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22 scotsbarszcz

Travel: Gdansk

Unless I’m much mistaken, the

opening scenes of

Andrzej Wajda’s ‘Man of Marble’ take place close to that part of Gdańsk made famous by shipyard struggles against an illegitimate regime. The dispiriting regularity of

the buildings and the driving music seem to reflect the assertive personality of the young journalist played by Krystyna Janda. These sounds and images were in my mind as I arrived at the Gryff Hotel which is overlooked by the towering forms of the shipyard cranes. The contrast with ‘Beautiful Historic Gdańsk’ (as one book title describes it) conveys something of the multi-faceted character of this historically significant city. Gdańsk did indeed

present itself beautifully this year. Arriving in July, instead of August, I avoided the

irritating clutter of the jarmark, leaving me free to appreciate the true character of this gem of the Hanseatic League. At the top of long ulica Piwna, with its succession of outdoor cafes, the summer sun reflects gloriously off the redecorated facade of the School of Fine Arts. The ornamental exploding bombs which sit at the very top of the building provide a clue to its former function as the city arsenal. I have had the privilege of exploring the narrow corridors and the studios during term-time, seeing work in progress, but it is also possible for summer visitors to see exhibitions of graduating students’ work in the main halls. There is more to Gdańsk

than the retrospective interest provided by Solidarity and the rich

Flemish Renaissance architecture which lines the streets of the old city (wonderful though that is). Housed in an imposing red- brick building, which once served as a bath-house, Centrum Sztuki Współczesnej Łaznia (Łaznia Centre for Contemporary Art) mounts challenging exhibitions of photography, painting, printing and three- dimensional work by Polish and foreign artists. It is necessary to cross both branches of the Motława canal to find it – and I managed to become lost twice – but the effort is rewarded by an interior space where the temptation to disguise its utilitarian character has been sensibly resisted. The bare brickwork and the old-fashioned windows form a perfect setting for the current

exhibition of international photography which continues until late-August. Excellent. Nighttime found me

making repeat visits to‘Cafe Absinthe’, located on the other side of the art school building and facing onto Targ Węglowy (the Coal Market). Here, glum faces and sombre moods are definitely not allowed. There is something exquisitely post- modern about watching Polish youth dancing on the tables singing “We all live in a yellow submarine” in the city where the first effective assaults against bureaucratic communism were made. On my penultimate day in

Gdańsk I sought to escape the sweltering heat of the city and took the train to Gdynia Orłowo which sits by the sea, a shore-line walk away from Gdynia itself.

Strange that I should remember the place as being perpetually deserted, with the steep cliff and the sandy track enticing you to explore the dark overhanging forest, creating a romantic mood worthy of painterly treatment by Caspar David Friedrich. But here, as elsewhere, empty spaces become commodified and commercialised, succumbing to the demand for entertainment, and the opportunity of exercising one’s imagination evaporates. Even at the very end of the long pier, I found I was not to be left alone with the coastal landscape. From that viewpoint, I

directed a final thought towards Gdańsk: unless an economic tsunami reduces thoughts of foreign holidays to mere wishful thinking, you will see me again.


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