Saturday, 21 April 2012



Gdańsk is a Polish city on the Baltic coast, at the center of the country's fourth-largest metropolitan area. The city lies on the southern edge of Gdańsk Bay (of the Baltic Sea), in a conurbation with the city of Gdynia, spa town of Sopot, and suburban communities, which together form a metropolitan area called the Tricity (Trójmiasto), with a population of over 800,000. Gdańsk itself has a population of 455,830 (June 2010), making it the largest city in the Pomerania region of Northern Poland.

Gdańsk is situated at the mouth of the Motława River, connected to the Leniwka, a branch in the delta of the nearby Vistula River, whose waterway system supplies 60% of the area of Poland and connects Gdańsk to the national capital in Warsaw. This gives the city a unique advantage as the center of Poland's sea trade. Together with the nearby port of Gdynia, Gdańsk is also an important industrial center.

Early settlements in the area are associated with the Wielbark culture; and after the Great Migrations, they were replaced by a Pomeranian settlement that probably dates back to the 7th century. In the 980s, a stronghold was built most probably by Mieszko I of Poland who thereby connected the Polish state ruled by the Piast dynasty with the trade routes of the Baltic Sea. The first written record of this stronghold is the vita of Saint Adalbert, written in 999 and describing events of 997. This date is generally regarded as the founding of Gdańsk in Poland; in 1997 the city celebrated the millennial anniversary of the year 997 when Saint Adalbert of Prague baptized the inhabitants of the settlement on behalf of Boleslaw the Brave of Poland.

The Crane
Gdańsk, known then as Danzig, had a long tradition of city-state independence. It was also a leading player in the Prussian Confederation directed against the Teutonic Monastic State of Prussia. 

The Confederation stipulated with the Polish king, Casimir IV Jagiellon, that the Polish Crown would be invested with the role of head of state of western parts of Prussia (Royal Prussia). In contrast, Ducal Prussia remained a Polish fief. Danzig and other cities such as Elbing and Thorn financed most of the warfare and enjoyed a high level of city autonomy, and Danzig used the title Royal Polish City of Danzig.

In 1569, when Royal Prussia's estates agreed to incorporate the region into the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth by way of a real union, the city insisted on preserving its special status within the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, went through the costly Siege of Danzig in 1577 in order to preserve special privileges, and subsequently insisted on negotiating its issues by sending emissaries directly to the Polish king. 

Gdańsk suffered heavily during the second World War, and indeed has been cited as the place where the first shots were fired. In 1941, the German government ordered the invasion of the Soviet Union, eventually causing the fortunes of war to turn against it. As the Soviet Army advanced in 1944, German populations in Central and Eastern Europe took flight, resulting in the beginning of a great population shift. After the final Soviet offensive began in January 1945, hundreds of thousands of German refugees, many of whom had fled to Danzig on foot from East Prussia, tried to escape through the city's port in a large-scale evacuation involving hundreds of German cargo and passenger ships. Some of the ships were sunk by the Soviets, including the Wilhelm Gustloff after an evacuation was attempted at neighboring Gdynia. In the process, tens of thousands of refugees were killed.

The city also endured heavy Allied and Soviet air raids. Those who survived and could not escape had to face the Soviet Army, which captured the city on March 30, 1945. The city was heavily damaged. In line with the decisions made by the Allies at the Yalta and Potsdam conferences, the city became part of Poland. The remaining German residents of the city who had survived the war fled or were forcibly expelled to postwar Germany, and the city was repopulated by ethnic Poles, up to 18 percent (1948) of them had been deported by the Soviets in two major waves from Polish areas annexed by the Soviet Union, i.e. from the eastern portion of pre-war Poland.

The Grand Mill
The city that re-emerged from the rubble was Polish, and the controversial matter of the Danzig corridor - 'the match that set Europe alight' - was settled. Thus a city that had been founded by Polish King Mieszko I in 980 - but which had been firmly out of the Polish orbit since 1792 - was re-christened with its original name, Gdansk, and a vast rebuilding project was begun. 

If you're curious about branching off from the Prague - Krakow - Budapest route, then the Tri-City has much to offer the traveller. Known historically as the powderkeg whose spark  ignited the Second World War, it was also in Gdansk where the flame that signalled the collapse of communism was raised (by native son, Lech Walesa). Shedding the stigma that the city is little more than a bunch of battered cranes in a dingy shipyard, Gdansk's Old Town has been scrubbed clean, shined up, and stocked full of hotels, restaurants, cafes, clubs, bars and amber shops amidst the picturesque Burgher houses that line its streets. 

Oliwa Archcathedral
Like many of Poland's cities, Gdansk boasts a rich cultural heritage. There are few places on this planet which can claim as colourful a history as Gdansk . One has but to look at the last few centuries to find the proof: years under Polish rule... times with the Germans... the days of autonomy. Tack on to that a membership in the Hanseatic League and you've got yourself some colour. The city and its personality reflect this colorful past and the many cultures which have shaped its identity. Today, Gdansk is one of Poland's cultural powerhouses with a score of festivals, museums and galleries to prove it. 

Professional foodies are not yet toasting Poland as a mecca of haute cuisine, but given the Poles' creative bent, a renaissance in Polish cooking may not be as far off as it sounds. In terms of sheer variety and quality, options have already increased a hundred fold over the last few years, and whether it's classic Polish fare that you're after, some international spice, or simply a trusty old milk-bar where you can pick up a tasty cutlet for next to nothing, then you can find it in Gdansk.

Pottering around Gdansk's main town you'll find many little shops to explore. One local treasure that you're sure to encounter in this part of the world is amber, 'the gold of the Baltic', and the Poles can make this into pretty much anything from elegant jewellery to elaborate chess sets. Further north in Sopot, you'll find the commercial district centred around the lively ul. Bohaterow Monte Cassino, whilst in Gdynia the brash ul. Starowiejska is setting the tone.  

                                                         Gdansk’s Top 5:
  1. St Mary's Basilica.   The Basilica of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary is said to be the largest brick church in the world. Its construction took place in two stages, beginning in 1343 and ending in 1502. The church contains many important works of medieval and baroque art. These includes a stone Pietà (from approximately 1410), a copy of Hans Memling’s The Last Judgement and an astronomical clock from the second half of the 15th century constructed by Hans Düringer over a period of 7 years. The church is 344 ft long, including the tower battlements, and the vaults soar 95 ft above floor level. The solid main tower is 255 ft high and crowned with a viewing gallery, from which you can enjoy a panoramic view of the city. 
  2. The Crane. Built in the first half of the 15th century between the pylons of Brama Szeroka (the Wide Gate), became the city’s symbol. In the Middle Ages it was the largest port crane in Europe, used for moving goods and raising ship masts. It was able to lift 4 tons to an altitude of 36 feet, and was powered by workers walking inside two tread wheels. The crane is currently part of the National Maritime Museum.
  3. The Grand Mill The Grand Mill was erected by the Teutonic Order in 1350. It was powered by the Radunia Channel with its 18 waterwheels, each 16 feet in diameter, and is an exceptional construction for the time. The mill's functions included a storehouse and bakery. After modernisation in the first half of the 19th century, the mill was in use until the end of World War II.
  4. Oliwa Archcathedral is a church located in the Oliwa district; dedicated to The Holy Trinity, Blessed Virgin Mary and St Bernard. The archcathedral is a three-nave basilica with a transept and a multisided closed presbytery, finished with an ambulatory. The façade is flanked by two slender towers, 46-metres tall each with sharply-edged helmets. In 1224, during the pagan Prussians crusade the first Romanesque oratory was burnt. The church was rebuilt and extended in 1234 (or 1236) to be soon destroyed by another Prussian crusade. In 1577, during the rebellion of the city of Gdańsk the Gdańsk mercenary army attacked the monastery and burned it to the ground. The church was rebuilt between 1578 and 1583. On the 25th March 1992, Pope John Paul II issued a papal bull by which he established the Archdiocese of Gdańsk with the seat in Oliwa and raised the basilica to the dignity of an Archcathedral.
  5. Westerplatte is a peninsula at the mouth of the so-called Dead Vistula river.  It was here, on September 1, 1939, that the first shots of World War II were fired by the German Battleship Schleswig-Holstein. A Polish garrison of just 205 ill-equipped soldiers held out against two warships, aircraft, heavy guns and over 3,000 German troops for a week, losing only 14 men and killing 300 of the enemy. In 1966 a Monument to the Coast Defenders was erected there and stands to this day. It’s 82 ft high (plus a 66 ft high base). The shape of the monument resembles a serrated bayonet plunged into the ground.

    Westerplatte Monument

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