Is this the start of the Cool war?

Poland's Baltic coast is aiming for Ibiza status, but Vijai Maheshwari says it hasn't yet lost its charm
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The Independent Travel

The tri-city chain of Gdansk, Sopot and Gdynia on Poland's Baltic coast are better known for their turbulent history than for their joie de vivre. The Second World War began here on 1 September 1939 with a German battleship firing on the Westerplatte garrison in Gdansk, which was followed by the annexation of the city, formerly part of Prussia. And in the 1980s, the Gdansk shipyards witnessed the struggles of the Solidarity movement. Since independence in 1989, however, these cities on the sea have benefited from the country's fast economic growth and have been spruced up and modernised.

The tri-city chain of Gdansk, Sopot and Gdynia on Poland's Baltic coast are better known for their turbulent history than for their joie de vivre. The Second World War began here on 1 September 1939 with a German battleship firing on the Westerplatte garrison in Gdansk, which was followed by the annexation of the city, formerly part of Prussia. And in the 1980s, the Gdansk shipyards witnessed the struggles of the Solidarity movement. Since independence in 1989, however, these cities on the sea have benefited from the country's fast economic growth and have been spruced up and modernised.

While visitors come to Gdansk all year around, the region booms in the summer, when Poles in particular head to the seaside in droves. On a recent late-summer weekend, Sopot, the summer capital of the three cities, was positively pullulating with holidaymakers, including a strong Brit-Pop contingent who had flown in for a Morcheeba concert.

Gdansk has a beach, too, but most visitors come to the city, formerly called Danzig, to be impressed by its heritage, just as its scion Gunther Grass was (as revealed in his novel The Tin Drum). The city is full of interesting monuments, including the 1950s Futurist wrought-iron homage to the Defenders of the Polish Post Office, who fought off the Germans for a heroic 14 hours, and the Fallen Shipyard Workers, which consists of three giant crosses forged from ship steel. Sopot, too, has important historic highlights, such as the Grand Hotel, with its majestic portico, where Hitler spent a weekend during the invasion of Poland.

Gdansk has been almost completely restored since the war. Part of the Hanseatic League for centuries, it has the intimate feel of Amsterdam or Stockholm. The city's Flemish-influenced buildings are narrow and many are topped with triangular gables shaped like a bishop's cowl. There are canals and quays and quirky streets to explore, such as Beer Street with its wrought-iron stoops and antique shops, as well as medieval towers, Gothic gates and walled islands.

Sun-worshippers should head for neighbouring Sopot, where a large, partly enclosed quay slopes gently into the sea. The air is crisp, and cinnamon-scented from all the chocolate-smeared waffles for which the Poles have a penchant. There are abundant cafés and beer gardens selling cheap and frothy Zywiec Polish beer and fried flounder. Smoked eels are also popular, and so are white borscht and kielbasa, the Polish version of bratwurst. The beach itself is a spread of white sand that never gets too crowded, even on the hottest afternoons. The Baltic Sea might not be as sparkling blue as the Mediterranean, but you don't have to hustle for a spot near the water (and lucky bathers may even stumble across some of that famous Baltic amber).

In the evening, Sopot comes alive as Viva, Sphinks and other nightclubs – which often feature visiting DJs from the UK – start filling up and the bars on the main drag of Sopot, Monte Cassino Street, rev into action. While a lot of nonsense is talked about the "Slavic soul" here, and most of it is just an excuse to get plastered on the fantastic bison grass-flavoured Zubrovka vodka, it does start to ring true around 4am. The Poles excel at partying. Clubs stay open all night, the drinks are cheap – around a quid for a mixed drink and less for a beer – and patrons are more friendly and loquacious than pretentious, with none of the posing and one-upmanship evident in Ibiza or Ayia Napa.

Even so, Sopot is fast gaining a reputation as a "Little Ibiza", with its clubs and raucous parties. Eccentricity is tolerated, even encouraged, especially in jazzy artist bars such Sportiv, where drunken bohemians often crawl under the couches for a snooze. For the more well-heeled, there are the numerous casinos, classy jazz bars and quality fish restaurants springing up as the coast tries to recapture its jet-set image of the early 1930s, when Danzig was a cosmopolitan and independent city state.

Gdynia is the most recent adjunct to the tri-city area, and lacks the glamour and sophistication of Sopot or Gdansk. Its jumble of high-rise buildings has been built to accommodate the region's rapidly growing population. However, its relatively pristine beaches are the least crowded of all, and hotels offer good deals. With its station being revamped, it is also turning into a transport hub for travellers heading further east. For those on a culinary quest, it is said that Gdynia is where you'll find the best rest-aurants, serving the finest Baltic food.

The Facts

Getting there

The nearest international gateway is Warsaw. LOT (0845 601 0940; www.lot.com), Lufthansa (00 49 1803 803 803; www.lufthansa.com) and British Airways (0845 7733 377; www.ba.com) fly there, with return flights costing around £200.

From Warsaw, take the express train from Wschodnia station to the seaside. The journey takes about four hours. Trains run every three hours or so and fares cost about £20.

Being there

In Gdansk, consider the sleek Podewils Hotel (00 48 58 300 9560; www.podewils-hotel.pl), with its whirlpool baths and internet access. Doubles start from €125 (£83) per night. For budget travellers, there is plenty of cheap accommodation, with rooms available from around £15 per night.

The Art Nouveau Grand Hotel (00 48 58 551 0041; www.polhotels.com/Gdansk/Grand) with its imposing façade and swank rooms with terraces and fantastic views of the sea is the first choice for those with generous budgets. Doubles start from €112 (£75) per night.

For old-world ambience, try the frayed-around-the-edges Hotel Maryla (00 48 58 551 0034), which was once Kaiser Wilhelm II's summer residence. The rambling house opens on to a swimming pool and tennis courts and has a homely atmosphere. Doubles from €114 (£76).

For accommodation ideas in Gdynia, visit www.inyourpocket.com/gdynia.

Further information

Polish National Tourist Office (020-7580 6688; www.polandtour.org).

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