Gdansk – the amber jewel of the Baltic

Posted by Graham Howe on 23 April 2014

Gdansk, Poland, is a 1000-year-old port on the Baltic Sea in the north and the amber capital of the world. Here’s why it’s worth exploring.

 

The ancient Hanseatic merchant houses on the waterfront at Gdansk on the Baltic


Gdansk is one of the jewels of Poland – an Old Hanseatic town of merchants and formerly one of the grain capitals of Europe. It reminded me of Amsterdam with its canals and tall wooden merchant’s houses, old timber granaries and gothic towers. We strolled along the royal way through the golden gate past opulent renaissance houses, the town hall, grand squares and Arthur’s Court (a merchant’s meeting place based on the round table of Camelot) elaborately decorated with incredible murals.

Gdansk is the amber capital of the world. We came across workshops specialising in amber, considered the Baltic gold of the north. Artists have created jewellery out of these golden sun-beads for thousands of years since Roman times. Gdansk has a museum of amber made from this hardened mineral resin formed 40 million years ago – a mineral called succinite harvested under the sea. In the 16th and 17th centuries, the golden age of Gdansk, masterpieces in amber from altars to sculptures and jewellery, popes, tsars, kings and emperors were traditionally presented with this souvenir after a state visit.

 

The ancient Hanseatic merchant houses on the waterfront at Gdansk on the Baltic. Photo by Graham Howe

The ancient Hanseatic merchant houses on the waterfront at Gdansk on the Baltic. Photo by Graham Howe

 

The granaries and Gothic towers of Gdansk, the old Baltic port of Poland. Photo by Graham Howe

The granaries and Gothic towers of Gdansk, the old Baltic port of Poland. Photo by Graham Howe

 

tourists take a freedom tour of the Gdansk shipyards where workers fell in the Solidarity struggle. Photo by Graham Howe

tourists take a freedom tour of the Gdansk shipyards where workers fell in the Solidarity struggle. Photo by Graham Howe


A highlight of our visit was a freedom tour around the famous Gdansk shipyards to visit the Solidarity Museum and monument – and the workshop from where Nobel peace prize winner Lech Walesa led the rebellion which toppled the Soviets.

Gdansk is called tri-city – it is made up of the town itself as well as the nearby resort towns of Sopot and Gdynia. Sopot is a very wealthy beach, horse racing and spa resort on the Baltic – an icon of tourism in Poland with its art nouveau architecture, trendy restaurants, night clubs and boutiques. We took a stroll along the 516 metre wooden pier (built in the 1820s) – the longest wooden pier in Europe – which juts out into the Gulf of Gdansk.

On the beachfront we spotted the famous luxury Grand Hotel where Hitler and his officers stayed for a week in September 1939 after the nazi invasion of Gdansk. Movie buffs can visit the home (now a pub) of the famous actor Klaus Kinski – the Polish Casanova who claimed to have slept with 5000 women in his lifetime!

Gdynia is another charming waterfront resort and modern port which grew out of an old Baltic fishing village. The old fish hall in Gdynia specialises in all kinds of fresh seafood from the Baltic – herring (the herring season had just started in the Baltic), smoked eel, cod, turbot and flounder. We enjoyed a wonderful seafood platter. Stall holders sell delicious smoked herring on the streets. When in the region, you also have to try the local goldwasser (gold water) – herbal liqueur made with real gold flakes – and Dzika Pszczola (wild bee honey vodka made with forest herbs).

Poland sure is a crucible of European history. We also visited the battle site where world war two began. The long peninsula called Westerplatte (West Peninusla) at the entrance to the harbour of Gdansk is a fascinating complex of bunkers, guard towers, barracks, war cemetery and monuments.

World War Two buffs come from all over the world to tour this battle site. Gdansk, renamed the free city of Danzig by the Treaty of Versailles after world war one, was hotly disputed territory by Germany and Poland. On September 1, 1939, a German warship began shelling this strategic outpost on the Baltic – and launched an infantry attack by sea. Set in a sandbagged bunker with machine guns and radio station, the war museum has an authentic atmosphere – as do the bunkers on the beach. The souvenir stalls do a brisk trade in world war two memorabilia – helmets and gas masks to shells.

A massive stone monument high on a hilltop overlooks the river mouth of the Vistula river which runs all the way through Poland. Heroic sculptures of soldiers are carved in to it – along with the names of all the major sea invasions of world war two from Dunkirk and Normandy to Westerplatte – in a very impressive memorial looking out to sea. A simple row of tall block letters spell out in Polish, “No more war”.

We also visited Kashubia, the lake district of Poland, on a day-trip west of Gdansk. Kashubia is a distinct part of Pomerania – the homeland of western Slavs who speak their own dialect and preserve their own rich culture and folklore. They settled here 1500 years ago; 250 000 Kashubians speak their own language with their own recorded alphabet and music, and enjoy minority rights in Poland today.

 

Gdansk is the amber capital of the world, where craftsmen still sell jewellery made from the mineral resin found under the sea. Photo by Graham Howe

Gdansk is the amber capital of the world, where craftsmen still sell jewellery made from the mineral resin found under the sea. Photo by Graham Howe

 

World war two memorabilia for sale at Westerplatte, the peninsula invade by German forces. Photo by Graham Howe

World war two memorabilia for sale at Westerplatte, the peninsula invade by German forces. Photo by Graham Howe


Kashubians are famous for their folk art – their embroidery, weaving, wood work and ceramics. Some believe they are the lost tribe of the Balts – and they have a bizarre music instrument called a burczybas (a huge double bass) which takes three men to play! This beautiful lake and forest region is known as the Switzerland of Poland – as it is located in the highest part of this lowland country at 329m above sea level

We visited the cultural centre of Kashubia in the forests of Szymbark – one of the big tourist attractions in the north of Poland which draws 100 000s of visitors every year. Everything is made from wood in this old sawmill, from a brand-new multi-storey luxury wooden hotel to chapel, Kashubian wooden cottages, a complete wooden Polish manor house, log cabins, gulag museum and a giant upside-down house.

They call it the history of Poland in wood – with the longest single plank in the world (36,83m) hung by fifty men on the wall from a 51m high spruce tree which was 120 years old – and made it into the Guinness Book of World Records. Apparently it took hundreds of men nine days to cut the plank – and it left 300kg of sawdust! We sat at one of the longest wooden tables in the world – made from a single slab of the same tree- which is called the Nobel Prize Winner’s Table for Lech Walesa. It is very disorientating walking around the gravity-bending floors of the upside down chalet – which symbolises the end of communism and the return of freedom to Poland.

We also learned the national anthem of Kashubia. The guide burst into song, praising the beauty of the woods, the sacred trees, the forest keeper, the woodcutter, the carpenter and the seed of life. The locals believe Kashubia was the last part of the world created by God – who left all his left-over wooden building materials here. When Polish Pope John Paul II visited Poland, he gave a special mass for Kashubians – and congratulated the partisans who fought the German and Soviet occupations.

 

The quirky upside down house in Kashubia, a monument to the topsy-turvy fortunes of Poland in the twentieth century. Photo by Graham Howe

The quirky upside down house in Kashubia, a monument to the topsy-turvy fortunes of Poland in the twentieth century. Photo by Graham Howe

 

A pint of craft beer and a hit of snuff at the Cultural centre of Kasubia, an autonomour region in the north of Poland. Photo by Graham Howe

A pint of craft beer and a hit of snuff at the Cultural centre of Kasubia, an autonomour region in the north of Poland. Photo by Graham Howe


We had great fun participating in the Kashubian art of snuff. Over a few beers at the micro-brewery, we sniffed this peppery snuff out of cow horns – a Kashubian ritual which soon had everyone sneezing! It’s rude to refuse sharing snuff – as it’s a gesture of welcome and hospitality – so we snorted it off our hands. You wouldn’t want to offend one of these guys – they’re all built like lumberjacks. Kashubia even has a hall of Polish tobacco lovers – and a museum of carpentry.

Lech Walesa, the leader of the Solidarity movement which toppled the Soviets in Poland in 1989 (winner of the Nobel peace prize), is the patron of the centre – and a frequent visitor to Szymbark. We were told that his penthouse in the wooden hotel has three taps – two for hot and cold and one for beer piped direct from the brewery!

One of the most fascinating features at the Kashubian cultural centre is a simple log cabin transported 8000 kilometres overland from a gulag in Siberia in 2004. Some two million Poles were deported to Siberia during the Soviet occupation of Poland. We visited a very moving replica of a gulag settlement with a train and wagons which forcibly deported entire families on a brutal journey across the Russian steppes on a three-month journey during which many died. The exhibits also feature an underground bunker trail where Kashubian partisans fought the nazis – with evocative photographic exhibits on the Siberian gulag in post-war Poland in the 1940s.

Graham Howe was a guest of the Embassy of Poland and Poland’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. For info, email [email protected] or visit www.pot.gov.pl

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