Tag Archives: Gdansk

GDANSK: Strolling the Medieval City

Riverfront with Gdansk Crane building. Photo by Richard Varr

Riverfront with Gdansk Crane building. Photo by Richard Varr

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.

Evening stroll along Dlugi Targ with Town Hall tower. Photo by Richard Varr

Evening stroll along Dlugi Targ with Town Hall tower. Photo by Richard Varr

Gdansk Crane. Photo by Richard Varr

Gdansk Crane. Photo by Richard Varr

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.

Green Gate. Photo by Richard Varr

Green Gate. Photo by Richard Varr

Neptune Fountain. Photo by Richard Varr

Neptune Fountain. Photo by Richard Varr

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.

Red Room inside Town Hall. Photo by Richard Varr

Red Room inside Town Hall. Photo by Richard Varr

Inside Artus Court with model boats. Photo by Richard Varr

Inside Artus Court with model boats. Photo by Richard Varr

Inside St. Mary's Church. Photo by Richard Varr

Inside St. Mary’s Church. Photo by Richard Varr

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.

The Great Mill. Photo by Richard Varr

The Great Mill. Photo by Richard Varr

Church of St. Catherine. Photo by Richard Varr

Church of St. Catherine. Photo by Richard Varr

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.

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GDANSK’S European Solidarity Center – Reflections of a Revolution

Private message board in the European Solidarity Center. Photo by Richard Varr

Private message board in the European Solidarity Center. Photo by Richard Varr

Many know Gdansk as the place that led to the fall of the Iron Curtain. It’s where bold strikes by Polish shipyard workers, led by Lech Walesa in the 1980s, created the Solidarity movement resulting in them successfully unionizing under the threatening watch of Poland’s Communist government. As a journalism student back then, I remember watching developments on television news programs night after night and wondering whether army tanks would roll in and crack down on the strikers.

Courtesy European Solidarity Center

Courtesy European Solidarity Center

Shipyard vehicle. Photo by Richard Varr

Shipyard vehicle. Photo by Richard Varr

Opened in 2014, the European Solidarity Center highlights those events with archive video, interactive exhibits and actual shipyard artifacts including an overhead crane, helmets, lockers and even a shipyard vehicle similar to ones that Lech Walesa would stand on to announce new developments to the anxious workers cramming the shipyard grounds. “In 1980, the shipyard was the company that had 17,000 employees. It was a city within the city,” says spokeswoman Magdalena Charkin-Jaszcza.

 

Original plywood with 21 Demands. Photo by Richard Varr

Original plywood with 21 Demands. Photo by Richard Varr

Courtesy European Solidarity Center

Courtesy European Solidarity Center

There are also the original plywood panels on which the workers scribbled their 21 demands including the right to form free trade unions, the right to strike and guaranteeing strikers’ safety, freedom of speech and print, and to release political prisoners who were fired during earlier strikes. I particularly liked archival video of Lech Walesa and his fellow strikers – in smoky rooms for long hours – negotiating with government representatives to form a trade union.

Courtesy European Solidarity Center

Courtesy European Solidarity Center

Another exhibit room represents how important it was that people joined the strikers in support of Solidarity. “What we are trying show here is the only way Solidarity could be created was that 10 million stood together to join the movement,” explains Magdalena. “What really created Solidarity was those people coming together and changing the world around them.”

President Lech Walesa addressing the U.S. Congress. Photo by Richard Varr

President Lech Walesa addressing the U.S. Congress. Photo by Richard Varr

Monument to the Fallen Shipyard Workers. Photo by Richard Varr

Monument to the Fallen Shipyard Workers. Photo by Richard Varr

Other rooms include exhibits on when the Communist government imposed martial law and outlawed the unions, Polish-born Pope John Paul II’s influence on the movement, and exhibits on those killed when the government cracked down on protesting workers in 1970. Outside the center is the 130-foot-high Monument to the Fallen Shipyard Workers.

Poland’s Malbork Castle – The Impenetrable Medieval Fortress

Malbork Castle. Photo by Richard Varr

Malbork Castle. Photo by Richard Varr

Statues of Teutonic Knights. Photo by Richard Varr

Statues of Teutonic Knights. Photo by Richard Varr

About an hour south of Gdansk is impressive Malbork Castle, one of the largest brick castles in the world. Malbork was the 14th and 15th century headquarters of the Teutonic Knights, a religious order of former Crusaders. With its drawbridges, high walls and grand halls with vaulted ceilings, this enormous castle is a throwback to northern Poland’s Middle Ages. External and internal moats helped make the castle impenetrable.

IMG_2737

Photo by Richard Varr

Photo Richard Varr

“To enter the castle, one would have to pass through five gates,” says castle tour guide Jagoda Dyl. “The castle was surrounded by rings of thick walls and was so strong that it was never taken by force in medieval times.” At many places throughout the castle, there is a clear delineation of old, worn brick facades and newer bricks, marking the lines of where reconstruction took place in both the 19th century and after World War II.

Photo by Richard Varr

Photo by Richard Varr

Photo by Richard Varr

Photo by Richard Varr

Highlights include the dormitories, chapels and a refectory for the order’s ruling monks. There’s also a treasury with authentic period coins on display, a unique system of heating rocks that radiated heat through floor vents, and an amber collection (see my amber blog that follows), since amber was the main source of income. “The Teutonic Knights were so rich because they traded on the grand scale with wood and amber,” explains Jagoda. “In the 14th century, they had the richest country in Europe.”

Photo by Richard Varr

Photo by Richard Varr

SOPOT: Poland’s Jewel on the Baltic Sea

Sopot Marina. Photo by Richard Varr

Sopot Marina. Photo by Richard Varr

My tour of Gdansk included a visit to the charming and pulsing Baltic Sea resort town of Sopot, reminding me of Northeastern U.S. beach towns. Instead of strolling along Atlantic City’s Boardwalk, for example, I walked Sopot’s wooden pier – the longest in Europe at 511 meters – shooting out from Sopot’s central beaches and stretching out to a marina at its end.

On the Pier. Photo by Richard Varr

On the Pier. Photo by Richard Varr

Crooked House. Photo by Richard Varr

Crooked House. Photo by Richard Varr

Near the palace-like Grand Hotel, the main avenue for strolling is the pedestrian Bohaterów Monte Cassino Street, the perfect place to have an ice cream or stop and sip cool drinks. An unusual sight along Monte Cassino is the so-called Crooked House, reminding me of the wavy architecture of Antoni Gaudi’s Casa Battló or Casa Milà in Barcelona.

Hippodrome, Sopot. Photo by Richard Varr

Hippodrome, Sopot. Photo by Richard Varr

I also toured the wide-open spaces of the Sopot Hippodrome, where they have horse-jumping competitions and racing. “We organize not only horse events, but also dog exhibitions and others events including masses and concerts,” says city spokeswoman Magdalena Jachim. “There’s even a spa for horses in the new stables.” Sopot also has theater, performing arts and concerts, a museum and art galleries, and of course, a grand spa.

Olympian Premyslaw Miarczyzski. Courtesy Arek Fedusio, Sopot Sailing Club.

Olympian Premyslaw Miarczynski. Courtesy Arek Fedusio, Sopot Sailing Club.

Sopot Sailing Club: Where Olympians Train

Sopot Sailing Club. Photo by Richard Varr

Sopot Sailing Club. Photo by Richard Varr

The Sopot Sailing Club is Poland’s largest windsurfing center, used by Polish Olympians in the sport as well as tourists wanting to rent equipment and surf the Baltic’s often chilly waters. “We have different levels of teaching from small kids to adults,” says Club Commander Piotr Hlavaty. “Our main goal is to send windsurfers to the Olympic Games,” he adds, noting that Olympian windsurfers have won two bronze medals.

Photo courtesy Sopot Sailing Club.

Photo courtesy Sopot Sailing Club.

During my visit, I was lucky enough to meet one of them, four-time Olympian Przemyslaw Miarczynski, as he was suiting up for a sail. “You feel free – that’s the point,” says Miarczynski who won the bronze medal in the 2012 London Olympics. “Sometimes, if you’re not training, you go out on the water just to be with nature. It’s a very individual sport. I started when I was eight years old, and now I’m 36, so I’ve been doing this for almost 30 years.”

Courtesy Sopot Sailing Club

Courtesy Sopot Sailing Club

“One word – freedom,” is also how Commander Hlavaty describes the thrill of windsurfing. “You lose your time. You are free on the sea. You do what you want, sail where you want.”

Amber: ‘Gold’ of the Poland’s Baltic Region

Jurassic Park? Raw Amber stone with insect in the Amber Museum, Gdansk. Photo by Richard Varr

Jurassic Park? Raw amber stone with insect in the Amber Museum, Gdansk. Photo by Richard Varr

Pendant at S&A Jewellery Design, Gdynia. Photo by Richard Varr

Pendant at S&A Jewellery Design, Gdynia. Photo by Richard Varr

The golden and contrasting darker-streaked hues within amber jewelry surely caught my eye when visiting Poland’s Gdansk region. I never quite fully realized the beauty of highly polished amber stones with their naturally formed impurities that give the stones such unique design and grandeur, thus making them so precious and expensive. “Amber is the region’s gold,” says Gdansk tour guide Jacek Skibiňski. “It’s only here that the world’s best amber is found.”

Millennium Gallery, Gdansk. Photo by Richard Varr

Millennium Gallery, Gdansk. Photo by Richard Varr

A look around some of the jewelry stores reveals just that, with amber necklaces running into the thousands of dollars. At the Millennium Gallery, just steps from the historic Green Gate along Gdansk’s pedestrian riverfront, jeweler Dominika Bielicka-Sobieska conducts a demonstration (YouTube link below) on how to test for the authenticity of amber.

“Amber floats in a solution of 20 percent salt water,” she explains. “It also burns with an aromatic odor. This is the way we can distinguish real amber from fake, because amber is so precious that you can find plenty of imitations.”

Amber jewelry at S&A Jewellery Design, Gdynia. Photo by Richard Varr

Amber jewelry at S&A Jewellery Design, Gdynia. Photo by Richard Varr

Polished amber stones in the Amber Museum, Gdansk. Photo by Richard Varr

Polished amber stones in the Amber Museum, Gdansk. Photo by Richard Varr

Most of the amber found along the northern coast of Poland is about 40-45 million years old, formed from tree resin released during catastrophic events. Some of the amber stones come from deep within the Baltic Sea, usually washed up after a storm, while much is still buried underground. Naturally forming, amber has many impurities in it like sand and insects (yes, as seen in the movie Jurassic Park).

Raw Amber stone in the Amber Museum, Gdansk. Photo by Richard Varr

Raw Amber stone in the Amber Museum, Gdansk. Photo by Richard Varr

18th century amber cabinet at Malbork Castle. Photo by Richard Varr

18th century amber cabinet at Malbork Castle. Photo by Richard Varr

Prison Tower, Gdansk. Photo by Richard Varr

Prison Tower, Gdansk. Photo by Richard Varr

“When you go to the beach after a storm, amber may look like a piece of wood,” notes Bielicka-Sobieska. “But when you pick it up, it’s very light.” White amber is around 50 million years old, she says, while green amber came later often filled with air bubbles, grass and plants. Insects including flies and mosquitoes are clearly seen in some pieces. There are more than 200 shades, while the 40-45 million-year-old cognac-colored amber is the most popular.

Gdansk from atop the Prison Tower. Photo by Richard Varr

Gdansk from atop the Prison Tower. Photo by Richard Varr

Amber-plated guitar in the Amber Museum, Gdansk. Photo by Richard Varr

Amber-plated guitar in the Amber Museum, Gdansk. Photo by Richard Varr

Beer stein in the Amber Museum, Gdansk. Photo by Richard Varr

Beer stein in the Amber Museum, Gdansk. Photo by Richard Varr

Housed in the medieval Prison Tower dating back to the 14th century, Gdansk’s Amber Museum showcases amber goblets, candelabra, beer steins, model ships and even an amber-plated Stratocaster guitar. I also found another incredible amber display at Malbork, the 13th century castle of the Teutonic Knights, an hour or less south of Gdansk. “In medieval times, they made jewelry, beads for rosaries and covers of books from amber,” explains Malbork Castle guide Jagoda Dyl. “And there are stories of people believing amber cured headaches, earaches and stomachaches, and they would rub amber liquid into their joints.”

Pendant at S&A Jewellery Design, Gdynia. Photo by Richard Varr

Pendant at S&A Jewellery Design, Gdynia. Photo by Richard Varr

I also toured the amber factory at S&A Jewelry Design in the nearby port city of Gdynia, where workers sand and polish raw resins into glimmering smooth stones – some of the biggest jewels I’ve seen – often found in pendants running up to $50,000 USD or more. Amber thrills women shoppers, while men carry small pieces – often raw nuggets – for luck, according to company’s President of the Board Adam Pstragowski. “The ladies love amber – they’re beautiful light stones that bring positive energy,” he says. “My little stone has traveled with me around the world for 25 years.”

Amber jewelry at S&A Jewellery Design, Gdynia. Photo by Richard Varr

Amber jewelry at S&A Jewellery Design, Gdynia. Photo by Richard Varr

VIDEO

Dominika Bielicka-Sobieska of Millennium Gallery conducts a demonstration on how to test for the authenticity of amber.