How Gdansk made me cry and other tales: a past weekend exploring Poland

Gdansk made me cry. I am an emotional sap. I was tired. I was less than two months in to life in Poland. I was less than one year postpartum. I come from a long line of happy criers on my father’s side (I once teared up over a cupcake because it was just so good), I love life so much sometimes it overwhelms me. Excuses, excuses. Whatever the reason, when we arrived in Gdansk and walked under an ancient archway, where a band of youth had set up their street-stage, and began playing Circle of Life on brass instruments as we stepped in to the golden hour sunlight bathing one of the most incredibly beautiful Polish streets, I was overcome.

I had never heard of Gdansk outside of the only two board games I will ever willingly play: Risk and Ticket to Ride. Even then, it was labeled on the board using its former name, Danzig. Which it was called for a while prior to 1945 (more on this). I probably learned about it in school somewhere along the line, as it does hold major historical significance. Still, I was excited to go, because (I’m me) the only other time I had ever really heard of Gdansk was when my Polish friend and I were discussing the country prior to our move here and she told me that Gdansk is her favorite city ever. She introduced me to my husband, so she holds my utmost trust. And of course, she was correct. Gdansk is special. So special, in fact, that I have procrastinated this write-up for a full eight months, because how do you summarize an experience that moved you to tears? Plus, we didn’t actually do anything in Gdansk, other than walk around, eat, drink, gawk, ride a ferris wheel, visit their WW2 museum, eat ice cream, walk and gawk some more. But I’ll try.

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Old Town Gdansk is a pastel rainbow beauty. It straddles the Motława River (a tributary of the Vistula), which empties nearby in to the Baltic Sea. It has a busy riverwalk lined with shops, bars, restaurants and hotels. You can do touristy things like hop on a replica pirate ship for a river-to-sea tour, or hop on your own tiny boat that looks like a matchbox race car and putz about, or buy your kids a light up wand/balloon from a street vendor. We did none of those things. You can (and we did) duck back in to the cobbled streets, lined with pastel colored buildings, churches, fountains, cafes, pubs, markets etc. and you can wander for hours, or days, and never get tired of simply looking. Stopping for a bite, a drink and a rest whenever the mood strikes. I can’t decide if my favorite meal we ate there were the traditional Polish potato pancakes topped with  roast pork and mushroom gravy at Pyra Bar. Or, everything we ordered from the Chinese restaurant we decided on the second evening. Have I told you about how much I love Chinese/Thai/Indian food in Poland? Its not the processed salty mess that we get back home.

Because grown-up museums can be tricky with small children in tow, we timed our visit to the Museum of the Second World War during the baby’s morning nap time. This way we could trade off the remaining conscious child and each still be able to take in what we wanted from the museum. I polled my Instagram followers on whether or not they had ever heard of Gdansk, and the overwhelming majority had not. Since so many had never heard of the city of Gdansk, what you also may not know is that World War II began there. The declaration of war was brought about by an attack at the Baltic port of Gdansk (then “free city”, Danzig, neither Polish, nor German) by Nazi Germany. This invasion was falsely based on an attack that had been staged by Nazis, dressed in disguise as Polish soldiers, on a nearby radio tower two days prior. This way, their official invasion on September 1 would appear justified to the outside world. In response to the attack on the port of Gdansk, two days later, on September 3, Great Britian and France declared war on Germany, beginning the Second Great War.

The Museum of the Second World War is excellent. I cannot recommend it enough for a visitor to Gdansk. As I cannot recommend enough a visit to Gdansk itself. You might not be moved to tears. But you won’t regret it.

Malbork Castle (originally Marienburg) is located about an hour from Gdansk. It is the largest all-brick built castle in the world. Now, one thing I’ve noticed about the word “castle” since living and exploring more in Europe, is that “castle” doesn’t always mean your fairy-tale, turret towered, sparkling beauty. A lot of time, the castle is actually comprised of an entire area within a fortress and the castle is indistinguishable from the other buildings surrounding it. For example, Malborck Castle, which the Teutonic Knights built, completed in 1406 and called home. It is, actually, the world’s largest castle by land mass and contains three castles within its confines. It is big and medieval-looking and has a moat and many turrets. I’m secretly disappointed that a princess never gazed from its towers.

We decided to take the self-guided audio tour, which took about two or three hours. This way we could go at our own pace with our three year-old and 10 month-old. We each put a kid in a kid-carrier and set off to see, and learn, as much as we could. I learned a lot, but took three main things away from our visit there. One, paint colors. The paint colors on mural walls were not allowed to be mixed. So every paint color was dyed by whatever thing they used to dye it that color, say, green, and then that was it. You were not allowed to make other colors by mixing said color with another tint or tone. Weird. Why-ever not? Two, the “warrior monks”, as they were called, had a large rose garden they tended because there was an uptick in global temperatures during that time period which allowed them to grow new and different varieties of flower.

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Thirdly and lastly, I took away a sneaking suspicion that the historic “warrior monks” who we got to know via our audio tour, were mayyyybe not as nice as they were presented to be. A question lingered, what exactly does Teutonic Knight/warrior monk mean? Its possible this was covered in the audio tour and I missed it because one of the boys was providing distraction, this happens a lot. But it also happens a lot that history is presented as the presenter wants it to be remembered. It wasn’t until several months later, when I read James A. Michener’s historical novel Poland, which covers 900 years of Polish history, that things were really cleared up and my suspicions confirmed. I mean, that book cleared up a lot of Polish history for me and I can recommend you read it if you are so interested. In a very tiny nutshell, the Teutonic Knights were crusaders who permanently set up residence in the Baltic states, tried to take them over, battles ensued and they also took control of much of its trade including the regionally and globally treasured, amber. Which is how they amassed a great amount of wealth, despite taking vows of poverty. But, *bonus takeaway*, the castle was never forcefully taken. It was always peacefully passed from one owner to the next.

You can’t say you didn’t learn anything today!!!

Instagramming @exploremore.co

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