1997 is the perfect time to visit this ancient Hanseatic city, which is celebrating its own millennium. By David Morgan Rees
Click to follow
The Independent Travel
Gdansk, Poland's great Hanseatic city on the Baltic, has stolen a march on everyone else in the millennium business by celebrating its own version this year. On Easter Sunday 997 the Czech bishop Wojciech (later canonised as St Adalbert), during a mission organised by Prince Boleslaw the Brave, baptised the crowd assembled to greet the arrival of his ship. The event was described in the bishop's biography, which also recorded the first mention of the location as Urbs Gyddanyzc. This Friday, on the 1,000th anniversary, the Archbishop of Gdansk, Tadeusz Goclowski, will ceremonially baptise a number of citizens, signalling the start of the city's millennium celebrations which will run until mid-October.

As Poland's leading port, Gdansk isimportant in the history of the world. Napoleon believed that Gdansk was the key to everything in Europe, and made it a free city. Hitler chose to start the Second World War here by ordering the German battleship Schleswig-Holstein to shell Westerplatte at the entrance to the city's port on 1 September 1939. Gdansk was also where Communism collapsed, in August 1980, in the famous strike that paralysed the shipyard. The electrician who led the strike was Lech Walesa, Poland's first freely elected post-war President.

But the city's fame and influence as a major port and trading centre stretch much further back in time. At first a Slav settlement, it then joined the Hanseatic League in the 13th century, becoming part of a remarkable organisation governing the trade and politics of much of northern Europe, the Baltic and Scandinavia until the end of the 16th century. Originating in the north German port of Lubeck, merchants grouped together in the form of a Hansa, or monopolistic trade association, buying, selling and shipping fish, furs, gold, silver, grain, wool and other goods, which eventually involved more than 200 medieval cities throughout the area.

The Hansa diktat on prices, size of cargo and methods of shipment in their distinctive design of ship, the kogge, as well as employees' terms of employment, was absolute. Those who ignored such restrictions were excluded from trading. The Hansas enjoyed more political and economic power and influence than any German state before 1871. There are fascinating parallels between the Hanseatic League and today's European Union.

The tall, patrician buildings lining the Royal Way, from the Upland Gate through Long Street and the Long Market to the Green Gate, appear as they must have looked 400 years ago, at the peak of Gdansk's prosperity. Architectural gems include the town hall, with the highest tower in the city, holding at its pinnacle a life-sized gilded figure of King Zygmunt August, one of Gdansk's most generous patrons; Arthur's Court, where the wealthiest merchants presided; and the Golden House, built in 1618. Towering behind is St Mary's Church, believed to be the largest brick church in the world.

The Old Town, an oasis of dignity and beauty locked in the middle of a typically ugly Communist architectural past, is an illusion. Nine- tenths was destroyed by Allied air-raids in 1945. Remarkably, when they were capable of creating so many modern monstrosities, the Communists faithfully restored Gdansk's ancient heritage brick by brick, house by house, street by street. Walking the Royal Mile after dark, and looking up at the lighted windows in such beautiful facades, it is easy to imagine the Hansa merchants still hard at work building their own and the city's prosperity.

On 18 April, following a High Mass in St Mary's Church with a historical pageant through the Old Town, city councillors, church dignitaries and distinguished guests will process along Long Street Market to Arthur's Court for the official opening of the millennium. Then a replica of a boat dating from St Adalbert's time, unearthed in the Thirties and reconstructed by archaeologists, will be launched on the bank of the river Motlawa near Gdansk's famous medieval crane, the largest still in existence, which is capable of lifting two tons. The day will finish with a concert by the State Baltic Philharmonia in Arthur's Court.

Over the next six months, the celebratory events will follow thick and fast - including economic conferences and scientific seminars, a music- fest called Musica Baltica, an International yacht rally and all-Polish canoeing rally, an international organ music festival and song contest, the Gdansk Shakespeare festival, a series of open air and street theatre events, with special plays written for the millennium, and an International Baltic Scouts' jamboree. There's a festival of monumental mural painting, which may perhaps focus the talents of Gdansk's many graffiti artists, and esoteric events such as a conference entitled "1,000 years of Polish religious terminology", "The heritage of the Mennonite culture in the Pomeranian lands around the Vistula", and the world kick-boxing championships.

After such a summer of fun and festivity, Gdansk may never be the same again. One only hopes that some of our own millennium team will attend. They could learn muchn

Gdansk facts

Getting there: Fly from Gatwick, Heathrow or Manchester via Warsaw; Polorbis (0171-636 2217) has a fare of pounds 242 return from London on the Polish airline LOT, until the end of April. An alternative route is on the Scandinavian SAS via Copenhagen: pounds 363 (including tax). Plenty of buses operate from UK points to Gdansk. Eurolines (01582 404511) has a fare of pounds 99 from Victoria Coach Station to Gdansk.

Visas: no longer required for British passport holders visiting Poland.

Information: Polish Tourist Office, 1st Floor, Remo House, 310 Regent Street, London W1R 5AJ (0171-580 8811).