I’m Matt Gross, the frugal traveler for the New York Times. This summer I’m embarking on a grand tour of Europe. Over twelve weeks I’ll seek out ancient history and contemporary culture. I’ll find cool hotels and eat memorable meals and I’ll stretch the U.S. dollar to the breaking point.
In the summer, Gdansk, Poland’s historic seaport on its Baltic coast is a blur of activity. Among the stately houses dating back four hundred years, tourists mingle in massive numbers. Hustlers play old songs and newer ones.
Then every once in a while, something sort of weird happens. This is a performance by Le Sage Fou a theater troupe from Canada, who in the middle of Gdansk’s medieval Gothic old town discovered a strange undersea world. Le Sage Fou comes to Gdansk as part of FAP, the International open air street theater festival. It launched in 1997, the year Gdansk turned 1000 years old and has been going strong ever since. This year the theater groups addressed the big issues facing humanity, everything from insomnia to climate change. At least I think the Danish group from Luxemburg was addressing climate change. Six wedding guests survive a flood that wipes out the world and are stuck on a rooftop with nothing but champagne, cakes and each other. Will the human race survive? Likewise, the group performing Savermia projects of immigrants make fun with the message:
“We are still talking about Polish emigration, about types of emigration, what for we emigrate from Poland, why, etc., etc.” It’s a beautiful, beautiful environment for street performers.
Unfortunately I was staying at the villa Nolanda, a nice apartment house that was no one near this beautiful environment. So every morning I have to walk through the Nolanda to catch the tram. To get a better view of this beautiful environment I hiked up Gdansk Mountain and met Ivan Daniel, a history student and guide.
It’s really beautiful view, It’s the highest point in- Woah, careful. There was Saint Mary’s Cathedral, the largest brick church in Europe and the town hall with its elaborate system of bells. Lovely they may be but as Ivan pointed out, they’re not necessarily old.
Unfortunately, the horrible things from the Second World War, Gdansk was destroyed more than ninety percent. Almost all of these buildings were reconstructed after the Secon World War.
Reconstruction is still going on, especially now that Poland, a member of the European Union has an economy that’s booming. Up here on the hill, Gdansk just opened its seventeenth century ports education to the public. It was the most important city, it was a Hanseatic city in the past. One of the two - the biggest and the strongest cities in northeast Europe.
Gdansk’s importance on the trade routes also made it an important center for ship building. A tradition it carried on throughout the 20th century. In the 21st however, that tradition may not survive. The Gdansk ship yards are facing bankruptcy and possible closure. A sad fate for an industry that started the solidarity movement and eventually brought down Polish communism.
For a quick history lesson, I checked out “The Roads To Freedom” exhibition. The exhibit tries to show what life was actually like under communism. Stores had few products, even toilet paper was scarce and political activist wound up in jail But in 1980 an electrician named Lech Walesa led a strike of workers in advanced ship yards that finally forced the government’s hand. Although there would be nine more years before Poland held free elections, Walesa’s solidarity movement had knocked serious cracks in the communist system.
Today with all the tourists around it’s hard to see the communist past. In fact, sometimes there are so many tourists you want to find your one peaceful corner and hide. And so, with directions from Ivan, that’s just what I did, accompanied by my friends, Monica and Gothea.
This church is like haft-built, haft destroyed. Maybe, but the alley behind St. John’s church was also beautiful and quiet and just about abandoned an excellent for some street theater. Where is Lesage Fou when you need them? For the New York Times, I’m Mark Gross