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The power of Gdansk

History has been drawn to Poland's seaside city: It was where Solidarity was born, and where the first shots of the Second World War were fired. But travellers who bypass it are also missing out on a mellower side: sipping cool beer along a lively waterfront and strolling the cobblestone streets of a community rebuilt from the ashes

GDANSK, POLAND -- None of this was here 60 years ago. Although that scarcely seems believable to me now as I walk along Gdansk's cobblestone streets lined with colourful Burgher mansions, big Gothic buildings with elaborate façades and the occasional church spire or tower poking out from the skyline. In 1945, piles of burning rubble filled these streets, which at the moment are packed with street performers, musicians, locals eating ice cream and tourists hunting for the perfect piece of amber.

Poland is my first stop on a two-month trip through Eastern Europe, where I keep returning because its complicated and often subjective history fascinates me. There's more to Poland than Warsaw, Krakow and Auschwitz, and this port city, a six-hour trip from the capital, attracts me with its colourful old town and lively harbour.

But Gdansk's biggest tourist draw -- its important role in 20th-century European history -- is also what nearly destroyed it.

In no other Polish city I've visited is the sense of history of the past century more immediate than in Gdansk -- where the Second World War began and where decades later the Solidarity movement was born in the now-famous Gdansk Shipyard. Now, the city is entering a new phase in its history with its entry into the European Union. But for once, it won't be tumultuous, violent or revolutionary. In fact, little is expected to change immediately for tourists, except that there will probably be more of them. Poland has been easily accessible -- and considerably cheaper than Western European destinations -- since the fall of the Iron Curtain. But while Gdansk gets its fair share of tourists, they don't seem to overwhelm the city -- even in the height of tourist season, hearing English spoken is rare. Thankfully, Gdansk has so far been spared masses of tourists arriving in buses.

It must be something about that rough salty Baltic breeze that draws the forces of history to Gdansk. Formerly known as the Free City of Danzig, it was once the biggest in Eastern Europe, and was continually being passed between Germany and Poland. The first shots of the Second World War were fired here when on Sept. 1, 1939, Nazi Germany attacked Poland's military posts in the Westerplatte peninsula and the Polish Post Office in central Gdansk. A few weeks later, Soviet forces invaded, defeated the Polish forces, and with bombs and guns essentially reduced the thousand-year-old city to piles of concrete.

History lives on here in the form of museums, memorials and monuments to the heroism of the past. The post office that was destroyed in the war and rebuilt in 1950 now houses a small museum devoted to the battle.

The Westerplatte peninsula today holds several shelled-out and burned bunkers, a small museum inside one of the surviving barracks, and an oversized Socialist Realist monument to the defenders of Westerplatte, who lasted for seven days in a battle that was supposed to be over in hours.

But the biggest miracle of Gdansk is the massive decades-long rebuilding process that the city underwent after the war. The debris was cleared away and the city centre -- Old Gdansk -- was successfully resurrected and painstakingly reconstructed to look like the Gdansk of 1450 to 1650, when it was one of Europe's greatest export centres. Another miracle is that it was the Communist government that restored the city.

It's a fact that's hard to believe as I walk along one of the city's oldest streets, ulica Dluga (Long Street, originally laid out in the 14th century), which leads to the Gdansk's waterfront on the Motlawa Canal. This pedestrian thoroughfare holds old mansions, the Town Hall and ceremonial gateways at either end.

The eastern part of ulica Dluga turns into a large open square, Dlugi Targ (Long Market), dominated by the Neptune Fountain -- one of Gdansk's most prized symbols, and probably the most photographed spot in the city. The statue of the sea god was erected in 1549 and was dismantled and rushed into hiding, along with many of the city's other most treasured pieces. It was only returned to its spot in 1954. Nothing that I can see now was even here in 1945, and Gdansk is now one of the most stunning cities in Poland.

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