Our next departure from Warsaw led us to the Baltic Sea, to a historical town known as Gdansk. This was the home of the Solidarity Movement in the 1980s and as we headed out to Gdansk, I was very excited to see a part of Polish history (and one that I am interested in normally) that we hadn’t studied much so far (the majority of our class and visits have been focused on WWII).
My first impression when we got to Gdansk was complete awe. The Old Town, where we were staying, was breathtaking. The buildings were very old and absolutely incredible. The architecture and building facades were beautiful. I could have stayed there forever. As we walked down the cobblestone streets, it almost felt like we were on a movie set. The buildings are all so normal looking, but attached to their front are these incredible facades that only look to be a few feet thick and appear to just be stick on to the regular buildings.
Our entire trip we have been seeing amber jewelry for sale just about everywhere. Poland is one of the largest suppliers of amber and Gdansk itself is the best place to get it. I think everyone on my trip was waiting for our time in Gdansk to go crazy and buy lots of amber souvenirs. We got lucky and during our time in Gdansk the St. Dominic’s Fair was also going on. This fair is a craft fair that has been occurring for one week a year for hundreds of years. There are hundreds of booths selling their homemade crafts (art, jewelry, food, candles, etc) and many more selling the tourist knick-knacks we have seen everywhere.
Gdansk is also a port city so it is right on a set of canals that links it to a shipyard (where the Solidarity Movement began). On one of our days in Gdansk we all piled onto a ship that looked straight out of a set from Pirates of the Caribbean and headed off to the peninsula of Westerplatte. During the war, soldiers attacked Westerplatte and a small battle was fought there. On the peninsula there are many memorials to the defenders of Westerplatte including a very modern looking tall statue that we all enjoyed taking pictures on, even despite the rain that hit us the moment we stepped off the ship.
Gdansk is also the home of the soon-to-be-open national WWII museum of Poland. We met with the museum director, who gave us an incredible walk through of what the museum will look like once it is open. He also gave us a behind the scenes tour of their war collections of what they will put on display in the museum. We saw old war uniforms different countries and ranks, different weapons (hand grenades, bombs, guns, swords, etc), an Enigma machine, an old wheelchair from a mental hospital and a few children’s toys that survived the destruction of the war along with other objects. It was so nice of the director to take us into their archives, let alone show us everything they have collected.
The Solidarity Movement of the 1980s was born in the Gdansk shipyard. The Solidarity Movement brought about the first non-communist trade union in Poland, fighting worker’s rights and social change. Through acts of civil resistance like protests and strikes that fought the repression caused by martial law in Poland, Solidarity ended up as an independent trade union that still exists today. We visited a Solidarity Museum that visualized Poland in the 1980s under the Communist regime. Our professor’s wife is originally from Poland and she described what it was like raising her young daughter during this time in Warsaw. It’s hard to believe there was this much repression that occurred just 25-30 years ago in Poland.
We also visited the shipyard where Solidarity began. There is a big memorial there to the fallen shipyard workers as well as plaques standing with Solidarity from all over the world. We saw another museum that showed photographs and different objects from the movement itself, which was incredible to see. It really brings the time frame into focus when all the photos are in color.
Our last main adventure in Gdansk was a trip to the Baltic Sea! We got on the train to Sopot and headed off to the beach. The town of Sopot is right on the water and looks like a high-class tourist destination, similar to what you see in LA or Santa Monica. Still pretty, but the vibe was a little different than good ol’ Santa Cruz, CA. The beach was totally crowded, but we weaved our way through the crowds to stick our toes in the Baltic Sea.
Gdansk was an incredibly beautiful town and I wish we could have stayed longer than our three and a half days. On our way back to Warsaw, we stopped at Wolf’s Lair where Hitler was almost assassinated during WWII. The location of the compound was very far off the beaten path and after winding around unpaved one-lane roads for a few hours in our big bus, we were all feeling a little carsick. Wolf’s Lair itself is a strange place. A lot of the bunkers are still intact (and are huge), but the rest of the compound is treated as a very tourist destination. You can ride around the compound on a replica WWII tank with a driver dressed as an SS officer while the driver throws out little explosives that make a big bang when they hit the ground. It’s an odd thing to have tourists recreate and I’m not quite sure if I feel okay with it all. Wolf’s Lair is one place that I really didn’t need to go to on this trip and definitely the one place I do not ever want to go back to.