More Gdansk Photos
Kaliningrad Russia Federation
Las Vegas, Nevada USA
Greetings from Gdansk Poland,
If you know anything at all about Gdansk, it is probably the fact that it is here the first shots of World War II were fired or that it is the place where the Solidarity Movement leading to the fall of the Soviet Union occurred. Personally, I knew almost nothing about the city or its history before coming here. The seaside town is very old with a history going back more than a thousand years! After only a few days meandering among the often destroyed structures of the Old Town, now restored to their original splendor, I see how much I have missed.
The melodious sounds of the 49 bell carillon in the tower of St. Catherine's Church treat those of us privileged to be in the city these days at noon to a live concert rare in this modern world of canned entertainment. Walking the cobble stone streets of the Old Town it is easy to imagine life here a few centuries ago when gas lighting would have provided the night time illumination and the clickety-clack sounds of horses hoofs would have echoed off walls along the narrow streets. Not everything in modern life is better!
But, once again I jump ahead of my story. I left Warsaw Monday, 25 February on the 08:25 train for Gdansk, a six hour trip up to the Baltic Sea coast. The one way second class ticket cost 65 Zloty or about $21. The train arrived on schedule at 14:40 and I started my confused meandering with a trip into the Mac Donald's restaurant located next to the train station exit as I needed a restroom and fancied one of their chocolate sundaes. Ice cream in hand I inquired about the WC and learned to my chagrin this particular franchise doesn't have one! I have long been under the impression ALL Mac Donald's have customer toilets, but at this Mac Donald's, customers are directed to visit facilities in the train terminal where an attendant dutifully collects 2.50 Zloty for the privilege of helping the city maintain its water table.
That taken care of, but still annoyed, I stepped next door into the KFC where I discovered free toilets as usual plus an energetic WiFi system connected to the Internet. I hung around just long enough for my Galaxy Note to download the Google map details for Gdansk and headed out looking for my first night hotel.
The first place I tried, the $110 Scandic Hotel located directly across the tracks from the Train Station pretty much lived up to its four star rating, but I rarely take any first offer. So, playing with the receptionist I noted my pecuniary limitations as a ploy to see what she might offer in response. The lowest she could conjure still made it around $93 with breakfast, so I asked her for alternatives and to my surprise and delight she suggested the obscure Gryf Gdansk, a two star recently renovated house with very reasonable rates (standard singles are 140 Zloty). I ended up taking a 190 Zloty ($60) triple room with a king-size bed including breakfast. Both reception staff spoke understandable English and made an effort to help me with my effort to find the Russian Federation consulate. The anemic heaters failed to make the room comfortably warm for quite a while, but the strong WiFi signals throughout the hotel made working on the Internet a pleasure. There is a nicely furnished restaurant on the first floor and the soup and Coke snack cost 9.50 Zloty ($3) before I retired to work a while in the chilly room... which did eventually warm up a bit, but never did get truly comfortable.
The next morning after a mediocre breakfast including tasteless powered coffee, I checked out to renew my search for better value lodging based on a bit of Internet research completed the previous evening. The Best Western Hotel Bonum website claimed to offer single rooms for 38 Euros, so that had to be included as a possible target, as well as the 4 star Admiral Hotel near the Best Western (I later visited both and found the Best Western to be a poor value and the luxurious Admiral an excellent value at a negotiated 200 Zloty single room rate including breakfast). Searching and lost, I spotted the Mercure Hotel. I knew it would be expensive, but figured I'd use the excuse of asking for directions to the Best Western to see what promotional deals they might have.
The receptionist could not recall any hotel called the Best Western in his city and suggested it might go by a local name as is common for major chains. About to leave I casually mentioned how much I had enjoyed previous stays in Mercure Hotels, the latest being a house in Morocco painted purple and yellow that made it so easy to find after a day of deliberately getting lost. Then I noted my travel budget probably put this Mercure out of my range and that I expected to be stuck in Gdansk for more than a week while the Russian consulate processed my visa request.
With all that information the personable young receptionist went to work concocting a package he thought I might find interesting. Sure enough, the rack rate of 360 Zloty could be trimmed to a total of 285 including breakfast and "Premium" Internet access if I wanted to consider his house. That is right up there near the top of my maximum financial comfort zone, but with crumbling resistance I asked to see what my $90 would get me. He pounced on the possibility this scruffy vagabond might boost his sales numbers and walked me up to a spacious tenth floor room, a gorgeous brown and purple decorator's dream, perfect in every way; it even has wired Internet access, fancy designer bottled mineral water and complimentary coffee/tea service.
After so many hotel room inspections I have the process down to a system and quickly realized this would be my new home for the next few days. The amiable reception guy seemed to understand my needs and demonstrated how the sink stopper worked for washing small batches of clothes! Then he pointed out the shopping center fifty meters from the hotel had a great grocery store for snacks! Hotel staff never offer that kind of advice in my experience and often go out of their way to discourage clothes washing or bringing snacks of any kind into the hotel... which I always do discretely anyway... usually carrying the empty packaging evidence with me to a trashcan outside the hotel... like proper camping protocol: "Take only photos; leave only footprints."
The second morning in the city I bought a 24 hour transportation pass and rode a #11 tram up to the Manhattan Shopping Center which is near the Russian Federation Embassy/Consulate. As I approached the address for the place the sidewalk under the packed snow covering suddenly shifted causing me to loose balance and fall, but in such a manner nothing got whacked very hard, fortunately. I figure the Russians must have been behind that peculiar sidewalk behavior because when I pushed the button on the squawk box a disemboweled voice in Russian came back. After several totally unintelligible exchanges the voice on the other side said something that sounded final, but I remained fixed in front of the camera.
I waited and waited hoping for something else out of the box. Finally, a voice asked in English: "May I help you?" Explaining my need for a visa into Kaliningrad she curtly replied: "Tomorrow. Come tomorrow." To my follow up question about times she finally revealed with the most convoluted phrasing I'd ever heard that I should come after 8AM and before noon... I think.
The next day I did return around 9AM and had no trouble being allowed into the inner sanctums of the consulate. The quite amiable Russian employee who spoke polite English let me know my first tasks in the ridiculously involved paper chaise required for them to grant a tourist visa meant obtaining: 1) An invitation from a hotel to visit the Russian city desired, 2) Proof of medical insurance coverage while in the country, and 3) A completed visa application form with all detailed questions answered fully plus one passport size photograph. At the end of the information speech he handed me the application forms and directed me to a nearby travel agency which he assured me could handle all the details. So I left the consulate and walked fifty meters to the Tamara WIZY Turystyka or travel agency where their staff did make most of the process simple and painless.
But first I had to get into their office located in a basement dungeon entered through an ancient heavy plank door that creaked when opened or closed adding to the eerie feeling of the location. The agency collected a total of 198 Zloty ($63) in cash to cover: 1) application fee-20 Zloty, 2) hotel voucher-140 Zloty, and 3) medical insurance-38 Zloty. The consulate assessed a separate 161 Zloty which needed to be deposited into their bank account (also handled by the accommodating travel agent for an additional fee of 15 Zloty).
With the application preparation complete and money paid or deposited I returned to the consulate to submit everything and learn when I could pickup my passport with the new visa. The very amiable consulate guy took the paperwork and asked me to wait a few minutes while he checked it over. Five minutes later he called me back to the window and noted a number of questions on the application hadn't been answered to their satisfaction. Most of the missing information seemed inconsequential to me, but I had no intention of making an issue out of the superfluous requests. One item stumped me: "list every country you have ever visited!" The space provided might have accommodated twenty or thirty country names, but even if there had been space enough I knew I'd have trouble remembering all the 140 places I've been. With most of the "missing" pieces of information entered in the indicated spaces I returned to the window and explained my dilemma. The nonchalant consulate agent told me to just fill in as many countries as would fit in the allotted space and it would be enough. That done he asked me to again wait another five minutes while he submitted my application. When he called me back to the window he handed me a small printed form indicating my visa could be picked up in five rather than the usual seven days.
With the visa application out of the way I left to buy another 24 hour transportation pass in order to get back down to the Mercure Hotel and a desperately needed nap. The tram/bus ticketing process is simple: buy a one ride, an unlimited one hour pass or a 24 hour unlimited ticket and ride any of the public transportation vehicles, making sure you insert your ticket on the first ride to date/time stamp it. After that, hop on and off without further bother... unless the roaming ticket enforcement officer happens to board your train. Then, you must present your ticket for his inspection, which happened to me once during my two weeks in Poland. The fine for cheating is stiff: fifty times the value of the ticket I believe, so most people play by the rules.
At the train station tram stop I realized I hadn't learned which Kaliningrad transportation options were available, so I delayed the nap and discovered there is no train until May. But there are three busses daily: 06:00, 15:30 and 17:00. The bus trip takes four hours. On the way back to the hotel I spotted an airline agents' office and stopped to learn about possible flights between Gdansk and Kaliningrad: there are no direct flights! So, a bus is the only way in... unless I walk in... a possibility.
The Mercure Hotel is only a couple blocks from the main gates into the Gdansk Ship Yards. The principle Solidarity Movement Monument of the Fallen Shipyard Workers [Pomnik Poległych Stoczniowców] is located in a large open area next to the gates. I wandered that little park several times, learning something new with each exploration. The towering triple crucifix with anchors affixed near the tops of each cross is not especially artistic in my opinion. The bulky base looks like steel plates salvaged from decommissioned ships and crudely welded in place by apprentice welders giving the impression of hastily concocted assemblies with more emphasis on the political statement being made than any artistic technique. Embedded into each of the three legs at the base are bas relief sculptures representing important events in the history of the Solidarity Movement.
Now more than thirty years later much of the symbology has been obscured by the passage of time. When asked, hotel reception staff could explain the significance of the monument in only the broadest terms: hungry people became angry over the scarcity of everything and revolted against the harsh government measures taken to quiet the protests. Clearly, today's young people have only the most basic knowledge of the complex cold war politics driving international socioeconomic processes at the time. Historians today see the big picture more clearly, but the full range of issues is complex and still being debated. Paralleling the events in Gdansk leading to the Second World War, the ship workers revolt here eventually led to the end of Soviet Communism in Eastern Europe. Before coming to Gdansk I knew little of the city's long, tumultuous and colorful history and could profitably spend a lifetime catching up. But, the world is so big and this piece of it is so small. This brief glimpse is all I'm likely to ever get.
On Friday, the first of March with three days of idle time ahead until my Russian visa would become available, I ventured once again into the Old Town to admire the restored architecture and find some soup to slurp. When noon arrived the magnificent bells of the Congregational St Catherine’s Church Carillon began to peal as a carillonneur performed on the massive 49 bell instrument high above in the reconstructed twelfth century church bell tower. The concert continued during my entire half hour exploration of the area around the church, until finally spotting the obviously popular Tekstylia restaurant in the shadow of the church. Mostly young people occupied the tables drinking beer and wine, but the menu offered a variety of food dishes as well. I ordered a chicken and cheese Stracciatella Soup with a half liter of Zywiec draft beer for a total cost of 21 Zloty (about $7).
When finished I moved to the bar and laid down a fifty Zloty bill and a one Zloty coin, expecting a couple bills for my 30 Zloty change. The lass behind the counter returned a handful of coins as change muttering a lame excuse in apology. I stepped over to an unoccupied high table to see what change she had given me and found: a 5 Zloty coin, a 1 Zloty coin and seven 2 Zloty coins. The total change returned totaled 20 Zloty, not the 30 I had coming. She had short changed me 10 Zloty! Back to the bar I went dropping the handful of change and receipt down and exclaiming: "This is not right." The manager who had handled my payment seeing the commotion stepped over and asked what the problem was. When I repeated my observation she reached into the register fetching the missing ten Zloty note delivering a perfunctory: "Sorry." Given the awkward odd change transaction and being a foreigner unable to speak Polish, I cannot help but wonder about the possibility of this "error" being concocted to take advantage of a naive and tipsy patron.
Fred L Bellomy