A Dutch City in Poland

Gdańsk is a city on the north coast of Poland. For centuries, Germanic powers dominated the area, but the architecture and feel of the city are surprisingly Dutch. Gdańsk is famous for its shipbuilding and trade heritage, as well as its amber. The shipbuilding is all but gone, but the city remains vibrant and beautiful.

A brief history of Gdańsk

Gdańsk, as Poles have always known it, was founded as a Polish city sometime in the late 900s. The German name, Danzig, was used when it was under the control of the Teutonic Knights from 1308 to 1466 and Prussia from 1772 to 1918, and it was called the Free City of Danzig from 1919 to 1939—an ill-fated attempt to defuse tensions between Germany and Poland.

Hanseatic League Cities
Hanseatic League Cities

The Dutchness of Gdańsk comes indirectly from Gdańsk being part of the Hanseatic League. The League’s name derived from “Hanse, a medieval German word for “guild,” or “association.” The League grew organically in the 13th century from trading alliances among cities along the North and Baltic Seas. Different from later trading corporations like the Hudson’s Bay Company and the British East India Company, the Hanseatic League was not a centralized hierarchy with a permanent leadership body but a collection of independent merchant guilds (Hanses) cooperating together. Internally, each Hanse tended to be hierarchical and dominated by nepotism. Like the later corporations, they tended toward monopolistic commercial practices.

In 1241, the cities of Lübeck and Hamburg agreed to common policing of trade shipments to protect against bandits and pirates. Lübeck made similar agreements with other northern Germanic cities and by the 1260s the agreements had come to be known as the Lübeck Law. The cities that agreed to the Lübeck Law coalesced into the Hanseatic League. By 1300, the League had major trading centers from Brügge in the west to Reval (now Tallinn) in the east and trading posts in Great Britain, Scandinavia, and northern Russia.

The trade dominance of the Germanic cities within the League gradually ebbed. By the mid-1500s, Dutch traders, both inside and outside of the Hanseatic League, were ferrying the majority of cargo in the Baltic Sea. Merchants in Gdańsk traded more and more with Dutch traders and less and less with Germanic traders. Dutch merchants poured money into the city, building much of the center of the city, the canals, and old port.

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New/Old Gdańsk

Gdańsk remained a major port city into the 1900s, including World War II. It was the first Polish city attacked by the Nazis in 1939 and was greatly damaged.  Used as a major Nazi naval base during the war, it was flattened by the Soviets in 1945. Virtually nothing you see today in Gdańsk pre-dates the war. As they did in the old town center of Warsaw, the Polish people rebuilt the old town of Gdańsk to look as much as possible as it did before the war. Gdańsk thus retains its Dutch look.

I was fortunate to be able to stay in the heart of the old city for four days this summer. I had visited Utrecht the year before, and so much about Gdańsk reminded me of Utrecht. The one exception is that the Poles do not share the Dutch obsession with bicycles. (From my hotel window in Utrecht, I would regularly see 30 to 40 bicyclists queued up in the special bike lane at the stop light.) The central street of the old town of Gdańsk is the grand boulevard, Długa, now pedestrian only and lovely to stroll down. It is shown in three of the four photos.

Certainly, Gdańsk is thoroughly Polish in other ways. The people, the cuisine, and the culture are Polish, but Gdańsk is unique among Polish cities in its Dutch character. It is a great city to visit if you are seeking an inexpensive, beautiful city to wander about in. There are museums and art galleries, but they aren’t the top attraction. It is also not a major shopping destination except for the amber shops. The north shore of Poland is where you can find the world’s best amber. This lack of typical tourist attractions makes Gdańsk a perfect destination for travelers seeking somewhere unique.

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