Baltic beach holiday is full of surprises
AT FIRST we would skirt round the little jellyfish that fluttered on the waves lapping the soft Baltic sands. But when we saw local Polish children happily scooping them up and throwing them at each other, we relaxed a little.
We later found out they didn’t sting. As our landlord puzzlingly told us ‘they are only for fun!’
A beach holiday in Poland is like that. Much is familiar – there’s the pier (Sopot’s is the longest in Europe) the ice cream stalls, all intermingled with the tantalising smell of frying fish. Yet some things, like the jellyfish throw you off balance.
We were spending a fortnight touring the Baltic coast of Poland, beginning in the seaside town of Sopot (home of said pier). A suburb of Gdansk, where great dockyard cranes can be seen while lounging on its smooth sand.
Juxtapositions like this are common here. Sopot, with its genteel charms sits between Gdansk with its docks and shipyards and the modern city of Gdynia.
This figured large in conversations with friends before we left. ‘You’re going where?’ ‘For a beach holiday?’ Their imaginations full of cold winters and stolid food.
The resort was first established by an officer of Napoleon’s army stranded here after the retreat from Moscow. Jean Georg Haffner’s work was added by later German rulers to create the stately resort that exists today.
The pier lies at the heart of the promenade, with the imposing Casino, looming over the beach bars, grand and elegant in its art nouveau way. The poshest hotel in town, the town’s main drag leads gently uphill from it. Lined with ice cream parlours and eateries, the Heroes of Monte Casino Avenue doesn’t take its name from the hotel on the seafront, but a famous action of the Second World War in Italy in which Polish soldiers played a vital part.
The faultlines of history are never far from here.
Only 60 years ago, this area was German, and, with breaks, had been for hundreds of years. The first shots of the Second World War were fired 20 miles to the north-east. We went to see Westerplatte, a lonely outpost at the mouth of the River Motlawa which flows through Gdansk.
A surprise was in store on the way there. The train from Sopot trundled through non-descript suburbs, passing grimy dockyards and stopping at Gdansk central among grey tower blocks.
But quickly, the colour came to this historic city as we entered medieval squares lined with handsome merchants’ houses.
It was on the banks of the River Motlawa that we took a sailing ship upstream and as we travelled, saw the story of the city unfold.
Leaving the wharf where ships had sailed with cargoes across the Baltic for centuries, the spruce-clad tower, or crane loomed over us. An icon of Gdansk it was used hoist ships’ masts and quickly unload ships. More modern towers quickly dominate the scene. Steel cranes, their spidery legs straddling the modern docks and shipyards are the modern symbols of this working city and sound notes of harmony with its history.
Arriving at the river’s mouth, we walked through the forest and saw remnants of a bunker where vastly outnumbered Poles fought off German bombardment starting on August 31, 1939, for days rather than the hours expected.
By the time the post had been taken, Germany had invaded all of Poland while Britain and France had declared war and Europe was locked in bloody conflict for six years.
Now the city is a confident, colourful place, complete with an urban wi-fi network.
But of course it is remembered in the West for its heroic stand in the 80s against communist rule.
Gdansk once attracted thousands of Scottish immigrants to work in this thriving port. It is said by some their mix of hard-work and stubborness left its mark on the city’s character which can still be seen today.
And there can have been none more bloodyminded than Lech Walesa. Now a name known across the world, in the mid-seventies he was just an electrician at the Lenin Shipyard from where he was sacked.
In 1980 he returned by climbing over a dockyard wall to lead a strike that sounded the death knell of communist rule.
We took a tour round the still working shipyards, with one of Walesa’s workmates as our guide. In our 1970s bus we saw where the unrest started. We saw Walesa’s workshop, where he was allowed to toil alone when he was released after the 1981 unrest. It is a poignant reminder of his treatment.
Milky sunshine was let in from the opaque glass onto the battered metal desk. The windows were frosted by the authorities after fellow-workers would deliberately walk past to give their support to the lonely Walesa, exiled in his workplace.
But his grit was illustrated by his workmate.
“We would always play draughts in our break” he said and Walesa hated losing, “he would always say ‘another game’”. And so here, when it looked like he had played his last, Walesa brooded and waited for the next game – one he would win.
Leba, a seaside town further west was our next stop. A kind of Baltic Blackpool it was full of gaudy, if windswept delights. Unlike Sopot and Gdansk it doesn’t sit in the Bay of Gdansk, but is exposed to blasts of Baltic wind.
The town, as well as being a fast-growing resort, is a thriving fishing town.
And they take their fish seriously here. Pavement cafes would sell smoked fish straight from smoke houses made from oil drums at their stalls. Fried fish was on menus everywhere. Not heavily battered and of unreliable quality as often happens here, but always perfectly cooked and lightly floured.
The town occupies a neck of land between great lagoons – the Jezioro Sarbsko and its vast neighbour Jezioro Lebsko.
The forest of the Slowinski national park, covering these lagoons and the spit of land between them and the sea are under constant attack from the shifting sands and trees, shorn of smaller branches, bark blasted off and half-buried by sand can be seen on the seaward side of the forest.
We cycled through the woods to a site where rockets were tested both by the Germans during the war and by the Polish forces after 1945.
It was a chilling sight to be confronted with a V2 rocket, of the sort which bombarded London during the final stages of the war, looming large and sinister among the trees.
Rommel’s Afrika Korps trained here during the war. The area’s endless, mountainous sand dunes resembling the arduous Sahara the luckless troops would have to fight in.
The final leg of our journey took us to the amusingly named Hel. Belying its name, which will have brought a smile to the few English-speakers who come here, Hel is a delightful, small town at the end of the Hel peninsula. A slender spit of sand, barely a mile wide in places, it stretches for 30 miles in to the Bay of Gdansk.
Lighthouses dot the peninsula, looking down on vast stretches of sand. Beach bars sit at the end of wooden walkways and were well-filled while we were there. They were the perfect spot for an evening drink, as our daughter played on the sand and a sea breeze took away the heat of the day.
Because that is another surprise about the Baltic coast in summer. The weather can be as temperamental as Britain’s, but we basked in temperatures between 25 to 30C, save the odd violent thunderstorm.
And so some evenings we would be faced with a choice. Eat our fried fish gazing out over the bay as the sun set and fishing boats chugged by in the still waters, or walk half a mile to the more dramatic, Baltic side and brave the stiff wind coming from the north.
The wild sea on one side and the tranquil bay on the other, separated by a meagre stretch of land.
And that distinction was another delight in this place of contrasts.