Travel: The city that had a makeover

Danuta Brook remembered Gdansk as a grey, Eastern-Bloc metropolis with little on the shops' shelves - these days, it couldn't be more different

wenty-four years ago, I spent an unlikely week holidaying in Gdansk with my parents. Everything they had said about Poland was true: the buildings were painted in shades of Eastern-Bloc grey. The streets were grey. The shops were grey. My mother would go out early to buy meat, and by midmorning the butcher had nothing but rows of empty meat-hooks. Grey meat-hooks. The few things for sale in the grocer's looked even fewer spread out on long greying shelves. Shop assistants were snooty and rude. The few restaurants were always packed (they were cheap and had access to meat). They often ran out of things.

A place to return to? Flying back into Gdansk this year, I was prepared for some changes. My cousins had already told me that "you can buy anything in Poland now", so I wasn't surprised by the sight of shops laden with kielbasy (Polish sausage), or exotic fruit in greengrocers (years ago, my father sent a box of oranges to a sick niece, and her family became the wonder of the village). I had also been told in advance that Wyborowa vodka, widely considered the best in the world but once produced solely for export and the Party hierarchy, was readily obtainable. Even the multiplicity of cafes and restaurants didn't surprise me.

What did stun me were the colours. The Communist-era greys had been replaced by a brightness which early spring sunshine alone couldn't account for. The buildings in the Glowne Miasto (Main Town) and Sare Miasto (Old Town), had been repainted in greens, golds, reds and yellows - not vulgar, but muted and stately. Many had been given a face-lift for Gdansk's millennial celebrations in 1997 and still looked fresh despite the best efforts of the pigeons flocking around Neptune's Fountain in front of the Town Hall.

Although the buildings look old, most are post-war reconstructions. The inhabitants of Gdansk painstakingly pieced their city together again after the war, usually with only old photos and paintings to work from. That they did so at all is a wonder. Over the border in Russian Kaliningrad, the ruined architectural beauties of what had been Konigsberg were replaced by ugly, Stalinist, concrete blocks.

I walked, open-mouthed, down the long, stone-paved pedestrian street called Ulica Dluga and, where it broadens out, Dlugi Targ. Tall, elegant, Burgher-style shops and houses - decorated with swirls of bright, white stucco - run down both sides all the way to the banks of the Motiawa River. The Dutch had a big hand in Gdansk's design in previous centuries and it shows. At Dlugi Pobrzeze, which flanks the river, I was strongly reminded of Amsterdam.

Several pleasure boats were tethered on Dlugie Pobrzeze, some private, some running tourist trips. One was the small local ferry which runs to Sopot and Gdynia, the other two-thirds of the Baltic conurbation called the Trojmiasto (Tri-City), to which Gdansk belongs.

This was once the main docks area. A huge mediaeval wooden crane (now a Maritime museum), still dominates the western bank, but now shares it with classier tenants - the smartly converted Hanza Hotel; an upmarket jewellers specialising in Baltic amber; pavement cafes for the young and modish. Even the warehouses and granaries on the eastern bank have been revamped and beautified a la London's Docklands, with rows and rows of small windows gleaming out among scrubbed red bricks and freshly painted white walls and steelwork.

All three of the "Dlugie" streets abound in smart shops, cafes, strolling groups of locals and visitors, and street musicians. Under one of the arches of the (not even slightly) Green Gate, a group of music students were playing a violin concerto. On the Town Hall steps, a shabby accordionist was playing folk songs, while his shrivelled and slightly drunken wife danced. Meanwhile, in Ulica Mariacka, a beautiful cobbled street of tall houses and cafes fronted by wide, stone terraces, a well-dressed child was being persuaded to play classical guitar by his equally well-dressed parents. He had lots of coins in his guitar case.

This, presumably, is all part of Poland's new, help-yourself, enterprise culture. I never saw anyone just begging. Even two old ladies collecting for an animal shelter had brought along assorted dogs and cats to show they were genuine. "Business" is the watchword of the times - or Biznes in its accurate but ugly Polish transliteration (together with the concomitant and even more discordant biznesmeni).

It would be easy to while away a weekend in Gdansk by sitting at pavement cafes (a couple stay open till 2am) and watching the street scenes. But there's also plenty for serious sightseers. There are the ceiling frescos in the Red Room of the Old Town Hall; the Marian Church (the world's largest brick-built church, holding a congregation of 25,000 and with an altar that spent the war concealed in a barn); the Uphagen House, now a museum, and the Cathedral in Oliwa, which has a plasterwork ceiling of deep fluffy clouds through which peep the heads of 150 golden angels.

Outside the gates of the working dockyard stands the Solidarity monument. This is an essential stop, not for its architectural value (it doesn't have any), but for its significance as the place which sparked the downfall of Communism in Poland and ultimately in the whole Eastern Bloc. More evocative than the monument are the tombstone-like plaques on the shipyard wall. They bear the names of those shot dead during the 1970 food-price protests, who never lived to see Poland's brave new economy - an economy evident in the shape of a souvenir shop selling Solidarnosc badges and T-shirts.

Gdansk has a big advantage over city-break stalwarts such as Prague or Vienna in the form of beaches in neighbouring Sopot, so near you can walk there in 40 minutes. Sopot has a well-to-do, cultivated atmosphere: the beach hires out 1920s wicker armchairs and in a wood on the outskirts, opera is performed against a backdrop of trees in the open-air Opera Lesna.

Gdansk's pavement cafes seem to have received mass donations of table umbrellas from Coca-Cola, but most restaurants serve predominantly Polish food and Polish beer. One worth visiting is Pod Zososiem in Gdansk's Old Town. This is the place where, 400 years ago, the vodka-based liqueur Goldwasser was invented. Suspended in the thick clear liquid are flakes of real gold, which you actually swallow. It's sold in the airport shop for 26 zloty (around pounds 4) a half-litre, but it might be safer not to consume any before going through the metal-detector in customs.

GDANSK

GETTING THERE

LOT Polish Airlines (tel: 0171-580 5037) flies from Gatwick to Gdansk, Monday and Friday, from pounds 235.90 return, including tax.

WHERE TO STAY

Polorbis Travel (tel: 0171-636 2217) and Bogdan Travel (tel: 0181-992 8866) offer weekends from pounds 65 for two nights' b&b in a good-quality hotel.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Polish Tourist Board (tel: 0171-580 8811).

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

Suggested Topics
Life and Style
“What is it like being a girl?” was the question on the lips of one inquisitive Reddit user this week
News
peopleDave Legeno, the actor who played werewolf Fenrir Greyback in the Harry Potter films, has died
Arts and Entertainment
Armando Iannucci, the creator of 'The Thick of It' says he has
tvArmando Iannucci to concentrate on US show Veep
Life and Style
beauty
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Sport
Luis Suarez looks towards the crowd during the 2-1 victory over England
transfers
Life and Style
Swimsuit, £245, by Agent Provocateur
fashion

Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes

Sport
German supporters (left) and Argentina fans
world cup 2014Final gives England fans a choice between to old enemies
Arts and Entertainment
A still from the worldwide Dawn of the Planet of the Apes trailer debut
film
News
peopleMario Balotelli poses with 'shotgun' in controversial Instagram pic
News
A mugshot of Ian Watkins released by South Wales Police following his guilty pleas
peopleBandmates open up about abuse
Sport
Basketball superstar LeBron James gets into his stride for the Cleveland Cavaliers
sportNBA superstar announces decision to return to Cleveland Cavaliers
Sport
Javier Mascherano of Argentina tackles Arjen Robben of the Netherlands as he attempts a shot
world cup 2014
Arts and Entertainment
The successful ITV drama Broadchurch starring David Tenant and Olivia Coleman came to an end tonight
tv
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Sport
Four ski officials in Slovenia have been suspended following allegations of results rigging
sportFour Slovenian officials suspended after allegations they helped violinist get slalom place
News
14 March 2011: George Clooney testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during a hearing titled 'Sudan and South Sudan: Independence and Insecurity.' Clooney is co-founder of the Satellite Sentinel Project which uses private satellites to collect evidence of crimes against civilian populations in Sudan
people
Arts and Entertainment
Balaban is indirectly responsible for the existence of Downton Abbey, having first discovered Julian Fellowes' talents as a screenwriter
tvCast members told to lose weight after snacking on set
Life and Style
More than half of young adults have engaged in 'unwanted but consensual sexting with a committed partner,' according to research
tech
Life and Style
A binge is classed as four or more alcoholic drinks for women and five or more for men, consumed over a roughly two-hour period
tech
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Sales Manager (Fashion and Jewellery), Paddington, London

    £45-£55k OTE £75k : Charter Selection: Major London International Fashion and ...

    Volunteer Digital Marketing Trustee needed

    Voluntary, reasonable expenses reimbursed: Reach Volunteering: Are you keen on...

    Java Swing Developer - Hounslow - £33K to £45K

    £33000 - £45000 per annum + 8% Bonus, pension: Deerfoot IT Resources Limited: ...

    Corporate Events Sales Manager, Marlow,Buckinghamshire

    £30K- £40K pa + Commision £10K + Benefits: Charter Selection: Rapidly expandin...

    Day In a Page

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
    Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

    A writer spends a night on the streets

    Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
    Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
    Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

    Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

    Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
    Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

    Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

    This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
    Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

    Why did we stop eating whelks?

    Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
    10 best women's sunglasses

    In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

    From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

    Richard III review

    Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice