Gdansk maintains the medieval look it has had for centuries with a skyline of gothic brick towers, gargoyles, church steeples, city gates and other prominent buildings, including a giant mill and riverside crane. They remain thanks to a massive rebuilding effort of restoring the city after it was nearly destroyed during World War II. “I remember as a boy here seeing the field of ruins with only the building facades, and looking through windows and seeing the blue sky behind them,” recalls Gdansk resident and tour guide Jacek Skibiňski.
I walk the streets and find a thriving quaintness in a city so well restored that it’s hard to imagine the destruction that actually occurred here. The scenic pedestrian street along the Motława River is dominated by the Gdansk Crane, a wooden medieval structure hung between two brick towers. Once powered by men walking on two treadmill wheels connected to a complex system of gears and pulleys, the old crane lifted up to four tons 11 meters high. It was used to load and unload cargo ships as well as for ship repairs, especially raising and fitting masts. The building is now part of the Maritime Museum.
I pass through the palace-like Green Gate onto what’s called the Royal Way, namely the pedestrian street Długi Targ along the center of the medieval city. Dominating the view before me is the soaring brick tower of the Main Town Hall with its ornately gilded Red Room, a former council chamber. A main city highlight just behind the Neptune Fountain is Artus Court, an expansive hall once frequented by wealthy burghers and decorated with carvings, paintings and model ships hanging from the ceiling. “As a whole, the main city dates back to the 13th century, during the time of the Teutonic Knights,” notes Jacek.
One street over I see the colossal brick facade of the city landmark, Church of St. Mary. “St. Mary is the biggest brick church in the world,” notes Jacek. Voices echo within its huge nave, where highlights include the 15th century Astronomical Clock and Tablet of the Ten Commandments depicting each commandment with two scenes.
Długi Targ turns into Długa Street and ends at the medieval city’s main entrance, the 16th century Golden Gate. Next to it is the Prison Tower, which now houses the Amber Museum (see my Amber blog that follows), with exhibits on several floors reached by climbing the narrow tower stairwells. Before the Prison Tower sits the Highland Gate with Renaissance design in the style of a Roman triumphal arch.
Once powered by the running waters of the Radunia Canal, dug by the Teutonic Knights, another city landmark is the Great Mill with its steep roof and broad base. “Until the end of World War I, the Great Mill was probably one of the biggest mills in Europe, everyday producing 200 tons of flour,” says Jacek. Another landmark is the Church of St. Catherine, the city’s oldest church and where Poland’s second most famous astronomer (Copernicus was the first), Jan Heweliusz, is buried. “He was most interested in the moon and made maps of the moon,” says Jacek.