Gdansk: History on a budget

After a bargain flight and a chilly welcome, Scott Crowe gives us his first impressions of Gdansk. 

Having been to Poland previously, I was acutely aware of what the country offered: amazing culture, unrivalled history and fantastic food and drink on a budget. I yearned for more.

It’s been while since I last ventured abroad: several factors combined kept me in the south east of England for an unusually extended period of time. However, it was one of these very factors that provided me with my next European break idea. As I ground my way through an intense new job in the Telegraph‘s travel section, I came across a great editorial piece. Gdansk had been named as one of the most intriguing cities in Europe that Brits seldom visit, but should. The Telegraph is a renowned source for travel, isn’t it?!

Straight to Ryanair’s website it was. Flights for a Sunday to Wednesday trip cost a mere £60 return. We had spent as much on a weekend trip to Gorleston in Norfolk.

With that in mind, we set off. You know what travelling to airports can be like nowadays: a long, stressful drive to a ‘London’ airport, followed by forking out more money for parking than the flights themselves. Or getting on an ‘express’ train that happens to stop at every station en route. Luckily, my lifesaver of a mum had agreed to give us a lift – cheers, mum.

As my better half and I boarded the plane, Stansted’s Essex chill served as a timely reminder of what was to greet us in the Polish port city. We had chosen an unusual set of days, flying out on a Sunday night to save on the expense. It is half term after all. For probably the first time, we boarded a flight that wasn’t full of curious Brits or Irish. There was a jovial mood on board, many Polish families heading home from Blighty.

We had done a little run around the previous day to scrape together twenty quid’s worth of Polish Zloty to get us to our Airbnb. If you’re ever planning on coming to Poland, exchange the bulk of your money when you get there – at a ‘Kantor’, a local currency exchange. I can only thank the Polish government for staving off their obligation to adopt the Euro, especially at a time when the Pound is battered and bruised. In return, they have been one of the only countries in Europe to avoid a painful financial crisis over the last decade.

The first thing that struck me on my previous visit to Poland was how homogeneous Krakow appeared. Gdansk was no different. This is particularly acute when you come from a life of amazing diversity in the East End of London. As a visitor, I’ve only felt like a real outsider in two places: Poland and Northern Ireland. I’ve been reminded of this in Gdansk. This shouldn’t have negative connotations – there is actually something hugely endearing about the experience. A real chance to see beyond the commercialised image countries’ tourist boards want the visitor to see.

After a great chat with a friendly but intoxicated man on the way, we arrived at Lech Walesa Airport amid iconic snowfall. If it was Christmas we’d be in a card. But it wasn’t – it was late on a Sunday in February and we had an apartment to get to. For convenience, we decided to get a 75zl taxi, but there are decent train links to the centre of the city, depending on the time you arrive.

After being shown to our apartment in by our brilliant Airbnb hostess (who spoke with a charming New York twang), we scouted the streets, lined with impressive churches, looking for food, ending up at that Polish delicacy known as KFC. Nothing else was open, a reminder that Poland remains one of Europe’s most religious countries, with retail shut on a Sunday. After displaying an impressive lack of Polish to the cashier, we ate and rested up. One thing that stood out was the amount of people near retirement age out or coming home from work at this time – something you simply wouldn’t see in the UK, not in London anyway.

As a history and food and drink boffin (KFC is a blot on the copy book, I know), I’ve compiled a list of some more places to visit over the next couple of days. I’ll review these and get back to you in the next instalment.

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