EUROPEAN VACATION DAY 2 :: GDANSK, POLAND ::
After our tour of Malbork Castle
, we were taken to Gdańsk, Poland's third-largest city with over a thousand years of history. Through the centuries, Gdańsk has been a major center of culture and trade between Western and Eastern Europe. Regional powers have long fought for the city's wealth, power and strategic location along the Baltic Sea at the mouth of the Vistula River.
Seventy years ago, on September 1st, 1939, the Germans invaded Gdańsk (then called Danzig) with an attack on the Westerplatte Peninsula, thus starting World War II. Most of the city was bombed by the Germans and later burned by the Soviet "liberators." Many of the charming Dutch-style buildings in "Old Town" are only about 50 years old, rebuilt after the war. The architectural style was imported through Gdańsk's frequent trade with Holland.
St. Mary's Church is one of the structures that survived the war. Built in 1343, it's the largest brick cathedral in the world, standing over 250 feet tall with enough room inside to contain 25,000 worshippers. We walked under the lofty vaults, impressed by the height and light of the space. We also imagined the awe-inspiring effect it must have had among its medieval patrons. A tower offers incredible views of the city atop its 430 steps, but it was closed due to renovation work.
We enjoyed walking through Gdańsk's cobblestoned streets. Our guide, Agnes
, led us along and pointed out curiousities along the way, such as the sculpted downspouts in front of every building on St. Mary's Street.
Gdańsk has long been at the center of the amber trade, and you'll hardly find anything else being sold in stores and vendor carts packed along the streets. I purchased several pieces for the women in my life (Kristie, Mom and Sister). The prices were very reasonable - about half of what we've seen back in the States. We've been told that chunks of amber can be found on Baltic beaches after a storm.
At the end of our tour, Agnes took us to the Solidarity Monument, which commemorates the dozens (the exact number is unknown) of shipyard workers massacred by the Communist government during a riot in 1970. It was erected in 1980 by Solidarity, an independent trade union led by Lech Walesa. Solidarity organized the country's industrial workers to strike in 1989, forcing the Communists to allow free elections. From Gdańsk, the movement spread throughout Eastern Europe, dissolving the Iron Curtain and ending the Cold War. Walesa was honored with the Nobel Peace Prize and became Poland's first elected President.
The streets of Gdańsk were especially crowded while we were there. It was the last day of St. Dominic's Fair, a 23-day celebration of summer, trade and the arts, started by a pope over 700 years ago. I loved walking through Gdańsk, and I returned a couple more times when there were far fewer people and vendors overwhelming the city.
Next stop: Sopot
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