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Mar 17 2015

Discovering Gdansk: The City of Freedom

Discovering Gdansk

Gdansk was the first stopping point on my trip around Poland for two main reasons.  Firstly, it’s a long way from where I live.  By starting here, it meant I could make my way back down south over a two-week period.  Secondly, so much has happened in Gdansk over the years, I really didn’t want to miss it.

The City of Freedom

Knowing the past is important to understanding why it has quite rightly become known as the City of Freedom.

The city dates back to the 10th century when its port began to develop.  With that, trade helped the city grow and develop further.  In the 14th century, the Teutonic Knights took over the city, and allegedly killed a number of local people, Kashubians and Poles, and replaced them with German settlers.  Teutonic rule eventually came to an end in the 15th century with the Thirteen Years’ War.

The 16th and 17th centuries were a time of stability for the city, and this period is classed as the ‘Golden Age’ for Gdansk because that’s when it became one of the wealthiest cities in Europe.  Once it was annexed to Prussia in the 18th century, however, this came to an end.

In the 1930s, the Nazi Party gained prominence in the city, and then on that fateful day in 1939, World War II began when shots were fired from SMS Schleswig-Holstein, a German battleship that had previously been used in World War I.  Just like when I was in Sarajevo, standing on the spot where World War I had started almost a century before, being in the city where World War II started sent shivers down my spine.  As you walk through the historic part of the city, it’s hard to imagine the devastation when you see all the beautiful reconstructed buildings that line the streets.  There are, however, a few buildings that haven’t been restored, which are stark reminders of the difficult past.

Demolished buildings in Gdansk

The end of World War II was by no means the end of all of the struggles.  People spent years fighting for freedom.  In 1980, the Solidarity movement, Solidarność, which eventually saw communist rule in Central Europe come to an end, began in Gdansk, and was led by Lech Wałęsa.

If you are going to Gdansk, and are interested in learning more about Solidarność, a visit to the European Solidarity Centre would be a good idea.  This is located by the Gdansk shipyards where it all began.

The European Solidarity Centre, Gdansk

After that rather brief walk through the history, let me take you on a journey through Gdansk to see what I discovered during my time there.

The Old Town

Gdansk's main street - Dlugi Targ

If you’ve been to Poland, you will know that the focal point for most cities and towns are the main squares.  Gdansk is one of the few that doesn’t follow that trend.  Instead, Gdansk has a main street, Dlugi Targ, which ends at the Green Gate, near the waterfront.

City Hall

Gdansk City Hall

The City Hall, which is now the Historical Museum of Gdansk, is a magnificent building.  It was originally built in the 14th century, and restored to its former glory after the war.

Artus Court

Artus Court
Artus Court is where merchants used to meet.  Without a square, it was the social centre.  According to what I could find out, it was named after King Arthur.  In bygone years, houses where knights and aristocrats used to meet were named as such.  It was originally built in the 14th century, but was reconstructed more than once, from what I can understand.

Neptune Fountain

Neptune Fountain

There will more than likely be a few people taking photographs of the Neptune Fountain when you get there.  This is the focal point of the street, which is probably why it has been well-photographed over the years.

St Mary’s Church

St Mary's Church, Gdansk

St Mary’s Church is one of Europe’s largest brick Gothic buildings, and that includes castles.  It was completed in the 16th century, originally as a Roman Catholic Church, changed to a Lutheran church for a period of time, before returning to Roman Catholic, and later became a co-cathedral.  It has been reconstructed following damage during the war.

The Green Gate

Green Gate, Gdansk

This is probably the most impressive city gate I have ever come across.  The Green Gate was built in the 16th century, originally as royal residence, which is why it is so grand.  It the 18th century, its usage changed. The National Museum is located there, and Lech Wałęsa has an office there.

The Waterfront

Gdansk's waterfront

Talking a walk along the waterfront is wonderful on a sunny day with a blue sky even on a crisp, winter’s day, but it’s also fabulous when the sun begins to set.

Crane

Crane Gdansk

The crane is an interesting building.  It is only part of what is left from the city’s booming trading days.  The original building, first mentioned in the 14th century, was burned down.  It was rebuilt in the 15th century, and used to transfer cargoes, and put up masts on ships.  Apparently, it was the biggest working crane in the world at one point.  It was rebuilt after extensive damage during World War II.

Jacek Tower

Jacek Tower, Gdansk

Jacek Tower is the highest municipal tower in Gdańsk, so I read. It was built in the 15th century, and was part of the wall surrounding the main town.   Apparently, it has a vaulted dungeon under the tower, which served as a warehouse for food during sieges. The tower has been renovated.  You can’t access the tower, unless you want to visit the photographic studio, which is on the ground floor of the tower.

Hala Targowa (The Covered Market)

Hala Targowa

This late 19th century Neo-Gothic style building is, in fact, an indoor market.  It has been renovated in recent years, and while doing that they discovered the foundations of a 12th century church underneath the main building.  I just had a quite peek in at the market, but apparently there is a small archaeology museum in the basement which has photographs and objects from the excavations.

Other information

Other than that, I discovered a few other things during my time in Gdansk just from walking around and from what my host told me.  My very first day of discovering Gdansk began with a 40-minute walk from the centre of Gdansk.  I was staying with a local, so I wasn’t in the touristy part of the city.  If I hadn’t done that, I wouldn’t have discovered this lake with ducks.  It might be located by a busy road, but the ducks weren’t the slightest bit fussed by the traffic.

I wasn't expecting this from my walk into the centre of Gdansk.

A photo posted by Teresa Keane Blogger I (@indtravhelp) on

Being a Brit, I’m going to be very stereotypical, and talk about the weather.  It was extremely cold, with a biting wind that literally went straight through me the first couple of days or so.  If you go during the winter, as I did, be prepared for the wind.  I wasn’t.  Nonetheless, I was fortunate to have blue skies, sunshine, and the temperature increased daily.

Location

Gdansk has great transport links whether you are flying in to the country, taking a bus, or a train.  Now, it’s only five and a half hours from Krakow to Gdansk with the introduction of the new high-speed train link.

The historic centre, the European Solidarity Centre, and Zaspa are pinpointed on the map.

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Have your say

Have you been to Gdansk?  If so, what was your favourite thing about it?  If not, are you thinking about visiting?

About the author

Teresa Keane

Teresa has been to almost 60 countries. She started travelling independently at the age of 38 when she gave up her job, rented out her house, put her possessions in storage and spent a year travelling the world. It changed her life. She now creates, publishes, & promotes online travel content and is an experienced freelance trainer & EFL teacher.

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