a city of beautiful buildings is The Golden House, decorated with rich carvings, friezes and ornate statues (look up and see Achilles, Oedipus, Antigone and Cleopatra).
Been There, Done That
Sopot, about halfway between Gydnia and Gdansk, is an impressive beach resort/spa town. We're talking white sand and pretty parks, as well as a casino and spas (including one called Blue Velvet) where you can get modern soothing treatments. The place was known as "Monte Carlo of the North" in the 1920's and has been rejuvenated. Among others, it's the summer spot for Polish celebrities.
Street-side cafes in historic Main City are a good choice. You can enjoy a quick meal and people-watch. ARTUS-BAR (1/7 Dlugi Targ) is right in the middle of everything, near the Neptune Fountain, and offers indoor/outdoor seating and a menu that includes pizza and standard pub fare. Main City has the best shopping, particularly the stores on Dlugi Targ. There may also be vendors selling amber, costume jewelry and other trinkets.
For Local Specialties: For pierogi mania -- over 15 varieties -- visitors and locals head to Pierogarnia u Dzika; the traditional Polish pockets of dough are filled with mushrooms, cabbage and even sweets such as strawberries. The eatery also serves entrees such as chicken and fresh fish (11 a.m. - 10 p.m., ul. Piwna 59/60).
For a Taste of History: Pod Lososiem (www.podlososiem.com) is a landmark in Gdansk -- it was established in 1598 and has catered to royalty; menu options include meat, poultry and seafood, but the don't-miss item is "goldwasser," vodka with real flakes of gold (noon - 11 p.m., ul. Szeroka 52/54).
Best for History Buffs: The Solidarity Tour which includes the Roads to Freedom Museum, the Solidarity Monument, drive-by sights including today's Solidarity headquarters and Lech Walesa's old apartment building (he now lives in the 'burbs), and a walking tour of Old Town (including the Green Tower where Walesa has his offices today).
Best Choice for Local Flavor: Combine a walk through the city with a visit to the Amber Museum to see an amazing collection of amber items and jewelry (you'll also have a chance to buy some pieces yourself). One of the most impressive items is an entire treasure chest made of amber for Marie-Antoinette. In the Old Town, admire the 1,000 years of history in the form of monuments and historic buildings, including St. Mary's, the gothic church that is the pride of the city.
Best Out-of-Town Option: Drive through the countryside to tour a castle eutonic Knights once called home. You will pass small villages on your way to the massive stone fortress of Castle of Malbork, with its defensive walls, towers, numerous chambers and dungeons. Extensive restoration took place after half the structure was destroyed in World War II. Exhibition areas boast extensive collections of amber objects, medieval and modern weapons, old coins, medals and more.
Staying in Touch
There are a dozen Internet cafes in town including Arena - Cafe Internet (ul. Subislawa 29) and Internet Cafe Manhattan (ul. Sienkiewicza 9/2).
For More Information
On the Web: www.gdansk.pl
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--by Fran Wenograd Golden. Boston-based Golden, whose contributions to Cruise Critic include features, ship reviews and port profiles, is the travel editor of the Boston Herald and also co-author of "Frommer's Europe Cruises & Ports of Call."