I find Polish to be one of the more bewildering European languages to comprehend – I can’t even pronounce the word for ‘thank you’, let alone cobble together any basic sentences. And we’d barely been in the country for a few hours before I was stared at as if I was some kind of deranged halfwit, care of the man wheeling the refreshments trolley on a packed Good Friday inter-city express train between the Polish capital Warsaw and the northern city of Gdansk. I was sitting in the first row immediately inside the main part of the carriage and, as I was the first person he passed upon entering, I gave him the same cursory shake of my head I’ve grown accustomed to doing on trains in Switzerland – a small can of coke for five francs or similarly hideously overpriced sandwich is not something I normally clamour for on my regular train journeys there, and I naturally assumed there’d be the same mark-up here. Thence came the momentary gawp before the man served the people across the aisle and then shuffled backwards to the next row. It wasn’t until the return journey to Warsaw two days later before I found out a snack and a drink were complimentary, and on a five hour journey these obviously aren’t refused too often.
A little later I wondered if Polish sign language is as impossible to understand for a foreign signer as the Polish language is to me. It was not something I’d ever had reason to ponder before, but with my wife temporarily vacating our reserved backwards-facing seats in order to try and find a forward facing one elsewhere to help with her travel sickness, a young girl previously sitting in the vestibule came in to the main carriage proper, plonked down beside me and proceed to sign more or less continuously to (I assume) her two much older siblings through the clear door back out in the passage. I had no idea if there was some important discussions going on or whether she was bored, fidgety or merely pointing out the oddities of the weird looking foreign bloke beside her, who was intermittently reading and peering out the window at the miles and miles of empty, flat and dry looking fields presumably only just free of the thick snow of a particularly harsh winter. After a protracted silent discussion the girl’s older sister also came in, took the seat and had the younger girl sit on her lap. The conversation between the two continued, becoming ever more frustrated, until the signing gave way to tit-for-tat slapping and punching. Eventually the younger realised this was an argument she wasn’t going to win and, after the older teenager delivered what would be the decisive blow accompanied by some pointed finger wagging and stern looks, there was no further discourse until Katie came back to reclaim her seat. Who knew sign language could be classified as a contact sport?
Despite my relative inability to comprehend my immediate surroundings, at 9pm we managed to alight the train as intended at Gdańsk Główny and soon easily found our hostel on the edge of the Old Town. The weather forecast for the four days of our Easter trip had looked pretty bleak but since our arrival there had been no sign of imminent rain, so we were keen to immediately head back outside to explore the place a little bit in case tomorrow wasn’t looking so good. The dark, skinny townhouses and huge red brick churches set around the more or less rectangular grid of Gdansk were immediately reminiscent of the Netherlands, though once we stumbled onto the more brightly coloured and beautifully spot lit edifices of the pedestrian-only Long Market (Długi Targ), there was no question that we were in Eastern Europe. Other than a few people shuffling out of late church services or wending their way into the few pubs dotted here and there around the centre, the historical core was empty, peaceful and very easy to admire.
Despite the cold, in the daylight there was a lot more life in the Old Town as visitors milled around between the cafés and amber traders either side of the Neptune Fountain on Długi Targ. Even though we were now sharing the area with others of both the human and pigeon variety, it was still absolutely charming. There’s been an impressive amount of work done here, especially noticeable when compared to the photos taken in 1945 on display at the Golden Gate that illustrated the awful destruction the city had suffered from bombing in the Second World War. And immediately away from the main street the rest of the city centre was in the midst of yet more transformation as well. There were many building sites fenced off, some with obvious signage that the funding had come from the European Union, and new boutique hotels, apartments and marinas were popping up all along the Motława River.
And yet, there still remained a clear reminder of the devastation wreaked upon this historically prosperous grain port during WWII as soon as we stepped outside the Green Gate at the bottom of Długi Targ. Directly across the river from a reconstructed medieval crane and a line of smart looking restaurants in more appealing skinny merchant townhouses sat Granary Island, still now a hodge podge of crumbling red brick walls, mere bones of what were once as many as three hundred granaries in the sixteenth century. After the war only one was rebuilt, but even that nine or ten storey brick warehouse appeared long boarded up and forlorn. From the rubbish and bottles strewn around it was looking a bit untidy and neglected and it’s only a matter of time before this area is redeveloped into ultra-modern funky residential and commercial space at sky high prices, but I can’t help feeling that when that occurs much of the spirit of what made the historic centre of Gdansk such a major Baltic port in times past will vanish irreversibly.
I always find the history of European cities, their residents and overlords fascinating to read about. Discovering the industries or trade that supported their existence, the cycles of prominence and decline of the empires that occupied them, and the resulting waves of ethnic migration in and out over the centuries that continually changed the human landscapes of the settlements is absorbing and always provides some useful context to the political issues of the present. And to me, Gdansk’s history is even more beguiling than most. Continually changing hands over the centuries between Poland and Prussia/Germany (during which it was also known as Danzig), interspersed with spells as an independent free city, there were even periods in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries when it was under the control of Teutonic knights.
The twentieth century was no less significant: Come the end of the First World War it was a predominately German speaking free city separate to the surrounding Polish republic, and in 1939, after an attack into Polish controlled territory at Westerplatte in advance of other Nazi incursions into Poland, the Second World War officially began. In later decades during the Soviet controlled Communist regime after the Nazi defeat, out at the modern day dockyards further downstream towards the river mouth from the medieval port, there arose a trade union movement called Solidarity. Despite much political repression from the ruling party, over time Solidarity’s popularity with the Polish people grew to such an extent that they were able to negotiate with the Communist party to hold free elections in 1989. The following year, Solidarity’s charismatic leader Lech Wałęsa was installed as Poland’s first president.
As Katie and I took a commuter train from Gdańsk Główny at around midday it was remarkable to look out at the towering cranes that soon appeared in the distance as not just the birthplace of Poland’s current era of relative optimism and re-integration with the rest of Europe, but one of the key turning points throughout the whole Eastern Bloc, until, like a row of falling dominoes, totalitarian rule also collapsed in Romania, Hungary, Bulgaria, East Germany, Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union. Though like many cities in the region, the Communist era had certainly done Gdansk’s suburbs no cosmetic favours as they also swept by the train window, and I expect by necessity that legacy will be a common sight for a long time to come. But it’s amazing what a difference a coat of bright yellow or orange paint had made to add some cheerfulness to some of the otherwise sullen grey apartment blocks.
We were bound for the neighbouring town of Sopot, touted as a beach resort of sorts on a sweeping sandy bay facing the Baltic Sea. Our first glimpse of the empty station and immediate vicinity was not at all promising, the crumbling platforms, completely rusted metal joists and line of shabby kiosks leading away from the station suggested that Poles had completely forsaken Sopot as a holiday destination as soon as they could easily bugger off to Spain. But my misconceptions were very soon broken, then completely smashed, by the time we had reached the top of Bohaterów Monte Cassino, the pedestrianised main street. Newly constructed buildings housing appealing shops and restaurants lined both sides of the street, most notably the striking Krzywy Domek (Crooked House) which gave the illusion it was slowly buckling or sagging, as if it was melting away on a hot day. Some older wooden structures from a former age had also survived and were now painted in jaunty seaside colours, and the place was full of families unhurriedly milling about in the weak sunshine.
Close to the very bottom of the street in the direction of the sea new paving was still in the process of being laid down near the thumping great, shiny Sheraton hotel. Temporarily redirected through the hotel as the only means of getting to the shore while the paving works were ongoing, we finally hit the beach and found a British style wooden pier stretching out into the water for over half a kilometre, a major landmark from the emerging era of mass tourism in the nineteenth century when fashionable folks would promenade along the pier “taking the air”. Even though the wind made it more than a little brisk, we joined hundreds of others for a traditional stroll out beyond the fine and clean yellow sand to the far edge of the pier before returning back through the Sheraton to the main street, where my wife happily went dress shopping and then we looked for something quick for a late lunch, discovering that the Polish take their waffles and coloured soft serve ice cream pretty seriously.
After escaping from the cold for a while in a beachside bar next to the flagship Grand Hotel (reputedly regarded as the Monaco of the Baltic at the time of its establishment in the 1920’s), we took off for a stroll along an established walkway behind the beach past a succession of shacks, smartly restored homes and small kiosks and bars (almost all, not surprisingly, not yet open for the season). As families ventured along on bikes or rollerblades and elderly people in thick coats and hats shuffled along at a snails pace, I had to admit that, like many other countries in Europe far away from the Mediterranean, I’d never considered Poland as a seaside destination before, but Sopot was wonderful.
The beach, forest reserves and walking paths continued for many kilometres, and we’d ambled along for some time when we came across signs indicating we had reached the boundary of the local government areas of Sopot and Gdansk. Without us yet considering when to turn back to catch the train, it was Katie who wondered if we’d be able to walk all the way back to the centre of Gdansk. This came as a huge surprise to me as it wasn’t something I’d even contemplated, and normally I’m the one who always suggests impromptu long distance walking expeditions – generally to her chagrin. Realistically, the afternoon was getting on a bit and we had no map, no idea of how far it was and no concept of how easy it would be to skirt the dockyards once we turned off the coast and followed the river back into town. Getting lost in the dark around the docks of an unknown city where we didn’t speak the language was not a situation I thought she'd appreciate too much.
At the next set of bars in an area called Brzeźno we stopped for a rest and a drink, and once we’d sat down we both grew a little bit weary. The light was beginning to slowly fade as we were ready to go again, though fortunately we’d picked a good place to stop as the bar staff directed us down a nearby street where we’d find the end of a suburban tram line. Once immediately away from the beach the surroundings changed back to the foreboding Communist era concrete apartment blocks and, without any identifiable landmarks to reference, I was glad we wouldn’t have to navigate our own way back through the suburbs.
With no way to buy a ticket either at the stop or on the tram itself (I thoroughly dislike how ticketing systems on public transport all over the world these days really make that procedure difficult for infrequent users), I spent the entire journey back to the city centre paranoid that we’d have to pay the hefty ‘stupid tourist tax’ levied by humourless Eastern European ticket inspectors – a stupid mistake we’d previously made in Prague two years earlier which I really didn’t want to repeat.
Once back in the Old Town (thankfully without penalty) there was a good selection of restaurants for dinner, and after two days of being more than a little underwhelmed by bland Western style meals, my tastebuds were fairly dancing at the hearty white borscht – a rye soup with pork sausage, bacon and eggs in a bread bowl traditionally served at Easter – followed by vegetables folded inside a fried potato pancake. It was an immensely satisfying end to an enjoyably relaxed day.
It’s rare on such a short trip for me to feel at all bored or restless, but with checkout at the hostel at 11am and our train back to Warsaw not leaving until 3:15pm, the intervening four and a bit hours of downtime were a bit of a drag. We’d seen all there was to see in the Old Town and the shops and cafés were closed, so after traipsing around the ruins on Granary Island for a while we were at a complete loss on what else to do to pass the time. With our train tickets compulsorily booked in advance and only valid for specific seats on that particular inter-city express service (trying to research the rules and regulations of long distance travel on the Polish rail system had taken this pampered commuter now well used to Swiss efficiency quite a few hours leading up to this trip, so I felt just getting the tickets reserved in the first place had been no small achievement), there was nothing else to do but wait it out.
I’d briefly read that Malbork Castle was a good day trip from Gdansk, and if we’d had a whole day spare I would have been tempted to suggest we check it out. So it came as some surprise when, perhaps an hour or so into the five hour journey to Warsaw, after the train had just pulled out of a pretty dismal looking town called Tczew and slowly crossed a bridge across a broad river, we passed directly beside an astonishing pile of red brick fortifications and several perfectly intact castle buildings. Katie and I simultaneously gasped, startling the Polish couple and their young son who we shared the 6 seater compartment with, and while Katie rushed to get her camera to hand, they barely looked up from their laptop and books at the enthralling spectacle of the world’s largest brick gothic castle. It didn’t stay outside our window for very long, but it was enough for me to recommend that if you’re ever in Gdansk with a little bit too much time on your hands then a side trip to Malbork Castle, founded by the Teutonic knights in the late thirteenth century, would certainly be worth your while.
Climbing up from the underground platforms of Warsawa Centralna to be confronted by the flat grid of broad, straight streets, crowded by skyscrapers topped with neon advertisements flashing in the night sky, it felt like we’d just surfaced in the heart of New York (well, at least when compared to the compact and low rise layout of Gdansk’s centre). Though this initial big city buzz very quickly wore off when, due to Warsaw’s post-war reconstruction taking place during the golden era of the car, as pedestrians we could not cross at traffic lights in the conventional way and were forced down stairs into a succession of dingy passageways underneath street level. While they may be lined with shops and full of lively pedestrian activity during regular business hours, by night it was like we were flies trapped in the spider’s web-like domain of occasional wandering hobos and derros. I’m a fast walker naturally but even I find it quite difficult to keep up with my wife at times like this, as her shorter legs pick up pace and she is propelled along as if she has a rocket up her rear-end.
We were expecting big things from our accommodation, Chmielna St B&B, a few blocks to the east of the station, and not least because it was almost as much for the one night as our room in the hostel in Gdansk had been for two. We had to first check in at a cheap and murky looking hostel on the top floor of an uninspiring building around the corner on Nowy Świat, on the basis of which didn’t exactly fill us with confidence, but once we’d walked the few hundred metres to the second property we completely ate our words. The communal living area was bright, spacious and ultra modern, with timber floors and new furniture – not to mention it was decked out with an amazing home theatre system. Our room was of a similar standard, putting just about every business hotel I’ve ever stayed in to shame. I’m generally a pretty tight customer when it comes to accommodation but even I was stunned at the value for money, and both Katie and I immediately realised in hindsight we’d have both loved another night here to really appreciate the facilities.
After not having done much except for sitting around the whole day, we eagerly headed back out for a stroll up Nowy Świat and followed the Royal Route towards the Old Town. I had been to Warsaw once before almost six years earlier, and although I clearly remembered the Old Town and the business district around the central station, the succession of streets of the Royal Route linking the two didn’t appear familiar to me at all. There were many people enjoying a meander here on this unseasonably warm night along a very impressive avenue, sympathetically rebuilt after the Second World War in an early 19th century neo-Classical style and now home to boutiques, restaurants and the usual global coffee shop establishments. The footpaths had been widened at the expense of vehicles and benches were placed at regular intervals, which gave it the feel of an upmarket High Street in one of the poshest parts of London. Though there was also a noticeable local flourish, as different piano pieces from Chopin drifted in the still night air from hidden speakers at various points along the route – just a part of the major festivities in 2010 to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the Warsaw composer’s birth. With so much life, character and ambience, it felt a world away from the empty expanses of concrete and steel only a few blocks away by the railway station.
One of the taller buildings that could not fail to grab my attention was one of Warsaw’s finer hotels, the Bristol. Directly next to it, set back from the street behind an equestrian statue and a long, high metal fence, sat what I assumed to be another wing of the hotel. Had it not been for two armed security guards standing out on the footpath, whose watchful gaze darted warily to each and every person walking past, I may not have even noticed this lower building at all. In my years working in the UN precinct of Geneva I got very used to the sight of armed guards in military fatigues on patrol outside the Permanent Missions of various countries, though they generally looked fairly relaxed and, more often than not, engaged in easy conversation with each other. These two looked far more serious, as if they were expecting something to happen imminently. As Katie continued down the street to take a photo of something else that had caught her eye, I hung back a little, glancing back to see if there was anything going on. Within only a minute or two of us passing the guards, two dark coloured sedans with tinted windows and blue and red flashing lights on their front windscreens and undercarriages swiftly drove up the street, turned in through the open gates, and were immediately followed into the complex by the retreating guards before the gates closed. It turns out this was not part of the hotel at all – it was none other than the Presidential Palace. Though entirely possible, it seems a little melodramatic to ponder if I’d just witnessed the Polish President Lech Kaczynski returning home from an official engagement. And yet I can’t help but wonder if he or some other senior figure had been in one of the cars, unwittingly going about their duties in the final week of their lives before their ill-fated official flight to Russia the following weekend.
By the very edge of Castle Square was St Anne’s Church, with its open double doors revealing a glimpse of a packed Easter Sunday service in progress inside. Outside, a small cauldron with an eternal flame were surrounded by a few hundred candles, set out in remembrance of the Polish pope John Paul II who died in 2005. It was an extensive impromptu memorial, though from what I saw in the media, a week later the same site was filled many times over in the wake of the death of the president, his wife and around a hundred other top government officials when their jet crashed in foggy conditions on their way to attend a service on the 70th anniversary of a massacre of Polish prisoners of war in the Katyn Forest.
Katyn was a place that resonated with me as I had been to the memorial there in 2004 just days before my first visit to Warsaw, and though I cannot imagine what effect the plane crash has had on the national psyche in the short-term, from what little of Poland I have seen or understand they’ve become pretty adept at re-establishing their nation after periods of grave adversity.
Certainly the most striking thing to leave an impression from my previous visit to Warsaw had been the impeccably rebuilt Old Town, though back then I had only seen it in the daytime. Exploring it at night was also incredible, and I gaped admirably in equal measure to Katie, who was seeing it all for the first time. I had previously thought one visit to Warsaw was enough and returning wouldn’t be at the top of my list, but with my wife’s idea to come to Poland for this trip the capital had been the easiest airport gateway for us, and I certainly was not at all disappointed to be taking in the stunning townhouses and Barbican for a second time.
The gathering dark clouds suggested that the days of rain predicted for our stay weren’t going to hold off for much longer. We wandered first past the Tomb of the Unknown Solider, whose unmoving ceremonial guards looked considerably less tense than their counterparts at the Presidential Palace the previous evening.
With the flower beds bereft of blooms and the bare trees still waiting for new leaves, spring had not yet appeared in the Saxon Garden, and in a wintry frame of mind we continued for a few blocks over to Krasiński Square. Not sure of exactly what to do next, we hopped on a bus at random and spied a large walled cemetery a few stops later. The tall, brick exterior boundary had an excellent information panel that explained we’d happened upon the Jewish Cemetery, a former sports field situated on the very edge of the sealed ghetto during World War II which became the burial place for many victims of the ghetto in the earlier years of the war, as well as those of the 1944 Warsaw Uprising. Unfortunately it was closed (along with much else in the city), and we rued the fact that Easter was probably not the best time to see Warsaw at its best. As the clouds became increasingly ominous we were also sorry that we’d had to check out of our lodgings, and couldn’t take advantage of its amazing lounge area to escape from what was fast becoming an unpleasant day.
Catching a bus back to the central station in search of a meal before returning to the airport for our early evening flight, we managed to duck inside a large and empty American style sports bar opposite the station just before the rain began to collapse from the sky in torrents. There was nothing left to do but sit around for a few hours watching the women’s European Weightlifting Championships from Belarus on the bar’s TVs until the time came to brave the overflowing gutters and find an airport bound bus. It was a bit of an anti-climactic end to our third Eastern European Easter in five years, but it gave me pause to consider some of the potential carnage if some of the buff weightlifters ever decided to take up the contact sport of Polish sign language. I for one certainly wouldn’t be starting an argument with them.