This post is a continuation of the series documenting our travels in the wonderful Central European country of Poland. This was the last of our 3 days in the Baltic port town of Gdansk. We had spent the first half of the day visiting some beautiful churches and the town hall in main town Gdansk. (Gdansk, Part 2 – A Tall tower, Red brick Churches & a beautiful town hall)
After a heavy lunch at the Pod Ryba restaurant we were in a mood to relax for sometime so we returned to our comfortable room in the Hotel Podewils for a short afternoon siesta.
The short nap rejuvenated us enough & we set off for the “Solidarity” Centre. The guide book said that the Solidarity centre was open till 6 pm. It was 3 pm when we left, so we had a good 3 hours to see it before it closed for the day. (Or so we thought!)
We left via the short cut that we had discovered in our wanderings bypassing the main town via the pedestrian bridge on the Motława. The bridge was raised at the time to allow the river traffic to pass and we got to see it in action, gently plonking down in place at the scheduled time.
We then walked across and took the shortest route to the Solidarity centre which took us through some residential areas. A brisk 20 minute walk later we were at the Solidarity square & centre.
The Square is dominated by the towering Three Crosses monument designed and made by the Shipyard workers of Gdansk in memory of the people killed in the firing by the Communist regime on its own protesting people. The 140 feet tall crosses tower over all other structures nearby and this was the first time ever a communist regime allowed a monument built to honour the people that they themselves killed!
Just behind the square is the famous Gdansk Shipyard and the Solidarity centre just inside it’s gates. It’s very apt that the centre documenting the end of communism in this part of Europe is based at the very place where it all began.
The Solidarity centre is built like a typical blocky, dull, no nonsense Communist time structure and if you didn’t know better one wouldn’t even give it a second look. We went inside and quickly realised that we had planned it all wrong.
We were told that though the centre building itself would close at 6pm, the exhibits would close at 5pm. That gave us a short 1.5 hours only to rush through the centre. Had I planned it better, we could have easily spent 1.5 hours more here. But right now we had no choice so we bought our tickets and took the excellent audioguide and started our tour of the centre.
The Solidarity Centre shows us the journey that the country of Poland underwent from the agitations that the square monument is dedicated to in 1970 to the start of the first Worker’s union ever in a communist country – ” Solidarity” in 1980 to the imposition of martial law in 1981 and finally the long road that led to the first open elections in the country in 1989.
Most such exhibits are staid and boring. But the Solidarity Centre brings the whole thing alive by clever use of actual items from the agitation, heart wrenching photos, huge screen which shows the actual coverage from those days and the audio guide which actually transports a visitor into the middle of the Solidarity movement.
We see actual replicas of rooms including the dreaded interrogation rooms of the communist regime where people actually disappeared never to be seen again.
Next were the rooms which show the demands made by the newly formed union, the agreement reached in 1980 with videos of all the archival footage displayed across massive screens with various artefacts displayed all along as the audio guide narrates the events.
We soon come to know about the martial law imposed by the Communist regime in an attempt to crush the union after declaring the union illegal just months after approving them in 1981. The aptly dark and dreary room opens with the videos of the then leader of the communist regime declaring the imposition of martial law.
We then walked across the room which has a military prisoner transport truck crashing through the gates of the shipyard among shields of the military police while listening to the horrific tales of atrocities committed by the regime. This was the actual scene when the military tried to crush the movement and jailed the main leaders including Lech Wałęsa.
After that we came to the section which shows the years from the declaration of martial law to the Solidarity movement going underground and gaining momentum among the common people, to the important role played by the Poland’s favourite son Pope John Paul II. It is all very moving, depressing and inspiring at the same time.
The main room in this section has a smaller reconstruction of the big white round table where the actual ” Round table talks” of 1989 were held. The room has multiple small screens plus the huge display on the ceiling which shows the important moments of the talks themselves. We actually sat at the round table engrossed at the scenes unfolding on the screens all around us.
After watching history unfold on the screen we entered the room where the posters of all the Solidarity candidates are displayed as one big collage. After the communist regime arrogantly declared open elections the Solidarity candidates won almost all of the seats which were contested and thus brought the end to the communist rule in Poland. The posters all show the local candidate with the main leader Lech Wałęsa in an effort to make the otherwise unknown candidate known. ( A strategy that is done even today where a charismatic leader is present)
Lastly we came to the room which showed the effect this small little Shipyard movement had all over Europe. One wall had a huge electronic map of Europe showing the domino effect that this movement has all over this region with the collapse of the Soviet Bloc and the falling of the Iron Curtain. One after the other previously communist ruled country shown in red changed colour to a democratic government shown in green, till it was all green!
There is a huge Solidarity or Solidarność collage made up of red and white cards with messages left by the centre visitors. We added our own card to the collage and moved out of the exhibit section of the Solidarity centre.
The last room at the Solidarity Centre is a huge white room called the Pope John Paul II room overlooking the three cross monument where all the non violent freedom movements of the World get a mention including India’s own freedom struggle. It’s a room for contemplation and we sat down for a few minutes as the audioguide led us through the message of hope in humanity that the room is dedicated to.
We finished visiting the centre just in time for it to close for the day. We admittedly rushed through a few sections. But in the end it was an experience that is a must do for anyone visiting Gdansk. I usually don’t like visiting sad places like the former concentration camps in this part of Europe but the riveting story of the Solidarity movement that is brought to life by the amazing centre was too hard to resist.
The exhibit was now closed but the friendly workers at the centre directed us to the terrace from where we could get a view of the docks themselves and the main town in the distance.
We took the elevator to the top and spent the next few minutes enjoying the view from there and identifying structures in the main town in the distance.
After some time it was time to bid the centre goodbye and I bought a Solidarność shot glass as a souvenir of my visit here.
With the historically heavy sightseeing out of the way it was time for an evening snack. The better half was in the mood for some crepes so we stopped at a Creperie on the way back and had a decadent hazelnut chocolate filled crepe, I also had a piping hot earl grey tea to help soothe my throat which was feeling raw since the day before.
With our sightseeing aims in Gdansk complete we walked back to the Hotel Podewils along the same route that we were now used to, just one thing remained. Walking the Main town after it is beautifully lit up. Since we were travelling in the European Spring the days were long and even at 7 pm the sun was still out.We had just had the delicious pancake so we decided to wait it out till it was dark to venture out again for dinner and the must do night time main town walk.
The night finally descended upon Gdansk well past 8 pm and we left the cosy confines of our room. Dinner was once again at the Nova Pierogova. Once we find a good place so close to the hotel we don’t try to risk it elsewhere.
With a plate full of Pierogis in our tummies we set out towards the main town. We reached the Green gate and it looked even prettier all lit up. Most things do!
The waterfront also glittered with the lights along the road and the buildings making for a picture postcard view.
We then proceeded to enter the Dlugi Targ and walked the entire Royal Walkway till the Main Armoury, taking a detour to see the lit up St Mary’s Basilica along the way. Since I have already described these in my previous posts I will just let the photos do the talking.
With the Royal walkway done I wanted to see the 4 quarters fountain square at night. I had seen lights at the base of the fountain and was sure that it would look good at night & it did. There was a small crowd there with kids enjoying walking through the lit up fountain. We stood and watched the dancing water jets for a while before starting on our way back.
We walked back to the river via my favourite Mariacka street with its front porches and retraced our steps back to our hotel.
We stopped in front of the Hotel Podewils from where the lit up waterfront is visible front on. We sat on a bench for a few minutes just happy to be there and enjoy the beautiful city that is Gdansk.
We had spent a wonderful 3 days in Gdansk and tomorrow morning it would be time to move on. The next destination on our itinerary was Torun, the birthplace of Copernicus and gingerbread.
We would spend a day exploring the walled city its sights but that is the topic for another post, some other time, some other day.