Last week I actually had a visitor! Yes, my brother came all the way from Tennessee to see Poland. As the only visitor we’ll have for this entire tour, he got the first class treatment. So, this trip was all about Guy Stuff. World War II with a topping of more World War II.
In Warsaw, we went to the Uprising Museum, of course, and also took two Orange Umbrella walking tours, Jewish Warsaw and Warsaw in WWII. I really love this tour company. The guides are so knowledgeable and they do not sugar-coat anything. (For that reason, I wouldn’t recommend these tours for young kids!) You pay what you think the tour is worth at the end of it: we paid 25 złoty per person. I consider that to be a bargain.
I gave my brother a choice between Krakow and Gdańsk for a trip during his visit. He chose Gdańsk because of the WWII history, and I was pleased that he did because I hadn’t visited there yet. I knew it would be nice, but I was surprised at what a pretty city it actually is. Bonus points for not being anywhere near as overrun with tourists as Krakow sadly is by now.
Gdańsk was bombed flat in WWII like most Polish cities, and rebuilt afterwards. In Gdańsk they they did a better job than they did in Wroclaw, for example. The Hanseatic League city looks very authentic, and the small scale of the place is charming.
Even though my husband was not present, the first thing we had to do was climb a tower. Something about men and towers! So, 500 slightly breathless steps later, we found ourselves at the top of the Basylika Mariacka (St. Mary’s Church). At least it was a cool, breezy day.
We stayed just behind the basilica in an apartment on pedestrian-only Ulica Mariacka. This was a great pick. One of the prettiest streets in the city, and with a good restaurant right across the way serving up some of the best seafood I have had since I came to Poland.
We spent all afternoon walking around the city, wrapping up with a couple of excellent beers at a canalside café.
The next morning, this cat was outside the window. We’d seen her the night before as well. She had apparently identified the cat people on the street and was awaiting her breakfast. So, we gave her some milk, which she accepted gracefully in lieu of fish, I suppose.
We tackled the European Solidarity Center next. This enormous warehouse of a museum documents the Solidarność political trade union movement of the 1980s which started in the Gdańsk shipyards. Since my brother and I are both old enough to remember those days, it was kind of fun to read about them as history. (Everything is in both Polish and English.)
The museum probably offers more detail than the average tourist would care to absorb, but it is pretty cool to walk through and cherry-pick the events you want to read about and see accompanying video footage. The big, rusty building is architecturally interesting in a steampunk kind of way, too.
Afterwards, we took a boat ride out to the Westerplatte, site of the first battle of the European theater in WWII. I do love a boat ride, so this was a win-win.
So, the Westerplatte is a big, depressing battlefield. But it’s also a nice park. In fact, it used to be a beach resort until the Poles turned it into a munitions depot early in the 20th century.
There is a trail through the park with somewhat jumbled history on plaques in both Polish and English. It really is pretty interesting, and a nice walk in the sea breeze. (For more details of the battle, check out the Wikipedia page.)
On the way back to port, we ended up next to a table full of large, loud, German guys who had already started their lad weekend. My two cents: there is no reason to treat a battlefield trip like a funeral—but also no reason to behave like you are at a frat party. Especially if you are Germans visiting a site like the Westerplatte *cough*.
Anyway, after a while, a folk singer hooked up his mike and started drowning them out with Polish songs. I don’t speak enough Polish to have understood them very well, but I did catch the date “1945” in one. I just wonder what joke he was playing on those Germans…
We finished up with a big meal of mussels, cod, and I forget what else, but it was GOOD. Granted, we got very lucky with the weather, especially for early October, but Gdańsk may be my favorite city in Poland. I will be back!
Have you ever read ‘The Tin Drum’ by Gunter Grass? It’s an incredible ride (if you are into magical realism), and really not for the faint hearted, but a interesting and horrifying insight into Gdansk (or Danzig, as was) during WWII.
Yes, I did, in high school, I think. Don’t remember much, but honestly, living in Poland I get about as much WWII as I can take. Not an easy history.
I’m descended from Poles (WWII vintage) and live in Eastern Europe myself, so I am familiar with the overload. I think the key for me when I read it was that I’d not realized they were both the same city.