Trecking to the Baltics from Tuam, a town in the West of Ireland is no mean feat, if you’re flying Ryanair from Dublin, but here’s how you do it. First, finish work at 5.30 on Thursday and hit the 7.10 Burke’s Bus to Galway. Wait around for a few hours, take a disco nap if you can, and hop Citilink at 1.15 Friday morning. Onward to the airport! If the snoring to all sides of you doesn’t distract, catch a few zzzs on the journey. Arrive at Terminal 1, fly through security and put your feet up for the few hours until your 6.45 flight – breakfast at four in the morning is always a novelty, especially when it’s not just burned toast when you’ve come in from the night before. Queue blearily to board and then enjoy snoozing above the clouds for two hours., before waking up to the sunrise and marveling at the snow-powdered fields below as you descend, and perk up at once when the cold air slaps you silly as you take your first steps on Polish ground.
Gdansk is a small and very pretty city on the Baltic coast. A mere 40 minutes from the airport, the handy commuter bus will drop you right to the train station, which upon exploration turns out to be within five minutes walking distance from the beautiful Old Town. There are hotels and hostels aplenty to choose from, but we favoured a more authentic experience and rented a gorgeous little flat through Airbnb.
Found in between a bank and a kebab shop through a blink-and you’ll-miss-it passageway is a courtyard still dappled in frozen snow, surrounded by decidedly Soviet era apartment buildings, housing business premises buildings beneath them. A well-secured door with a password entrance leads to four flights of concrete staircases made cheerful on certain floors with plants and ornaments placed there by the more discerning occupants, and at the very top is a little password protected box with the key to our place inside. An actual wonderland is within, an apartment not unlike one you’d see the heroine of a chick-flick living improbably in. Small, yes, but extremely tastefully decorated, with a bedroom separated from the living room by glass panels, the kitchen decorated in chic monochrome and the cute bathroom well stocked by our host and past occupant’s left-behind toiletries. The bed invites a well-deserved nap, but a power one is all you will have time for before heading out to explore the historic town.
Gdansk’s most famous son is Lech Walesa (the airport bears his name), who was leader of the Trade Union Solidarity Movement, which is credited as playing a major role in the fall of Communist rule in Central Europe. A winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, Walesa’s movement was never violent, its aim only for equal rights and better working conditions for all. The European Solidarity Centre opened in August last year, replacing the Solidarity Museum, in a massively imposing russet hued building. Situated right behind The Monument to the Fallen Shipyard Workers 0f 1970, erected 10 years after the tragic event, the Centre is a hugely impressive, very informative state-of-the-art tribute to the movement, and a highly recommended attraction to learn about a pivotal moment in European history.
Long before that, Gdansk was an important port town, and has been under the control of Germany off and on, and a free city twice. Its architecture gives a wonderful indication of its cheqered history, with beautifully intricate buildings, many decorated intricately, lining the main street of Old Town and peppered throughout the city and an extraordinary number of churches of all shapes and sizes complimented by ugly buildings built out of pure necessity after the war. We came across an Irish pub (of course), which at first look consisted of a small wooden shack, but which on closer inspection turned out to be a covered staircase leading down into a basement. We wondered why there was a basement without a building until it dawned on us that one once stood there, but was blown away in the 40s. There are establishments like this one all over the city.
Spending a few zlotys is easy to do in this city, with the exchange rate being Euro 4.18PLN to 1EUR (at the time of writing). Sampling the local cuisine is a must, and any souveniers to take home should be Gdansk produced Goldwasser or amber jewellery. A visit for a restful wander through this lovely city is enough, but there are museums, statues and monuments for any tourists who err more towards sightseeing to take in. It may take effort to get there, but the trek is most definitely worth it.
– Aoife B. Burke