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 The Communist-era greys had been replaced by a brightness which early spring sunshine alone couldn't account for.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.
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.
Polish Tourist Board (tel: 0171-580 8811).