Sopot: Schizophrenia on sea

The yellow and blue SKM suburban train service shuttles the populace efficiently through much of Pomerania and the Tricity area. On our last afternoon in Gdynia we hopped on a train for the 10 minute journey to Sopot, dubbed “Schizophrenia-on-Sea” by Lonely Planet, “the playground of wealthy entrepreneurs and A-Z-list celebrities…unrivalled among the Baltic’s resorts for glitz and pretentiousness”.

A 13th century fishing village, Sopot was popularised by a doctor in Napoleon’s occupying army, who constructed a huge hotel and casino complex in the emerging spa town. The main drag, named after the heroes of Monte Cassino, runs from the station to the pier and was pedestrianised in 1963. Lined with restaurants and tourist shops, today it could be AnyResort, with a number of developments underway including a real horror at the station, replacing a functionalist ticket office from the 1970s. (The original station is long gone, but Sopot’s station signs are in historic font.)

27 Aug 1844

Above is Krzywy Domek (Crooked House; IYP), a truly unnecessary 2004 construction and tourist magnet supposedly inspired by fairy tales, which houses a shopping centre. No doubt there are little gems to be found in the town if you know where to look, but in August it’s the resort which dominates, not least the 511m long wooden pier or molo, built in 1827 and the longest of its ilk on mainland Europe, exceeded only by that of twin town Southend.

It’s all very nice if you like that sort of thing, but the tone is set by the fact that until the end of August you have to pay to walk on the pier. So we went vertical instead, handing over our groszy to climb the cutesy 30m high lighthouse, built in 1903, for some grand views and a certificate.

27 Aug 1900

The Grand Hotel (1927; left of picture) housed a casino which part funded the Free City of Danzig, and has played host to guests including Adolf Hitler and Fidel Castro. From the vantage point of the lighthouse it’s easy to imagine the likes of Elizabeth von Arnim taking an evening stroll and watching the early 20th century equivalent of the 21st century fire eater (right of picture).

27 Aug 1629

From my 1988 visit I remember traipsing down the wooden pier in a Baltic breeze, but this visit coincided with some rather more Mediterranean temperatures and we joined the crowds for a beer on the beach. We also took a walk through the woods to Opera Leśna (Forest Opera), home of the Sopot International Song Festival (aka the Soviet Eurovision) from 1964. A theatre has stood in this spot since 1909, with an annual Richard Wagner Festival held from 1922 to 1942 earning Sopot the title of the Bayreuth of the Baltic.

27 Aug 1506

Next stop: East Prussia!


Modernism in Gdynia

A little gem for fans of modernist architecture! We started our trip to Poland with three nights in Gdynia, the port created practically from scratch by newly liberated Poland in 1921. Now with a population of nearly 250K the city is over-shadowed by Gdansk to the south, but has much to offer.

Gdynia’s tourist office is housed in the current city hall at 10 Lutego 24, built in 1935-36 for the Social Insurance Company. There you can pick up their Modernism route booklet, with four separate tours to keep you busy for the rest of your stay.

Social Insurance Company (1935-36), now Gdynia City Hall

Social Insurance Company (1935-36), now Gdynia City Hall

A half day can easily be spent exploring the BGK Housing Estate at 3 Maja 27-31, built from 1935-39 and including the first underground garage and air raid shelter in an apartment building, plus a mini-museum with 1930s reconstructions. (Gdynia further distinguishes itself by being the place where the first ever ice cream on a stick was created, on Świętojańska Street in 1932.)

The Kamienna Góra route, in a former resort in the hills above the city, boasts some beautiful villas each with a story to tell:

Just four more notable buildings:

The tourist office also offers a Maritime legend route, featuring the South Pier and its Joseph Conrad Monument (1976), allegedly the only one in the world (Conrad had no known Gdynia connections), and the split new Emigration Museum three piers further north in the former Marine Station (1926).

There is so much history here it hurts. The latest addition is the Displaced Gdynian Monument (2014), dedicated to the 150,000 Poles deported in 1939.

Time for a more photo friendly design, perhaps!

More photos on Flickr. Links: Gdynia Tourism | In Your Pocket | WikipediaWikitravel. See also museums and me on two museums in the city.

Gdańsk 1988 and 2015

Three sets of shots from trips to Gdansk (more properly, Gdańsk) in 1988 and 2015.

Looking down the Long Bridge from outside the Green Gate:

Monument to the Fallen Shipyard Workers of 1970 (1980):

Westerplatte Monument in memory of the Polish defenders (1966):

As we found out in Venice last year, these mock-ups are surprisingly difficult to do!

Our visit to Westerplatte took place on the 76th anniversary of the outbreak of World War 2 on 1 September, which was quite special. Likewise, and coincidentally, we visited the Solidarity Centre on the 35th anniversary of the signing of the Gdansk Agreement on 31 August. The new Polish president and his entourage, plus a large number of Solidarity veterans, were also in attendance. In the 2015 photo it’s the museum which takes the background – the trees are gone.

A prime tourist spot, the Long Bridge seems little changed from 1988 apart from the demise of the belching factory chimney. And Gdansk retains its special patina, even carried through on some new housing developments. Wonderful. What has changed though is the availability of vegetarian food. While in 1988 I existed on a diet of zapiekanka (Polish pizza), in 2015 there are two value for money chains: old school fill ’em up Green Way (great felalfel wraps) and the completely contemporary Bioway. Perhaps they could be persuaded to open in Copenhagen?

In some ways though Gdansk was reminiscent of Copenhagen, not least for its bonkers topography. A postcard I bought with a map of Danzig in 1900 shows the city hanging off the river Weichsel (aka Vistula), with Speicher Insel (Granary Island) sitting in the middle of the river Mottlau and Niederstadt, doubling for Christianshavn, to the east, the whole lot surrounded by graben (moats) and an impressive set of bastions.

North of the historic city centre the Vistula splits into two main branches, with the Martwa Wisła (dead Vistula) emptying into the Gdansk Bay at the Westerplatte Peninsula.

Three are the coasts which I like most in all of Europe: Golden Horn, Gulf of Triest, Bay of Gdansk.

(Alexander von Humboldt, Gdansk, 14 September 1840)

More Gdansk: museums and me, an excellent In Your Pocket and some nice writing: Sketches of Gdansk 2012 ( “impression of Gdansk: a complex, rich city filled with historical vicissitudes, and unexpected beauty”), Marcel Krueger on Westerplatte and Past in the Present on Gdansk. 2018 update: Henning Larsen to Danskify the shipyard, nooo…