June 16, 2009
On the Baltic coast, the city of Gdansk – founded in 997 AD – is preparing to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of Solidarity’s battle for basic rights for the workers, which a lot of us will remember from TV reports of striking dock workers at the time. The momentous happenings signalled the end of communism in Europe. A huge image of a youthful Lech Walesa, looking a bit like Che Guevara, is projected on to one of the big office blocks in readiness for the celebrations on 4th July.
Gdansk is another Polish city that was reduced to piles of rubble post war – but, so skillful were the craftsmen who rebuilt it as it was, you’d never guess that the buildings were relatively new. They seem to have the authentic patina of age – faded paintwork, Flemish-style gables and extraordinary drainage systems from their five-storey-high roofs which culminate in gargoyle-like stone mouths at street level.
Gdansk is the capital of amber and we learnt that authentic amber floats in brackish water (10 per cent salt, 90 per cent water – the same as the tideless Baltic Sea) while imitation amber sinks. Good shops will have a tank of water for test purposes and will supply a certificate of authenticity. One of Gdansk’s red-brick churches, dating from 1600, was built to accommodate 25,000 worshippers, which is surmised to be the entire population of the town at the time.
I probably couldn’t have named a famous Pole apart from Walesa and Pope John Paul II before our visit but now know that Copernicus the astronomer, Fahrenheit, Marie Curie, Chopin and Joseph Conrad the writer are amongst many others.
Poland is both full of surprises and a much larger country than you might suppose – well worth a visit. Next time, I shall aim to take in the former capital of Katowice too. Sue Ockwell.