July 26 – August 23, 2018 (Summer)
Greeting: Dzień dobry
Currency: Złoty (zł)
Cost of living: Medium
The Trójmiasto, or Tri-City, offered us a unique combination of favorite features: Poland and the Baltic Coast. Two great tastes that taste great together! Gdańsk, Gdynia and Sopot are thriving seaside cities and a favorite summer escape for Poles and Northern Europe in general. Gdańsk – commonly known by its German name, Danzig – has a rich history stretching back more than a millennium and is famous as a sightseeing destination and regional capital. Gdynia, on the other hand, was a small town until just a century ago when it was chosen as the spot for a new port to compete with the then-Free City next door. It is now a large and modern metropolis in its own right, consistently rated one of the most livable in Poland. And the attractive spa city of Sopot sits squarely between the two. Sunburned and sandy beach-goers are a regular sight alongside professionals commuting to work on the popular rail line uniting the three municipalities into one grand one: the Tri-City.
Where we stayed
We originally focused our Airbnb↗ search on Gdańsk, but Gdynia ended up providing a much better deal. Our top-floor apartment was just two blocks from the waterfront promenade. The mostly-residential neighborhood was about as quiet as we could hope for, considering northern Poland’s short tourist season overlaps with its short roadwork season. A nearby SKM station made it easy to get to wherever we wanted to go, and just across the tracks we could visit the massive Centrum Riviera shopping mall. Few places in Gdynia were more than 20 minutes away by foot, especially along Świętojańska (a main thoroughfare packed with restaurants and businesses) or that beautiful boardwalk.
The apartment was divided between a kitchen/living room and a bedroom/office. Toastier weather and a lack of air conditioning kept us a bit lazy at first. But windows faced out both sides of the building and corralled a daytime breeze or let in cool air at night. Though the height of summer, there were miraculously few mosquitoes. But fruit and house flies were legion. Nothing stopped them from coming inside the moment the windows opened.
The place came with a few unexpected perks. From our windows we watched competitors running in the city’s Iron Man races. Mini concerts kept them energized and a water station a block down kept them hydrated. Later in the stay, our lofty perch gave us a front-row seat to Gdynia’s airshow. While huge crowds lined the waterfront, we dined on duck and watched skydivers from the comfort of our dinner table. A steady stream of acts followed, from helicopters and bi-planes to stunt fighters pulling impossible acrobatics. The show continued after dark and culminated with planes trailing sparks from their wingtips, lit by LEDs and shooting fireworks like missiles. We were mesmerized►.
What we did
Baltic beaches put the Tri-City on the map for us. As summer peaked, we wanted a waterfront with a sea breeze and an escape from the heat. Unfortunately for the start of our stay, we sweltered in humid 85°F+ temperatures. But unlike in Batumi↗, cooler nights moderated the extreme afternoons. Bike and pedestrian sidewalks line the shore in Gdynia, dotted with ice cream shops, pubs, and snack stands. Kępa Redłowska Park, with its abandoned gun emplacements stretches down to Orłowo. There a wooden pier provides views toward Gdańsk’s ports and Klif Orłowski, a steep sand cliff on the sea. Gdynia’s wide breakwater pier houses an aquarium, ferry terminal, a statue of Heart of Darkness author Joseph Conrad, and two floating museums. The tall ship Dar Pomorza served as a training vessel for sailors for decades before being retired in 1982. We walked through its small officers’ quarters and large engine room and admired its regal silhouette. Near Gdynia’s working port, the Emigration Museum focused on a more emotional part of Poland’s past: those who left. The region’s complex history means that some who were welcomed had to later flee. Millions of others emigrated for a better life or to escape one oppressive government or another.
Our arrival coincided with the beginning of Gdańsk’s Shakespeare Festival. Theater groups from around the world attend, staging reinterpretations of the Bard’s classics and their own unique productions. We attended Midsummer Night’s Dream put on by the Mostaghel Theatre from Iran. The show took over the entire stage in multiple dimensions, their excellent Puck popping out of the ceiling and hidden doors in the floor. Criss-crossed lovers fell for the wrong people, the others lamented the inexplicable infatuations. Macbeth, by the Sardegna Teatro and Compagnia Teatropersona from Italy, was much bleaker despite turning the witches into comic relief. Dust swirled across the stage, tracing the events that drove Macbeth to murder and downfall. The plays were acted in Persian and Sardinian respectively, but an overhead screen gave simultaneous Polish and English translations. The Shakespeare Theatre itself is a beautiful building based on the classic Globe. Three stories of seating face the stage and the unique roof can open to the sky on nice days.
Just walking around Gdańsk was a treat in itself. The former Hanseatic city has been under Teutonic, Polish, German, and Prussian control, as well as a Free City during its long history. The result is a former fortress and port turned imitation Amsterdam. Tall, narrow buildings line the Old Town’s stone streets. Stately brick steeples catch light even when the streets lie in shadow. Man-made waterways encircle the historic core and divide it into islands. Now that the real port has moved to the suburbs, pirate galleons and paddle boats have taken over the canals. St. Dominic’s Fair is one of the largest open-air market fairs in Europe and runs for three weeks in August. We joined crowds shopping for antiques, crafts, jewelry, clothing, and especially food. As with most festivals meals were pricey, but our kielbasa and potato dinner was well worth the premium.
Also in Gdańsk, the Museum of the Second World War takes a deep look at some of Poland’s darkest days. Even the building seemed designed to force contemplation, the pointed structure rising out of the ground, entrance and exhibition below. It does a fairly thorough job of presenting the roots of the conflict (save for glossing over that bit where Poland did a little Anschlussing of its own in Lithuania and Czechoslovakia). The comprehensive exhibits progress through the overwhelming offensive against (and valiant defense of) Poland, the decimation and destruction here and throughout Europe, and glimpses of the day-to-day life that had to carry on despite the conflict. Myriad massacres, last stands, bombings, pogroms, and of course the Holocaust make for a heavy afternoon of reading. Poland, invaded from both sides and carved up between Hitler and Stalin, was largely abandoned by the Allies during the conflict and did not even get a say in deciding its post-war fate. They take immense pride in those that bravely fought against superior numbers far longer than they were expected to – workers in the Gdańsk Post Office, soldiers in the Home Army, fighters in the Warsaw Uprising↗. Our visit took over five hours and covered a truly staggering amount of history.
Across the Bay of Puck, a narrow ribbon of sand stretches 35 kilometers out into the Baltic, a truly awe-inspiring formation that puts Washington’s Ediz Hook (4.8 km) and Dungeness Spit (10.9 km) to shame. On a particularly nice weekend, we decided to visit Hel Peninsula for ourselves, by ferry. The boat ride took about an hour, with little to do but spot tankers headed for port. But on arrival we discovered the peninsula was beautiful. Sandy beaches stretch along the shores and a surprising number of settlements and structures dot its length. Old artillery installations are still scattered throughout the woods, and the strange blend of environmental tourism (enjoying the trees and seas) and military-history tourism gave the area a unique and curious character. Crowds were out in force enjoying the weekend’s gorgeous weather. We stopped for a delicious seafood meal at a popular fish restaurant and passed plenty of souvenir shops on our way out of the town center. Stopping, of course, to take the mandatory photos of the various signs of Hel (and the highway to/from it). Most of the peninsula communities are linked by road, rail, and trail, the last of which we hiked all the way to Jurata. The walk was pleasant enough, but most people on the path rode bikes and moving aside for them every minute or two got old after a while. From Jurata we caught a train home to Gdynia, slower than the ferry but a good deal cheaper – and arguably more scenic.
This month by the sea also saw a sea-change in our family history research. We both have ancestors from Poland, but Danielle’s mother had traced her family to the Gdańsk region. The State Archives in Gdańsk pointed her toward the branch in Malbork. Known for its massive castle complex, the archives were located right inside the castle walls and provided a wealth of new information. After the archives closed, the castle grounds provided a bit of sightseeing. Her great-grandparents surely visited this very place! Her last stop was the village of Żelichowo (formerly Petershagen, Prussia). The residents at the time were Mennonites, emigrants from the Netherlands taking advantage of this region’s religious tolerance. They engineered polders to dry the lowlands and farmed newly-available land. One Dutch-style home is now a restaurant called Mały Holender. The owner, a local historian, gave a warm welcome and was thrilled to put a face to some of the local names. Though the nearby cemetery was largely in ruins, a few gravestones still stand. Others rest in the Zulawski Historic Park’s Mennonite exhibit. The last Mennonites fled or were forced out after World War II, but a few signs of their presence remain in the Vistula Delta.
Food & Drink
Supermarkets and their hyper-sized brethren are the norm in Poland. Besides the local corner-shop (good for emergency staples) our nearest and preferred grocery store was Auchan in Centrum Riviera. The massive store felt more like an American supermarket than almost any we’ve seen, though still with plenty of Polish flair. Whole aisles of kielbasas and piwa regionalne accompanied the bins of back-to-school goodies. Though we were once again excited at the prospect of duck (this time with an actual oven to cook it in), the ongoing trade war made pork irresistibly cheap this month. We also stopped at Lidl for cheaper items and Piotr i Pawel for fancier imports – even Poptarts! The Municipal Market Halls, near the central station, offered fresh fruits, fish, clothing, and local honey.
Naturally we ate a lot of pierogies. Ruskie, filled with potatoes and cheese, are the classic variety for a reason. Others were stuffed with blueberries, meat, or chickpeas and come in boilable or grillable varieties. Potatoes pop up in lots of other places as well: from waterfront fry shacks to frozen veggie mixes to, ahem, distilled liquid form. We did make a few ducks after all, too. Some came pre-seasoned and stuffed with fruit rather than giblets, ready to eat after just a few hours of roasting. Another came pre-baked (we didn’t notice this before we got it home) and only required a short warm-up. Convenient, but unfortunately it wasn’t nearly as delicious as cooking it ourselves.
Poland is squarely Central Europe culturally, and that means most dishes center on meat and potatoes. But they also have a strong affinity for American culture and cuisine. Nowhere was this more obvious (or more enjoyable) than the plentiful burger bars. We indulged in cheeseburgers (with egg on top, where available) from Baranola🌐 and 3 Burger🌐, the latter of which also offered novelty meats like lamb and boar. The quality of the beef was better than we’d had anywhere on the continent, and they had just the right combination of sauces and toppings.
Hel, on the other hand, focuses on fish. We stopped by To-Tu🌐 for an affordable seafood lunch. The small restaurant seemed constantly full, for good reason. We chose halibut and cod off the short menu; both came battered and fried to perfection. Closer to home, Auchan carried a curiosity we just had to try: a salmon hot dog. This being Poland, and it being a tubed meat, it actually was actually surprisingly good. None of our meals had much in the way of piquant spice, of course. Central Europe is hardly known for its deep bench of dynamic flavors. Only a few snack food exceptions, like Lorenz Chakalaka chips, prove the rule. Lay’s Quesadilla chips didn’t have any kick but at least had a tongue-coating amount of flavor.
Poland once again wowed us with fantastic beer. Following up a month in Lithuania↗ was always going to be heartbreaking, but the incredible variety and quality of the local brews calmed our souls somewhat. Tri-City boasts a plethora of craft bars and bottle shops. Even the grocery stores had excellent regional options. Once again, the American influence is acutely felt: APAs, IPAs, West-Coast PAs, New England PAs… the American craft scene’s love of hops has had a huge influence on Poland. A particular favorite of ours was Cookie Monster, from Inne Beczki, precisely because it broke that mold. It tasted just like oatmeal cookies and was ideal as a dessert.
Browar Port Gdynia🌐 sits right on the water and offers tasting flights of their on-tap creations. AleBrowar🌐 is further inland, conveniently between a Hawaiian sandwich shop and a pizza place. They had a raspberry beer for summer that glowed red and drank like soda. Morze Piwa🌐, a popular craft bar had lots on tap including the delicious Foreigner stout. Folks looking for beer without any games should steer clear of Graciarnia🌐 – they had plenty of serious taps and bottles, but also stacks of board games! In Gdańsk, the friendly and helpful bartenders at Cathead Multitap🌐 talked (and tasted) us through most of the lineup until we zeroed in on the exact right option for each of us.
Good wine is harder to come by. Poland makes little itself, so we relied on imports from Portugal↗ and Georgia↗ and, more unusually, Israel. Vodka is the stiff drink of choice. Poland makes and consumes it by the boatload. Żubrówka bisongrass vodka is our personal favorite. One popular serving suggestion has it mixed with apple juice (or cider) to make a sweet cocktail called a tatanka, perfect for summer afternoons.
From Port Lotniczy Airport, SKM trains run frequently to Gdynia Główny for 6.50zł (about $1.75). Getting to Gdańsk Główny requires a transfer at Wrzeszcz station. SKM also has a route from Gdynia to Gdańsk through Sopot (13zł round trip). Tickets are sold at kiosks, ticket windows, or in the front car of the train. Long-distance tickets can be bought online, at the station, or on the train (except for Express Intercity trains). Be wary of buying long-distance tickets in person on a tight schedule. Kevin experienced a 40-minute line at Gdynia Główny and missed a train by minutes on one occasion. Ticket inspections are random but do occur.
The Tri-City area embraces Uber↗ along with other local ride-sharing apps. We used it just once to get to the Emigration Museum on a rainy day. When we tried to take an early-morning Uber on the day we left, cars were thin on the ground and we had to hustle to the train station to make our flight!
If a train isn’t going somewhere, chances are a bus will. Local routes to smaller communities can be hard to find online but staff at the stations are generally more than willing to help out.
Hel Peninsula is easily accessible by train or ferry from either Gdynia or Gdańsk. The boat from Gdynia cost a hefty 40zł per person and took one hour. Trains are cheaper (15zł from Jurata to Gdynia) and run more frequently.
Stuff of interest
Our SIMs↗ came from Play. The single SIM card cost 5zł and a 25zł “pakiet” got us each plenty of data (10 GB domestic, but only 0.5 GB EU roaming), texts, and calls. Passports are needed to register the SIM cards.
Most beer bottles are subject to a 0.50zł (50 groszy ≈ 14¢ US) deposit. But in practice, stores require receipts and elaborate procedures to retrieve the deposit – it’s clear that it isn’t intended to be recouped. After a couple such ordeals we ended up just writing it off.
Drinking in public is generally (and somewhat surprisingly) illegal in Poland. However, municipalities can opt out. Gdynia seems to have done just that – it’s a common sight to see folks pull beers out of purses or shopping bags for a quiet waterfront drink after work. Sitting on a pier with a beer is a great way to end the day.
Like most of the Eastern Bloc countries, decades of communist rule left the country littered with Brutalist panel buildings. Poland’s “bloki” are especially notable and even sort of pretty. The unique Falowiec↗ arrangement (extremely long, wavy rows of buildings) are well-represented in Tri-City, and even average apartments tend to be nicely painted and well-cared for these days.
Poland loves shopping malls. There are malls across from malls next to other malls. But new laws enacted earlier in 2018 force large stores – including supermarkets – to close on Sundays. Some smaller minimarts remain open but we planned around the closures and weren’t caught off-guard.
What did catch us off-guard? Not our first or second↗ or third↗, but fourth accidental eclipse of the trip. This one was a rare total lunar eclipse, and a spectacular one at that. We worried before that the weather wasn’t going to cooperate. Sure enough, the moon rose partially eclipsed but quickly vanished behind haze and cloud. We stuck around though, and our waiting paid off about an hour later. The rust-red disk reappeared and stayed visible for the rest of totality and through the exit. Thousands gathered along the waterfront to view the phenomenon.
What we learned
A common topic in the immigration debate is the makeup of ethnic nation-states. Netherlands for the Dutch, Poland for the Poles, etc. It’s easy to forget that this is a new idea – Europe has always been diverse, and no borders were drawn without some minority populations on one side or the other. When hatred and fear of others dominated the continent, Poland was a rare bright spot of cultural and religious tolerance.
That’s not the case anymore. Anti-Islamic activists draw big crowds and even young Poles fear refugees and migrants – while themselves moving abroad in huge numbers in search of economic opportunity. As, of course, did many before them… including our own ancestors. Partitions, subjugation, the Holocaust, the Iron Curtain – Poland had a difficult history, no doubt. As long as resources are finite, the topic of immigration will remain contentious. But no student of history can claim that anything good has come from fear or hate.