3 Days in Gdansk (May 2008) - Andy Webb
Friday 2nd May 2008 - Gdansk
A 3.15AM cab ripped us out of insufficient sleep transporting us to Gatwick Airport accompanied by the taxi drivers' malady of Melody FM. Check in was surprisingly fast and painless and we were soon rubbing shoulders with wide eyed expectant stag and hen parties enjoying their 5AM beer and wine. On the plane we seemed to have been placed within the seating roster for the Wallingford Rugby Football Club, but despite any pintail concerns that we would be cannon fodder for the course we had a strangely disappointing uneventful flight.
We arrived in Poland under a mask of heavy cloud until the recognizable form of the Gdansk Crane was visible from below. Despite Odie having to endure a 10 minute Customs quiz, we were out with near German efficiency. A 25 minute cab journey costing z50 (£12.50) dropped us at the Novotel just on the outskirts of Gdansk old town flanked by a main road and some delightful looking tower blocks. As it turned out our room was not ready for a few hours so we headed into central Gdansk like zombies awaiting a miracle being peppered with a light rain. It appeared Gdansk was just waking up, a few hardy souls were braving the grey weather including an animated group of German bikers, but we were just content to wander and find a place for a coffee. Within 5 minutes my Hungarian umbrella (purchased in Budapest 3 years ago) was consigned to the bin looking like a contorted fruit bat on death row.
We took a break from the rain in a cosy cafe before wandering exploring a bit more, old crumbling buildings vied for space with attractive looking gabled buildings reminiscing Amsterdam. We took a walk along the canal past the Gdansk Crane, the oldest medieval crane in Europe (more about that later) and spotted a large Viking Boat offering tours to Westerplatte. Lunch was taken at Greenway, despite the initial disappointment that they had run out of vegetable tortes, we elected to share a plate of sauerkraut, sweet carrots and sultanas and a tasty goulash of tofu. All of this came to the princely sum of about £2.
With the rain still coming down we had a minor aberration and decided to go a Scottish Pub, I honestly don't know why time after time we seem to go into these establishments, I think its the satisfaction of seeing how shit they are. This one certainly didn't disappoint, they served only Irish beer and had an awful dining room sporting faded landscapes of Scotland on the wall. Nevertheless, the tasty Tyskia beer gave us some renewed energy before we headed back to check in.
Our hotel room was at the end of a mile long corridor with a stunning view of Gdansk Suburbia, we also had a minibar which would almost certainly be given a wide berth (£12 for a shot of Cognac!). Back along the canal, in need of food we found Restaurant Kubicki, apparently Gdansk's oldest restaurant. We pretty much had the restaurant to our selves and enjoyed some excellent Polish food washed down with a mediocre bottle of red wine to celebrate our 4th anniversary. We shared a tasty duck pate covered in about a 10cm of clear jelly. My dish of duck was prepared with orange zest and served with Sauerkraut, caramelized onion and apple, sweet carrot and dill potatoes. Fully satisfied but eager to avoid the post-dinner lull we paid the very reasonable £30 bill before heading back out into a rapidly improving day.
Despite the suns arrival, the Viking Boat's day hadn't got any better at all, it appeared that it had crashed into something causing the large dragons head mast to end up halfway through the roof of the boat. We never did find out what had happened to the boat, whether the driver had been hitting back the Vodkas or someone had it in for the Vikings that day. Gdansk is a compact town and we did at least half of it in an hour and half wandering past attractive churches including St.Marys Church, said to be the largest Brick built church in the world.
With our feet sore from walking we elected to try out the Gdansk nightlife, we found a nice airy bar in an old church like building by the Golden Gate. The evening sun shined through the coloured windows creating a pleasing kaleidoscope effect. Next came our second mistake, the Celtic Bar...
I think i might have been intrigued to see if the Celtic Bar served Scottish Beer, and the fact that the place apparently used to be an old Public toilets should have served as a warning. We descended the steps into a darkened cavern with the smells of stale beer and cigarette smoke. It appeared that there was some kind of private party with 2 large tables of food, but only 3 guests. At the bar, I managed to cause great amusement by mispronouncing large (doucher) doozer, despite the language frailties, we ended up with one large beer and one small beer. Realizing that the place was not going to give us much in the way of entertainment we moved on as soon as we had finished our drinks.
We then went on a fruitless search for 2 recommended bars, one of which the Flying Dutchman was apparently sited under the LOT shopping centre, after doing a few circuits we concluded the the Dutchman had flown to pastures new. The other more disappointing was a jazz/pool club that sounded really good, when we located the street we saw no evidence of Jazz or Pool. Getting frustrated and not fancying a restaurant/pub on the main street we suddenly found ourselves outside the Scottish Pub, somehow though another bar had suddenly appeared next door, of which I'm sure wasn't there earlier. The Red Bar was very accommodating with friendly bar staff, cool music, cheese nachos and a good selection of beer and vodka shots which kept us contented for the rest of the night and ensured a long trouble free sleep
Saturday 3 May - Gdansk/Sopot
Feeling totally refreshed and no longer like partial zombies our hunger took us to the Neptune Milk Bar on the Dlugi Tagg, a traditional Polish Communist style canteen. Unfortunately the milk bar was not welcoming, we spent 5 minutes trying to decipher the Polish food offerings, during which in this time I saw no fewer than 3 plates of sad food reheated in a microwave. Deciding that we could stretch our budget a bit more we were drawn back to the Vegetarian restaurant for another tasty, healthy meal, although to be honest perhaps not breakfast food. In the distance we heard a marching band getting ready for the May 3rd Celebrations, remembering the student uprisings.
Walking in the opposite direction to everybody else we headed to the Gdansk Shipyard Gates where the Solidarity Movement started. It was this that was effectively the catalyst for the downfall of communism in Poland and then the fall of the other communist regimes across Eastern Europe. The large monument remembers the shipyard workers who were murdered standing up for what they believed in. Unfortunately access into the Shipyards was restricted but there was, apparently, a good museum worth visiting. After about 25 minutes we discovered that the museum was no longer in the shipyard but under the main road back the way we had came. The museum itself was great, I have to confess that I think it is the first museum where I read every plaque and watched every bit of documentation possible. I don't think I realized how hard the people had it here in Poland and in the other countries during Communist rule, any form of rebellion or even forward thinking was seen as a crime of the state. With my history lesson complete there was still time for me to cause great amusement to the two museum workers at the entrance desk by emerging from the toilet with a 3m long toilet roll snake stuck to my foot.
With the weather now ever improving we decided to catch a train to the neighbouring seaside resort of Sopot. After some unsuccessful gibbering at the ticket office we were coldly dispatched to the tourist office who in turn dispatched us to Platform 4 where it turned out you bought your tickets from a small kiosk. Despite a short moment when we thought we had got the wrong train we were finally on our way. The train journey passed the Shipyards before passing through large blocks of communist style apartment blocks.
Sopot was a different prospect entirely, an affluent seaside town with a main street teeming with tourists and young Poles enjoying the nice weather. After a bit to eat in a nice cafe, we strolled down the main street. I was quite intrigued by a large queue for what appeared to be a cat show, from what I could make out through the windows was that there was a collection of well groomed cats in cages being gawped at! Not wanting to waste the nice weather by queuing indoors we headed down to the sea. It appeared Sopot was undergoing a massive rebuilding program with the lead up to the pier flanked each side by a building site.
After some initial confusion about where we got our tickets for the pier I found the right booth, two fingers and another pointing in the direction of the sea was enough to convince the lady in the booth that I wanted 2 tickets for the pier and not some elicit adventure with her in the sea. Molo is apparently the longest wooden pier in Europe and despite a few amber sellers and a surprisingly out of place yacht club it is also untouched by the commercialism associated with its English counterparts.
We walked the length of the pier when suddenly this guy launched himself and his camera at me, fearing him to be some one hour photo weirdo I side stepped him with a look of bemusement. Baffled, he reassessed his technique for getting people to take pictures of his group and tried someone else. After our promenade we bought a take out beer and sat on the beach entertained by the locals feeding the swans, I think this might have been the first time I have seen swans and sea together. As the sun took a breather we stumbled on a camp marching band playing Yellow Submarine and Hitlers only Got One Ball
(Although i confess that this isn't the version they played!) DJ Orange Shellsuit was also in attendance as were scores of Polish families soaking up the seaside entertainment.
On our way back I faced up to the timely horror of panpipes, quite why the same guy/band follows me everywhere I travel to with his crap tootling tunes I don't know. Quite honestly why anyone would buy this drivel remains to be seen. I do confess to getting drunk with a panpipe band in Central Croydon about 17 years ago maybe that has scarred me. Tired we trailed behind Sopots slowest walkers before resting for a beer opposite the church. An angry guy with a pitbull seemed very annoyed with some tables and chairs next to us and elected to launch into a 2 minute rant at them.
Now, everywhere I go I do try to get involved with the local language, and can normally master the basic please and thankyous within a couple of hours. However, Polish was proving to be a little bit more difficult, the word for thankyou (Denkui) was as elusive to me as snow is to the sahara. After a few beers even trying to master the guidebook phrases were best left desired, The bill please (Propeshe Ora Hoonek) became Propeller Old Hook Neck much to the amusement to the waitress who somehow understood.
Suddenly, 3000 different marching bands erupted from the church, at first I thought they were all going to join us for a beer, but, at the last minute they turned and lined up in formation awaiting orders. One set of guys with small grapefruits on their hats were especially striking. Our train journey back witnessed our first polish crime offences, a boy getting caught for fare evading and then a man stealing a bunch of flowers from an old woman.
On the way back to the hotel I noticed two sets of people behaving suspiciously in a car park, 2 men crouched down by a bin admiring beer cans and a couple near a wall leaning on each other. After freshening up, we headed back out for some much needed dinner and somehow stumbled across the Flying Dutchman, now, it seems a pub restaurant on the main drag. Now considerably upmarket than its predecessor, the food looked good so we decided to stop. 20 minutes later I had a plate of about 300 sausages equal to the entire landmass of Poland in front of me, 35 minutes later the pirates plate was empty and my stomach at bursting point. For dessert we had Goldwasser, a aniseed like liqueur with gold bits floating in it. We quizzed the waiter on good night spots and despite some nightclubs we were keen to avoid he seemed to think Sopot would have been a better option. Concerned that the majority of voices around us were English we paid our bill and left.
Our first and last experience of a Gdansk nightclub was the aptly named Yesterday that just about resembled a disco. I knew it wasn't going to be our kind of place when I nearly fell down the stairs while swiveling around on one foot after being stopped by a bouncer to put our coats in the cloakroom. After 'Lemmy' had taken our coats we descended into a dingy smokey basement full of sweaty young Gdanskians pulsating to tunes of bygones eras. At least, I thought, there wasn't any dodgy techno, but that's about as good as it got, we are about 15 years to old for this place. After a quick beer literally stuck to the bar and surrounded by eu de sweat/cigarette/toilet/stale beer we decided to make sharp exit. Lemmy seemed genuinely disappointed that we were leaving so soon but nothing could stop us getting our lungs back.
With our choices limited to more youth smoke filled cheese holes and an exclusive VIP bar that could have been in Soho we elected on a return to the Red Bar where we were welcomed with a strange fusion of Scottish Music and Techno. Not to be dispirited we got some drinks and were shown to a comfortable room upstairs with bean bags. The only problem with consuming Poland's land mass in sausages is that the bean bag isn't very conducive to comfort and just leaning over to pick up my beer became an Olympic sport. We bid farewell to the red bar at a slightly respectable 1.30AM.
Sunday 4th May - Gdansk and Westerplatte
A late start after a very long refreshing sleep meant that we had missed most of the morning. We had an incredibly poor breakfast of a long strip bread with salami, dried oregano and cheese which was then made even worse when the waitress doused enough tomato sauce to feed 100 Richard Heath's all over it rendering it inedible to Odie. I managed to force both of them down with a mild indifference and the worlds smallest Cappuccinos
topped it all off.
After wasting half an hour doing a futile search for the viking boat and trying to locate the place to get ferry tickets we were eventually informed we needed to be at the other end of the canal, at least we spotted a pool bar though which we decided would form part of our evenings festivities. 20 minutes later and 2 ferry tickets booked for Westerplatte we elected to spend the 45 minutes before our boat visiting the Crane Museum. After eventually securing tickets and a z5 photo pass we were herded upstairs into what was a rather uninspiring collection of old canoes and a few painting thrown in for good measure. With everything in Polish there wasn't much to be gleaned from the experience and we hurried around waiting to get to the main event, the Crane.
A Polish Bernard Cribbins checked our tickets and we started our Crane tour. The museum was slightly more interesting than the canoes with some spectacular plastic dummies taking part in Medieval recreation scenes. The experience was heightened even more by the over-zealous attendants who seemed to follow your every move like a hawk and magically disappear and reappear on the next floor. We did get a close look at the 2 hamster wheels where workers would operate the crane by becoming human hamsters for the day. With the clock ticking we rushed down to the ferry and took our seats.
The journey to Westerplatte takes you right through the Gdansk shipyards where large derelict ship cranes stand sentinel like mechanical dinosaurs. Half built boats rust into the dockside and large derelict factories stand fading into history. The scale of the place is breathtaking especially when you consider the majority of it is now deserted bar a few private enterprises. On the boat the tanoy system spurted out various facts and figures faster than a machine gun, again lost on us as it was all in Polish. We finally reached Westerplatte, the scene of the start of the 2nd World War when a German ship fired on a Polish Garrison. They managed to hold the Germans off for about 8 days before finally succumbing, their memorial sits atop high ground. At this point the boat seemed to go back on itself making us wonder whether we would be just getting a river tour. Finally, it appeared we had been shown the spot where the German boat fired from.
Disembarked we walked down in the direction of the memorial through some attractive tree lined paths. A derelict watchtower had become a child's climbing frame and an old deserted bunker also provided some entertainment for the younger generation. We only had a few minutes to enjoy the sunny view from the monument before we had to head back to get our ferry.
Back on the boat I nearly managed to tip somebody overboard when I emerged from the WC, not wanting to be responsible for man overboard I attempted to apologize in polish but it seemed that my would be drownee was more interested in someone on the dockside.
Back in Gdansk following a very brief siesta we found a polish restaurant with a good traditional menu, unfortunately my choice of seat wasn't ideal as I spent most of the meal with my right ear subjected to loud crass polish pop music. The food was interesting, Odie went for the Borsch, beetroot soup with dumplings, the traditional polish winter warmer. My option of the Wild Boar with prunes sounded delicious but in reality had an acquired taste of Liver and cleaning fluid. While we were finishing off our bottle of red we were entertained by the arrival of three English businessmen/IT specialists who joined the table nearest to us. They were all eagerly anticipating the arrival of Colin, who judging by 3 mobile phone calls in 15 minutes was terribly lost. For the next 25 minutes the myth that was Colin started to grow, what would the infamous Colin be like? My idea that Colin was a nerdy IT worker couldn't be way off the mark when a large, loud, highly sun burnt Aussie turned up demanding beer!
Sad to leave Colin and his rather shell shocked colleagues we ambled down the main street in the evening sun. Couples passed by hand in hand sucking on ice creams, while families out for an evening walk struggled to control their excitable children. The highlight was a man on a bike being towed by 2 Alsatians cutting a path through pedestrians.
Content with our evenings exercise we found the nice Pub Duszek, tatty interior with strange paraphernalia on the walls including sculpted faces, a painting of a London Bobby, a piano and a collection of old radios. We order 2 beers and descended into a dingy basement with small alcoves perfect for elicit meetings with spies or ladies of the night. After a few rounds of cards,made our escape for fresh air only stopping briefly to try a couple of fiery orange vodka shots. The woman behind the bar was adamant we should try one type of vodka while an old man to my left seemed sure we should pick the orange one..."Good for stomach...medicinal!" It turned out later he had meant traditional not medicinal! Feeling slightly more robust after a few of these we said our goodbyes vowing to return later.
Another important past-time when I visit other cities is to find the local pool hall, in this case we were rewarded by finding a small place on Jarg Rybry which charged only Z15 for 1 hours play. I won the match 3-2 in a tournament that lived up to the billing as 'amateur'. A jovial Polish guy on the other table kept us entertained throughout by impressing (or not impressing) his girlfriend through the medium of pool and strange noises.
Lured by the temptation of traditional bar ambience we headed back to Pub Duszek where they had some free seats upstairs on a comfy sofa which made us pretty much the centre of attention. We were treated to a live piano recital by the bar owners friend while we got chatting to a nice polish couple called Petr and Katy who had just got married. It transpired that they were actually from Basingstoke and Petr was an engineer for T-Mobile and had done a lot of traveling throughout England and Wales.
Spurred on through a combination of mulled wine and beer we discussed the relative merits of Poland and England until the bar owners, who incidentally were Petr's friends, started dropping hints so they could close up and go to sleep. One thing we did find out was that Gdansk has a high population of elderly people and as a result their are not a large amount of bars and nightclubs and most of the town shuts down by half eleven. After saying our goodbyes with empty promises that we would meet up in England we departed back to the hotel via the canal where we completed a Star Warsesque duel with some propaganda posters before retiring.
Monday 5th May - Back home
A short cab ride to the airport nursed our mild hangovers until we were reunited with the same Rugby team who flew out with us and also Petr and Katy who looked even worse for wear than us! After a last minute gate swap which resulting in a game of musical chairs with the Birmingham crowd we were off.
Gdansk is a great destination for a few days, rich in history and a nice place to spend a cosy weekend. If you want bars and nightclubs then head to Sopot, Krakow or Warsaw. I definitely look forward to returning to Poland to see some more of this intriguing country and of course, to stock up on Goldwasser!
View more pictures of Gdansk
View more pictures of the Shipyards