Gdansk (and Runcorn)
Author: Chris Cameron and Julie Dawson
This was Julie’s birthday present to Chris. We flew out from Liverpool airport early on Friday 6th November and returned even earlier on Monday 9th. We were originally going to drive to the airport from Shrewsbury but JD discovered that Halton Fireworks, reputed to be the best bonfire night display in the north-west of England are easy to view from Runcorn so we booked into the Campanile for the night, with the added bonus that it is only 15 minutes drive from Liverpool John Lennon.
We didn’t have much of a plan for Gdansk, other than a possible easy excursion to Sopot, weather permitting and look around the city centre.
5th November 2009
We got into Runcorn with a little time to spare before the evening’s excitement was due to begin so we checked into the hotel and then headed out into the night and followed the crowds down to the promenade, where we found a spot with a view over the Mersey and the Manchester Ship Canal. It had rained more or less all the way from Birmingham on the drive up and we were delighted and more than a bit surprised to see that the sky was almost cloudless by the time we left the hotel. After half an hour of songs from local artistes and X-factor wannabes the display started bang on time. It was excellent and had a seriously explosive finale with the smoke from the hundreds of rockets eventually smothering the flashes and sparks, at least from the southern side.
After the Bonfire Night spectacle we did a quick pub-crawl in the town centre, hitting as many quiz machines as we could in the short time available, followed by a rather good curry in what seemed to be the only sit-down place in town and an early night.
6th November 2009
Our Wizzair flight to Gdansk left on time (before 8 a.m.) and arrived early, so we were through border controls by 11 a.m. local time. JD had found good prices for the Mercure Hevelius Hotel and had booked the inexpensive airport transfers that purely by coincidence dropped off outside the hotel. We checked into a room that is definitely for the superstitious, number 1313, admired the excellent if rather hazy views over the city centre and the docks and decided that our first priority was getting something to eat.
Budget travel is probably changing the way that people pack. We had decided that we needed hold luggage for a 3 night break to Poland in November, mostly because of the ridiculous amount of cameras, binoculars and tripods that we carry coupled with the unpredictability of the weather, so we had one 15 kg bag plus hand luggage between us. One heavy weight that can be dispensed with is a large travel guide. We’d managed to pick up a small, light city guide in the UK but the free “Gdansk in your Pocket” that we picked up at the airport tourist information booth proved invaluable. The guide is presumably sponsored by the business, bars, restaurants and shops that it reviews but the range is impressive and we used it a lot during our stay.
We were already enthusiastic about wholesome Polish food from our visit to Krakow in 2008 and the guide told us that there was a good Polish restaurant, Swojski Smak on the same street as our hotel. The country-style interior belied the rather lurid sign and the food didn’t disappoint with tasty and warming zurek and forest mushroom soup, comforting mulled wine and hearty meat and potato dishes (this is steak wrapped around bacon and gherkins).
By the time we’d finished lunch (actually we couldn’t finish, there was too much) the haziness had gone and the weather was fine with blue skies, broken cloud and barely any breeze, so we worked out a bit of route and started to walk into the city centre. The first interesting find was a tiny isolated bar right behind the Mercure Hevelius. The Bar Aperitif wasn’t open at this time on a Friday but we thought it looked worth a look later.
The pocket guide lists many of Gdansk’s attractions in what can be strung together to make a walk, so we thought we’d give this a go. We broke into the route near St. Catherine’s Church and then got a few photographs near the pretty Great Mill.
Gdansk was heavily damaged in the Second World War but much of the city centre has been carefully restored to it’s former glory. It is photogenic and compact and the presence of the river with an accessible and attractive waterfront provides an interesting contrast.
When we reached the Upland Gate we were at the start of the pocket guide walk and we more or less followed this for the next few hours, taking in the Executioner’s House that now houses an Amber Museum at the start of the so-called Royal route.
The Golden Gate stands at the start of stately Dlugi Targ upon which stand many elegant buildings with attractive side streets and interesting details. The Neptune Fountain looked good, picked out against the blue of the sky.
At the end of Dlugi Targ is a bridge across Gdansk’s main river, the Motlawa which forms part of the complex outflow of the larger Wisla (Vistula). We continued our walk along Dlugle Pobrzeze passing some carved pagan boulders called Prussian Hags and then into Mariacka which is often described as the prettiest street in Poland. We haven’t seen them all, of course, but with it’s cobbles, the fine St. Mary’s Church at the end and the multitude of amber shops it must be a strong contender.
Just after the church, on Grobla 1, a quarter of carved lions inexplicably guard the pavement and from here we made our way back to the river to get a closer look at the famous crane, an ancient structure that used man power to lift considerable weights on and off boats.
The air was getting cooler as the afternoon wore on and a café near the crane was advertising both mulled wine and mulled beer so we stopped there for a while to warm up and then went off in search of the monument to the Defenders of the Polish Post Office before picking our way through the maze of dark streets back to the hotel to change and decide where to have dinner.
We’d brought a tripod with us and took it out, hoping to get a few after-dark photos. The morning’s haze had returned with the cooler air which meant that really sharp photos were impossible, but we were quite pleased with some of the results. Here is the Maritime Museum from across the river and here are a couple of shots of the crane. Mariacka is just as pretty by night as it is by day.
The Browarnia Gdanska was listed in both our guides as a micro-brewery serving excellent beers and so we decided to go and try one or two before dinner. We surprised to find that it is housed in the cellar of a rather upmarket hotel and on Friday night it was very busy. The plates of food being delivered to tables looked tempting and a glance at the menu made it easy for us to make up our mind. We secured a couple of seats at the bar, ordered some wheat beers and asked a waitress to let us know when a table became available. We were on to our second beers by the time one did. The beers and the food were both excellent and not expensive. Definitely worth a look.
7th November 2009
The seaside resort of Sopot, part of the Tri-city complex with Gdynia and Gdansk, was our main destination for today but the last few attractions in the pocket guide within easy walking distance of the centre included a complex of fortifications, a monumental cross and the intriguingly-named Cemetery of Non-existent Cemeteries, all of which were located on the far side of the railway station, from where we intended to start our journey to Sopot.
The view from the hotel was non-existent when we first woke up because a thick blanket of fog had descended over the city, so we simply went back to sleep. An hour later and visibility had improved a little so we headed out in search of breakfast and a safe way across the train tracks. The pocket guide lists the fort first and the cemetery last but we’d recommend doing them in the other direction because the cemetery is easiest to find.
Much of what remains of the fortress on Gradowa Hill dates from Napoleonic times and there are displays in some of the bunkers dating back to the military actions of that period. There are tunnels and fortifications to explore and the area would make a splendid place for a picnic at a more suitable time of year. The elevated location means that great views over the city can be obtained, although not on this occasion because the fog was still lingering.
The unusual Millenium Cross looms above the fortress and from here it is a short walk down to the understated Cemetery of Non-existent Cemeteries with it’s stone tree-trunks, a memorial to the numerous Gdanskian graveyards lost to war and redevelopment.
We were really hungry by now so were delighted to find the Café Ikarus in the bus station. This must be one of the cheapest places to get hot food in central Gdansk although it would be unreasonable to expect that anything other than Polish will be spoken. However with a bit of pointing and smiling we soon had a couple of plates of warming Golabki and some sort of potato and meat cakes, with coffees and coke.
There are lots of trains from Gdansk to Sopot but the ticket office is not the most obvious. It’s not in the main station but in the underground section. When you’ve paid a few zlotys for your tickets you’re meant to get them validated in one of the small machines on the walls near the platform steps. Some guidebooks tell you that Sopot is the 9th station, which is true, but not all train stop at all nine, so pay attention. We had to retrace our route by a couple of stops.
Sopot has a fine beach of soft sand which is surprisingly popular, even in November, although the absence of anything more fierce than a gentle breeze probably helped. There is also a long wooden pier that they claim is the longest something or other in Europe. It’s certainly not the longest pier, as the residents of Southend-on-Sea will readily attest. It’s a pleasant enough walk
on a calm day, but repairs are badly needed and the seaward end of the jetty is already closed to public access.
There were a few Scaup on the sea, where we also got our best ever views of Long-tailed Duck although there was only one of these in evidence.
The town of Sopot is attractive and we bought a few bits of amber jewellery as we were so close to one of the main sources of this commodity, before settling down in a town centre pizzeria for a late lunch, after which we returned to Gdansk and a quick beer in the highly recommended “Cup of Tea Zwye Club” before getting ready for a night out.
Jadalnia Pod Zielonym Smokiem is mentioned in several guides as serving good Polish fare at excellent prices and yet again we were impressed. There was even an English menu to help us. The “Dragon’s Tongues” sounded interesting, but if you decide to go for them (they’re actually chicken fillets in breadcrumbs) make sure you get something moist to go with them as they are a touch dry. That said we had a really good meal for not much money in simple surroundings.
8th November 2009
Our target for today was the district of Oliwa, for a walk in the park and maybe a look at the cathedral, so we were back on the same train line that we’d used to get to Sopot. A military tank and several other military vehicles were an unexpected diversion on the walk from the station to the park but this didn’t seem to be the start of a counter-revolution.
Oliwa seems a prosperous part of Gdansk and the park is nice for a wander around, with streams, duck-ponds and various artworks scattered amongst the trees. The cathedral is tall but on the exterior at least, unremarkable, and we felt that we’d seen most of what the area had to offer within about an hour of getting off the train. However we decided to go for a walk, following a tourist sign near St. Jacob’s Church towards the zoo.
A short walk along a busy road brought us out opposite a park with a large lake, with Oliwa centre on the left. We crossed behind the back of the church and saw a sign pointing right to the Old Oliwa Hotel and opted to follow this. There’s no pavement but not too much traffic and after 10-15 minutes walk you come out opposite the Old Oliwa Water Smithy, (Kuznia Wodna Oliwa) a marvel of technology dating back to at least 1597. The gate was ajar so we walked in and a gentleman appeared to charge us the small entrance fee. The interior of this mainly wooden building, split in two by a lively brook, contained two huge hammers driven by a couple of ancient and much-repaired water-wheels and various implements associated with iron working.
After admiring the nearby hotel (reckoned the best and probably the most expensive in Gdansk, with a lovely setting and a huge thatched roof) we finished the loop back to the main road and into Oliwa proper, to find something to eat.
For a well to do area there was surprisingly little choice but we found a nice little pizza place just near the cathedral. We had read that there are organ recitals each day in the cathedral but only one on Sunday, at 3 p.m. As luck would have it, we were passing at 3 p.m. so we went inside.
The organ, with about 7500 pipes was for a considerable time the largest in Europe and sounds fantastic, filling the lofty nave with sound, assisted by a number of bugle playing cherubs. One of the highlights of the trip.
As the light began to fade we walked back to the main road through a different section of the park hoping to find a tram back to the city but we couldn’t work the trams out and none of the ones we saw seemed to be going anywhere familiar so it was the train for us yet again.
Continuing with the railway theme we went for another mulled wine and a crepe in the Lokomotiva bar before returning to the hotel to change. We noticed that the little Bar Aperitif was open so we called in for a couple of vodkas. The interior downstairs was tiny and full of people (about four) so we went upstairs amidst the wood panelling and slightly retro furniture.
For our final meal in Poland we chose a place on the river front, near to the Crane, the Pod Bandera where we had yet another very acceptable meal at extremely welcome prices.
After that it was a reasonably early night with alarm clocks set for 03:20 and the Wizzair 04:00 airport shuttle already waiting as we checked out at five to. A quick transfer to the airport and the flight was on time which meant that JD was back at work in Birmingham in time to get almost a whole day in.