In the Seaside City of Gdańsk, Poland, Change Is the Only Constant

·11 min read

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The two most important events in Europe in the 20th century, it can be argued,” Michał Maj said, “happened here in Gdańsk.” I was in his kitchen in Brzeźno, a seaside neighborhood north of the city center. An empty bottle of wine sat on the table alongside another I'd just opened. It was 3 a.m., deep in winter. Everything was closed due to the pandemic, and Michał, who usually works as a guide, was feeding and housing me in the typically hospitable manner of Poles. He'd been taking me through the twists and turns of Gdańsk's history for five hours, and we'd just stepped into the 20th century. In case you're wondering, I was utterly captivated.

The literary-minded Józef K café

The literary-minded Józef K café

The literary-minded Józef K café
Tom Parker

The first important event took place on September 1, 1939, when the battleship Schleswig-Holstein maneuvered into the Vistula River and began shelling the Polish garrison at Westerplatte, just northwest of the city. These were the earliest shots of World War II. After a monthlong blitz, Poland was subjugated and the war was well underway. The second happened at Gdańsk's Lenin shipyards on August 31, 1980, when the Polish Communist government recognized the free trade union Solidarity, the first independent labor union in a country belonging to the Soviet bloc. Lech Wałęsa signed with a giant pen wrapped in an image of fellow Pole Pope John Paul II. It was the beginning of the end. After a bloodless decade-long revolution, Wałęsa became president of a free Poland. Two events, catastrophic and hopeful, the twin axes between which the country expanded and contracted at the behest of its voracious neighbors, like the bellows of an accordion.

These and other epochal episodes in Gdańsk happened mainly because of where it is, at the point where the Vistula enters the Baltic Sea. Ringed by Germany, Scandinavia, and Russia, it was the gateway to the grain fields, forests, and cities at the heart of the European continent. The city took a cut of everything moving in and out, and became immensely rich. It was, in the region, the pivot point for the Hanseatic League, the merchant confederation that linked all of northern Europe from the 13th century until the mid-1800s. In its heyday, the city hosted more trade than even London. Magnificent town houses went up in the Dutch Renaissance style, festooned with reliefs and murals. Gdańsk built superlatives in several categories: largest medieval crane and mill, largest amber altar, most accurate clock, largest brick church (it could fit more than 20,000 parishioners). Frederick the Great said that whoever controlled Gdańsk would be “more master of Poland than any king reigning there.” Napoleon called it “the key to everything.”

After daybreak, Michał took me for a walk through this metropolis of waterways. We'd parked on Wyspa Spichrzów (Granary Island), where there were once more than 300 granaries, crossed the Motława River to the magnificent Green Gate at the entrance to the main town, and passed under its arches into Długi Targ, Gdańsk's old marketplace, now a picturesque pedestrian thoroughfare. Here, it seemed, through some time machine transportation, was a medieval city in full regalia: palaces in greens, blues, and violets with interiors filled with oak, marble, crystal, and velvet, the most fabulous and dreamlike of all being Artus Court, which dates back to a fascination with Camelot during the Middle Ages. At the far end is the Golden Gate, the Prison Tower, and a further Upland Gate in this much-fortified place of walls, moats, and torture chambers for invaders, moving concentrically out to its borders. In the heart, between the gates, is this route of kings. I've seen it in all seasons. I live not far south along the river in Toruń, and have been in Gdańsk intermittently for 15 years. It's normally thronged, particularly in summer, its restaurant terraces packed, the sea winds rippling the linen shirts of visitors. People look unusually buoyant, unusually pleased to be here, I have often thought.

Basilica of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary at night

Basilica of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary at night

Basilica of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary at night
Tom Parker
Gdańsk’s docks

Gdańsk’s docks

Gdańsk’s docks
Tom Parker

This all seems so at odds with what people old enough to remember Solidarity associate with Gdańsk—those monochrome TV images of dilapidated shipyards and the stern faces of strikers holding up signs with hand-painted demands. It appears impossibly grand, so exquisitely preserved. Except that it is not. It is all simulacra. Gdańsk was largely obliterated at the end of the Second World War by the British Royal Air Force and the Red Army. Not only was its physical self reduced to rubble, its consciousness, too, arrived at clinical death. Poles and Jews were exterminated, Germans killed or expelled. The centuries-long timeline of this city by the sea, dominated mainly by German and Flemish speakers, was cut. Poles from the east moved in. Then, in an astonishing act of national pride, the people resurrected it, or something very like it, from the ashes. It was a looser, more improvised time. Artists were given a freer hand in the restoration than archaeologists. Some of the moldings were faithful copies, others were new. There were jokes, parodies, caricatures, a tumescent lion, topless nymphs as sensuous as Munch's Madonna.

We moved through history distant and recent, past sites where, to an uncommon degree, humanity descended to depths of malevolence or rose to triumphant heights. Examples arrived in contrasting pairs. Next to the spot where Nazi authorities ordered the main synagogue be dismantled, the monumental Shakespeare Theatre has risen on the site of the old Fencing School, which in the 17th century hosted touring actors from Shakespeare's own company. We paused at the flower-laden plaque set in the pavement where Mayor Paweł Adamowicz was knifed to death on January 13, 2019, by an assassin said to have been sent into a frenzy by his advocacy of inclusiveness. Then we detoured to the childhood home of the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, who may have developed his disdain for nationalism in the Free City of Danzig, as Gdańsk was known in the interwar period of the 1920s and '30s. Moving north, we stopped at the old post office, whose workers were besieged by Nazi police while the Schleswig-Holstein blasted Westerplatte. Today, a heroic Soviet-style steel sculpture there commemorates the event, along with a photograph of the captured employees lined up against the wall before they were executed and small rectangular molds that imagine their handprints mounted on the bricks. Through the trees we could see the leaning concrete-and-glass tower of the Museum of the Second World War, a bold and moving attempt to show war as, in the words of writer Neal Ascherson, “disaster, misery, ruin, loss, rather than as some purposeful struggle,” but which the current nationalist government, seeking to particularize martyrdom as Polish, has turned into an ideological battleground. Further on is the European Solidarity Centre, clad in panels simulating rust, next to the gates where Wałęsa famously read out the August 1980 agreement to the populace. Here are acres of brick and broken windows and wasteland. But while large-scale shipbuilding has moved to Asia, Poles are adept at witty postindustrial reconfigurations, and outdoor music venues, pop-up restaurants, and creative spaces are spreading through the abandoned containers. The artist Czesław Podleśny's metallic figures, made from scrap metal, appear to walk out of the sea.

Pedestrian thoroughfare Ulica Długa, or Long Street, and the magnificent Neptune’s Fountain

Pedestrian thoroughfare Ulica Długa, or Long Street, and the magnificent Neptune’s Fountain

Pedestrian thoroughfare Ulica Długa, or Long Street, and the magnificent Neptune’s Fountain
Tom Parker

The city appears impossibly grand, so exquisitely preserved. Except that it is not—it is all simulacra

We got into Michał's car and went further north, passing through the Zaspa district, where Soviet-era apartment blocks have been reimagined as an open-air gallery of over 60 multistory murals by international artists. You can find street art throughout the city, in underpasses, tunnels, on walls and abandoned buildings. We turned seaward and were back in Brzeźno. Here and all along the coast are Old World spas, particularly at Sopot, with its massive wooden pier and waterside hotels. We walked onto the sand. Swans flapped in the wrack, and two swimmers, a man in a red Christmas elf's hat and a woman in a bikini, waded out into the cold gray water.

“The sea has kept me here,” my friend Małgorzata Żerwe, an artist and documentary maker, told me. “I arrived as a student 50 years ago. It's not the sea itself, though I love to walk along it, but more what it brings—the feeling of openness to the world. Ships from everywhere come and go. Scandinavia seems very near. Poland can feel closed, and when I arrived in Gdańsk it was a liberation.” She lives in Wrzeszcz, one of those intimately interwoven districts that Gdańsk seems to specialize in. Her apartment looks onto a park where statues of the Nobel Prize-winning novelist Günter Grass, who grew up around the corner, and his creation Oskar from The Tin Drum sit on a bench, apparently engaged in a chat. Little has changed since Grass's day, as Wrzeszcz escaped damage in the war.

I asked Małgorzata what it was like to be an artist in Gdańsk.

Sofitel Grand Sopot, seen from the pier

Sofitel Grand Sopot, seen from the pier

Sofitel Grand Sopot, seen from the pier
Tom Parker
The dining room of Dancing Anchor at the hotel Puro Gdańsk Stare Miasto

The dining room of Dancing Anchor at the hotel Puro Gdańsk Stare Miasto

The dining room of Dancing Anchor at the hotel Puro Gdańsk Stare Miasto
Tom Parker

“We were painted birds in an industrial city,” she said. “In art school we had a six-year party. We'd go to Sopot and drink and dance and come back with our fallen wings and pass the shipyard workers on their way to the early shift. We were all locked in during martial law, but we made moonshine vodka in the flats. It was exciting. We knew we were at the center of the storm and the whole world was watching. Then there was a kind of explosion of art in the late 1980s. The exchange rate was so good for a while, you could sell one big piece a year and get by. I think artists are respected here. I was invited by the mayor to be part of a committee advising on culture and have been kept on by his successor. Many cities reserve those positions for arts administrators rather than artists.”

She wasn't the only person I'd met for whom the city leveraged dreams perhaps previously unknown. The scholar Jerzy Limon was a graduate student when he began to investigate the old Fencing School's connections with England. It would be interesting, he thought, to somehow replicate it, like London did with the Globe, and play Shakespeare there. The notion stuck, and many years and $25 million later Limon, who died earlier this year, had become the director of an important European theater within a startling architectural landmark.

“I walk in this wonderful place and think that through any laws of probability it has no right to exist,” Limon told me. “Gdańsk is a kind of miniature of a united Europe. The city has always attracted different nationalities, different religions. Yet it's also been a mutinous city. Changes started here. We had a bloodless revolution that set an example. This has alienated some people, but it draws in many more.”

Las Café in Sopot, a Baltic Sea resort town neighboring Gdańsk

Las Café in Sopot, a Baltic Sea resort town neighboring Gdańsk

Las Café in Sopot, a Baltic Sea resort town neighboring Gdańsk
Tom Parker
Puro’s reception area

Puro’s reception area

Puro’s reception area
Tom Parker

How to explore Gdańsk

Where to spend the night

Puro Gdańsk Stare Miasto Hotel (doubles from $55) has an original art collection, while the Scandi-style rooms at IBB Hotel Długi Targ (doubles from $77) fill a renovated town house. Old-school options include the Baroque Hotel Podewils Gdańsk (doubles from $109) and Gdańsk Boutique (doubles from $90), set in an old grain store on the water.

The best bites to eat

The city's food scene isn't all meat and potatoes: veggie-forward menus are catching on, as are locally sourced ingredients. Try Restauracja Fino (dinner for two, about $62) for experimental Polish fare, Chmielna by Grzegorz Labuda (dinner for two, about $46) for high-concept dishes, and Canis (dinner for two, about $65) for a menu (wild boar sirloin; gnocchi with truffle sauce) that's both ambitious and approachable.

A salmon-and-spinach dish at Restauracja Kubicki, Gdańsk’s oldest restaurant

a salmon-and-spinach dish at Restauracja Kubicki, Gdańsk’s oldest restaurant

A salmon-and-spinach dish at Restauracja Kubicki, Gdańsk’s oldest restaurant
Tom Parker

Grab a drink

PG4 makes Jopen beer from a 15th-century recipe in a postindustrial setting; find Piwnica Rajców brewery in the cellar of Artus Court. Sixties-style Café Lamus has plenty of atmosphere; so does the bric-a-brac-laden Józef K, after the protagonist of Franz Kafka's The Trial.

Wander around town

Book a walk led by Michał Maj or a free virtual neighborhood stroll from the Instytut Kultury Miejskiej. Local story-teller Jacek Gorski goes through Lower Town, where ramparts, waterways, and former factory sites are being transformed. These jaunts are also a good way to see the murals throughout Zaspa. For after-dark buzz, head for the clubs and food trucks of Elektryków Street in the shipyard area.

This article appeared in the May/June 2021 issue of Condé Nast Traveler. Subscribe to the magazine here.

Originally Appeared on Condé Nast Traveler