"Here in Gdansk, you changed the course of the history of Europe and the world… The values which Solidarity fought for are the pillars of the common values, under the rule of law, which today constitute the European Union. Justice, freedom and solidarity are the pillars of Europe."
José Manuel Barroso, President of the European Commission, speaking about the birth of the Solidarity Movement in the city of Gdansk.

Nestled on the north-east coast of Europe, with the waves of the Baltic Sea lapping against its shores, the Polish city of Gdansk is perhaps best known for its place in history.

As the location where World War II started in 1939, and the city where the Solidarity Movement - the first major force of change that led to the downfall of communism in Eastern Europe - was born in 1980, Gdansk will always figure in the history books.

However, this Hanseatic city has much to recommend it other than simply being a historical signpost in the chequered past of European conflict and invasion. The city's tapestry is rich, and in a few days one can really sink one's teeth into the diversity on offer.

I was meant to fly into the city via a connection in Munich but my flight was cancelled, which left me at the mercy of Lufthansa for one night.

As it transpired, this experience was to provide the first adventure of my journey as the airline accommodated my fellow passengers and I before we could catch a flight the next day.

This involved a 100km journey out into the German wilderness to reach our hotel - due to Oktoberfest beer guzzlers booking up all the beds in the city - and a 1am meal in the hotel's restaurant with the rest of the flight's passengers.

That may all sound like heavy going, but in truth it was an interesting start. It afforded me the chance to see the German countryside by night, and to acquaint myself with a Polish IT worker who gave me the lowdown on what I had to see in his home town, Gdansk.

So, as it turned out, my delay was beneficial as IT worker Tom proved to be my first tour guide of the city, explaining the history and current cultural situation of his home.

His friendliness and affability were replicated throughout my trip to Gdansk: the people of the town will go out of their way to help you in any way they can.

Getting into Gdansk on a brisk Wednesday morning in September - after my intriguing journey and with sleep being driven from my eyes by some black coffee - I checked into Hotel Artus for my stay. It is slap-bang in the middle of the old town, has an original brick and stone exterior and an interior which would not be out of place in Copenhagen or Amsterdam, with an edgy, modern design. Having dropped off my bags, my first stop was the PGE Arena.

It was in this soccer stadium that Ireland were hammered 4-0 by Spain at Euro 2012, and while that may bring back painful memories for Irish fans, the tour of the stadium is first rate. You get to see the set-up in one of Europe's most modern stadiums, which has a smooth amber exterior. The colour was chosen as acknowledgement of Gdansk's reputation for producing the highest-quality amber products in the world.

Included in the tour is a visit to the dressing rooms where the Boys in Green changed; you're able to see images of several of the Irish team that played against Spain displayed on the walls in the bowels of the stadium.

Another part of the tour is a zip wire from one corner of the stadium to the other, which gives you a very unique perspective on the construction below.

Having taken in one of the city's main sporting highlights, an artistic highlight is a good next stop.

A short taxi ride away from the PGE lies a very unique artistic grouping, the murals of Zaspa. The area was originally known for its drab, grey communist apartment blocks, a stark reminder of the city's communist past.

However, since 1997 an artist collective has been established which has funded and painted murals running the length of the walls that book-end these apartment blocks.

The huge murals range from images of former President, Nobel Peace Prize winner and Solidarity Movement leader Lech Walesa alongside Pope John Paul II, to more modern murals designed by some of Europe's leading street artists, who have won competitions to adorn the walls with their works.

The art is still not widely presented on the city's tourist trails, so to get a tour - you definitely should - you need to contact the Gdansk City Hall to arrange a guide, or contact a tour guide who specialises in touring the area.

Wojciech Romejko took me on the tour and his knowledge was first rate. In fact, one would be hard pressed to find a better guide for the city in general. He can be contacted at: www.gdansktur.pl.

Having taken in those two attractions you'll have built up an appetite. A fine place to indulge in some Polish cuisine and beer is the Hotel Gdansk. Located close to the heart of the old city, the hotel has its own microbrewery, which last year was awarded the titles of producing the best half-white and stout beers in Poland.

The manager of the microbrewery is only too happy to give guided tours and they are worth doing, even if only to give you an insight into how their delicious beer is made.

The fact that the beer is served from a keg beside your dining table, which has a tap hammered into it before the guests gorge, is also a great talking point.

The food on offer is exceptional, with the mushroom soup with pork, cream and boiled eggs probably the best dish I had in my time in Poland. That was followed by a duck confit with a cabbage and red wine reduction that was done to perfection.

They love their meat and cabbage in Poland, but this restaurant is a place that does it better than the others. Check it out.

In addition to great food, there are also classes available on how to make traditional Polish dumplings or 'pierogi'. They're good banter and if you're in a group are worth doing as an after-dinner activity before finishing off the night with a few more award-winning beers.

With a good meal indulged in, and a few hours sleep, you'll be ready to explore the city anew. And it really is a delight to behold.

From Hotel Artus you are in the heart of the old medieval town, which was largely destroyed in World War II and then reconstructed in the following years.

Long Market Street and St Mary's Street are the two main roads in the centre of the town. An hour or two walking around them allows you to take in the biggest brick church in Europe, the 14th-Century St Mary's Church, as well as the oldest house in Gdansk, where Nicolaus Copernicus' lover was said to have made her home. The 17th-Century Fountain of Neptune is also nearby and is worth seeing.

You'll also be able to view an amber shop which houses one of the largest collections of amber for sale in the city, before strolling down to the Vistula River. There you can see the oldest medieval crane in Europe, as well as the town's original granary that has two storehouses remaining since pre-war times.

From there the Vistula River winds its way out of the old city towards Westerplatte and the Baltic Sea.

You can take a water taxi from Zielony Most (Green Bridge), which will bring you the whole way to Westerplatte. It passes through the city's docklands, where you will observe the shipbuilding area - the city's main employer in industrial times.

The post-industrial beauty of the man-made structures is very evident as you wind your way out to Westerplatte where Polish and German forces clashed during the invasion of Poland.

Halfway back down the Vistula towards the centre of Gdansk, you can jump off the water taxi at Wiosny Ludów and make your way by foot to the historical shipyard, which is being redeveloped as the new town of the city.

The plan is to turn the area into a mix of apartments and commercial buildings, which will become the focus of the city's attempts to build a modern quarter.

Located within that area is the truly unique building where the Nazis constructed their revolutionary U-boats during World War II. The building is now home to a makeshift museum commemorating both WWII and the Solidarity Movement.

The collection has a fascinating mix of photographs and memorabilia of both eras. Setting foot in a place of such historical significance is quite a chilling experience.

Continuing on to the old entrance to the shipyard, at Gate No 2 you can take in the spot where the leaders of the Solidarity Movement spoke to the public and rallied support.

When I was there my tour guide brought us to the nearby tourist shop, where the 85-year-old owner proceeded to discuss her memories of the war and of Walesa, recounting in detail her thoughts on how the city has changed and where it's going. This unique, first-person insight proved invaluable. If you go to the city make sure to try to talk to her, and have a Polish guide with you to translate.

Behind the entrance to the historical shipyard the city is constructing the European Solidarity Centre. Made from rusted iron from the shipyard, it's designed to represent the ships created in the area and will serve as a museum for the movement. It opens on June 4 2014 and will provide a very modern and complete view of this significant chapter of Polish history.

For the moment, there is a smaller exhibition in the Occupational Health and Safety Hall nearby. This is the room where the August agreement was signed on August 31 1980 that led to a trade union being established, which in turn became the Solidarity Movement. The trade union was the first independent trade union in Eastern Europe and is the seed from which all that the Solidarity Movement stood for came from. Back outside Gate No 2 one can see the Monument to the Fallen Shipyard Workers.

That's a lot to see in just a day, but it's so worth it as it gives a very complete view of the history of the industrial and social politics of the city.

From the shipyard, jump in a taxi and get across to the main railway station at Podwale Grodzkie 2. From there it's a short walk to Góra Gradowa, a large man-made hill located to the south of the city. Just ask for directions if you don't have a map.

Walking up Góra Gradowa you take in the spectacular sight of the fort that is built into the mountain. Dating from the Napoleonic era, tours are available to see the fortifications in their entirety.

While up the hill you can also take in the Science Museum (Centrum Hewelianum) and the 16m-high Millennium cross.

But the other main reason to visit the area is for the vantage point; the view out over Gdansk is spectacular. You can see the city in its entirety, with St Mary's Church, the Town Hall and the shipyard jumping out at you on the skyline.

When I was in town the Men's European Volleyball Championships were taking place at the Ergo Arena. The venue hosts a wide selection of sporting and cultural events. Check the stadium's website to see what's on during your visit.

At the end of a day of busy sightseeing you need a good chill out. A good place to sink some Polish beers and chow down some Polish cuisine is Gdański Bowke on Długie Pobrzeże 11. It's very central and is an excellent starting point for a night out.

After that, as any experienced traveller knows, you have to let the night take you where it will.

My recommendation, however, is to visit Bunker Bar. Only open three months, it's the city's latest night owl hideout, and is located in a four-story nuclear shelter built during the communist era.

From the outside, it's a windowless grey block of concrete. Inside, it's a superbly designed mishmash of styles. One room is a communist-style interrogation room and prison; another is a Moroccan-style lounging room; another is an urban bar area with a wall constructed of bicycles.

The group that I was with spent several hours there before heading towards the centre of the old town. Long Market Street has several traditional Polish bars. They open late into the night and also serve small plates of local dishes.

Installed in one of these traditional establishments, along with my partners for the night, I sat perched on a bar stool as the bartender served up shots of walnut whiskey and lemon vodka, accompanied by cottage cheese and boiled potatoes.

All the while a barfly, who had earlier claimed to be a former circus performer, was quietly sitting nearby. In an instant he decided to do a headstand on the bar counter beside us before flopping back down into his seat. That's Gdansk for you: fun, original and out of the ordinary.

How to Get There: Ryanair flies direct to the city from Dublin and Cork. You can also get connecting flights from several cities in the UK and continental Europe.

When to Go: The summer in Poland is extremely warm. If you want things a little cooler, then try the summer shoulder months of May and September.

Where to Stay: Hotel Artus: it's central, reasonably priced, well- designed and serves a good buffet breakfast. www.hotelartusgdansk.com + 48 58 320 96 00

Where to Eat: Hotel Gdansk is one of the best eateries in the city with traditional Polish food, an award-winning microbrewery and Polish cookery classes available. www.hotelgdansk.com.pl
+48 58 320 19 70

Gdanski Bowke pub is another eatery that serves quality Polish food in a central location. www.gdanskibowke.com/en/ +48 58 380 11 11

Tour Guides of Note: Małgorzata Romejko and Wojciech Romejko run superb guided tours of Gdansk. www.gdansktur.pl +48 58 341 81 22

Tadhg Peavoy

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