Is Gdynia cool? Yes it is. But it’s also so much more
Taking into account that I’m a 44-year-old bloke whose idea of a great night is getting tanked up in a British pub with self-styled geezers called Big Mark and Murky, I’m among the last people in the world that should judge what’s on the frontline of hip and the cutting edge of youth.
But, for some mystifying reason, it’s with alarming regularity that I find myself questioned as to “the coolest place in Poland”.
In this, my stock response is Łódź, though if I’m feeling generous then I might add Katowice as coming a close second. Yet while these are definitely strong choices, there’s another candidate out there that I’m guilty of omitting: Gdynia.
Having emerged from extended periods of economic decline and social decay, the U-turn that both Katowice and Łódź have taken has been notably emphatic, and it’s perhaps this visible lack of torment that handicaps Gdynia when considering ‘places of tomorrow’.
Missing the raw underbelly that comes with decades of neglect, if anything you’d describe it as fiscally affluent and a good place for kids – and how uncool is that.
And then, you have the small matter that it looks like a jewel.
Though existing as a small fishing village for several centuries, Gdynia’s story principally began in 1919 when the founding fathers of independent Poland took the decision to offset the economic might of the nearby Free City of Danzig by building their own international port.
As a result, thousands migrated up here to seek their fortunes, and this population explosion coincided with the construction of a city that mirrored the architectural solutions of the day.
Built on pioneering concepts of functionality, light and air, what arose was a sparkling white settlement founded on an idealistic dream. This clean, modernist style would come to be the dominant visual on the urban landscape, and while it was allowed to grey with age under Communism, more recent years have brought about an aggressive restoration to reassert this look.
Paired with other initiatives to restore vintage neon signs and old shop fronts, Gdynia has been allowed to reclaim its youth. In a country otherwise dominated by twee medieval old towns, industrial redbrick, gauche Art Nouveau, post-war concrete and contemporary glass towers, Gdynia’s inter-war flavour represents something unique.
This point has not been lost a new wave of artists that have been inspired by the city, and it was whilst researching a recent article on exactly just that that I found myself in conversation with Zuza Gadomska.
Known for her stunning, minimalistic depictions of Gdynia’s buildings, it was while listening to this illustrator, designer and architect talk about the town that it’s magic came alive.
“I’m just amazed by the city’s history and how it implemented such pure, modernist ideas,” she gushed. “I’ve lived in the Tri-City for over ten years and Gdynia has always been my favourite -the annual music festival, the Open’er, is amazing, then we’ve got the sea around the corner, and in the shape of places like Luis, Tłok and Fedde some of the best restaurants and cafes in the region. If I were to stay in the Tri-City for the rest of my life, for sure it would be in Gdynia.”
But perhaps, I found myself musing, that vibe was always there.
Back at the start of the millennium, when I first found myself visiting the trio of towns that comprise the Tri-City, I arrived to the following conclusion: Gdańsk, I decided, was handsome and quaint but missing some sparkle; the seaside resort of Sopot, meanwhile, just left me bristling with irritation: by day you’d be swallowed in a mass of beachgoers carrying inflatable crocodiles under their arm, while at night it would fill with the kind of berks that spray aftershave down their pants “in case they got lucky”.
In short, you’d have directed an 80-year-old to Gdańsk and an 18-year-old to Sopot. Gdynia, though, offered something a little different, and it was in haunts like Cyganiera I’d spend my afternoons watching creative types that predated The Hipster Era studying theatre scripts with skateboards at hand. The energy was fantastic.
I’ve since reassessed my opinion on the Tri-City’s other components, but just because I was (very) wrong about Gdańsk and Sopot it doesn’t mean I was incorrect about Gdynia. On the contrary.
The energy that initially seduced me is still there, and if anything has grown all the stronger. Manifesting itself in a raft of top eateries and alternative hangouts, these have been ably complimented by a slew of modern attractions that range from the compelling Emigration Museum to a funicular cable car with vertiginous views of all that’s around.
And let’s not forget the Quadrille, a sure-fire nominee for Poland’s wackiest hotel. Set in manicured parkland, this lemon-coloured stately home has since been reinvented as a luxury getaway with an Alice in Wonderland motif. Yet for all the white rabbits, underground tunnels and whimsical trimmings, the fundamental point remains utterly serious: a hallucination that you never wish to end, it’s the kind of stay that leaves you bowled over.
Instagram heaven it might be, but stepping outside this “sphere of cool” is also richly rewarding; beyond Gdynia’s specialty coffee spots, craft beer dens and cosmopolitan museums, the town unravels to reveal a more traditional appeal.
Down dipping residential streets lined with 1930s, swan-coloured villas, explorers find wooded ravines concealing wartime bunkers, or charming little beaches with cute, wooden piers jutting into the rippling blue sea. Ambushed by the occasional wild boar, it’s in these moments of solitude that you truly appreciate the magic of the city.
Is it cool? Yes it is. But it’s also so much more.