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.