Walking through the gated entrance to the Old Town, a photographic reminder of Gdansk's bleak past shows a near-destroyed city centre in the aftermath of World War II.
But then to wander further into the Long Market in the heart of the city, it beggars belief to realise that you are walking along those same bombed-out streets that have been painstakingly recreated over the past 60 years.
That old, war-torn black and white photograph sits in stark contrast to the warm, vibrant coloured buildings throughout the town centre. And without colour photographs to reference the pre-war Gdansk, the rebuild relied heavily on word of mouth and artists' paintings to restore this Hanseatic masterpiece.
The results speak for themselves: the tall, narrow Amsterdam-esque buildings take you through the old town and along by the riverside in this City of Amber. It lives up to the name - a warm hue imbues Gdansk.
A walking tour of the Old Town brings you past some architectural gems, significant statues and magnificent structures that paint an impressive picture of this once-thriving medieval city.
Starting at the gateway to Long Street, a mix of gothic and renaissance architecture welcomes you to the Old Town, where the Torture Tower and the prison courtyard give an immediate insight into the city's medieval past. The suspended shackles outside the prison are both intimidating and intriguing as you arrive.
Within this historic site, sits the Amber Museum, which is home to the precious 'Gdasnk Gold' collection. The adjoining amber shop will also provide impromptu workshops into the art of handling the amber and the polishing process of this fascinating fossilised tree resin (and not stone, as I had always assumed).
Everything appears to be within a 10-minute walk and such a high quality range of attractions is possibly unrivalled throughout medieval Europe.
The tour continues down Long Street, passing the old Town Hall, which dates back to the 13th century and was built in the Dutch mannerist style - reflecting the wealth and position of power Gdansk once held. The tower's bell music can be heard wafting throughout the city.
The 17th-Century Neptune Fountain is the centrepiece of Long Market and shows the city's longstanding bond with the sea. It was said to be influential in the development of Goldwasser, a Gdansk clear liquor complete with gold flakes throughout.
Every building along Long Street is worth appreciating. You pass such gems as the Golden House and the Green Gate, taking time to find out about one of city's most famous sons, Fahrenheit, before you make your way down to the scenic waterside. There you will encounter one of Gdansk's most famous attractions and a wonderful feat of engineering and ingenuity.
The Crane over the Motlawa River has become the symbol of Gdansk and dates back to the Middle Ages, being the largest port crane in Europe. The remarkable driving mechanism is still in working condition and was propelled by men walking inside the giant structure.
The Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary took well over a century to complete and is Europe's largest sacred brick structure. Inside, the impressive astronomical clock is amongst its many attractions along with a stone sculpture of the Pieta from the 15th Century, a Hans Memling triptych and a bust of Poland's Pope, John Paul II.
Located adjacent to Long Street, St Mary's Street (Ulica Mariacka) is a little gem within the old town with an almost Dickensian feel about the place.
The narrow, cobblestoned street was once home to the Gdansk wealthy and the area always attracted artists, with many jewellery workshops and amber galleries now dotted throughout. The street remains a hive of activity as evening falls, especially throughout the summer months with live music and cafes aplenty.
Beyond the Old Town, the industrial centre sprawls out towards the Baltic Sea to one of the most important historical sites in modern European history.
Dating back to the 7th Century, Gdansk began as a small group of fishing hamlets thanks to its strategic position where the Baltic Sea and the Vistula River meet.
In the 13th and 14th Centuries, the city became a very important trading centre, attracting merchants from England, Scandinavia and the Walloon Lands, while the Teutonic Knights arrived from the west as the port city prospered and became part of the Hanseatic League.
The city's remarkable history continued through the ages with Russian Tsars and Napoleonic forces leaving their stamp before it was incorporated into the Prussian Empire under its former name, Danzig.
An independent Poland emerged in the 20th Century before once more becoming a battleground in a European conflict as Nazi Germany occupied the country until the end of World War II.
The post-war communist regime eventually crumbled in 1989, thanks primarily to the striking shipyard workers of Gdansk and the Solidarity movement under the leadership of Gdansk native and worker Lech Walesa.
The City of Freedom pays tribute to the workers, with three majestic crosses supporting anchors and commemorating the victims of the bloody worker strikes of December 1970. The 42-metre high crosses weigh almost 140 tonnes and were made of stainless steel by the workers themselves.
A fascinating multimedia exhibition Roads to Freedom, located close to the shipworkers' monument, presents the turbulent historical events in Poland's fight for independence including the hand-written demands that UNESCO has registered in the Memory of the World list as a document of unique social and humanistic value which significantly influenced the history of Europe.
As summer city breaks go, Gdansk offers that bonus commodity of possessing a nearby beach resort at neighbouring Sopot. A short train journey takes you past the shipyards and beyond to mile after mile of unspoilt Baltic Sea beaches.
The compact town centre comes alive during the summer months, with great outdoor activities available during the day and a vibrant nightlife with a fine selection of restaurants on offer.
The Gaudi-like Crooked House on Monte Cassino Street is fascinating, while a leisurely stroll out along the longest wooden pier in Europe lets you appreciate the pretty panorama of the town and the Sopot coastline.
Daytrips are also available to the island of Hel, where many watersport activities are available throughout the summer.
Eating Out - Nightlife
The Baltic Sea plays a big influence on the restaurants of Gdansk, with excellent fresh fish options complementing traditional Polish dishes and a wide range of pork specialities also on offer. A superb meal was enjoyed at the Zuraw restaurant by the riverside, while the dining highlight was experienced at the Brovarnia restaurant at the Hotel Gdansk. Despite my initial suspicions of the lard starter, once tasted, the bacon-flavoured fat was enjoyed on the house bread and washed down by the freshly opened tableside keg of home-brewed beer. A fine lunch was also enjoyed at Kreska, located at the edge of the Old Town.
The nightlife in the town centre wasn't immediately obvious but with a bit of old school investigating, and thanks to the advice of some knowledgeable locals, a couple of great nights were enjoyed. A wide range of lively bars included an authentic Scottish Bar and, again, trendy communist-style bars where you can drink vodka for one euro and eat for two. A night's jazz was also enjoyed at the Parisian-style Café Bar Mon Balzac, where the band even played an afterhours encore on request for the noisy Irish contingent. Several nightclubs and music venues border the old town, with Absinthe Bar proving a solid choice where dancing on the tables and the bar is far from frowned upon but encouraged - it would appear. The drink of choice was Bison Grass vodka with apple juice or Mad Dogs - consisting of a flavoured vodka shot with a generous dash of Tabasco sauce.
Where to Stay
I stayed at the very homely three-star Wolne Miasto hotel at the edge of the Old Town. The hotel's location is ideal as it is within walking distance of all the major attractions and not too far from the main train station. Great nightlife, including the Kreska restaurant and Absinthe Bar, are located right beside the hotel.
Getting to Gdansk
Ryanair flies direct to Gdansk from Dublin. Flight time is just over two hours and the Lech Walesa airport is 17 kilometres from the city centre with a bus service getting you into the heart of Gdansk in 30 minutes.
Gdansk Euro 2012 Host City
This summer will see thousands of Irish flock to Gdansk as Giovanni Trapattoni's side will face Spain at the European Championships at the impressive, newly built PGE Arena. While many of the Ireland fans will be coming to Poland for the first time, I'm predicting after this visit to Gdansk, that many will return.
For more information on Gdansk, visit: www.en.gdansk.gda.pl.
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