Rick Steves Travel Blog: Blog Gone Europe
I'm sharing my travel experiences, candid opinions and what's on my mind. If you think it's inappropriate for a travel writer to stir up discussion on his blog with political observations and insights gained from traveling abroad, you may not want to read any further. — Rick
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After a lifetime exploring Europe — four months a year since the 1970s — I love to go to new places and affirm my deep-seated belief that you can never exhaust Europe of what it has to offer travelers. And visiting Gdańsk, on the Baltic Coast of Poland, did just that. You may associate Gdańsk with dreary images of striking shipyard workers from the nightly news in the 1980s — but there’s so much more to this city than shipyards, Solidarity, and smog. It’s one of northern Europe’s most historic and picturesque cities. This was the perfect finale — the last stop on my two-month summer trip.
Gdańsk is second only to Kraków as Poland’s most appealing destination. Its historic center boasts block after block of red-brick churches and narrow, colorful, ornately decorated Hanseatic burghers’ mansions. The riverfront embankment, with its trademark medieval crane, oozes salty maritime charm. Gdańsk’s history is also fascinating — from its medieval Golden Age to the headlines of our own generation, big things have happened here. You might even see Solidarity’s portly old Lech Wałęsa still wandering the streets.
As a fan of freedom, hiking to the Gdańsk Shipyard, where the Polish shipbuilders’ union Solidarity was born (kicking off the beginning of the end of the USSR and the communist rule of half of Europe), was like a pilgrimage. My guide, Agnus, told the story vividly as we stood at the gate under a “Solidarity” banner hanging where a big “LENIN” once hung. The crude yellow board listed the workers’ demands. After my time here, and in Poland in general, I’m eager to make two new shows on Poland and you can bet guides like Agnus will be at my side.
I’m inspired when regular people stand bravely in the face of tyranny anywhere in the world. And photos of Polish workers standing up to a repressive and seemingly invincible Soviet empire is a perfect example. Imagine the bravery of these Poles. In 1980, a wave of strikes and sit-ins spread along the heavily industrialized north coast of Poland, most notably in Gdańsk.
The world is full of uniformed and well-armed pawns who crush peoples’ movements in return for steady employment. These troops found themselves facing down legions of courageous Polish workers risking their lives for freedom. And the workers ultimately prevailed.
When Solidarity negotiated its way to victory in 1980, one of their conditions was that the Soviets let Poland erect a monument to workers killed a decade earlier while demonstrating for the same workers’ rights. The government agreed, marking the first time a communist regime ever allowed a monument to be built to honor victims of communist oppression. Lech Wałęsa likened it to a harpoon in the heart of the communists. The towering monument, with three crucified anchors on top, was designed, engineered, and built by shipyard workers. In just four months after the historic agreement was signed, the monument was finished. Today on Gdańsk’s Solidarity Square, this monument, with a trio of 140-foot-tall crosses, honors those martyred comrades and is a highlight of any visit to this city.
With yesterday’s vote, Scotland, while still emphatically Scotland, remains a big part of what makes Britain Great. While the Scottish (probably wisely) chose to stay with the UK, the spirit of Scotland is the big winner as the Scottish came together in an impressive exercise of democracy. While other countries conflicted about borders and independence are mired in violence and chaos, Scotland peacefully voted on an issue many are passionate about. And, regardless of how close the Unionist victory may have been, the voice of the people will be respected, and the Scots will work together to make their society function as Scottish as can be.
Here’s a little video clip, shot a decade ago, from a small clan gathering in the Highlands. As you watch the Scottish strong men labor to flip the caber (telephone pole) end-over-end — and fail three times — think of the dogged and irrepressible strength of the Scottish character, even if still ruled from London. And when you see me come in to clean up, think of how lucky I was not to get a hernia.
While working on the self-guided town walk of Gdańsk in our Rick Steves’ Eastern Europe guidebook, I came upon an historic mill (whose millstones rumbled 24/7 to produced 20 tons of flour a day for the city in its heyday) and a one-week-old fountain giving local children a giggle-filled dousing. I had to share this scene — so fun and so historic at the same time — with a little video clip.
Gdańsk, a port city on the Baltic Coast of Poland, is truly amazing — and amazingly historic. As any resident of the city will proudly explain, Gdańsk was the home of Copernicus (who changed the way we see ourselves in the cosmos), the place where the first shots of World War II were fired, and the home of the Solidarity movement that brought about the beginning of the end of the Soviet Union and its dominance over Eastern Europe. Here’s a little video explanation from Andrzej, who runs my hotel here (Gotyk House).
One thing I love about European travel is discovering places I never knew existed and had never even considered visiting after a lifetime of exploring Europe. Malbork Castle in Pomerania (north of Warsaw in Poland) is a good example.
This biggest brick castle in the world and the largest castle of the Gothic period is one of Europe’s most imposing fortresses. We include it in the Poland section of our Eastern Europe guidebook, and I enjoyed visiting with my local guide to update the material for next year’s edition. Here’s a quick little video clip on a huge and historic heap of Polish bricks.
As I’ve mentioned, I’ve experienced one strong and recurring weather pattern in this summer’s travels: hot and humid mornings, then torrential downpours in the afternoons. In just one month, on two separate occasions, the Frankfurt airport was closed for thundershowers on days I was flying through — causing me to miss my connecting flights. He’s a little clip of Warsaw during its 4 p.m. daily shower.
While in Warsaw, I couldn’t help but fixate on the cost of war. I know how lovingly I collect and organize my physical world in my house. But virtually every house in Warsaw was destroyed in 1945…so many cultural and personal treasures simply gone forever. And, now, just two generations later, Germans and Russians stroll through the city on vacation — joking, licking ice cream cones, and snapping photos. Of course, we need to forgive and move on. I’m just amazed at how good Poland is at it. Perhaps some other countries — victims of similar horrors — can learn from the Poles. As Hubert says in this clip, “Hate changes nothing.”
Driving down a boulevard with an ongoing explanation of everything I was seeing, I was inspired to pull out my little camera and make a video clip to share with you the delight of having your own private tour guide. Imagine hiring a guide like Hubert with a car for $160 for 5 hours. This clip finishes as we park at Ghetto Uprising Square to see the memorial about that horrific chapter in Polish history, and a sparkling new museum celebrating Polish Jews. And with Hubert as my guide, I had the best teacher a traveler could want.
During my visit to Poland, Poles were frustrated about the recent trade war that had erupted with Russia. Reacting to international sanctions regarding the conflict in Ukraine, Russia decreed that foods could no longer be imported from the European Union — including Poland. One result: Poland is awash in apples grown for export to Russia. Standing here on Warsaw’s Old Town Square, knowing how in 1945 the Soviet Red Army watched from across the river as the Nazis literally leveled this city building by building before retreating (allowing the Soviets to waltz in with no resistance), it’s particularly poignant to see happy, feisty, and resilient Poles eating apples to piss off Putin.
Travelers see these Changing of the Guard ceremonies all over Europe. Many are so ornate, you lose the sense of the actual change. But here in Warsaw’s Pilsudski Square, it’s crisp and clear.
This pageantry honors not a royal family, but the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier — a particularly powerful site in the country that suffered more deaths per capita than any other in World War II.
What’s your favorite Changing of the Guard ceremony, and why?