I spent two days in Gdańsk in Poland last weekend. Flying in over the city, it looks like a bizarre mix of industrial landscape and a chocolate box, with the old part of the city standing apart. Gdańsk's Lech Wałesa airport is a very small airport, suddenly made popular by cheap Ryanair and Wizzair flights. Airports are typically boring, so it was quite amusing and surprising to see half the waiting crowd jump up on the luggage conveyer when it stopped, scrabbling around for their bags.
I took the B bus to the centre of Gdańsk, looking at the cold, pale Polish faces and men in funny hats. The buses in Gdansk are the logical epitome of a bendy bus: two smaller buses welded together with some plastic stuck in between. The cars on the road seemed a mixture of modern and hilariously-stereotypical Ladas. We drove through some of the forest which separates Gdańsk in half - a fairly impenetrable wall of coniferous, snow-covered trees. Cold, yes, it was going to be cold.
I stayed at the Mercure Hevelius Hotel which, at about 17 storeys high, was unmissable. The building itself looks quite incongruous next to the old city and the service was similiarly typically un-Polish with polite but cold staff.
The Old City (Stare Miasto) of Gdańsk is small, so small I walked to the other end of it without realising. Sadly, most of the old city closed on Saturdays at around 2 or 3, so I didn't get to really appreciate it. The buildings are red-brick and the streets cobbled and the amber coloured jewellery shops shine which is attractive. But the general feeling I got walking around the old town was of a small, quiet town. It certainly didn't feel like the centre of a city of one million inhabitants.
Having left my camera at home, I had hoped to pick up a disposable camera - sadly the few shops I looked in did not have any. I began to wonder where I had come to - was there going to be anything to do?
As I wandered a little more, I noticed some cafés and restaurants. They didn't appear to be open but the lights were on. I quickly realised that despite the large, heavy wooden doors being closed, the establishments were actually open. It is cold there, these doors make sense. Once I realised this, I bravely starting opening doors. I bought a Polish newspaper (the newsagent informing me getting an English one was "very difficult"), hoping to find some activities to do.
I settled into a coffee shop on the main street (Ulica Długa). Cafe Ferber is a stylish, modern venue with red walls and interior. I sat in the warm, drinking tea with rum (the Irish coffee option felt too clichéd). Tea with rum could make me overcome my apathy towards tea. Two people at a table nearby to me read their menus, one of which went perilously close to a candle and caught fire. The Polish people laughed it off. Gdańsk was seeming much more fun.
As I read the paper, I found the words for 'Saturday' along with 'ukraińskiej' and 'koncerty'. I surmised from this that a Ukrainian folk concert was taking place. I asked the waitress who recommended that I should go and called me a taxi. So, onwards to a large hall-cum-nightclub. For 25 złoty (about £5), I would get a night's entertainment Ukraine-style, beginning at 6 and ending at 4.30 (or, as it is in Poland, whenever the last customers leave). My initial expectations of a polite Ukraianian folk music concert were wrong - instead, it was a concert of contemporary music - either by the Ukranian community in Poland or by young people from Ukraine (I couldn't quite work out which).
The first few acts included a three-piece girls+guitars band playing jaunty, sing-a-long songs. And everyone was singing along - within the first few bars being played, the dancefloor was full of young couples dancing formalised, traditional dances. Next came some rapping kids - comedy rap, I think - mixing their own raps, Limp Bizkit and Ruslana. Odd but amazing. Following these was some sketches (not a notion what they were about). Then came a 7-piece ska band with added accordion and sax. They were amazing, and I only wish I could understand who they were so I could get a CD.
During the concert, I got a message from Thomas, a German guy living in Gdansk who had offered to take me out with some of his friends. I left the concert at a lull, when a band fronted by a hoary old rocker but with younger accompaniment took the stage. (It was quite clear this old man fancied himself a lot and continuously changed his backing as Nobody Was Ever Good Enough For Him.)
I met up with Thomas and friends later in Sopot (one of the three cities which make up the Trojmiasto area), after something of a debacle getting a train ticket. They took me to Faktoria, Gdańsk's only (functioning) gay club (the only other club allegedly being a mafia front). Gaying in Gdańsk seems quite closeted - Faktoria was in what seemed to me like an industrial wasteland. We had to dodge puddles, mud and clamber up some snowy hills to get there.
Other bars I went to were down dark alleys, behind large doors with doorbells for entry. Once inside, Faktoria was amazing. The decor was modern, stylish, a little camp and eccentric but with real personality - lizard statues on the walls, some glitter here, cock pictures there. Sadly the music didn't live up to the image with the DJ playing a seemingly continuous loop of beat-beat-beat dance music. She committed a heinous crime against humanity by playing Madonna's Hung Up and neglecting to actually play the chorus.
So I quickly gave up on dancing and began talking to all and sundry (my evening being fully fuelled by local vodka Źubrówka and apple juice). I met lots of interesting people: an American guy who had lived in London and Berlin, a local Polish guy now living in London, a half-Polish, half-Papua New Guinean guy and his Swedish boyfriend. Everyone was incredibly friendly and chatty. When we tired of Faktoria's music (this being about 4am), we moved on to an after-party at Pompon, a small bar. Crazy antics ensued: every table and chair was being danced on with some people perched poledancing on the stairs railings.
I stumbled home to my hotel, looking the very epitome of the drunken Irishman, at about 7.
Sunday, I woke and did some shopping. My stomach soon needed food, so I went in search of an open restaurant in the old city. I found Bistro Kos. The menus were only in Polish so once I established that what I was ordering was not fish, I waited for my surprise meal. The plate that came was rectangular, about twelve inches by eight and full of food. I had a spicy chicken dish and potato chips and lots of salads and dressings. It was gorgeous. From there, I went to a supermarket to stock up on vodka and then to another coffee shop (The Daily Cafe on Ulica Długa) where I had a hazelnut shake (again a surprise order!).
I spent Sunday evening in Sopot in the company of Krzys. Sopot is definitely livelier than Gdańsk with much more bars and restaurants and would thus seem an altogether better city to be based in (although it is very easy to get there from Gdańsk on the local commuter trains which run all night). Krzys told me that surveys have found Sopot the best place to live in Poland with its residents the 'happiest' in Poland and it was easy to see why, especially in summer with a beach on your doorstep.
We went to Soho Bar, a gay-friendly bar (so called as gay people run it). It was very quiet but I would imagine is great fun when in full swing. Its one toilet had a mirrored ceiling which was certainly interesting. From there we went to Niebieski Kot (Blue Cat), a new bar which had just opened at Hallowe'en. Run by a lesbian couple, this bar felt a little more lesbian but not exclusively so. Krzys told me that in Poland, it would be preferred if bars were more exclusively male or female. Niebieski Kot's decor was very 'Sopot' - boldly painted walls, with a tree 'growing' up the middle, and lots of junk and clutter (books, an empty frame [ooh, metaphoric!], an old radio, photos, statues of cats, a skeleton...). We rounded off the evening drinking Goldwasser - a vodka with flakes of gold in it.
Maybe it's the drink talking but it's a good metaphor for Gdańsk: harsh, but with glimmers of beauty and fabulousness.
All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed my two days in Gdańsk. The city itself is a little quiet and strung out for full on tourism but with a little delving, interesting and fun areas can be found. And vodka is cheap as. What more could you ask for?!
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· Draw Europe's nations
· Crowdsourced Continent maps
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· Football with foreign fans
· London shop geography
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