It was my first time in Gdansk, the historic city on Poland‘s Baltic coast, and I was excited to explore the city’s famous Old Town. Alas, as I looked out of my room window, I saw nothing but dark, grey clouds sweeping in at a furious pace. Dressed for the wet, cold weather and armed with a windproof umbrella and a good dose of determination, I stepped out into the street and embarked on my stroll around the Old Town.
A (very) brief history of Gdansk
Gdansk (map) can trace its roots back to the 10th century when it was founded by Mieszko I, a Polish duke. From that point onwards, the settlement grew into a wealthy and powerful trading city (particularly in grain) due to its strategic location between Northern and Western Europe, and its ties to the Hanseatic League, an alliance of influential merchant guilds and their trading cities in Germany, the Netherlands and the Baltic region, in the 13th century. Throughout the following centuries, Gdansk (also known in German as Danzig) became the largest city on the Baltic coast and handled most of Poland’s seaborne trade. It also found itself in a literal tug-of-war between the Germans and Polish, a struggle that lasted till the end of World War II, with brief spells of autonomy during the Napoleonic era and after World War I. World War II was the most destructive war, with about 90% of the city destroyed. As I walked along the charming cobblestone streets lined by rows of colourful, narrow houses, I couldn’t help but wonder why the town looked rather much like Amsterdam. Did the pre-war city look like this?
Reflections inspired by the rain
It was a dreary morning but, fascinated by the intriguing architecture and its tempestuous history, I felt drawn to this city. Even in the rain, it looked absolutely gorgeous and the old world atmosphere was unmistakable. Its beauty (and the weather) got my creative juices flowing I guess and I started looking at the puddles of water for inspiration. I don’t think I’ve ever taken as many reflection photos as I did that day! Haha!
Reflections on a chat with a local
I stopped at a café to warm up with a coffee and struck a conversation with a Polish gentleman who, as it turned out, lives in the Old Town. I asked him about the post-war reconstruction of Gdansk and why the architecture reminded me of Amsterdam. He responded by talking about the heated debate that ensued after the war. One side wanted to reconstruct the city to its former glory whilst others wanted to erase the memories of the war and the German occupation by creating a modern urban centre.
The Gdansk reconstruction debate
I thought about other cities in Europe which were also heavily damaged such as Berlin, Dresden and Rotterdam, the reconstruction dilemma they faced and the solutions they chose. Over the course of several years in the late-1940’s and early-1950’s, the Gdansk reconstruction debate swung in favour of those who wanted the re-establishment of the historic city centre. Artisans and architects were brought in to re-create the Old Town in its historical form. However, all references to German influences such as the architectural styles and street names were erased. Instead, the authorities decided to, amongst others, emphasise the historic ties with the Netherlands and Flanders (northern Belgium), a relationship that flourished in the 16th century. I later researched this relationship and discovered that from 1563, for over a century, the function of town master builder of Gdansk was held by architects from the Netherlands who designed entire streets in the Dutch Renaissance style! That answered my first question!
The gentleman chuckled as he told me about the reactions of both locals and visitors to the city. Most visitors were in awe of the city’s beauty, though some commented on its apparent ‘Disneyfication’, whilst some (elderly) locals still remark that the reconstruction destroyed the soul of the city. I pondered on this for a bit. I obviously have no idea what the city was like before the war but I was impressed by what I saw and I could certainly appreciate the artisans’ painstaking work to re-create the city’s lost heritage. There are so many details to uncover – from the statues on the rooftops to intricate embellishments on the buildings and little figurines in the streets – and you could tell that a lot of love and pride were poured into the restoration of the city’s iconic landmarks.
I thanked the gentleman for the lovely chat and continued on my stroll. By this time, the rain had receded to a light drizzle and patches of blue started to appear in the sky. As the sun broke through the clouds, I took to the puddles again to take more reflection photos. The glassy surface of the puddles were a picture perfect mirror. Gdansk looked absolutely stunning, even in the depths of fall.
The city, as it is today, may not be a fully accurate representation of its past, but it sure is a magical place to visit, a true gem on the Baltic coast thanks to the artisans and those who fought to preserve its rich heritage.
Read about things to do in Gdansk and my recommended bars in Gdansk.
Gdansk is a year-round destination with an international airport. I flew direct to Gdansk from Amsterdam with KLM. There are also many (low-cost) options to other parts of Europe with Easyjet and Ryanair. The modern Lech Walesa Airport is about a 20-minute drive from the city centre (approximately EUR 20+ by taxi). The currency used is the Polish zloty and there are many ATMs spread out across the city. The city centre is very compact, making it very easy to walk around to enjoy the sights. You can also opt to join a tour to see Gdansk and its surroundings. Find more information on Gdansk on the city’s website.
I stayed at the modern Hotel Mercure Gdansk Stare Miasto, which is located on the edge of the Old Town. The rooms are comfortable and the breakfasts are elaborate. The main attractions in the Old Town are located just minutes away on foot.
All photos by Keith Jenkins and Rob Hermans.
Note: my visit to Gdansk was made possible by Polen Toerisme. As always, all opinions expressed above are mine, and mine only.