23-26 July 2014
The entire city of Gdańsk, from the Upland Gate to the Motława Canal, every cobbled street and alley, is a masterpiece of architecture. Cool Baltic breezes rush over the city. Market Square is filled with monks, bürgers, wenches and knights. Children practice their swordsmanship while minstrels entertain. Ah, wandering maiden, you have arrived in the Dutch Renaissance capitol of Danzig in the midst of St. Dominic’s Fair and merchants, as they have for centuries, are rubbing their hands with glee.
Gdańsk of the 16-17th centuries was Poland’s richest city, a Flemish Mannerist jewel. Flemish or Dutch Mannerist style architecture came out of Antwerp by 1540 and was adopted over Northern Europe as a sort of mutation of flamboyant Gothic, High Renaissance, Italian Mannerist, Baroque, and French Renaissance styles. Or in the case of Gdańsk, whatever money could buy, a decorative freedom bordering on licentiousness. Hanseatic Guilds, bürger houses and town halls became artistic canvases for imagination in this Golden Age. Gdańsk was known as a tolerant, cosmopolitan city attracting an ethnically diverse citizenry of Jews, Dutch, Italian and Germans.
The city holds a unique place in history. I explore both: its honored status as the Free City of Danzig and Solidarity. I’ll start by following The Royal Way, the route of Polish Kings, beginning just steps from my cozy room at the Grand Guesthouse Hostel.
Crossing moats and draw bridges, several defensive gates gave passage thru brick defensive walls into the city. The 16th c. Upland Gate, with its shields for Poland, Russia and Gdańsk, was the official entry point for kings. He, and one she, then passed thru the 15′ thick walls of the Prison Tower before reaching the the Golden Gate. This last gate, built in 1642, was purely ornamental, decorated with city crests and eight life-sized female allegorical statues of virtues all people of Gdańsk were to exhibit towards others.
Nearby is the Armory, probably the best example of Dutch Renaissance architecture to be built in the 16th c. Its facade might confuse as to the true purpose of the building, but the exploding cannon balls at the top of the turrets give away the true purpose of this building.
The king’s procession would continue down the grand Ulica Długa or Long Street, which actually is not straight but a gently curving half-mile wave of bürger houses as eclectic in design as its citizenry. Portals of Gothic, Rococo, Renaissance design, a plethora of color, sculpture, and plaster. Houses were taxed according to frontage, so they were built skinny but deep. Each facade was unique but generally all were the same inside with three floors – the fanciest rooms in front for visitors, then a narrow corridor along an inner courtyard to the rear rooms, and family quarters in the back. The wider houses belonged to the super rich.
Perhaps the king noted the Ferber house when a young Constantin fell out a window watching the king pass (he later became a mayor of Danzig). The Uphagen House, richly designed outside and inside, with its ornate knee-high paintings of hunting and botanical scenes, was designed to impress. (Original furniture was saved by citizens who hid it in the countryside from the Nazis). As one neighbor inscribed his 1560 house: “Why build such an elaborate house? For the sake of envy.” The king passed other facades sporting an eclecticism of sculptures from Caesars to kings, puppies to lions and frescos everywhere.
Reaching the main square, the king is surrounded with bürger houses, merchants hawking their wares from around the world, jesters, musicians and village life. The Town Hall looms over the square and if the king enters he will see interior halls lush with frescos, carvings, painted ceilings and an elaborate spiral staircase. A slim 14th c. tower dominates with commanding views for those who climb to its bells. The tower contains a 37-bell carillon playing for the king’s arrival. Artus Court, an elaborate meeting hall for the brotherhoods and guilds, looms ahead, named not for this king but King Arthur.
The centerpiece of the square is Neptune Fountain, a symbol of Gdańsk (also spirited away from the thieving Nazis). Glistening in the lowering sun, this bronze statue of the sea god is a fitting symbol for an important Baltic port. The fountain is encompassed by a fence decorated with gilded Polish Eagles. Perhaps the king stopped for refreshments at the nearby Golden House, home of a wealthy grain trader and mayor of the city, its facade decorated with sculptures depicting Cleopatra, Oedipus, Achilles and Antigone. Many homes in the square have ground floor balconies extending into the square with cellars below and from which wealthy merchants wave.
The king finally reaches Green Gate at the opposite end of Ulica Długa. Inspired by the Antwerp city hall, it was built to serve as the formal residence of the Polish King. It opens to the breezes of the Mołwava River, a side channel of the Vistula. Most kings don’t like to stay this close to the stinky river, perhaps this king returns to one of the superb, cleaner-smelling merchant homes to be wined and dined. (Unlike a later favorite son of the city, Lech Walensa has his offices here.) The bricks used to build this gate are smaller than the locally made bricks because they arrived on Dutch ships as ballast and were left here to be turned into the Green Gate.
From the gate’s high vantage point, the king would look down the entire length of his route, admire the gentle curve of the street like a wave on water, and watch the activity on the river embankment and Granary Island behind. The tall Crane to his left is loading ships, able to lift small ships from the water, all hand-operated by men scrambling about at the top. And before the king, immense shipyards and exit to the Baltic.
Perhaps later, the king walks thru Ulica Mariacka, a beautiful side street lined with amber shops, balconies and imaginative gargoyles called ‘puckers’ when it rains. Gotyk House, someone whispers, was the home of the lover of Copernicus. Ahead is St. Mary’s Church and its 270′ tower. This is the largest brick church in the world and can hold 25,000 people. Built in 14-15th c. it took 160 years to complete. No frilly baroque embellishment but clean, simple white columns and walls fit for the growing Protestant citizenry. It is a hall church with three naves the same height and no exterior buttresses (doesn’t work with brick churches). The decor is one of medallions, tombs and crests, plus the biggest stained glass window in Poland. The king might step inside to view The Last Judgment, a triptych by German painter Hans Memling. “Is the Hanseatic League still pressing their lawsuit demanding its return to Italy?” the king asks. Also, the king pauses before one of largest astronomical wooded clocks in the world before continuing on to a Catholic church for Mass.
Ending his day, the king attends the festivities of St. Dominic’s Fair, the biggest trade and cultural open-air event in Europe, attended by gentry from around Europe. The most memorable fair for the citizens was in 1310, when, during the absence of the king, the Teutonic Knights plundered the city, killing merchants and participants of the Fair. But today, the medieval tradition of fun and trade reigns supreme and the king finds an abundance of food stalls offering cold beer, meat, potatoes, sausage, dumplings, sauerkraut, cabbage, mushrooms, or farmhouse bread with lard and dill pickles.
Indeed, the king has had a great day.
Five centuries later, not much has changed. Gate to Gate along Ulica Długa and the embankment promenade, bürger houses, the town hall, and the festival of St. Dominic pleases me as much as the king. Though today’s scene is dominated by a huge modern Ferris Wheel and Granary Island is being gentrified with malls and condos, the medieval heyday of the 14-15th c. lingers. The virtues of peace and freedom, justice and concord atop the Golden Gate did not save the city or it’s citizens when the Nazis invaded or from the vindictive Red Army. Eighty percent of the king’s Danzig was destroyed by 1945 but thru detailed photos and drawings, I am able to enjoy Gdańsk’s Royal Way in all its glory.
A walk for modern day visitors is that of Solidarity, providing a view of history made in recent memory. I remember cheering the shipyard workers as they struck for better conditions and when Lech Walensa climbed the wall to enter the sealed off shipyard to lead strikers. Though the communists held on for over a decade, they recognized the dam was leaking and eventually all the tanks, beatings, and executions could not stop the march to freedom for Poland.
The walk takes me from Upland Gate to the Gdańsk Shipyard with stops at several historically important churches. St. Mary’s Church gave refuge to citizens when violence broke out after 1981 martial law was declared as the Zomo riot police would not come inside; St. Catherine’s, oldest church in Gdańsk, a 14th c. brick church with 250′ gothic tower and 49-bell carillon; St. Nicolas, first Catholic Church in Gdańsk (1348) and only church to escape destruction of war without a scratch (Russians spared it because the church is dedicated to Russia’s patron saint), its dark marbled interior, baroque choir stalls, and lavish black and gold baroque alters are stunning. Over 3000 of Napoleon’s soldiers are buried here. Poland loves Napoleon!
And St. Bridget’s, the home church of Lech Walensa. St. Bridget’s and its priest were early supporters of the ideals of Solidarity. Here is the tomb of martyr Father Jerzy Popieluszko, a Warsaw priest kidnapped, beaten and murdered by the secret police. Father Jankowski, although controversial, supported Solidarity while head of the church and his tomb is also quite revered. His idea for an amber alter of the Black Madonna and an eagle and crown is spectacular.
Passing fragments of the Berlin and Shipyard walls, I am reminded that “what happened behind one wall led to fall the fall of the other.” My walk to the shipyard, which is at the north end of town, takes me past the Solidarity union offices, flag whipping in the wind, and directly to the Monument of the Fallen Shipyard Workers 1970 before Gate 2.
The huge Gdańsk Shipyard, then Lenin Shipyards, experienced massive Solidarity strikes in 1970 (brutally opposed) and 1980 when over 16,000 workers struck for 18 days. Faced with the possibility of being gunned down at any time, workers relied on supporters, gathering at Gate 2 for news, food, and support. Walensa scaled the shipyard wall, led the workers, and hashed out an agreement with communist officials. Though a disastrous time of martial law was established in 1981, Solidarity (10 million strong) wore out and moved out the communist. Walensa went on to become Man of the Year, win the Nobel Peace Prize, and the first President of a free Poland.
Gate 2, seen in news clips around the world, is standing at the birthplace of Eastern European freedom. Poles were firm in their beliefs and brave in the face of overwhelming Communist tanks and guns. Inside the gate, I find a desolate, wind swept field of weeds – worker’s voices heard on the wind.
The Monument of the Fallen Shipyard Workers 1970 is three anchor-adorned 138′ crosses. Along with wage demands and the right to form free trade unions, the right to erect this memorial was one of Solidarity’s demands during the 1980 lock-in. It stands on the spot where the first three victims of the 1970 riots were killed. 1980 strikers armed with little more than guts and determination defeated the powerful machine that was Communism. Along the wall are plaques, names of the dead (many teenagers among them), the 21 Solidarity demands, the Papal flag, and a bronze statue of a man with hands his only defense against bullets.
The nearby Roads to Freedom Museum is entered via an unassuming kiosk, but the underground museum expertly explains and documents Solidarity with films, artifacts, documents, and photos. With inspiration from Pope John Paul II and moral support of the western world, Poland, in 1989, emerged from communist control and had their first free elections, voting the communist out.
Toppled dominos represent the fall of the iron curtain across Eastern Europe beginning with Polish People’s Republic and ending with the 2004 Orange Revolution in the Ukraine. It is sad to note this final Ukrainian domino has been moved in the opposite direction, obviously in support of the country currently fighting the communist once again.
Danzig/Gdańsk has always been a cultural melting pot of ethnically diverse peoples. There has been a city here since before the 10th c. It was seized in 1308 by the Teutonic Knights who called it Danzig and encouraged other Germans to settle here, turning it into a wealthy city of merchants and mostly German citizens. Joining the Hanseatic league in 1361, Danzig virtually dominated Baltic trade. In 1454, the city rebelled and forced the Teutonic Knights from the city. When the king requested the wealthy merchants to fund his mercenaries to force the Knights from the nearby castle at Malbork, he awarded the merchants, in exchange, exclusive export rights, giving them an envious position of acting as middlemen for all trade passing thru the city. (More about Malbork in another post.)
The 16-17th c. were Danzig’s Golden Age. As a privileged, semi-independent, religiously tolerant and booming city, its wealthy merchants imported Italian, Dutch and Flemish architects and an exquisite city was built. After Poland’s partition, the city became a part of Prussia, which did not please the locals. As a compromise, after WW1, the city fell under neither German nor Polish control, but became the Free City of Danzig (an excellent museum chronicling The Free City of Danzig is near the Green Gate). During the Interwar Period the city had its own currency and stamps. Flags with the city crest of two white crosses under a crown on a red shield proudly flew atop the Town Hall. Citizens saw themselves not as German nor Poles but as Danzigers.
However, in reality, what this concession of WW1 did was cut off this northeastern city, a city of mostly Germans with only about 15,000 Poles, from Berlin. In 1939, Hitler moved to reclaim what he saw as German territory by attacking at nearby Westerplatte, thus beginning the horrors of WW2. (Now being repeated by Putin in the Crimea and Ukraine?)
Danzig was not exclusively Polish until after WW2 when it was renamed Gdańsk. In fact, this is what brought about its almost complete destruction. Allies bombed its ports and industries, Germans destroyed and stole whatever they wanted, but it was the angry Red Army, never known for its compassion and restraint, who entered Danzig and viciously destroyed everything that was left. Today’s Gdańsk has arisen from these ashes.
This is the history I keep in mind as I enjoy the exquisite architecture of the city, its churches, its cobbled streets, and attend the festivities of St. Dominic’s Fair.