Gdańsk rising: the cradle of the Second World War defies it past and embraces a bold future

Against all the odds, Gdańsk’s historic heart has become the place that others wish to emulate: cultured, creative, affluent and attractive. Kalbar/TFN

Tomorrow, the eyes of the world shall, once again, fall on Gdańsk, this time as the city pauses in silence to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the start of WWII. But whilst it remains inexorably associated with the planet’s bloodiest conflict, it is a town that has steadfastly refused to be defined by it – a remarkable feat given the city’s relevance and role in the history of the war.

More than the mere pawn that it is occasionally presented as, what was the Free City of Danzig was to become Hitler’s obsession. When its bloody incorporation into the Nazi state finally came, the act would irrevocably change the history of the globe. 

Długa and Długi Targ represent the spiritual heart of the reconstructed Old Town. Kalbar/TFN

Though geographically far removed from the frontlines – at least for much of the remainder of the war – its reputation as a safe haven came crashing down in the final year of combat when the city fell victim to Allied bombing raids. As German refugees poured in from Germany’s eastern territories, the apocalyptic atmosphere reached fever pitch as the city’s population swelled to 1.5 million.  

Above the tourist throngs, the Neptune Fountain is one of the city’s most photographed features. Kalbar/TFN

In this war of no rules, “a church was as good as a bunker,” wrote historian Antony Beevor of the shelling, “especially when it seemed as if the objective was to flatten every building which still protruded conspicuously above ground.” 

For the traditionalist tourist, Mariacka Street is lined with amber stores and stoop-stepped cafes that sit in the shadow of St. Mary’s at the top. Kalbar/TFN

When the city finally fell on March 28, 1945, it had been pummelled beyond recognition. Even so, this did not spell the end. The excesses of the Red Army are well documented, and Danzig was not excluded from their wrath. Wanton destruction followed, with only 38 houses in the whole city centre reputedly surviving the siege and the pillage that came after. Fires, it is said, continued to rage for over a month – and in some cases, till autumn. 

The Motława Canal separates the Old Town from the newly revived Spichlerz Island. Kalbar/TFN

Given its picture book aesthetics, it’s a scene that is now difficult to comprehend. 

Rechristened Gdańsk and passed to the ownership of Poland, feelings ran raw after the war to the extent that one campaign urged the reconstruction committee to rebuild St. Mary’s Basilica alone and then simply surround it with standard block buildings. 

Of the new developments, few have made a bigger impact than the footbridge that has connected Ołowianka with the rest of the town. Kalbar/TFN

“Let us not cry over ashes,” wrote Edmund Osmiańczyk. “We won’t rebuild these reminders of the Teutonic Knights… Let us build in Polish-style, and not that of the Teutonic invaders.”  

Fortunately, common sense prevailed.  

The results are stunning, spellbinding even. It is a flinty heart that is not seduced by Mariacka, a narrow cobbled street lined with cute amber stores and stoop-stepped cafes. Above the flow of tourists, it’s all gables and gargoyles on tenements that practically appear to lean inwards. Then, keeping it in a near permanent state of shade, the aforementioned St. Mary’s, a gargantuan brick hulk with a capacity for (do not adjust your eyes) 25,000 worshippers. 

Pirate ships pootle up the Motława carrying their horde of tourists. Kalbar/TFN

A couple of streets parallel, lie Długa and Długi Targ, the spiritual heart of the reconstructed Old Town. There’s a grandeur to it all that stops you in your tracks: outside the impossibly ornate Artus Court, just yards from the cellar restaurant where Hitler is supposed to have eaten (now Piwnica Rajców), the trident-wielding figure of Neptune, his genitals covered with a fig leaf since the 80s, perches atop a fountain. The wider frame – set against the tall, needle-like silhouette of the clock tower and a string of brightly painted merchants houses – presents just about the most photographed feature of the city. 

Where ruins once stood, buildings have arisen mimicking the form of the granary buildings that once stood on Spichlerz Island.Kalbar/TFN

If it appears too good to be true, then in many instances it is. Frequently, the buildings were no more than common or garden structures lent an illusion of historic gravitas by their meticulously restored facades. Even these, however, were subject to artistic license – German lettering was removed and replaced instead with Polish language inscriptions.  

On Spichlerz Island, reminders as to the destruction reaped by the war exist side-by-side to modern developments. Kalbar/TFN

Dwelling on this feels like splitting hairs. The revised version of the historic centre competes with that of any city in Poland – Kraków included – a point recognised by the increased exposure that the town has received. The Independent called it “a gem”, while CNN went a few steps beyond: “Walking around the Old Town of Gdańsk evokes feelings of entering a fairy-tale gingerbread city,” trilled their article.

In the marina, yachts glisten in the evening sun as the atmosphere ratchets up. Kalbar/TFN

It would be hard to dispute either eulogy. 

But there is more to Gdańsk than meets the eye. Although most tourists are satisfied to do little more than prowl its antique-looking streets, overdosing on the sheer quaintness of it all, a new raft of visitors are being engaged by its dynamism and feeling of tomorrow. 

For decades, Spichlerz stood eerie and abandoned, its brittle, haunting ruins a plaintive testament to history. Today, they are in the process of being swallowed by the new developments that pop-up around.Kalbar/TFN

Cut off from the Old Town by the shimmering waters of the Motława Canal, the Spichlerz and Ołowianka islands are a case in point. 

Once regarded as one of northern Europe’s primary ports, it was to Spichlerz that imported goods were stored in immense granary buildings capable of holding a quarter of a million tons of grain. Ravaged by both falling bombs and then the gratuitous arson of the Red Army, it took just weeks to wipe out centuries of history. 

From a 50-metre tall Ferris wheel, visitors see Gdańsk from a whole new perspective. Kalbar/TFN

Thereafter, Spichlerz stood for decades as an almost unworldly reminder of the war: while tourists streamed down the quayside opposite, this island stood eerie and abandoned well into the new millennium, its brittle, haunting ruins a plaintive testament to history.  

The stunning Puro Hotel is symbolic of the regeneration happening across Spichlerz Island.Kalbar/TFN

Today, the transformation is startling. From these surviving bones the area has blossomed anew with modern buildings touting a granary aesthetic popping up like toast. Among these, the design-forward Puro Hotel, a progressive brand whose details within their Gdańsk venture give more than a passing nod to the city’s maritime heritage. From the top floor bar, smartly attired drinkers sip on complicated cocktails whilst gazing down on the marina below. Surveying the scene, you don’t need to remember the old days to appreciate how far the city has come. 

The opening of Słony Spichlerz has seen several on-edge restaurants open under one roof. Kalbar/TFN

Back on ground level, it’s a feeling that gathers pace visiting Słony Spichlerz, a quite astonishing food concept that sees several on-edge restaurants housed under one roof. For those familiar with the gastronomic richness of the capital, it makes Warsaw’s Hala Koszyki feel narrow in scope.

So it continues. Looping back past the harbour, its fleet of privately owned yachts glinting in the sun, one reaches Ołowianka, the seat of the philharmonic as well as home of a Ferris wheel reminiscent of the London Eye. 

Seen from the outside as a sloping glass triangle angling into the sky, the WWII Museum has the potential to emerge as one of the planet’s leading cultural facilities.Kalbar/TFN

Peaking at a vertiginous height of 50-metres, it’s from inside the gently rocking cabins that one sees Gdańsk from a fresh perspective: it’s a challenge not to be awed by the rippling waters below, the towering shipyard cranes that lie ahead and the toy town dimensions of the Old Town to the flank. 

And neither is returning to the latter a chore any longer. Of the city’s recent triumphs, reconnecting these islands to the “mainland” stands large, with particular credit awarded to a slinky 70-metre long footbridge that can, within two minutes, swing upwards to allow tourist-targeted pirate ships to sail past with their squealing cargo of infants. 

The WWII Museum and the European Solidarity Centre form a duo of unmissable sights. Kalbar/TFN

With the bridge flipped back down, it’s a pleasant stroll that takes you to the Museum of the Second World War. Seen from the outside as a sloping glass triangle angling into the sky, it opens into a high-impact experience whose highlights include a life-size diorama of a Berlin street in the midst of siege. Looking at it, you sense the unfathomable potential of it to yet emerge as one of the planet’s leading cultural facilities. 

In Lamus, an international crowd sips craft beer whilst others head onto Gdańsk’s nocturnal alternatives.Kalbar/TFN

Crucially, Gdańsk is more than just the cradle of WWII. As the home of the Solidarity movement, it can be argued that it was here that cracks in the Communist system were first fully revealed and exploited. Like the war, this too has been remembered via a modern-minded and world-class institution: The European Solidarity Centre. 

Together, the pair form a duo of A-class sights that, when offset against the dazzle of the Old Town, create a city that feels both hopelessly compelling and historically essential. Further, it is a city where the old has been aligned with the new in a way that feels sensitive and organic – and to a degree, even reconciliatory. 

The revised version of the historic centre competes with that of any city in Poland – Kraków included. Kalbar/TFN

And there is fun, copious amounts. Back in the Old Town, as dusk gives into darkness, the streets ring to the sounds of a thousand accents – German included. Never truer is this than on Lawendowa Street, a quasi-hipster quarter where bearded dudes and tattooed gals in big, outsized hats lollop on deckchairs and crates with craft beers in hand. As they chat and gesture wildly, others pass on their way to a nightclub set inside the inky guts of a Nazi bomb shelter. It is a city that has moved forward. 

Gdańsk’s historic centre has emerged as an area that has learned to balance its history with its ambitions for the future.Kalbar/TFN

Against all the odds, Gdańsk’s historic heart has become the place that others wish to emulate: cultured, creative, affluent and attractive, it has emerged as an area that has learned to balance its history with its ambitions for the future – and this it has done with style to spare.