Gdansk, Poland: 20th anniversary of the fall of communism

Adrian Bridge begins his journey across Eastern Europe in the beautiful Polish port of Gdansk.

By Adrian Bridge
Published: 11:17AM BST 02 Oct 2009

'I had always thought of Gdansk as a heavy industrial port. It's nice to be surprised'

It may not be quite as famous as the Berlin Wall, but there is a small block of bricks on display in the Polish port city of Gdansk that also undeniably merits its place in the history books.

  • How the East was rediscovered

It's referred to locally as the "Walesa Wall" in honour of the man who, in August 1980, feeling the hand of destiny upon him, leapt over the outer barrier to the city's famous shipyard and set about rallying the workers inside to stage a series of strikes that would bring Poland's communist rulers to their knees.
So began a sequence of events that was to lead, almost 10 years later, to the holding of the first partially free elections in the Eastern Bloc (in Poland, in June 1989) and, five months after that, the toppling of the Berlin Wall.
The surviving stretch of the "Walesa Wall" is to be found outside the entrance to what is currently one of the city's star attractions: an exhibition entitled The Roads to Freedom, which details the long journey from the post-1945 Stalinisation of Eastern Europe to the joy of liberation in 1989. Through a mixture of photographs, news reels and artefacts we are taken through the abortive uprisings in Berlin (1953), Hungary (1956) and Czechoslovakia (196, through to the strikes at Gdansk (1970, 1976 and 1980) and the formation of Solidarity, the free trade union.
There is moving footage of the landmark visit of Pope John Paul II to his native Poland in 1979, and rather more chilling footage of tanks on the streets following the declaration of martial law in December 1981. There is also a reminder of one of the key reasons the Gdansk shipworkers went on strike: a reconstruction of a food shop from the Seventies in which there is barely anything to buy. ("Under communism, what they paid us was not enough to die, but also not enough to live," said Gabriella, my Gdansk-born guide.)
A short walk away, visitors can go to the gates of the shipyard itself (still in business but employing far fewer people) and pause at the three crosses erected in honour of the 44 workers killed in the suppression of the 1970 riots and the "Solidarnosc" banners still pinned to the shipyard gates.
Although most of the drama of 1989 occurred elsewhere (Berlin, Prague, Bucharest), Gdansk is where the groundwork was laid. It seemed to me that any journey through the revolutions that swept Eastern Europe that autumn should begin here. I wanted to pay my respects. Besides, Gdansk is on the sea. I liked the idea of starting and finishing my trip on two seas (the Baltic and the Black Sea). It is also – as I discovered on my first visit in the early Nineties – an extremely beautiful city.
Like most people, I had always thought of Gdansk as a heavy industrial port. I was aware it had a German past (until 1945 it was known as Danzig) and had been a member of the Hanseatic League, but assumed that whatever traces of either had survived would have been obliterated by Poland's post-war new order.
It's nice to be surprised. Take a walk down the city's "royal route", linking the 16th-century Upland Gate and the Golden Gate with the beautifully proportioned Green Gate (formerly a royal residence and now housing Lech Walesa's office); wander through some of the streets leading off it. I defy anyone not to gasp. The quality and mixture of medieval, Renaissance and Gothic architecture is astounding. There is, of course, a German influence – the city, founded more than 1,000 years ago, was conquered by the Teutonic Knights in 1308 – but interspersed with this there are beautiful Flemish and Dutch flourishes (Gdansk is sometimes compared with Amsterdam). There are grand churches and a glorious town hall; exquisite rooftops and turrets. There is the magnificent Neptune Fountain.
What is even more astonishing is that virtually all of what you see has been reconstructed since the war (90 per cent of Gdansk was destroyed). As we in Britain have gratefully discovered since Poles regained the freedom to travel, they are masterful craftsmen. Nowhere is this more evident than in Gdansk (though Warsaw's old town, see right, is also fearsomely impressive).
But don't take my word for it. My visit to Gdansk coincided with a conference of British travel agents and tour operators who had come to see whether it could be added to Kraków and Warsaw as a weekend destination for British visitors. Most of them liked what they saw: expect it to be incorporated into some of their Polish itineraries for 2010.
"Breathe in deeply, this is a magical city," said Gabriella. "We have had three Nobel Prize winners [Lech Walesa, Daniel Fahrenheit and the astronomer Johannes Hevelius]; philosophers and writers have been inspired here [Arthur Schopenhauer; Günter Grass]. Is it any surprise that this was the place of the Polish revolution?"
Of course, it is easy to be inspired wandering along streets that, although reconstructed, transport you back to a time when Danzig was one of the most opulent cities on the Baltic.
Farther out, away from the café-lined, amber-rich streets of the centre (I recommend both Piwna and Mariacka), there are still plenty of districts that bear the dull imprint of socialist planning. There are even areas with houses pockmarked with bullet holes from the street fighting of May 1945, and inhabitants displaying similarly battle-scarred faces.
"The early years of the capitalist revolution were hard; for a while it was like something out of Dickens here in Gdansk," Gabriella said.
But that is not how it feels now, particularly in Sopot, the seaside resort 10 miles north of Gdansk where the people of the city have always gone to have a good time.
I arrived late one Saturday afternoon and checked into the Sofitel Grand Sopot (past guests have included Charles de Gaulle and, gulp, Adolf Hitler). From my sea-facing room I enjoyed a view of miles of sandy beach, the longest wooden pier in the world and a peninsula of land that goes by the name of Hel. Sopot felt very classy; with its lovely art-nouveau buildings and laid-back air, it had a relaxed, welcoming, almost sleepy feel.
That evening when I teamed up with Andreas Kasperski, a local guide and Sopot aficionado, for some serious after-hours research, it was very different.
The place had been transformed and was positively heaving. Andreas and I popped into a couple of bars (Spatif was one) and struggled to find space and to make ourselves heard. Then we discovered the Dream Club in the funky, psychedelic-looking Crooked House, a favoured spot for the beautiful, bright young set for whom life is sweet, everything is possible – and the night is always young.
This one had different levels, crystal-clad columns, a stylish beat and, attached to a very high ceiling above the dance floor, a couple of swings on which two beguiling women were rather languorously swaying and surveying all beneath them.
We ordered mojito cocktails and drank in the slightly surreal, magical atmosphere.
It was 2am, but we were in no hurry to leave. The Polish Communist Party may be over, but in the Dream Club the party was in full swing…