GDANSK, Poland (Reuters) - Gdansk, the biggest city in northern Poland, seaside destination and party zone, was once a key center of opposition to Communist rule.
This momentous history has left its mark on the city, and traces of key events and personalities from that era can still be seen if you follow the trail of these main sights:
Birthplace of trade union Solidarnosc (Solidarity) and the workplace of its leader Lech Walesa, the Lenin Shipyard used to employ about 20,000 people. But the days when its noisy industry echoed around the city and cranes punctuated its skyline are over. The shipyard failed as capitalism took over and has become a patchwork of workshops and manufacturing sites.
Some buildings are now occupied by music clubs, and the complex also houses an art gallery and a yacht shipyard known for its boats designed for Gulf Arab sheikhs and eastern oligarchs.
Some Communist propaganda still survives, with health and safety posters and murals visible around the shipyard.
Don’t fail to visit the recently opened European Solidarity Centre, where an exhibition will guide you through life behind the Iron Curtain. Among its interactive exhibits are a riot police car from the 1980s and printing machines from the Solidarnosc underground workshop. You may even run across Poland’s most famous mustachioed electrician himself, as Walesa’s institute is located on one of the floors.
Have lunch at Bufet u Kazia, the former shipyard canteen at Doki Street 3. Blue collar workers from neighboring workshops have their meal here together alongside yuppies and tourists. A typical lunch consists of pickle soup (zupa ogórkowa), followed by minced pork cutlet (kotlet mielony) with mashed potatoes and vegetable salad (surówka).
Zaspa Monumental Murals Gallery
Leave the city center and visit Zaspa, one of the first housing estates built of concrete prefabricated units, which has become an artspace and a canvas for huge outdoor paintings.
Built in the 1970s close to the shore and constantly buffeted by the sea breeze, the estate was home to Walesa and was the site of several anti-communist demonstrations. It also hosted a mass celebrated by the Pope in 1987.
In the 1990s, the estate became gray and gloomy until the Monumental Art Festival was established in 2009. Each year an international group of street artists covers successive Zaspa buildings with gigantic paintings.
Not far away is the Przymorze district, famous for its “falowiec” apartments blocks with characteristic wavy contours.
To visit these and other communist-era sites, you can book yourself a guided “retro” tour in a genuine Nysa van from the 1960s or an East German Wartburg car.
For dinner, choose one of the city-center milk bars (bar mleczny), like Turystyczny (Szeroka Street 8/10) or Neptun (Dluga Street 33/34). Popularized in post-war Poland in response to meat shortages, they are still famous for simple, tasty food, a pleasant atmosphere and reasonable prices thanks to public subsidies.
Here can you meet students and pensioners sitting at common tables with businessmen and workmen, savoring tomato soup with rice (zupa pomidorowa) or beetroot soup with beans (barszcz ukrainski) followed by white cheese dumplings (pierogi leniwe) or pasta with cabbage and mushrooms (lazanki) and a glass of fruit compote (kompot).
To finish your day, check out one of the “retro” shot bars, like No to Cyk (Chlebnicka Street 2) or Zimne Nozki (Swietego Ducha Street 2). They have revived the tradition of drinking vodka shots accompanied with various traditional nibbles. You can also go for a movie at Neptun cinema (Dluga Street 57) and admire its sgraffito wall decor of designs scratched in plaster that was popular in Polish socialist realism interiors.
Editing by Michael Roddy and Raissa Kasolowsky