Webber’s World: Inherently Polish, Gdynia has it all
Signed off by the Deputy Minister of Culture, it was perhaps no surprise to find Gdynia throwing its hat in the ring and applying earlier this week for inclusion on UNESCO’s World Heritage List.
Specifically, the justification emphasised the city’s inter-war modernist character, citing it as an example of how cultural and social values were exchanged to create significant breakthroughs in the fields of architecture and urban planning.
“The buildings were so different from those that preceded them,” gushed the Deputy, “that new architecture became a fact, not a possibility.”
Damn right. Formally christened in 1919, what had hitherto existed as an inconsequential fishing village on the Baltic coastline found itself thrust into the limelight after the founding fathers of the modern Polish state made the bold decision to counter the economic heft of the Free City of Danzig via the creation of a rival nearby port.
Unlike Danzig, Gdynia would be inherently Polish and a direct product of the bold, new direction that the nation had taken – it’s architecture, it was decided, would mirror this outlook.
Billed as Poland’s “gateway unto the world”, the modern seaport that arose was matched by the rapid development of a city rendered in sparkling white colours. Drawing comparisons to Tel Aviv, Gdynia became a poster girl for an entirely new form of architecture that was defined by its clean lines and functionality.
And it just kept growing. Buoyed by generous tax breaks and financial incentives, both workers and investors flocked to the city like moths to a flame. By the time war broke out, Gdynia’s population had swelled to in excess of 120,000.
Marketed as “the city of tomorrow”, it became a place of endless possibilities where both fortunes and futures were made. Symbolic of these new beginnings, ocean liners such as the MS Piłsudski embarked on transatlantic journeys, and in the process ferried thousands of people seeking fresh lives abroad.
Retold in the city’s stunning Museum of Emigration, these stories of Polish migration are presented inside an epic building constructed in 1933 to serve as a maritime station. Starring a two-ton, 1:10 model of the Batory, a liner once known as “Europe’s most fashionable salon”, it is a museum that fully reflects the greatness of Gdynia both past and present.
You see whilst bushy-browed historians would argue that Gdynia’s heyday came during those interwar years, I’m more inclined to believe it is now.
De-smeared following a city-wide campaign, its buildings shine anew in reflection of the city’s rebirth. Definitely, this rings true in the form of one of my favourite discoveries of recent times.
If the bizarre Alice In Wonderland-themed Quadrille Hotel is the city’s most luxurious indulgence, then my favourite is actually the more affordable Villa Vincent just south of the centre. Occupying a striking white property constructed in the 30s, today it’s carved a name as one of the trendiest stays in the whole north of Poland.
Filled with re-loved furnishings from the 1960s, it’s a hotel with a clear idea of what it wants to be: chic and cool yet also casual and comfortable. Sure, the doors slam a little too loudly for my customary morning hangover, but it’s nonetheless a place that fuses the intimacy of home with a deliciously creative twist of retro.
And speaking of hangovers, I tend to earn mine in their basement bar, a half-dimmed cocktail den named W33. Compact in its dimensions, drinking here feels like being summoned into a semi-secret world known to but a handful.
The morning after, the complex task of clearing my head is conducted by poking around the remains of Arka Gdynia’s stadium that was once located a stone’s throw away.
Now a protected monument, all that remains is a steep terrace cut incongruously into a densely wooded hill. Windswept and silent bar the occasional ping from the nearby tennis courts, it takes a leap of imagination to think that it was here that Arka’s notorious hooligans would gather to wage war on battle thirsty visitors from the likes of Lechia Gdańsk.
Indeed, this area of Gdynia is ripe for reflection. Directly south, the dipping forest paths of Kępa Redłowska lead to clifftop bunkers that have been left to rust in peace since 1945, whilst the seafront promenade to the north takes visitors past solemn monuments such as the one that remembers “those lost at sea”.
Given that for years the ship’s bell was displayed in the foyer of a nearby fish restaurant, for many that’s a direct reference to those that drowned when the MV Wilhelm Gustloff was torpedoed in 1945.
Filled with those fleeing the Red Army hordes, around 10,000 drowned in the Bay of Gdańsk as a result of the sinking, making it the most lethal maritime disaster to ever be recorded. As you watch sail boats bobbing past and cargo ships honking on the horizon, its impossible to picture the suffering that these waters have wrought.
Far easier to imagine is the immense wealth that Gdynia has accrued over the course of generations. Walking towards the centre, bending backstreets take voyeuristic curiosity-seekers past dazzling villas and apartment blocks pimped up with the trappings of today.
Your admiration of these is countered only by your admiration of how Gdynia has managed to merge the new with the old, the natural with the manmade. Touting views that stretch out to the Hel Peninsula, this feeling rings particularly true when taking the brief but vertiginous funicular that pootles up and down the wooded Kamienna Gora hill.
Slashing through the treetops, the two-minute descent stares onto both cruise ships and the oddly out-of-place Sea Towers development. Looking like an assortment of glass Tetris blocks, these pierce the sky as they all but lean over two old school attractions: the Dar Pomorza former naval training ship, and the ORP Błyskawica, a destroyer that played an instrumental role in defending Cowes from the Luftwaffe in 1942.
More tales of seafaring derring-do are to be savoured at the Naval Museum, a gargantuan modern edifice whose attractions involve intricate scale models, sexy sailor outfits and military hardware.
Neighboured by the Gdynia City Museum, those bamboozled by the modern museum experience run a very real risk of being overwhelmed. Instead, I’d recommend tracking down the Motor Museum, a cobbled indoor haven thick with the scent of polish and leather.
Amassed by an enthusiast that first start collecting motorbike parts at the age of eight using his school dinner money, discover such antique treasures as the Ford Model T – the world’s first mass-produced vehicle – and the kind of Buick Deluxe favoured by mobsters like Capone.
Closer to the centre, my applause too is directed at Strych, a legendary café-bar found in a fisherman’s cottage behind a block of flats. In here, you scuffle over the floorboards past dented artefacts, yellowing photographs and dusting bits of junk – whether by accident or design, it is to all intents and purposes a living museum.
But Gdynia, it must be said, is about the now. Whether you’re sipping specialty coffee in artistically ascetic cafes like Tłok or glugging maverick craft beers in Ale Browar, there’s an energy and edge that feels irresistibly vivid – more than just an architectural joy, it's that sensation that captures the spirit of Gdynia.