Kayaking the Motlawa River in Gdansk, Poland

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The skies were clear when we awoke today and the forecast called for mostly sunny in Gdansk, Poland. While I was hopeful, the barometer in my head suggested otherwise. My head turned out to be right. The day turned colder and wetter by the hour, though fortunately we were able to get most of our tour in before the drizzle.

Suman and I began our tour at 8:15. Our red carpet exit led us to a bus which drove us 15 minutes to our kayaking destination. After we were all fitted for life jackets which went very quickly, we separated into pairs, picked a paddle and climbed into our two-person kayaks. Once the kayak owner and guide loaded into their singles, we were ready to go except 90% of the group appeared to be novices holding their paddles upside down or backwards. I suggested to our guide that he might give a demonstration to help a few folks out.

From there, we began paddling down the Motlawa River. We completed a figure eight around two islands while passing by sailboats, restaurants, historic ruins, and the busy city center. Our guides did not tell us what anything was while we were kayaking, so that is all I can say, except that we had nice hour workout that didn’t require walking.

After our kayaking jaunt, we took the bus to Old Town which was reconstructed after World War II after 90% of the city was destroyed at the start of the war. The port city, part of a trinity with Gdynia and Sopot on the Baltic Sea, has a rich history. Its location on the sea and river was important to many rulers. As a result, it has been under Polish rule, German rule, and its own rule with two stints of a free city. It’s economy is dominated by shipbuilding, chemical industries, food processing and amber processing.

Our first view of the port where our ship docked was nothing to write home about. It appeared very industrial, however, its Old Town while only 60 years old, mimicked old styles of Amsterdam. Figurines are atop the roofs and instead of going by addresses, houses are known by these symbols, such as the turtle house. Gdansk residents were subject to the window tax like the Dutch so the houses were built narrowly, taking up little street view with three windows across, yet deep. The Old Town is on the river, yet heavily protected in a square behind an outside wall with a few gates leading to different streets.

Inside the square, we visited St. Mary’s Church which is the largest brick church in the world. The construction of the church which took 159 years was started from the north and south by two different builders, and the result certainly wasn’t a symmetrical masterpiece. I wouldn’t have noticed the mess without the tour guide mentioning it.

arches don't meet up on church
arches don’t meet up on church

The red bricks were produced in Gdansk. They are different from the small yellow ones which are Dutch. According to our guide, horse hair and nails and anything else that made the clay sticky was used in the brick which was lit on fire for two weeks to harden. They could produce 60,000 bricks at a time. The church is made of several million bricks.

The inside of the church was interesting as well. Originally, frescos were painted all over the walls, but because of the change in religion from Protestant to Catholic and because of the change in beliefs over time, the church was painted white which also makes it look bigger. Standing shoulder to shoulder, 25,000 people can fit in the church, and 7,000 people are buried in the church.

One of the most interesting pieces in the church is the astronomical clock. Standing 25 feet high, the medieval clock is decorated with the signs of the zodiac, gold gilt, and Adam and Eve figurines. Legend has it that the clock was so pretty that officials found the clock maker, Hans Duringer, and instead of praising him, cut out his eye so that he could not see to make a prettier clock. When they needed it fixed, he took a hammer to the clock and then jumped from the top to his death. We were all taken aback by this story!

We learned of more legends when we stopped to see Neptune’s Fountain. It is said rich women used to toss gold in the fountain. It filled up and stopped the water from flowing. Since water is so important to this port city, Neptune came and crushed the gold into flakes and the liqueur Goldwasser was born. We had to try that as well as the local beer.

We also passed a thermometer encased in glass inside the city walls. It is the statue erected for Fahrenheit, a physicist. Funny, however, Celsius is the scale used to determine the temperature in Poland.


Near the end of the tour, the wind and cold increased as the rain began to fall. We visited an amber shop which seem to be very prevalent in these Baltic Sea towns. We learned how to distinguish between real and fake amber. The fossilized tree sap is 30-50 million years old. First, it is very light. Second, it floats when added to a bowl of salty water (20% salt). Finally, real amber comes with a certificate. Originally, we visited the amber store to take shelter from the cold, but the presentation was quite interesting, especially when she cut the amber, and we could smell the pine aroma from 50 million years ago!

cutting amber
cutting amber

Our tour guide provided a significant amount of information in the short time we walked around. If we weren’t so cold, I probably would have enjoyed listening to his stories a little more, but I was hoping for slightly more concise renditions. While standing by the windy river, we also learned of the granary ruins on the islands across the way. There were once 300 granaries, and they were all placed on the islands so if they burned down, the whole city wouldn’t go up in flames.

granary ruins
granary ruins

With its rich trading history, Gdansk is famous for its crane. The crane, constructed in 1442-44, was used to transfer cargo and to put up masts on ships. It certainly doesn’t look like today’s cranes. Once the largest crane in the world, which also served as a defense mechanism and one of the gates to the city, the crane was operated with thick hemp rope, a system of blocks, and two wooden turnstiles moved by walking workers. It could lift 4-ton loads 11 meters high!


We also made sure to pass along Long Market, a street that hasn’t been changed for cars and has kept the nice porches on the houses. Here we wander by the festival that lasts for three weeks in Gdansk. It is mostly full of vendors selling trinkets.


We were happy to warm up on the boat, and it was very interesting to watch the tug boats back our ship out of the harbor. I wanted to see the sails unfurl, but the cold, wind and rain outlasted my patience. I’ll try again. Hoping for a sunny day soon! Now that we have learned about tours and a few towns on our trip, I think I would have picked a tour for Bornholm to tour the island, and I would have gotten a free walking tour of Gdansk since the city is so compact. ETB

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Beth Bankhead

Former public finance professional turned award winning travel blogger and photographer sharing the earth's beauty one word and image at a time.

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