420km (250 miles) N of Warsaw
Gdansk (www.gdansk.pl or http://guide.trojmiasto.pl) is a pleasant surprise. If you were expecting a dingy Baltic seaport, maybe reinforced by those foggy, black-and-white TV memories of Lech Walesa and embattled Solidarity dockworkers, you'll be in for a shock. Modern-day Gdansk is a beautiful seaside town, with a lovingly restored Old Town and an easy, laid-back feel. On arrival, you'll immediately want to extend your stay, so plan on spending at least an extra day longer than budgeted.
Even for Poland, Gdansk has a particularly twisted history that will play havoc with anyone who is even mildly geographically challenged. The city rose to prominence in the 16th and 17th centuries as one of the most important towns of the Hanseatic League, a grouping of prosperous seaport cities that controlled much of the trade in the North and Baltic seas. Because of its wealth, Gdansk was hotly contested between German and Polish interests, though it managed to retain its status as a semi-autonomous city-state. After the Polish partition at the end of the 18th century, the city fell under Prussian rule and became firmly identified as "Danzig," its German name. Following Germany's defeat in World War I, the city's status became one of the thorniest issues facing the drafters of the Treaty of Versailles. They opted to create what they called the "Free City of Danzig" -- neither German nor Polish -- alongside a Polish-ruled strip of land that would effectively cut off mainland Germany from its East Prussian hinterland. Hitler was able to exploit very effectively the existence of this Polish "corridor" as part of his argument that the Treaty of Versailles was highly unfair to Germany. He even chose the port of Gdansk to launch his war on Poland on September 1, 1939, when German gunboats fired on the Polish garrison at Westerplatte.
Gdansk was thoroughly destroyed in World War II, with the Russians and Allied bombers effectively finishing off any destruction the Germans weren't able to complete themselves. But Gdansk was luckier than many Polish cities in that the reconstruction after the war was uncommonly sensitive. And unlike the reconstruction of Warsaw's Old Town (which seemed mostly to benefit the tourists), Gdansk's newly built Old Town feels thoroughly lived in and authentic. The main drag, Dluga ulica, is gorgeous and the streets radiating from it are filled with life.
During the Communist period, Gdansk rose to fame as the home of the Lenin Shipyards and the Solidarity Trade Union. It was here, now known as the Gdansk shipyards, where very tense negotiations in August 1980 between Solidarity, led by a young, rakish Lech Walesa, and the government resulted in official recognition of the first independent trade union in Communist Eastern Europe. The government later reneged on the agreement and imposed martial law, but Gdansk continued as a hotbed of labor unrest and strikes. Roundtable talks in the late 1980s saw the government agree to a power-sharing arrangement that in 1989 led to the first semifree elections and a nationwide political triumph for Solidarity. You can still see the shipyards, about a 15-minute walk north of the Old Town, and visit an inspirational museum, the Road to Freedom (Drogi do Wolnosci), that details those tense moments in 1980 and the eventual overthrow of Communism.
Gdansk is the largest and southernmost of a string of three Baltic resorts known as the Trójmiasto (Tri-Cities). Sopot, about 6km (4 miles) farther along the coast, is smaller and more exclusive. Sopot was traditionally a retreat for the very wealthy, and while today it's probably better known as the Baltic party town par excellence, it still retains a whiff of old money. It's here, too, where you'll find the most easily accessible and acceptably clean beaches in summer. Gdynia, about 15km (10 miles) to the north, is the least impressive of the three. Gdynia began life as a relatively quiet coastal village, but it was built up in a hurry after World War I, when Polish authorities fashioned it into the country's busiest Baltic seaport. A convenient commuter rail line links all three towns, with departures in all directions several times an hour during the day.