A Whirlwind Tour Around Poland

The memoirist trades Tuscany for the northern light and unexpected pleasures of Krakow and Gdansk

Krakow possesses a wealth of cultural treasures such as Wawel Royal Castle where the country's kings lived. (Christophe Boisvieux / Corbis)
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The road parts fields of yellow weeds and roadside lilacs about to open. Just as I've praised the GPS, Ed discovers that we are lost, heading not north toward Gdansk but west toward the Czech border. Bucolic pleasures evaporate as we try to reprogram. The little dervish inside the GPS wants to go to Prague, though as we retrace, it seems to decide on Sarajevo. Every few minutes it twirls us off course. I become the navigator, spreading out a huge map on my lap. The GPS croaks sporadically from the floor.

When we reach Gdansk, we easily find our hotel on the Motlawa River. An exquisite manor house from 1728 that escaped the bombings of the war, Hotel Podewils maintains an elegant, ladylike presence. Our room has windows on two sides, and I walk back and forth, watching fishermen, yachts and a scape of Gdansk's old town. The tall structure predominating the view I identify in my guidebook as the medieval crane that hoisted goods from the granary to barges below. Like most of Gdansk, it was restored after the leveling of the city at the end of World War II.

The Ulica Dluga, the city's main thoroughfare, is lined with outrageously ornate houses of ocher, dusty aquamarine, gold, peach, pea green and pink. One house is white, the better to show off its gold bunches of grapes and masterful stucco work. Facades are frescoed with garlands of fruit, mythological animals or courtiers with lutes, while their tops are crowned with classical statues, urns and iron ornaments. The houses, deep and skinny, have front and back staircases and connected rooms without corridors. At one of the houses, Dom Uphagena, we're able to explore inside. I love the decorated walls of each room—one with panels of flowers and butterflies on the doors, one painted with birds and another with fruit.

The Hanseatic League, a guild of northern cities, originally formed to protect salt and spice trade routes, thrived from the 13th through the 17th centuries. The powerful association grew to control all major trade in fish, grain, amber, fur, ore and textiles. Gdansk was perfectly situated to take advantage of shipping from the south, traveling down the Vistula River to the Baltic. The ornamentation in this city reveals that the powerful Hanseatic merchants and their wives had sophisticated taste and a mile-wide streak of delight in their surroundings.

It's moving to think of the Poles accomplishing this loving and masterful restoration of their destroyed city after the war, especially as they did not share in the good fortune of funds from the Marshall Plan and, to boot, were handed over to the Soviet Union by Churchill, Stalin and Truman. The recovery in Gdansk seems as miraculous as the 1980s rise of the Solidarity movement in the shipyard here. I look for Lech Walesa, who now lectures around the world after having served as president in the 1990s, on the streets. His transformation from labor organizer into national hero changed history when his union's protests led to others throughout Poland. The movement he started with a shout of defiance eventually broke the Soviet domination. He must revel in the palpable energy of the new Poland. The schoolchildren we see everywhere are a prime example: they are on the move, following their teachers to historic sites. Boisterous and playful, they easily symbolize new directions; even the teachers seem to be having fun.

Amber traders plied the Baltic for centuries. At the Amber Museum, we see medieval crosses, beads, amulets and modern jewelry studded with amber, as well as snail shells, dragonflies, fleas, animal hair and feathers suspended in it. Baltic amber (succinite), known for its high quality, was formed from the fossilized resin of ancient conifers, which fell into Scandinavian and other northern European rivers and traveled to sea. Some of the museum specimens date back to the Neolithic era, when pieces were found washed up on shore. Later, collectors scooped amber from the seafloor, estuaries and marshes. As early as 1477, Gdansk had a guild of amber craftsmen.

We explore Stare Miasto, another historic section, with its grand gristmill on a stream, churches with melodic bells and the Old Town Hall from 1587, one of the few buildings to survive the war. In St. Nicholas, also a survivor, we happen to arrive just as an organist begins to practice. Piercing, booming music fills every atom of the dramatic and ornate church and transports the prayers of the devout toward heaven.

We trek to the National Museum to see the Hans Memling Last Judgment triptych. Possibly pirate booty, it appeared in the city around 1473. Later, Napoleon sent it off to Paris for a while, but Gdansk was later able to reclaim it. The museum seems to have a Last Judgment focus; the subject recurs in the rooms of Polish painters of the 19th and 20th centuries. The concept of renewed life must resonate deeply in a city that literally had to rise from ashes.

On our last day we engage a guide, Ewelina, to go with us into Kashubia to seek traces of Ed's relatives. "When did you see Poland really start to change?" I ask her.

"Solidarity, of course. But three signs woke us up. Having a Polish pope—that was so important back in '78. Then the Nobels coming to two of our poets, to Czeslaw Milosz—and we didn't even know about this Pole in exile—in 1980, then Wislawa Szymborska, that was 1996. The outside confirmation gave us pride." She glances out the window and sighs. "Those three events I can't overemphasize. We thought maybe we can do something." She tells us that many immigrant Poles are coming home, bringing considerable energy back to their country. Around 200,000 left England in 2008, both educated Poles and workers, lured home by opportunities created by European Union money given to Poland, Britain's bad economy and rising wages in Poland. "This is good, all good," she says.


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