Staring through the glass of the bus window ito the darkness of the northern Polish countryside, stiff and tired from the ten hour ride from Krakow, I realised I knew nothing of Gdańsk, the town we were about to arrive at. Even so, I had assumed that a port town on the edge of the Baltic Sea would be dank, bleak and inhospitable. As we walked from the bus depot through frost and narrow winding streets, past the late night coffee houses, university buildings, innumerable churches and chiming dissonant melodies of rival bell towers, I realised my gloom was not warranted. My impression was further enhanced when we passed a pub with a picture of a kilted piper and the flag of St. Andrew draped outside. It is named ‘U Szkota’ or the Scottish Pub. Rather fittingly most of the freshers from city’s three universities were in attendance and well on their way to getting firmly moroculous. Unlike them I certainly wasn’t in the mood for that kind of evening and instead enjoyed a late supper of mulled wine and apple strudel in a nearby café.
We were in Gdańsk to catch the ferry to Sweden the next afternoon and had only the following morning to look around the central old town. Although much of the city was flattened in the Second World War, extensive restoration has meant that many of its historical buildings remain intact. It is easy to notice the Flemish-Dutch influence on the architecture, reflecting the city’s long history as a trading seaport, especially on the main tourist thoroughfare along Ulica Dluga (Long Street) and Długi Targ (Long Market). It reminded me more of the Netherlands than Eastern Europe. Many of the buildings are dwarfed by St. Mary’s Church, allegedly the largest brick church in the world. I was not able to fit the entire front façade of it in a single photo, so I could well believe it. We caught our taxi to the port regretting not having had more time to explore an unexpectedly vibrant and forlorn city and the surrounding Baltic coast.
The Polferries terminal at the harbour looked as though it could also do with the extensive restoration that had benefited the rest of town, with little evidence of any maintenance since the eighties decor was fitted. This gave the place a curious kind of nostalgic charm amid rusting trees and red brick lighthouse on the portside. Similar descriptions could be applied to the ferry itself, a dated vessel with laminate floors frayed at the edges, pining for its heyday in a past decade. As the ferry pulled away from shore, we stood on deck to take in the austere vista of the rolling iron-grey sea dotted with the occasional rainbow where the clouds had spilled, before the bitter Baltic wind forced us inside. Our cabin was clean and functional, although i felt a little like sleeping on the set of The Shining, had Jack Torrance had been the caretaker of a Polish ferry instead of the Overlook Hotel. In the school dinner style canteen we had a dinner of goulash, a mystery meat and sauerkraut before retiring for the evening. Neither of us was persuaded by the look of the late-night disco on one of the lower decks, where, judging from our fellow passengers, it would be sparsely attended by pensioners and lairy groups of skinny chain-smoking Polish men. Further out into the Baltic the ferry creaked and swayed as the waves deepened, but we slept soundly. I was only briefly awoken by two drunken Swedish pensioners who made a racket returning to the cabin next door after the disco – two more vessels pining for days past.
By late morning the following day, the ferry was passing through a smattering of wooded islets dotted with red wooden buildings trimmed in white before we reached the port at Nynäsham at lunchtime. Where my stereotypes were awry in Poland, they were precisely correct in Sweden. Crisp autumn skies, lines of russet and gold trees, clean quiet streets and a keen clear stillness hanging over everything. Our train to Stockholm left exactly on time and everybody spoke textbook English. It’s edifying to have your preconceptions challenged. I sometimes prefer them to be validated.