No Shelter from East or West – Gdansk, Poland, Europe

On our first afternoon in Gdansk, my boyfriend PJ and I take a walk by the river. Small pleasure boats bob and the autumn sunlight shines on the red roofs. We stop to read the harbour regulation notices, which warn of the biodegradable qualities of various types of litter. Across the water, incongruous among the other well-maintained buildings, is a roofless ruin overrun with plant life. A bride and groom pick their steps through the brush and rubble, followed closely by a photographer.

View from the river

View from the river

As we cross the bridge and head towards the Stare Miasto (old town), there seems to be a church on every corner. It is Sunday. We meet one crowd as it emerges from Mass: old people, families with children, even young adults who are conspicuously missing from the services of western Europe. The church is made of two types of redbrick, one older than the other, the join between them subtle but jagged.

We return to the pedestrianized Stare Miasto through an archway where two young women have just started to play their violins. Cafes serve pierogi (dumplings) and a type of rye soup with a boiled egg floating in it. Canopies advertise Tyskie beer. By the town hall there is a fountain of Neptune, where old people exchange gossip and small children chase pigeons. The painted stone buildings are one- or two- windows wide and four- or five-stories high.

PJ and I decide to climb the 200-plus steps of the ratusz (town hall) tower. By the time we reach the roof, my lungs and thighs really feel it. A notice proclaims a restriction of 15 visitors at a time, for the space is very narrow, but on this September day, there is just us and a German couple. We can see literally for miles. In one direction, giant iron cranes dip into the Baltic Sea. In another direction are the gray apartment blocks of the city outskirts, and after that the plains stretch out forever. The ratusz clock begins to boom and we have to cover our ears.

The German couple leave soon after the bells have finished, but PJ and I are only alone for a moment. A bride and groom, perhaps the same pair from the riverbank earlier, have risked scuffed shoes and snagged skirts to climb the narrow stairwell to the top. Of course a photographer follows close behind. On a church roof opposite, well-dressed friends and family wave and yell. The happy couple stay long enough for a few windswept, bouquet-clutching photos before they descend.

View from the Ratusz

View from the Ratusz

I can hear the gentle buzz from the street below. Almost directly beneath is the fountain, where a young couple sit and the high-pitched chatter of their small child travels directly upwards. A passing bicycle rings a bell. From here we can really appreciate the tall and narrow buildings of the Ulica Duga (Long Street). They are of varying heights and colours, their thin-windowed facades growing up from the street and topped by triangular or more stylized cornices. One proud edifice proclaims that it was established in the 1300s. The Stare Miasto is indeed an old town, a prosperous Medieval port and Northern Renaissance trading city.

Except – it isn't. I have seen photographs of Gdansk from 1946, when it was smashed more than almost any city in Europe, with the possible exceptions of Dresden and Warsaw. The Nazis, Soviets and Allies all had pot-shots at this strategic location. By the war's end, a building was lucky to have half a wall standing. All there is today – the town hall, the clock tower, the archway, the redbrick church – is a skillful reconstruction. Only the occasional ruin, like the one by the river, is a genuine reminder of what the city was 70 years ago. Nor did Poland's sufferings end with the war. The Solidarity Museum (based in the old Communist headquarters) and the Monument to the Shipyard Workers, bear witness to the petty cruelties of the Soviet era.

The landscape is perfectly flat here; not a mountain or hill breaks the horizon. If I look far enough, I can almost believe I can see the back of my own head. There is no shelter from east or west; invaders could run across that landscape from either direction, and often did.

Fountain of Neptune

Fountain of Neptune

PJ is taking photos of the elaborate spouts and cornices. A man of about 60 starts to talk to him, but unfortunately, he speaks little English and we speak less Polish. He points around the corner and PJ recognizes the word for other, as in other side, where the view is apparently better.

“Dzikuj?,” PJ says. Jen-coo-ya, thank you, one of the few Polish words we know.

Later, we descend to the street again. The voices are much louder at this level. Polish is a musical language, with its deep vowels and sibilant consonants gliding across each other. We sit on some steps opposite the fountain to eat our sandwiches. I wonder if the statue of Neptune is original or reconstructed, and then decide it doesn't matter. What is Poland but a country that has rebuilt itself several times and is in the process of doing so again.

The bride and groom appear on the street. At the coaxing of the photographer, the bride squats down and smooths her wide skirt as it billows out around her. The groom hands her breadcrumbs and she gracefully scatters them for the gathering pigeons. Another well-staged photo op. The autumn sun winks on the fountain, and the old people smile as they pass by.

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