Gdansk: Northern Europe’s most up-and-coming city
‘The two most important events in Europe in the 20th century, it can be argued, happened here in Gdansk. I was in the kitchen in Micha Majs house in Brzeno, a seaside neighbourhood north of the city centre. There was an empty bottle of wine on the table and another Id just opened. It was 3am, deep in winter. Everything was shut due to the pandemic and Micha, who usually works as a guide, was feeding and housing me in the hospitable manner typical of Poles. Hed been taking me through the twists and turns of Gdansks history for five hours and wed just stepped into the 20th century. In case anyone might be wondering, it was utterly captivating.
The first of these events took place on 1 September 1939, when the battleship Schleswig-Holstein manoeuvred into the Vistula River and began shelling the Polish garrison at Westerplatte, just north of Gdansk. They were the earliest shots of World War II. After a month-long blitz, Poland was subjugated and the war was well underway. The second happened at Gdansks Lenin shipyards on 31 August 1980 when the Polish Communist government gave assent to Solidaritys right to be recognised as a free trade union, the first of its kind in the Soviet empire. Lech Wasa signed with a giant pen on which he had appended an image of Pope John Paul II. It was the beginning of the end. After a bloodless decade-long revolution, Wasa became president of a free Poland. Two events, catastrophic and hopeful, the twin poles between which the country expanded and contracted at the behest of its voracious neighbours, like the bellows of an accordion.
These and other epoch-making episodes in Gdansk happened in the main because of where it is, at the point where the Vistula enters the Baltic Sea. Ringed by Germany, Scandinavia and Russia, it was the gateway to the grain fields, forests and cities at the heart of the continent. It took a cut of everything moving in and out and became immensely rich. It was, in the region, the pivot point for the Hanseatic League, which linked the whole of northern Europe from the 14th century, and had a bigger turnover in its heyday than London. Merchants flocked to it. Magnificent townhouses in Dutch Renaissance style festooned with reliefs and murals went up. It constructed maximal examples in several categories: largest medieval crane and mill, largest amber altar, most accurate clock, largest brick church (it could fit more than 20,000). Frederick the Great said that whoever controlled Gdansk would be more master of Poland than any king reigning there. Napoleon called it the key to everything.
In the morning, or at least the daylit part of it that remained, Micha took me for a walk through this metropolis of waterways. Wed parked on Spichrzw island, where there were once more than 300 granaries, crossed the Motawa River to the magnificent Green Gate at the entrance to the main town and passed under its arches into Dugi Targ. Here, it seemed, through some time-machine transportation, was a Hansa city in full regalia: palaces in greens, blues and violets with interiors filled with oak, marble, crystal and velvet, the most fabulous and dreamlike of all being Arthurs Court, which goes back to a medieval fascination with Camelot. At the far end is the Golden Gate, the Prison Tower and a further Upland Gate in this much-fortified place of walls, moats, ramparts and torture chambers for invaders moving concentrically out to its borders. In the heart, between the gates, is this route of kings. Ive seen it in all seasons as I live not far south along the river in Torun, and have been here intermittently over 15 years. Its normally thronged, particularly in summer, the restaurant terraces packed, the clarifying sea winds rippling the linen shirts of the visitors. People look unusually buoyant, unusually pleased to be here, I have often thought.
This is all so at odds with what people old enough to remember Solidarity associate with Gdansk those monochrome TV images of the dilapidated shipyards and stern faces of strikers holding up their hand-painted demands. It seems impossibly grand, so exquisitely preserved. Except that it is not. It is all simulacra. Gdansk was largely obliterated at the end of the war by the RAF and the Red Army. Not only had its physical body been turned to rubble, its consciousness too had arrived at clinical death. Poles and Jews had been exterminated, Germans killed or expelled. A centuries-long timeline of this open city by the sea dominated for the most part by German and Flemish speakers had been cut. Poles from the East moved in. In an astonishing act of national pride, the people resurrected it, or something very like it, from its ashes. It was a looser, more improvised time. Artists were given a freer hand in the restoration than archaeologists. Some of the moldings were faithful copies, others were new. There were jokes, parodies, caricatures, a tumescent lion, topless nymphs as sensuous as Munchs Madonna.
We moved through history distant and recent, past sites where, to an unusual degree, humanity descended to depths of malevolence or rose to triumphant heights. Examples arrived in contrasting pairs. Next to the spot where Nazi authorities demanded the dismantling of the main synagogue has risen the monumental Shakespeare Theatre, its design subtly alluding to the citys layout and the old Fencing School, which in the 17th century hosted touring actors from Shakespeares own company. We paused at the flower-laden plaque set in the pavement where Mayor Pawe Adamowicz was knifed to death on 13 January 2019 by an assassin said to have been sent into a frenzy by his advocacy of inclusiveness, and then detoured to the childhood home of the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, who perhaps developed his disdain for nationalism in the Free City of Danzig, as Gdansk was then known.
Moving north, we stopped at the old Post Office, where Polish workers were besieged by Nazi police while the Schleswig-Holstein blasted Westerplatte. Now you can see the heroised Soviet-style chrome sculpture commemorating the event, a photograph of the captured employees lined up against the wall before they were executed and small rectangular moulds mounted on the bricks that imagine their handprints. Through the trees we could see the leaning concrete-and-glass tower of the Museum of the Second World War, a bold and very moving attempt to show war as, in writer Neal Aschersons words, disaster, misery, ruin, loss rather than as some purposeful struggle, but which has been made into an ideological battleground by a nationalist government wishing to particularise martyrdom as Polish. Further on is the European Solidarity Centre, clad in panels simulating rust, beside which are the gates where Wasa famously read out the August 1980 agreement to the populace. Here are acres of brick and broken windows and wasteland. But while large-scale shipbuilding has moved to Asia, Poles are adept at witty post-industrial reconfigurations, and outdoor music venues, pop-up restaurants and artists studios are spreading through the abandoned containers and workshops. Czesaw Podleny’s metallic figures, made from old parts, can be seen walking out of the sea.
We got into Michas car and went further north, passing through the Zaspa district with its Soviet-era blocks of flats which have been transformed into a monumental open-air gallery of 54 multi-storey murals by international artists. You can find street art throughout the city, in underpasses, tunnels, on broken walls and abandoned buildings. We turned seaward and were back in Brzeno. Here and all along the coast are old-world spas, particularly at Sopot with its massive wooden pier and waterside hotel. We walked onto the sand. Swans flapped in the wrack and two swimmers, a man in a red Christmas elfs hat and a woman in a bikini, waded out into the cold grey sea.
The sea has kept me here, my friend Magorzata erwe, an artist and documentary maker, told me. I arrived as a student 50 years ago. Its not the sea itself, though I love to walk along it, but more what it brings. Its the feeling of openness to the world it gives. Ships from everywhere come and go. Scandinavia seems very near. Poland can feel closed and when I arrived in Gdansk it was a liberation. She lives in Wrzeszcz (a consonant-heavy word that means scream), one of those intimately interwoven districts that Gdansk seems to specialise in. Her flat looks onto a green with a bench upon which statues of Nobel-winning novelist Gnter Grass and his creation Oskar from The Tin Drum appear to be having a chat. Grass grew up around the corner. Little has changed since then, at least in appearance, as Wrzeszcz escaped damage in the war. I asked her what it was like to be an artist in Gdansk.
We were painted birds in an industrial city, she said. In art school we had a six-year party. Wed go to Sopot and drink and dance and come back with our fallen wings and pass the shipyard workers on their way to the early shift. We were all locked in during martial law but we made moonshine vodka in the flats. It was exciting. We knew we were at the centre of the storm and the whole world was watching. Then there was a kind of explosion of art in the late 1980s. The exchange rate was so good for a while that you could sell one big piece a year and get by. I think artists are respected here. I was invited by the mayor who was assassinated to be part of a committee advising on culture and have been kept on by his successor. Many cities reserve those positions for arts administrators rather than artists. I went into the radio station to be interviewed about a residency Id done in Germany and came out having been given my own programme.
She wasnt the only person Id met for whom the city leveraged dreams perhaps previously unknown even to the dreamers. American Karl Kuellmer left a bureaucratic job in Washington to hitchhike around Europe in search of himself. Gdansk halted him. Eventually an experimental director gave him a space under his theatre, which he turned into Caf Absinthe, a refuge for sailors, bohemians and other lovers of the night who like to dance on tabletops. (It closed before the pandemic, but there are plans to relocate beneath the Fine Arts Academy.) Jerzy Limon was a graduate student when he began to investigate the old Fencing Schools connections with England. How interesting it would be, he thought, to somehow replicate it, a little as London did with the Globe, and play Shakespeare there. The idle notion stuck and many years and 18 million of building costs later, it’s now an important European theatre within a startling architectural work. (Limon sadly died of Covid-19 in March 2021, age 70.)
I walk in this wonderful place and think that through any laws of probability it has no right to exist, Limon told me. Gdansk is a kind of miniature of a united Europe. We attempt to reflect this in our theatre. The city has always attracted different nationalities, different religions, Germans of course, but also Dutch and Scots. Yet its also been a mutinous city. Changes started here. We had a bloodless revolution that set an example. This has alienated some people, but it draws in many more.
SLEEPING, EATING AND WANDERING IN GDANSK
Well-placed in the granary quarter, the contemporary Puro hotel has an original art collection and various nooks and crannies to hide away in, as well as a top-floor bar, while IBB Dugi Targs Scandi-style rooms fill a reconstructed townhouse. More old-school options include the Belle Epoque swish of Podewils and Hotel Gdansk, in an old grain store on the water. The citys food scene isnt just about pierogi and meat; in recent years, vegetable-forward menus have shown real creativity, and locally sourced ingredients are the norm. Try Fino for experimental but recognisably Polish food, Chmielna by Grzegorz Labuda for cheffy dishes at reasonable prices, and the striking Canis, whose menu (deer tartare; gnocchi with truffle sauce) is driven by an evident passion.
PG4 makes Jopen beer from a 15th-century recipe in a post-industrial setting; find Piwnica Rajcw brewery in the cellar of Arthurs Court. Sixties-style Caf Lamus is an atmospheric favourite, as is the junkyard- chic Jzef K. Book one of a number of walks offered by Micha Maj or the free neighbourhood strolls at the Instytut Kultury Miejskiej. Local storyteller Jacek Gorski leads one through Lower Gdansk, a compelling neighbourhood with ramparts, waterways and former factory sites being imaginatively transformed. Such walks are also a good way to see the murals of Zaspa. For after-dark buzz, head for the clubs and food trucks of Elektrykow Street in the shipyard area.
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