Citybreak in Gdansk

By | Category: Travel destinations

What to do in a shortbreak/citybreak in Gdansk in Poland in the Spring

As I wandered across the cracked tarmac towards the grey airport terminal in the crisp ex-communist breeze I began to wonder if this budget Ryanair short break was as good an idea as had seemed on paper (and to my wallet!).

To really exploit the “bargain” of the flight you need to avoid those extra charges craftily and strategically located throughout the website booking stages. It’s like navigating a minefield in the wind at night! No! I don’t want car hire! Neither a hotel. What’s this? Insurance? No thanks! Oh, and now they ask if I want to buy a ticket for my suitcase and if I want to save the charges by checking in online (What? You mean I pay for check-in now too?). Frankly, the whole procedure of saving money using budget airlines is overly time consuming, highly complicated and leaves me feeling nothing short of ripped-off – especially enduring the final non-optional pain of being charged a whopping £20 DEBIT card fee!

Anyway, there I was, day-bag in hand, approaching the immigration counter confronted by a 1970’s military-uniformed customs official asking me my purpose for visiting, in a broken, East-European English. Dare I say “tourist” at this moment without him thinking I’m taking the mickey?

As I made my way by bus “B” towards the city, my first impression was I had arrived late at a party where the band had finished and all that remained were wandering people picking out the leftovers. Let’s face it, this was springtime and as out of season as it was going to get. Had I been making this journey 80 years ago I would’ve found myself in the Free City Of Danzig, an independent state with its own passports, currency and stamps. The fate of Danzig was sealed by the Germans in 1939 when World War 2 began, but that’s another story…

I arrived at my hotel where I was to spend the next 4 nights and, due to my early arrival and late flight home, 5 full days. What…oh pray what was I to do with myself in this concrete relic of communist legacy? Well, there was only one way to find out – when’s the next bus into town?

My first objective was to walk the relatively short circular route around the City Centre. Starting at The Upland Gate and heading through the Golden Gate the main street unfolds (Ulica Dluga) with its colourful architecture and magnificent sculptures. Following the street down its full length climaxes at the magnificent Green Gate and the river. Turning left here and following the riverbank gives spectacular views of the Maritime Museum and the amazing Crane, one of the defining symbols of Gdansk dating back to 1444 as a rebuild of the original 1367 monster.

The City Centre measures approximately 1km² and can easily be explored in 2 days – including plenty of refreshment stops in the many diverse bars and street-side café’s. Don’t forget to explore those unusual shops selling an amazing array of amber – both in lumps of raw chunks through to carefully crafted jewellery and ornaments.

Day three took me to the Strutthof prison of war camp. I’d never heard of it until I arrived here but the whole experience was soul-touching. This is simply a must-do attraction (and I use the word “attraction” in the broadest possible sense), well worth the adventure of the journey there where, once out of Gdansk, “real” Poland can be sampled – so-be-it through a misty bus window.

Day four was planned to be a busy one visiting the other two Cities in the Tri-City set. An early start and a quick whiz North on the old, but highly efficient, Tri-City railway for an hour (4:20Zl) landed me in Gdynia where I excitingly bee-lined seaward to the Aquarium, but I’m sorry I did! The 30-minute walk from the station really wasn’t worth it if, as boasted, this is supposed to be the largest collection of water creatures in Poland. The building was de-creped with worn-out exhibits and fish tanks that looked frighteningly delicate. In saying this, the shopping was good on the high street back to the station, where souvenir bags miraculously filled up on-route!

Heading 15-minutes south (3Zl) on what appeared to be the same train I used earlier on, the seaside resort town of Sopot comes into view where the high class hotels with plenty of pre-season building work reminded me of any seaside destination in Europe – except there were hardly any people yet!

The pier was a real treat! Built in 1827 it’s the longest in the Baltic’s stretching for 511mts and every meter is worth it just for the birds flying eerily inches above your head waiting for an accidental crumb or two!

Walking back to the station took me by the Crooked House, reminding me of something out of Disney World in Florida. It was opened in 2004 and, unbelievably, is an award-winning higgledy-piggledy construction inspired by fairytales. The 4,000m² building containing a selection of high-class shops is certainly worthy of a call-in but Gdynia shopping was cheaper!

Heading South again for 20 minutes (3Zl) on yet another identical train I hopped off at Oliwa, where a brisk 20-minute walk (in the right direction – be careful) took me to the Holy Trinity Blessed Virgin Mary & St Bernard’s Church, better known as Oliwa Cathedral. It was first erected as a Cistercian shrine back in the 13th century and has suffered more fires than Guy Fawkes started but somehow survived with the Baroque fixtures you admire today. The Cathedral is best known for its massive organ comprising 7,000 pipes and decorated with movable angels and brightly painted stars. If you visit any day at noon you’ll to be riveted by its magnificent sound as a 15-minute “concert” (donations) performs.

My final day took me to the Roads To Freedom exhibition and is a place that should feature high on your things-to-do list. It charts the course of events that began with the sacrifice of Poland to the Soviets at the end of WW2 to the formation of the 3rd Polish Republic in 1989. There’s plenty of Lech Walesa here who still remains the gloriously moustachioed public face of Poland.

Close to the museum are the famous shipyard gates, still active today. Take some time to read the many personally delivered flowers and plaques that still decorate the gates in memory of the many that died in pursuit of freedom. The monument overshadowing the gates stands as a permanent reminder of this amazing cold war chapter.

Conclusion

If you’re thinking of going to Gdansk in springtime and you want to enjoy the un-cluttered ambiance and great value on offer, you’ve only two more springs to do it (2010 & 2011) because Poland achieved the impossible when it landed the Euro 2012 Football Championships with the aid of football-mad Prime Minister, Donald Tusk. This event will, invariably, put Gdansk on the map with the relatively new-found capitalism culture exploiting the masses as they arrive.

5 days is probably too much when the weathers chilly. In summer it would certainly have been tempting to spend a day or two on the beach at Sopot but in winter you really have to “search” for things to do.

Because of the competitiveness customer service is good. Most speak English as are menus, public signage, guide books and brochures. I never felt unsafe and didn’t experience any form of conning or ripping off.
PETE’S TREATS

My personal titbits of wanna-know, must-know information:

1. Public transport is cheap, regular and punctual but nobody really seems to know how much to pay. It would appear that 2zl buys a 15-minute journey (except there’s no 2zl tickets available – only 1:50zl that drivers seem to willingly sell) whilst 4:20zl buys an hour including change(s). However, a single journey lasting more than 15 minutes without change(s) costs 3zl. Got it? Don’t worry – it’ll all make sense on the final day! Once you’ve purchased your ticket, don’t forget to stamp it in a validation machine – if you can find one that works or, for that matter, one at all. If you can’t, simply use your teeth to bite the stamp area on the ticket – that seems to do the trick!

2. I stayed at a hotel called:
Villa Angela
ul. Beethovena 12
80-171 Gdańsk
Tel. 058 302 23 15
Web: www.villaangela.pl
It was a friendly, small hotel right opposite a bus stop taking you the 2km journey to the City Centre in 10 minutes. I paid 175zl per night that included a wonderful breakfast comprising hot and cold local delicacies that changed daily with the freshly-squeezed orange juice and delicate aroma of home-made bread.

3. Strutthof (Sztutowo prison of war and concentration camp) is a must-do and is a 1-hour bus ride from the main bus station (costing 10:70zl each way). Make sure you sit near the driver and ask to be notified where to get off – it really is in the middle of nowhere!

The prison camp and museum is free. The optional multi-lingual audio guide for 15:00zl is well worth it and can be heard (and, therefore, shared) amongst a number of listeners. Make sure the battery is fully charged though – it’s a long way to walk back for a replacement!

Be prepared to be thrust into a terrifying history of violence, anger, death, torture, aggression and deep emotion as your tour climaxes at the gas chambers and the1950’s monument containing bones, shoes, teeth and relics of the 60,000 who died here.

Muzeum Strutthof w Sztutowie
Muzealna 6, Sztutowo
Tel: 055 247 8353

4. Like most trips, I quickly seemed to find my “favourite” drinking oasis, the Café Absinthe. Not that easy to find tucked neatly out of view behind the theatre but well worth it – don’t give up looking! Once you’ve penetrated the strange green lingering smog and found a seat in this busting small single-room pub you can sample most of what Gdansk has to offer in the way of liquid refreshment – from Goldwater to Absinthe, flavoured coffees to wild hot chocolate compilations.

Try a traditional Polish Vodka and, get this, you order by the gram, not the volume measure! Oh and don’t forget the local brew – Tiskie Lager and whilst navigating the drinks menu you can wiggy-in to foreign language teachers exchanging stories of their students.

Café Absinthe
B-4, ul. Sw. Ducha 2 (Teatr Wybrzeze)
Tel: 058 320 3784
Web: www.cafeabsinthe.pl

5. I sampled four eateries fiercely competing with each other ensuring great quality and service. Local dishes are cheap, tasty and you’ll usually hear the table creek under the weight of quantity! Potatoes, meat, cabbage, pancakes (both savoury and sweet) are all on the menu as is Borsch, Zurek, Bigos and the deadly Flaki (tripe).

The tea drinking culture is very different from the UK where tea is served in a glass, usually too hot to handle, with the string of the tea bag hanging out and no saucer forcing the spoon to be left in the glass. Watch your eyes when drinking it!

6. Roads To Freedom is a must-see-and-do. It takes around two hours to explore this underground exhibition where friendly staff will answer any questions. A short walk away is the original shipyard gates and monument.

Roads To Freedom Exhibition
B-1, ul. Waly Piastowskie 24
Tel: 058 308 4428
Web: www.fcs.org.pl

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