Leif Pettersen's Travelogue

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Gdansk, Poland

Posted on November 18th, 2005

The Green Gate

After a week of sleeping in a few five-star hotel rooms in Cologne, Germany (and dining at a few five-toilet-visit kebab stands) I chose to head back to my temporary home in Iasi, Romania via several stops in Poland and Slovakia. One 15 hour, second class seat, overnight train ride later (the one time in my life that I was determined to cough up for a couchette, there were none available), I arrived in the northern port city of Gdansk (“dansk”), Poland. I knew long before my arrival that my pass through Poland was going to be about as linguistically easy as my pass through Japan. A totally indecipherable spoken and written language from everything that I am familiar with and a limited number of people who could croak out enough English to facilitate the purchase of a train ticket. That was fine with me as these obstacles and the needed resourcefulness to get things done is half the fun of travel. Usually. The exception is when you’ve just gotten off a 15 hour train ride, where for 11 of those hours you were the new best friend of a very drunk and jovial Polish man who was so determined to talk to you that you only got about two hours of eyes-shut time, despite a total lack of a common language.

Exiting the train station I had my Palm Pilot punched up to detailed written directions to the Baltic Hostel, a recently renovated place “three minutes” from the train station. The directions, which I had downloaded directly from the hostel’s web site, instructed me to locate the conspicuously large red brick building, which I did immediately, and then continue up the hill for three minutes, where I would apparently not be able to miss the hostel’s green and gold sign. The unfortunate fact was that after the words “red brick building” the remainder of the directions appeared to be the product of someone’s creative writing class that eventually led to Gdansk Prison on the outskirts of town. Ha ha! Those wacky Baltic Hostel guys! After this defeating realization, I made my way back to the train station and was reduced to wandering around in ever increasing circles trying to pick up the trail to the hostel and spy the “large green and gold” sign that would point the way. During this quest I encountered a group of students studying for a semester in a shithole town in southern Poland, three Germans and two Finnish, who were also in search of the hostel. Despite having two maps, they too were hopelessly lost. We joined forces and pressed on.

Identifying a lost backpacker in Europe is not much of a stretch. The telltale signs include a huge backpack (or wheelie bag in my case), one or more maps or guidebooks out, fluttering in the breeze and walking at a slow, uncertain pace while scanning all signs and buildings for some kind of helpful clue. Now put six people together, all exhibiting this behavior and there’s just no mistaking what’s going on. The residents in this Gdansk neighborhood must see this spectacle all the time what with the Baltic Hostel going to pains to camouflage itself and hence those lovely people all know exactly what to do. At some point when we unknowingly staggered into a perimeter about 300 yards from the hostel, the Neighborhood Backpacker Assistance Network leapt into action. It began as we were in the midst of a group hesitation on a street corner and a passing man slowed and urgently indicated that we should head across the street and down the road. With nothing but criminally deceptive written directions and two laughably deficient maps, we had little choice other than to follow this man’s advice. Fifty yards later an old woman hanging out of her third floor window hooted and directed us around a corner where an elderly man steered us down the next street where we eventually came across a tiny sign the size of a license plate announcing that the hostel was through the door and one floor up. On the stairway we found the now infamous green and gold sign, which indeed was unmissable at that point. Bravo! So, for the record, the hostel that was reported to be a three minute walk from the train station, near a red brick building and atop a small hill, was actually 10 minutes walk from the station, in the opposite direction of the red brick building at the bottom of a hill. Got that?

The infuriating directions aside, Baltic Hostel was quite nice. Beds were comfortable, Internet and coffee were free and the clerks were infallibly nice and organized. Later that night I met the hostel owner, a semi-deranged man with Coke bottle glasses and untamed nose hair, only partially in touch with the physical world which he occupied and most likely the composer of the walking directions to his hostel judging from his tenuous grip on reality. No matter what language you spoke, including Polish, all communication with this man quickly deteriorated into a quagmire of confusion, where he would become more and more agitated when it was clear that you had no idea what he was trying to put forth (e.g., “Where is the nearest restaurant?” “I already told you that the ferry office is closed today!!!! Why don’t you understand?????”). Apparently dementia is still a socially acceptable affectation in Poland.

I spent the better part of the next 24 hours trying to recover from the train ride from Cologne, then, on the cusp of being lucid, I allowed myself to be baited into a lavish drinking binge with my new friends, resulting in a hangover that made brushing my teeth an ordeal, much less touring the city. I dragged myself out of the hostel once during this train-lagged, hangover interval to fulfill a lunch appointment with a fellow member of the BootsnAll travel discussion board at a “milk bar” (basically a café serving cheap, but tasty and filling meals) where I offered marginal conversation and worse company as I hastily excused myself as soon as the food was gone to get back into bed for more convalescence. The next 36 hours, I was a fixture in my bed or in the hostel’s social room in the company of a Polish guy, a long term resident of the hostel, who spent his days napping on the couch, awaking periodically to bum cigarettes off people. I engaged in a Polish eating tradition on my first night in Gdansk by eating at a chain restaurant called “Sphinx,” where food is passable, portions are large, prices are average and decor is TGI Fridays. It was worse than the milk bar, but better than Pizza Hut, so there you go.

When I planned to tour Poland in late October, I imagined that I might be one of only a handful of other people idiotic enough to hatch the same plan in deteriorating fall weather, meaning I’d have whole dorm rooms to myself in dead quiet hostels. Well, I didn’t count on all the foreign students in Poland being stationed in small, dreary, staggeringly dull towns, with four and five day weekends and a very strong motivation to get the hell out of town each and every chance they had. So, while the hostel only hosted about eight of us the first night (a Thursday), the next afternoon a group of 21 students from Spain, France and Belgium arrived en masse and the hostel was a circus from there on out. I really like Spanish people. Their attitude and lust for life is something that I have admired and tried to mimic for much of my adult life, but when I’m tired and hungover, I’d rather be in the company of armed, schizophrenic, jonesing heroin junkies than a group of Spanish people. Nothing happens at normal volumes when you have two or more Spanish people in the same room, including a discussion on gardening, and stunningly inconsiderate behavior like a group sing-a-long at 1:00AM in a hostel full of sleeping people is de rigor. Thus, I was never quite able to recover from the self-inflicted abuse of the night train and one and a half bottles of wine during my stay in Gdansk, with only a fleeting five hours of silence available per 24 hours. The last of the singers went to bed some time after 2:00AM, but shouting conversations across the entire hostel about coffee preference ensued at the stroke of seven. Honestly, I don’t know where these people get their energy or why it never occurs to them that their constant screaming might disturb people.

St Mary's Church. Well, part of it anyway.

On my third day in Gdansk, with a barely enough sleep to make steady walking and camera operation possible, I finally toured the city. Though most of the city was flattened in the war, a large portion of the Old Town and Main Town have been painstakingly reconstructed to their former glory and make for wonderful strolling areas. I stopped first at St. Catherine’s Church, a few blocks north of the Old Town. Though the red brick exterior looks to be authentically aged, the fact is that very few elements from the original 1220s structure remain. Additionally, the interior was surprisingly plain and dull – a design choice, I would come to learn, that is quite common throughout Poland. I continued on to St Mary’s Church, looming two blocks away, which is said to be the largest old brick church in the world. Whether or not it’s the largest isn’t important, it’s frickin’ huge and that’s enough for me. Too huge in fact to get it all in one picture frame without backing up a half mile, making it partially obscured by other buildings. Additionally, judging from the state of the exterior, it appears that most of it is the pre-war, 14th-century original, that or the reconstruction bricks were intentionally kilned to appear so. Inside, again, there’s little to get excited about. The giant space has been pleasantly ornamented in few corners, but mostly it’s a massive, white expanse of blah. The main attraction is a reported 14 meter (42 foot) high astronomical clock, which only appears to be about half that size up close. It’s said that the creator’s eyes were supposedly plucked out when the clock was completed so he couldn’t make another. Sounds like a good argument for aspiring to half-assed work if you ask me.

Around back of St. Mary’s is ul Mariacka, a tourist-packed street lined with picturesque burgher houses that will give you pause and pleasantly remind you that you’re not in Minnesota (or what have you) anymore. The spectacle is slightly spoiled by most of the street level area having been given over to tacky jewelry shops with tables and signs cluttering portions of the cobblestone street. Ul Mariacka ends at St. Mary’s gate which opens up into the Stara Motlawa canal. In addition to being a pretty waterway lined with restored buildings on the Old Town side, only some of which have been tarnished and transformed into tourist restaurants, shops and museums, this is where ships in centuries past pulled in from the Baltic Sea to unload their cargo. The canal now serves as long term parking for smaller ships and ferries.

ul Mariacka and the shops

A few blocks south is Green Gate (see photo at top of page) which leads into Gdansk’s main event, the pedestrian streets of Dlugi Targ (which, by appearance, is more of a long square than a street) and ul Dluga, the main artery leading out the other end of Dlugi Targ. Both sides of this long street/square are fronted by wonderfully restored buildings, predictably all being utilized as jewelry shops, restaurants and money exchange offices, which as you can see is a mushrooming pet peeve of mine. Even with the area being sullied by tourist nastiness, there’s no denying its appeal and photo-worthiness. With the fall sun never getting too high in Gdansk, the street is set in a perpetual shade this time of year making my poor photography skills look even worse, but I certainly gave it my best shot with dozens of snaps. Midway down the street is tourist ground zero, an intersection with the Town Hall, Gdansk History Museum and Neptune’s Fountain all within a dozen steps of each other. Any tourist worth their salt spends a good 30 minutes here, taking two rolls of film and, whether they like it or not, feeding the alarmingly aggressive pigeons either by sprinkling bread crumbs on the ground or having their kebab plucked right out of their hands during a flyby. Later that night a fellow hostel resident and I would entertain a pleasing fantasy where Gdansk, indeed all pigeon infested cities, would hold an annual pigeon extermination event a la “Whacking Day” from “The Simpsons,” to thin out the city’s pigeon infestation and save millions on statue cleaning and window washing. He went on to demonstrate his Homer-inspired pigeon whacking technique. You had to be there (and giddy from exhaustion) to truly appreciate this.

ul Dlugi

Neptune's Fountain

Dinner was done at a restaurant near the train station called Bar Bados (oh, the wit), which had Sphinx caliber atmosphere, but superior food. I had a salmon/mole dish on spinach with fries and veggies that was unexpectedly savory.

The low sun and cold, thin air made for a constant contrast in Gdansk, where you were either in an everlasting shade or being pounded on by intense sunrays, cutting crosswise through the atmosphere, making them bright enough to bring tears to your eyes. The sun was so harsh that even with sunglasses on, I had to lurch around with one eye shut and the other only just cracked open in near blindness. My first day in Gdansk, it was sunny and warm enough to get by with just a sweater, but for the remainder of my visit the wind howled and the temperature dropped so that a thick jacket, hat and gloves were needed at all times. With touring the city involving staggering around half blind and freezing and sitting in the hostel meaning the company of gregarious, chain smoking students, I decided that it was time to move on after three nights. After much difficulty I was able to secure a ticket - again in a second class seat as I was made to believe that all of the couchettes were taken, or perhaps my miming of sleeping was interpreted as eccentric behavior that the ticket taker was keen to be rid of - to my next objective, the southern city of Wroclaw.

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