Our trip this year is largely about travelling to Gdańsk. A Baltic city steeped in centuries of history, tragic and triumphant, but always seeming so remote.
At home on our large map of Europe, criss-crossed in colourful pins showing our various meanderings in Bertha, the north of Poland and the area of Pomerania around Gdańsk is tantalisingly bare. Until now.
Camping at Sopot, Poland’s Riviera resort and neighbour to Gdańsk, the city was just a 25 minute rail ride away. We caught an early morning train but instead of walking to the glittering and beautiful Hanseatic historic centre, we headed north to the Gdańsk Shipyard on the edge of the enormous docklands which stretch for miles along the mouth of the River Vistula that flows into the Baltic Sea.
The river is the key to the city’s prosperity from the middle ages, when it was seized by the Teutonic Knights and later became part of the trading federation of the Hanseatic League. Its ‘golden age’ was during the 16th and 17th centuries when control of the city went back to the crown which granted its merchants exclusive trading rights for very little taxable payment.
The Germanic and Dutch burghers operated a booming economy based on trade and liberalism and employed Italian and Flemish architects to embellish their town houses with hanseatic motifs of step-gabled rooflines, colourfully painted and gold-gilt reliefs and ornate balconies. It was called by its German name, Danzig.
The tragedy of Gdańsk was its near-total destruction in World War II. Being one of the first places in Poland that Hitler invaded, it was one of the last to be ‘liberated’ by the Red Army which razed it to the ground, leaving 80% of it in rubble.
A slow process of rebuilding began after 1948 and then only after the controlling communist party had ordered the majority of the city’s precious Dutch bricks to be sent to Warsaw to rebuild the country’s capital first.
And so to the shipyard. Gdańsk is known worldwide as the seat of the Polish struggle against communism. We both recall nightly news reports on television in 1980 about the strike by Polish ship builders demanding better working rights, and then throughout the 80s hearing about the fight of the Solidarity trade union to free Poland from communism and the oppressive martial law of its puppet government.
The heavily moustached Lech Walesa, unemployed electrician, Solidarity leader and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, was a highly recognisable face in the fight for freedom. Passing through the very gate that those news reports showed striking workers and stricken families gathered around each night, and still holding a picture of Pope John Paul II and the famous ’21 demands’ of the strikers, we spent a fascinating morning in the excellent European Solidarity Centre.
A purpose-built educational facility the museum records the fight by the shipyard workers, and later the whole country, to free itself from communism. It succeeded in 1989, causing the fall of the Berlin Wall some months later and ultimately the collapse of communism, with Russia itself becoming independent on Christmas Day in 1991.
The exhibition also documents Poland’s other freedom fighter, Pope John Paul II. Archive footage of his three pilgrimages to Poland and his sustained call to his countrymen to stand up against the oppressive regime and to believe that they could bring about change, credit his involvement in directly bringing about the end of communism in East Europe.
Leaving the shipyard in sunlight at noon we paused at the gigantic monument to the fallen shipyard workers, shot dead by police in 1970 during a series of strikes and protests against price hikes and further infringement of freedoms. One of their leaders, a young electrician and a known dissident, escaped injury but paid for his involvement by losing his job.
Ten years later when the workers dared again to go on strike the unemployed but enormously charismatic Lech Walesa scaled the shipyard wall and jumped into the strikers’ midst to lead them, unknowingly propelling himself into the pages of 20th century history.
Finding a cheap and cheerful lunch at a former communist-style ‘milk bar’ in the historic Royal Way in the heart of the Hanseatic city, we feasted on salads of pickled cabbage, pan fried pork cutlets and a stuffed chicken kiev served up on hearty dollops of mashed potato and dill.
Needing to walk it all off we scaled the steep steps of the Rathaus brick clock tower for stunning views of the historic city’s skyline, the docklands and the areas of rapid development along the riverside. A London-Eye style ferris wheel spun visitors up and over the former Granary Island, once home to more than 400 granaries and now sporting new luxury waterfront apartments with plans for more.
Across the water loomed the bizarre and dark wooden structure of the Zurow, a medieval crane. Built in the 1400s this enormous construction carried out the loading and unloading of merchants’ ships along the riverside (for which their agents had paid heavily for timed moorings, the middle ages equivalent of a modern day pay and display ticket system).
The mechanism was operated by workers who scrambled within giant hamster-style wheels to engage pulleys and gears. It was possible to lift four tonnes of goods up to 30 feet or two tonnes up to 90 feet.
Having spent an absorbing morning alongside the modern cranes and lifting equipment of the Gdańsk Shipyard, where moving with the times they no longer build ships but modern windmills, it seemed a fitting image on which to end our day in a city of constant flux and renewal, always with an eye to the future whether fixed on the right to live, worship or trade freely. It is a truly European city.