Gdansk: Belle of the Baltic

In Gdansk you feel you are in the very essence of history. Yet most of the city has been built since the war, writes Hugh O'Shaughnessy
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Nostalgia, they say, isn't what it used to be. Well, in the Polish port of Gdansk, founded in 997 as a base for evangelising the heathens of the Baltic and one of the most beautiful cities in northern Europe, nostalgia is fully up to the standards of yesteryear. It is flourishing mightily in this former stronghold of the Knights of the Teutonic Order.

Walk through the Old City after dark and you feel yourself steeped in the essence of medieval mystery. The great shadowy bulk of Our Lady's church soars 250 feet into the blackness, its tower and pinnacles rivalled only by the gold-tipped spire of the town hall. The ancient streets, lined with high, narrow palaces, residences and warehouses are brightly lit but mostly silent and deserted.

The city's location where the Vistula meets the sea allowed it to grow rich on the east European grain and timber trade and on the amber which is still plentiful hereabouts. The spirit of the 1,001 years of prosperous history of a city - also known in the West under its German name of Danzig - is almost palpable. Through the Green Gate at the end of the Long Market, as handsome a thoroughfare as you would find north of Prague, there is a glimpse of water and ships tied up while the cranes of Lech Walesa's shipyards puncture the night sky to the north.

In the morning Gdansk is different. The northern light reveals the details of the great buildings in their most handsome detail: stone medallions and busts of Roman emperors and local heroes, lanterns and shop signs in wrought iron, a sundial dating back to 1589, the fountain of Neptune, grand staircases and chandeliers.

Mariacka Street is said to be the most beautiful in the city; less grand than Long Street, it is lined with shops selling well crafted jewellery of silver which incorporates amber of every colour from creamy to russet. It was used as a set for the film of The Tin Drum by Gunter Grass, the great German novelist who was born in the city.

Push open the massive doors of Our Lady's church, so dark in the gloom of the night, and you enter a vast white space in the morning light, capable, they say, of holding 25,000 worshippers. The baroque monuments speak of the city's German past. Was the Guldenstern commemorated with a rococo inscription any descendant of Shakespeare's character?

But pinch yourself. Today's Gdansk is the magnificent and dignified product of a terrible history and a nostalgic Polish dream; for all their medieval or Renaissance looks, few of the buildings have been up for more than 50 years.

Founded by Poles and a bishop from Bohemia a millennium ago, the city has always been a point of contact - and often a point of bloody abrasion - between Teutons and Slavs. For generations, the city's prosperous and predominantly German burghers were happy to live under the Polish monarchy, lending it the money it was chronically short of and building those palaces on the interest. When Poland was abolished and struck off the map of Europe 200 years ago they lived under Prussian rule. After the end of the First World War, the League of Nations made the city the Free State of Danzig, but eventually the citizens turned en masse to the Nazi cause.

It was no coincidence that the first shots of World War Two were fired against Poland at 4.45 in the morning of 1 September 1939 from a German battleship, the Schleswig-Holstein, in the harbour. Gdansk survived most of the war unscathed, but in the final act of Hitler's war it was reduced to rubble in a fire storm, nine out of every 10 houses being burnt as 15 German divisions resisted the advancing Russians. The Poles observed grimly how the Wehrmacht was being annihilated by a Red Army which had started the war as an ally of the Germans in the 1939 invasion of Poland itself.

In succeeding years the Poles undertook a huge restoration effort, greater and, frankly, more successful than the one they undertook in Warsaw. From the charred timbers and broken bricks they picked out the indestructible stones and raised them again. The city has risen from its ashes in the most magnificent way and has once again that feel of Amsterdam or Leiden that came from the Dutch architects who built so much here.

But Gdansk and the Baltic riviera is for more than the aesthete with a taste for architecture and historical musing. The brand-new Hanza Hotel on the waterfront has excellent food and comfortable rooms, and in its basement there is a small but lively casino. On the evening I was there one middle-aged man was splurging his chips on the roulette table, scarcely conscious of losing, which was often, or winning, which was rare. As his pile melted away a new wad of 200 zloty notes appeared from his pockets and the croupier accepted the money gracefully. On my table was a little old lady, who clearly modelled herself on Antonida Vasilevna, the Grandmother in Dostoevsky's novel The Gambler and whose luck was remarkable. I should have followed her system. It might have saved me money.

The neighbouring city of Gdynia wants a racier image and one club ("Only for Gentelmen[sic]-Restaurant-Jacuzzi-Sauna- Gogo dancers") advertises itself, doubtless with a good deal of licence, as the Polish Las Vegas.

A few miles to the south-east at Marbork lies the huge brick fortress which served as the headquarters of the Teutonic Knights, the unemployed Crusaders whom the Pope set to preach and fight in northern Europe. They came to dominate the area before they were conquered by the Poles in the 15th century. On the wall overlooking the moat someone has scrawled in English "fight war, not wars". The motto has been unheeded around here, but perhaps now it will be, especially by Poland's neighbours to the West.

You can fly direct to Gdansk from Gatwick on LOT Polish Airlines. The discount agency Fregata (0171-451 7000) is selling tickets for pounds 184 return in June. Eurolines (01582 404511) has a bus from London for pounds 89.

Polish National Tourism Office, First Floor, Remo House, 310-312 Regent Street, London W1R 5AJ (0171-580 8811)