After our meanderings in the Pomeranian countryside, we made a very quick trip into the Haneseatic city of Gdansk, which in German was Danzig. As you can see from the photo, I LOVED the place! As soon as we got to the riverfront, next to what is called the Golden Gate into the Old City, I was enchanted. One feels immediately that this was an important trading town, bustling with mercantile energy as grain and other goods were traded as early as the 13th century. The architecture is just gorgeous, all those compact Dutch-style houses of the wealthy merchants on big plazas and on the waterfront–these are my kind of places! And it turns out I wasn’t wrong to think these houses looked Dutch. As a Hanseatic city, Danzig attracted many Dutch merchants in the 16th century, who brought along their architecture–and, it turns out, their Mennonite dam builders. My mother had always said that my grandfather told her that his ancestors had been brought to Danzig from Holland in the 16th century because they were being persecuted in Holland, and this privileged city, with its own regulations and interest in commerce, was willing to tolerate their religious beliefs if they could offer them such an essential service as dike-building. Still, local German and Polish merchants would not allow them to become citizens of the city-state, but gave them instead farmland out in the rich fields around the Vistula River. I always thought this might be a bit of a legend, but apparently, it turns out to be true.
Given Gdansk’s turbulent history, it’s no surprise that it was bombed to smithereens by the Russians in World War II, leading to my only disappointment with the brief visit we made, and that was the Marienkirche, the cathedral. Begun in the 14th century and completed in the 16th, it was the largest brick building in the world, and once it became a Lutheran church after the Reformation, the largest Lutheran structure in the world. It was filled with art treasures and relics, 40 % of which were destroyed in the bombing of the city. While it was rebuilt immediately after the war by the Poles, it was so heavily damaged that the decision was made to simply white wash the walls and install what treasures were left in the side altars. For me, the affect was nearly iconoclastic.
But I would love to come back to this city–if only I could learn Polish!
On that note, just a few other observations about the Poland we saw in this quick trip. We were really struck by how American so many of the Polish people looked to us. There were young guys walking around that looked like they could be linebackers for Peoria High School’s football team! And I definitely know where my hair comes from! Everyone really looked so “normal” to us. I had no idea that the German-Slavic mixture was the dominant gene pool of the American Midwest.
Everyone was quite accommodating, even though their English was minimal. Not warm and cuddly, but accepting of strangers, and not surprised or hostile to the idea of finding two old Americans wandering around in their villages. The waitresses in the hotel were astonished and happy when we tried to say “thank you” in Polish: “Dziękuję!” (pronounced “Jeenquay”, or something like that….)
Finally, we must say that driving on the few Polish freeways was a breeze, but a lot of our drive from and back to Berlin was on small roads, and there was no other way to go. While it was a bit interesting to see the countryside, it was perhaps a little too ambitious trying to go so far in such a short time. Now I wish we could have seen Krakow and Warsaw!