Gdansk turns to tourism to beat economic decline

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Its architecture is Flemish, there are white sandy beaches near by, and it is surrounded by pristine forests and fresh lakes.

A new wave of European visitors to Gdansk is discovering an old Mittel European city which is a far cry from the brutalist legacy of the Soviet Union - which it helped to bring to its knees.

Gdansk has long battled to prove it has more to offer than the moment in 1980 when Lech Walesa scaled the ramparts of the city shipyard, setting in train the sequence of events that culminated in the fall of the Berlin Wall.

A long weekend in Gdansk might sound more like a punishment than a holiday option, but the Baltic port is proving a magnet to a new generation of intrepid travellers.

Perhaps inspired by tales of home from their Polish plumbers, or merely tired of fighting through the visiting stag parties in city-break hotspots such as Tallinn, Prague or Dublin, Gdansk is attracting record numbers of tourists. And far being from the city of crude architecture and austere shipyards of the popular imagination, the historic capital of Pomerania is enchanting those who make the journey with a wealth of unexpected delights.

"Most people have no idea about us," said Iwona Brudkiewicz of the city's promotion department. She spends her life travelling the world trying to convince people to overcome their prejudices and give Gdansk a chance. "They picture the city only in terms of its history. But all that is changing. When I tell people what Gdansk and its surrounding area are really like, they are extremely surprised."

What those who take her at her word will find is a compact old city of outstanding Flemish architecture, cobbled streets and fashionable bars. Restaurant food, while still on the nourishing side, is cheap and the service impeccable. There is a lively waterfront, an art gallery with an important collection of Flemish and Polish art and a fascinating local history. Gdansk's association with Solidarity and Mr Walesa surround the visitor at every turn. The city's virtual destruction at the hands of the Red Army in 1945 can only be guessed at.

But there is a pressing urgency to the effort to attract tourists to this part of northern Poland. With unemployment touching 20 per cent, an exodus of young workers abroad, and the famous shipyard itself now teetering on the verge of financial collapse, tourism is seen as vital to the area's economic future.

According to official figures, one in every 12 visitors to the region is now British, and the number of UK tourists is soaring by 25 per cent a year. Total numbers were boosted by 50 per cent in 2005 for the 25th anniversary celebrations of the birth of Solidarity. With the arrival of the low-cost airlines, this number is expected to more than double.

Anna Bannon, 54, from London, bought 2,000sq m of land just 20 minutes from Gdansk's Lech Walesa airport three years ago. Her three-bedroom, thatched lodge was completed on time and on a budget of just £75,000 by local craftsmen. There is no shortage of able plumbers and carpenters here, she says. Red tape is also kept to a minimum. The land sale was completed in a day and she has since offered advice to a steady stream of other Britons wishing to build in the area. Even the weather is good, she said.

"We have fantastic summers. This year it was hotter than Spain. It is cold in the winter but it is a dry cold so it doesn't go to your bones. People are fed up with Spain and Italy and there is much more to do than sit on a beach for two weeks. And the shopping is amazing. Everything is much cheaper than in the UK. I cannot spend enough time here," she said.

But despite the hype, tourists were thin on the ground on the city's main thoroughfare, the Dluga and the Dlugi Targ last week. Abdul Hadi-Ali was among a group of Egyptian engineers braving the freezing temperatures and leaden skies for a guided tour of St Mary's Church, the world's largest brick-built church. "We love the buildings, the food is nice and the people are friendly. But it is very cold," he said. Later in the year temperatures can drop to as low as minus 20C. But there were other more hopeful signs.

Dr Georgia Walbrach and her partner Dr Markus Sofianos flew in on a new budget flight from Cologne. They were intrigued to find out more about the birthplace of the city's most famous writer, Gunter Grass, who set The Tin Drum here. "We didn't know anyone else who had been here before and we are always looking for somewhere new to go. We thought it would be fascinating - and it is," she said.