Sunday, 19 April 2020

Poland's Pleasure Port

Hello Sopot - and hello Polish summer!
The longest wooden pier in Europe.
Welcome to Sopot!
It was only mid-morning when we got to the train station after a brief walk around the city. Today we were heading to the second of the three cities - Sopot. The small trains that run between these cities are funny, smaller and not as comfortable as the main line trains, they seem almost like toy trains. There aren't as many seats and the seats they have reminded me of the plastic seating you used to get in MacDonald's in the 90s. These trains don't need to be super-modern and super-comfortable, as the trips they do are short but - roughly 15 minutes from Gdansk to Sopot - but frequent, with 130 trains a day. The train stations are also small and a little funny, and virtually unstaffed. We did, however, buy the train tickets as they were cheap and we were a little worried about getting caught by the inspector. I have always had a fear of bus and train inspectors (maybe because in Sydney checks can be done by the Police!), so out of fear I always buy tickets, even if the likelihood of checking is non-extant. I believe, though, that people should pay for public transport as a way of keeping certain lines open and people employed. I also believe that while the tickets should be affordable for everyone, the service needs to be decent and subsidised by the government. We got off the train shortly after getting on, arriving at Sopot's only station, ready to see the town. Much smaller than Gdansk, Sopot has a population of around 40,000 residents, which I think would swell during the summer with tourists. This town is very much a tourist resort town, with big hotels on the beachfront with their private areas - a big contrast the the working port of Gdansk. 
The Grand Hotel - built in the mid 1920s.
Mr Bean?

Every angle of this building is weird!
Some interesting art in Sopot.
We walked down the main street of the town, Bohaterów Monte Cassino Street, which is a pedestrian thoroughfare from the main road intersection in front of the station all the way down to the beach. We did venture off the main drag in search of lunch later on, but didn't find much - it seems everything is in one place here. We stopped for a coffee at a cafe and accidentally found a tourist attraction. I hadn't been looking for it, as I decided not to read anything about this city beforehand, but as we sat down I noticed that there was something strange with the building opposite. I looked a little closer and realised that it was wavy and crooked. I looked it up on my phone and discovered that it is called Krzywy Domek and was built in 2004 - designed by Szotyńscy & Zaleski based on the fairy-tale illustrations and drawings of Jan Marcin Szancer and Per Dahlberg. You can walk around the building and see it from different angles, and the movement and angles only get weirder. I didn't go inside, as it is part of a shopping centre and nothing exciting inside - but the outside is quite cool. This isn't the main tourist attraction, thankfully! The main thing to see here is the grand pier and surrounding beaches. The Sopot Pier is the longest wooden pier in Europe, measuring 450 metres from the edge of the shore, and 650m total. It first opened in 1827, making it older than Brighton's famous pier (1899) and but not as long as the Southend Pier (2.16km long and the longest pleasure pier in the world!) which is built of steel. We of course wanted to walk to the end and look back at the town from the vantage point, but this wasn't free - being summer and 'high season,' you have to pay 8zł (€1.80) for the privilege. Although I felt that was a bit rude, 2 Euros to walk on a pier, the only thing to do here other than eat, drink and lie on a beach really. I thought about the queue for the tickets, how many people were already on the pier, and didn't even bother to do the maths as it was just a lot of money, and all because they could. We paid but forgot about it as soon as we set foot on the wooden planks.
The beaches here are lovely, with soft, golden sand.
Beach time!
Pirate ship sailing tours are very popular here it seems.
The battle for air supremacy.
The sun was shining and August in Poland was giving its all. Still nowhere near as hot as Summer in Spain or even Australia. It was a pleasant kind of heat, one that I love and could tolerate all day, every day. I saw a strange man, dressed in a brown suit with patched elbows, carrying two suitcases, and he reminded me of Mr Bean. I snapped a few pics of him, to make sure he was real, but we saw him later doing a kind of show (I'm guessing as a Mr Bean impersonator), so at least he was real and wasn't a complete weirdo! There were quite a few ships moored to the end of the pier, including a pirate ship that took people for pleasure cruises. Although not the same Black Pearl that we saw in Gdansk, it was the same kind of thing - dinner and a cruise for holidaymakers. After walking the length of the pier and enjoying the weather at the same time, we headed for the public beach to chill for a bit. I never really liked spending too much time at the beach if it was just laying down sunbathing, so after a little while, we decided to make a move for lunch. Also, clouds were starting to move in and I was a little worried about getting caught out. We had a typical zapiekanka, a Polish-style, toasted baguette of various toppings with melted cheese on top, served on a paper tray. When in Rome! These snacks date back from the 1970s, and although it is associated with the austere Communist times of the past, they are very popular now and we had to line up for it, even though there were numerous places doing these. I scoffed mine down, which was a pepperoni melt with spicy sauce, and immediately felt like another. After this little break and refreshment, we headed back up the hill to the station to make our way to the 3rd city on our list - Gdynia.
Lighthouse in Gdynia.
Relaxing in the sun in Sopot.
Ships docked in Gdynia.
Sailing in Sopot.
I don't want to be too negative about the next city, Gdynia, but there wasn't that much to see and do for a tourist. The city itself was quite average - normal buildings, streets, and all the regular shops. Nothing really stood out. There is a reason for this though, which I discovered after a little bit of research. Gdynia was only granted city rights in 1926, which allowed the city to expand rapidly demographically and architecturally. Unfortunately, this growth was interrupted by the outbreak of WWII and the newly built port and shipyard were destroyed completely. The population also suffered heavy losses, causing the remaining inhabitants to either flee or be expelled by the occupying forces. Most were sent to other occupied regions of Poland, or shipped off to concentration camps. After the war, the city slowly started to come back to life with the influx of people and industry - the ship yards were rebuilt and expanded and the city got back on its feet once more. Nowadays there still isn't much to see, but you can see development that is happening, new, tall apartment buildings being built out of glass and steel, and lots of bars and restaurants opening. The ship yard is still there and the docks are about the only thing worth seeing really. From here you can get a cruise on a pirate ship, look at some military ships and wander to the end of the concrete pier to look out to the Baltic Sea. The restaurant at the end, The Captain Cook Tavern, looks like something out of the 70s, as does the fountain and fairground, but I didn't mind that - and both places were busy with locals. We walked around and saw the ships, including a beautiful sailing ship that is now an expensive restaurant (the Bar Pomorza) and a modern, grey navy ship with one lone sailor standing to attention. We found a great little Spanish tapas bar called Tapas Barcelona in the main part of town, which had good food, Miro artwork on the walls... but most importantly, Estrella beer! We were happy with what we'd done - although the city was exciting, it was quiet, clean and had just about everything you needed for everyday life. It just wasn't a tourist town - but that's fine by me!
A modern war ship.
Ships and storms in Gdynia.
The sailing ship Pomorza (now a floating restaurant).
Bar Pomorza - a sailing restauant.
The place where we stayed in town was a little strange too. It was booked on a popular booking site, but frankly there wasn't much choice as there were very few cheap rooms near the centre before the prices went up exponentially. First, we weren't able to find it! It was in a very unassuming apartment block with no obvious way in, but we eventually made contact with the owner and got in. The room itself wasn't very nice to be honest - the 2 beds weren't made properly and there was no towels or even toilet paper in the bathroom. We made do with this (by making the beds and going to the supermarket for the bog roll), and had a nice, solitary dinner on the rooftop terrace, which was dirty back came with a nice view. In the morning we grabbed an Uber and headed back to the train station, making our way back to Gdańsk for the main train back to Poznan. We checked train times and and worked out that if we caught the afternoon train back, we'd have time to do one more trip around the Old Town to get those perfectly lit morning shots that I had missed the first day. After getting my photos in, and being very satisfied with them indeed, we also had time to make a bus trip to see Gdańsk Westerplatte - the place where World War II started. We got information from the helpful staff at the Tourist Information office and jumped on a bumpy bus to the end of the Gdańsk peninsula too see the war memorial. The Battle of Westerplatte was one of the first battles in Germany's invasion of Poland, marking the start of World War II in Europe on September 1st 1939. Army, Naval and Air forces hit this place hard and all at once, in classic Blitzkrieg style, but the Poles were able to hold out for 7 days and 13 assaults. The Germans even used dive-bombing tactics and naval shelling to take this place, but even so the Polish people did a good job to last as long as they did. There are still remnants from the war, including big concrete bunkers for artillery guns and a concrete building that was used as a guardhouse, now in ruins from the bombing. A the end of the peninsular, there is a huge memorial, which is what everyone comes to see. Not much else to see, we took some photos, sat down for a while and thought about what it would have been like back in 1939, then left to get a snack before the bus back.
Amusement park in Gdynia.
Bunkers at Westerplatte.
Westerplatte memorial site.
These last 3 days in the 3 cities were wonderful. Each city completely different from each other, each having their own charm and highlights. There wasn't anything bad I could really say about the whole trip to be honest - even the shitty hostel had its good points, and you have to laugh at the no toilet paper situation. My time in Poland was nearly up as well, so that was a sad note, but my time here had been well spent so far. I had a little more time left in Poznan to enjoy and then it would be back to Spain. Do widzenia polska i dziękuję!

War: Never Again (Nigdy więcej wojny).

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MyUncleTravellingMatt. August 2019.

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