Gdansk. Danzig. The city where the first shots of world War II were fired and where the opening salvos that finally brought down the crumbling Eastern Bloc were unleashed. And, as that experiment in Empire has collapsed, so it feels that the centuries of wealth has drained and departed from the city: no more the town’s Baltic trade, no more the Free City and no more work at the mighty Lenin shipyards. Though not yet gone.
At the end of World War II, Gdansk like much of northern Europe, and the other Hanseatic towns, was dust and crumbled ruins. But like Hanseatic Rostock and Lubeck the centre has been painstakingly rebuilt, each tilt and former scar on the main buildings lovingly recreated. Large merchants houses line the streets that run up from the river, each street starting through a narrow arch embedded in massive brick gate houses. On the river the old grain warehouses are steadily being refurbished and it is easy to imagine the bustle of the past. In the streets behind the gatehouses, the slightly austere buildings, all muted tones and painted frontages are warmed by weak March sunlight, and later in the chill evening by the lights of coffee and cake shops, and restaurants selling Pierogi. Over the roof tops rise the spires and copper domes of the town hall, the cathedral and umpteen other huge red churches.
But the eye, my eye, is drawn to the northern and eastern horizon of red striped smoke stacks and dockside cranes. Cranes by the score. Mighty green giants, looking for all the world like prehistoric beasts about to devour you with their lowered heads; yellow and green lattice structures; small auxiliary lifts – largely, but not all, stilled as the great shipyard, like so many in Europe, has ceased to attract orders, and where Solidarity rose and conquered. You can walk in past Gate Number Two, strung with photos and flags and flowers, and by the memorial to those who lost their lives in a previous strike, a decade before Lech Walesa took charge.
And in there amongst the weeds and the boarded up sheds and offices I smell something that I haven’t for years. In fact it takes me a while to work out that it is the smell of coal dust that pervades the air, being kicked up by me, but also drifting, from where I do not know. Around the edge of the vast shipyards there are post war flats and crumbling tenements, stark buildings lining rough cobbled streets, reminding me of old photos taken as the Gorbals were razed to the ground, or the area behind St. Pancras now cleared for the Eurostar and “new developments”. And from their chimneys, the distinct smell of coal smoke wafts my way.
But for all the broken glass and feel of dereliction, from these tenements run out young children with puppies on their leashes, young mums pushing prams, men going about their business. And nobody much minds mine.
I wander around the edge of the yards stunned by the scale of the cranes, and later, walk the slightly faded old streets on the east side of the city’s harbour. I had hoped for a river trip to see the newer working yards, but even though there was a man in the wheel house of the ferry, when I pointed down river he shook his head. Not today, not until it warms and visitors arrive in any number. So I walked around the less fancied eastside. Post war blocks, newer housing and more old tenements, warehouses and stilled urban industry.
As I finished my long walk I came back down to the river, the great shipyard cranes again in view. I had in all truth forgotten about the Hanseatic core. As I left a rather modern bar on the east bank, the sun slipped out between a high cloud sheet and the late winter horizon and it flooded the sky behind the spires and roofs of the town with a golden light, and it was then again that I could imagine Gdansk back in that distant past of wealth, and trade, and finely dressed merchants trading on the quay.