Let’s Go Exploring! Gdansk: History Comes to Life

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FIRECracker is Canada's youngest retiree. She used to live in one of the most expensive cities in Canada, but instead of drowning in debt, she rejected home ownership. What resulted was a 7-figure portfolio, which has allowed her and her husband to retire at 31 and travel the world. Their story has been featured on CBC, the Huffington Post, CNBC, BNN, Business Insider, and Yahoo Finance. To date, it is the most shared story in CBC history and their viral video on CBC's On the Money has garnered 4.5 Million views.
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By Christian Thiele [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

Having been to Warsaw, Krakow, Zakopane, and Poznan , I was sure Poland wouldn’t have any more surprises for us.

After the enchanting old town of Warsaw, the chandeliered salt mines in Krakow, the sparkling glacial lakes of Zakopane, and the cheeky head-butting goats in Poznan, could we really be blown away by Gdansk? Isn’t it just a touristy seaside town with narrow buildings and a canal that looks suspiciously like Copenhagen? Since we had already been to Copenhagen, Gdansk had big shoes to fill. So needless to say, I set my expectations low.

Little did I know, Gdansk turned out to be our favourite city in Poland.

Here’s why.

History

Lots of cities in Europe are loaded with history, and I confess that after visiting so many places and going on so many walking tours, I was starting to tune some of it out.

Then I realized that Gdansk is city where WWII started and where Communism ended.

Now, we’re talking.

I knew that the WWII started with the invasion of Poland, but I didn’t realize that Gdansk, then known by the German name as “Danzig,” was where it all began. Danzig was a contested piece of land that the Germans claimed was theirs despite it being a semi-autonomous city-state. And Hitler, being the totally reasonable and nuanced diplomat that he was, decided that if Danzig wasn’t going to voluntarily join Germany, he was going to take it by force.

So, on Sept 1, 1939, Nazi Germany attacked the Polish post office in Gdansk. This was the first shot fired in World War 2, officially sparking off the deadliest conflict in human history.

But aside from that, I want to tell you about the best museum I’ve ever visited.

European Solidarity Center

I know what you’re thinking. A museum? You’ve seen one you’ve seen them all, right? Nope.
Let me introduce you to a little something called the Solidarity Museum.

Most museums have sections dedicated to a specific period. Artifacts throughout that period are explained to you on a plaque or a screen. When you look at artifacts, your brain never really connects the pieces together, so it feels like a disparate bunch of historical objects related by a time period or a theme.

The Solidarity museum is different. It doesn’t bombard you with artifacts. Instead, it tells a story of one man: Lech Walesa:

European Solidarity Centre [CC BY-SA 3.0 pl (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/pl/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons

The story starts at the Gdansk shipyard with a worker’s strike. After the dismissal of a female crane operator right before her retirement, the workers erupted in anger. They’d already been disillusioned over increasing prices and falling salaries, and this was the final straw that broke the camel’s back. The workers put down their tools and started to strike.

Lech Walesa, an electrician with a bushy mustache who’d been fired 4 years ago for anti-government activities scaled the Shipyard wall to unite the ship workers. He steered them away from the idea of demanding mere salary increases to creating independent trade unions.

Once Lech took control, leaders representing workers from over 150 industrial plants met to write up 21 demands on a piece of wood, shown here:

In typical totalitarian fashion, the government immediately stationed tanks and soldiers outside the shipyard. But despite all that, Lech somehow managed to negotiate with government representatives and convinced them to meet all 21 demands, securing the first peaceful victory against communism.

And in typical communist fashion, they promptly declared Martial law, massacred a whole bunch of people, and threw Lech in prison.

What then happened was an improbable, David-and-Goliath uphill fight where the Polish people rallied around this imprisoned trade leader, forming a massive movement called “Solidarity” or “Solidarnosc” in Polish that encompassed nearly the entire Polish economy.

Credit: (CC) Brian Solis. www.briansolis.com.

With the help of international support coming from as far away as Scotland and Canada as well as the support of the Catholic Pope John Paul II (who was Polish), the Solidarnosc movement morphed into a political party that took on the Communist Party in Poland, and–get this–actually won.

The Pope meeting Lech

Somehow strong-arming the Communists into allowing a democratic election, Solidarnosc won almost every single seat, abolishing communism from Poland and electing Lech as Poland’s first non-communist president since the start of the Cold War.

I’m simplifying the story quite a bit here, of course, but the museum was awesome in telling it, because it guided you through the entire history of how this movement started, how it spread, and its eventual impact on not just Polish history, but the world as well. And by telling the story not just via rooms full of artifacts, but as a single narrative centered around this one guy who had a front-row seat to it all, it turned a museum into an interactive story.

And at the end of it, there are two exhibits that really stuck with me. The first is this map that lights up sequentially showing you how the iron curtain fell country by country, as protests inspired by what happened in Poland sprung up to topple communism all over Eastern Europe.

And finally, an art piece assembled by red and white name tags left by visitors to form a heartbeat morphing into the word “Solidarnosc” –the Polish word for the Solidarity movement.

No other museum has ever made me feel as deeply as the Solidarity museum did. When I was growing up in Communist China, I was taught in no uncertain terms to never, ever speak up against the Communists. In China, we have a saying “the tallest blade of grass gets cut first,” so the idea that this one guy not only spoke up, but managed to bring about the collapse of the Soviet Union, and he did it without resorting to violence made me want to pump my fist in the air.

Anyway, I’m not exaggerating when I say the Solidarity museum is, hands down, the best museum I’ve ever visited in my life. I highly recommend going if you’re ever in Gdansk.

Museum roof where you can see the shipyard where it all started.

Freedom

Gdansk, known as the “Free City” because of its semi-autonomous city-state status from 1920 to 1939, is still more liberal in its thinking than the rest of Poland.

In fact, while we were there, we saw a woman standing in the street wearing a T-shirt with a cannabis leaf that said, “f*ck the police” and openly smoking pot.

The citizens of Gdansk value freedom of thought and expression and they do not give a f*ck. So of course, I felt right at home.

Dark Sense of Humour

An old prison building we visited had a headless statue on its tower. When we asked the Sandeman’s tour guide about it, she told us there are 2 theories:

1) A thief wanted to get through the city gate and tried to bribe a guard to get in. The towns people capture him and beheaded him. To teach intruders a lesson, they made this statue.

2) A guard’s daughter fell in love with a man and asked him to marry her, but he turned her down. So, she tricked her father into arresting him. After putting her Dad to sleep with some sleeping meds, she dressed up as her Dad and cut the man’s head off.

Lesson learned: don’t f*ck with the citizens of Gdansk.

Tri-city and Beaches

Did you know that Gdansk is actually part of a tri-city area that includes 3 gorgeous sea-side towns? The other two are Gdynia and Sopot.

While we were there, we went to the beach in Gdynia and a spa in Sopot:

Aquapark in Sopot

Polish Dunes (Słowiński National Park)

Are we in the Sahara desert? This was my first thought when I got to the Polish Dunes. Even though it was a bit of a trek (take a train to Lębork, switch to another train to get to Leba, walk 25 mins to Rabka– the car park area, then take a golf cart to the dunes or walk for an hour. *phew* See? Easy peasy), it was truly amazing to see. I didn’t think I’d see desert, glacial lakes, and mountains all in one country, but Poland blows me away once again.

I know I’ve said this before, but of all the countries I’ve visited in Europe, Poland is the most surprising. Not only did it have the best value, all the cool landscapes, history, and tasty food completely blew away my expectations. I honestly don’t know why Poland is so underrated because for a place with so much to offer, I’m shocked that more travellers haven’t discovered this gem.

Here’s how much we spent in Gdansk:

Category Cost in USD/couple Cost in CAD/couple Notes
Accommodations: $38 USD $49 CAD We stayed in a 1 bedroom apartment with an additional sofa bed that could potentially house 4 people. It was in a old building that was renovated with new appliances and just 15-20 mins walk to the old city.
Food: $21 USD/day $27 CAD/day ($15/day for eating out, $12/day for groceries) As always, eating out in Poland is super cheap. Make sure you check out the 'milk bars' for local food. Our favourite was just 8 mins walk from our place called 'Bar Mleczny Stągiewna'. Each dish was is 10 Zlotys (or 3 USD) and you could get an appetizer + main + drink for only 20-25 Zlotys (5-6 USD). No wonder this local hangout was always packed.
Transportation: $29 USD/day $38 CAD/day Since we had to fly to Gdansk from Iceland, the cost of transportation includes the 83 Euros each we spent on Wizz air spread out over 9 days. Normally, travelling to Poland is super cheap because we'd just go with Ryanair or take a bus when we're already in Europe. Outside the flights, transportation was only 7 USD a day in Gdansk and between the tri-cities.
Entertainment: $8 USD/day $10 CAD/day With so many beaches, free attractions to see, the only cost for entertainment was tips for the Sandeman's tour (40 Zlotys), the museums (20-25 Zlotys per person), and entry to the spa (39 Zlotys). Spread out over 9 days, that's only 8 USD per day.
Misc (data + toiletries):" $0.70 USD/day $0.90 CAD/day we bought data for only 25 Zlotys (6 USD) which lasted us the whole 9 days.
Total: $97 USD/couple/day $125 CAD/couple/day Even including the flights from Iceland, Gdansk is still a super reasonably priced city to live in. If you use points to fly to Poland, your daily costs would drop down to 75-80 USD/day

What do you think? Have you ever been to Gdansk? Would you go?



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23 thoughts on “Let’s Go Exploring! Gdansk: History Comes to Life”

  1. Now I really want to go to Poland 😝😁. FYI Michigan has dukes that look almost identical (with the water in the background and all) – sleeping bear dunes national park. Saskatchewan also has dunes too (Athabasca) but they’re a bit more inaccessible so I haven’t been yet. ☺️👍

  2. We can’t wait to visit Poland. Several friends have mentioned that it’s one of their favorite countries. Our school’s Kindergarten teacher is originally from there, too. So many places, so little time!

    1. You should totally go, Amanda! I’m surprised it’s underrated but happy too–because then it wouldn’t be crowded with tourists like London, Paris, or Amsterdam. So the good news is you still have time before it gets crowded.

  3. Token resident geezer here again. 🙂

    I was stationed in West Germany when this went down. I was in a combat division and we were on high alert when marshal law was implemented. It was a frightening period. Both sides were amping up the tactical nukes and the Soviet leaders kept dying until Gorbachev took the reins. I regularly tear up when I go to historic sites in Europe. So f^cking much tragedy, death, and suffering. But it’s a mix. Some are tears of joy. 15 countries and millions of people became free. It could have been very different without Lech. The Soviet Union could still exist and global nuclear war was very possible.

    I have visited the united Germany several times as a civilian. Besides Germany,I’ve made it to the following former eastern block countries so far; Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Slovenia in prior trips. Poland is on the list.

    Thank you for the tribute to Lech. One man. He unwound the Evil Empire. Just One Man.

    1. Wow, thank you for sharing your story, Jeff, and for your service! It’s so eye-opening to be in Europe and feel lucky that I’ve grown up in a time without war. Lech really showed us that one person could change the world.

  4. Seems like a very affordable destination, an unsurprisingly I’ve never heard of Gdansk before. Is it far off the well beaten tourist track?

    When I got to the part about the spa, I chuckled to myself, “Oh yes, of course there’s a spa! This is FIRECracker afterall! I don’t think she goes anywhere without a spa.”

    Thanks for the great Poland writeup! I bumped it up a couple notches on my “places to travel” list.

    1. Surprisingly no. Gdansk is supposed to be one of the more popular cities for visitors in Poland. Maybe it’s because it’s up north and harder to get to than Warsaw and Krakow–that could be why you haven’t heard of it.

      And yes, I’m a totally spa snob now. I blame Wanderer and his hedonistic ways 😛

  5. Totally agree about Poland! But shhh let’s keep it quite and not touristy!!! It totally surprised us when we went a few years ago and was our favourite country when we did a trip across Poland, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Slovenia, Italy, and Spain. We didn’t know what to expect but it far surpassed our expectations between the food, low costs, beautiful buildings & landscapes, and the friendly people.

    1. I know, right? My problem is that where whenever I love a place I have to shout about it from the root tops. Not a good idea when keeping the tourists out 😛 My bad.

      Croatia and Slovenia are on our list too. Didn’t know Bosnia and Herzegovina are hidden gems too! But will add it to our list!

      1. Haha I know the feeling! It’s like FI, I want to shout it from my lungs to all my family and friends. Sarajevo was a delightful surprise – it’s like an onion. You and see the layers of it’s history has you walk from the city center to the outskirts. The heart of the city center reminded me so much of Jerusalem, then you see the Austrian empire take over it is looks like Western Europe, then you see the Communist era along the outskirts. It is very obvious the war was not that long ago but the people are extremely uplifting and positive. The nicest Airbnb hosts I’ve ever had were from our stay in Sarajevo.

        1. “It is very obvious the war was not that long ago but the people are extremely uplifting and positive.”

          That’s incredible. I saw the same thing in Cambodia. So much destruction and death from the Khmer Rouge yet people were way more positive than I was expecting. Really speaks to the resiliency of humans.

          I’m adding Sarajevo to my list.

  6. Hey, thanks for this! I would never have considered Gdansk before.

    My family lived in Germany before the Berlin Wall fell, and I was a kid who didn’t know much about Prague Spring except that the Russians crushed it.

    Just goes to show, history ain’t over ’til it’s over. Maybe there’s hope for Arab Spring in future?

    1. Wow, your family was actually there before the wall fell? What was that like? I’m guessing they lived in West Germany?

      It’s crazy to think one person (ie the government official who screwed up at a press release) caused the domino effects that lead to the wall falling–the same way that Lech did, in bring down communism in Eastern Europe. Who knows what can be accomplished in our life time. There’s always hope.

      1. Frankfurt, West Germany, wasn’t too different from Ottawa, Canada.

        Wonderful bread. Lots of soccer and walking and green space. Too many castles for a kid. We only passed into East Germany once, on the way out of Berlin, and they made a point of checking our faces on our passports. I also found some East German coins that were very light, probably made out of aluminum.

        Fingers crossed for freedom and democracy!

  7. We love Poland! It also helps my wife is a Pollock, we basically live of pierogies in my household. Poland and Eastern Europe are going to be one of the places we use for geo arbitrage once we retire, not that we need to leave the US to retire but the value is too good to pass up. When a people are oppressed for so long and then achieve their freedom they really appreciate it so much more than many people in the US, you can literally feel it from them. I appreciate that atmosphere.

    1. “but the value is too good to pass up.”

      That’s how I feel about Poland too–and Portugal, Las Palmas, Tenerife, Greece, etc. You’re so right about the appreciation for freedom in Eastern Europe. You can see how much blood shed they were subjected to to get here. Amazing lesson in resiliency.

  8. Dude, Poland has now firmly secured a spot on the travel list and with each article you write about it, it just gets higher and higher. That museum looks awesome and this is coming from the girl who really doesn’t do museums haha. Looks like our next international trip might be India. Have you guys been there yet?

    1. Can you tell I’m obsessed with Poland? 😛 I was amazed that the museum spoke to me as well–I’m pretty museum’d out in general.

      Where in India are you guys planning to go? Wanderer and I would love to go–once he gets over the fear of “Delhi belly” 😀

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