Spain are the lords of Gdańsk

Trip Start Jun 09, 2012
Trip End Jun 19, 2012

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Flag of Poland  , Baltic Coast,
Thursday, June 14, 2012

Gdańsk. On the northern Baltic coast of Poland.  A city of narrow cobbled streets, huge red-brick churches and wide thoroughfares lined with elegantly slender buildings.  It's past as a port city has bequeathed Gdańsk a vibe of internationalism – there is definitely a different feeling here to Poznań or Toruń – that will have been furthered by its staging of matches in Euro 2012.

You might know Gdańsk best as the birthplace of Solidarity, the independent trade union was formed in 1980, sparking the beginning of the end of communism.  Not far from Gdańsk Główny (central station) is The Roads To Freedom Exhibition.  Housed in an underground bunker, it’s a museum recounting life in Poland under communist rule, told with many historic artefacts such as the plywood board on which were written the shipyard workers 21 demands (3-year maternity leave?  Retirement at 50?  Really?) or the novelty sized Pope John Paul II pen with which Lech Wałęsa signed the Solidarity agreements.  Endlessly fascinating stuff, particularly if like me you have vague first-hand collections of the events.

Further along is the former Lenin Shipyards itself where it all happened.  Sad to relate that beyond those gates immortalised in news footage of the time, there isn’t a lot to see here, what with its haloed status long since lost amid the modern economic hardships.  Still, I could hardly come to Gdańsk and not see for myself the site of one of the 20th century’s pivotal moments.  Besides I happen to meet a couple of Irish fellas here who cycled to Gdańsk from Berlin for the match.  We went for lunch at an authentic shipyard workers canteen.  A (rather good) goulash with bread and a bottle of Pepsi came to less than £3.00.  Bargain.

Within the Główne Miasto (main town) of Gdańsk lies Długi Targ (long market), also known as the Royal Way.  It’s the largest of the city’s preserved historic quarters, or rather recreated, as buildings from the Prussian occupation were knocked down in favour of re-erected 18th century structures.  Bookended by Złota Brama (Golden Gate, a sort of triumphal arch) in the east and Zielona Brama (Green Gate, an archway with buildings on top, Lech Wałęsa had offices there) in the west by the Motlawa river.  It’s the focal point of visitors, it’s also lined with dubious eateries and sun-shaded outdoor bars.  No surprise then that it’s where Irish fans have congregated in Gdańsk. 

As with Poznań, the night before the match, we had outnumbered the Spanish supporters several times over, but the next day it seemed to have evened up.  By Thursday afternoon Długi Targ had become too overcrowded, and yet there was never any feeling it could turn dangerous.  Instead, there was a palpable sense of camaraderie between the sets of rival fans; songs were sung, drink was flowing (from the sky if you were unfortunately located near the Neptune Fountain.  Legend has it that vodka once flowed from the fountain; well it certainly showered beer there that day).  The craic – there’s no other word for it – was great.

Spain vs. Ireland was played at the PGE Arena 5km north of the old town, The 44,000 capacity stadium, its gleaming golden yellow exterior designed to resemble the locally mined amber stones, is the best looking of the eight Euro 2012 grounds.  I could cite extenuating circumstances, like the heavy rain, or plead that the Irish defence were once again asleep at the beginning of each half.  But sometimes you just have to hold your hand up and admit that Ireland were beaten by a way better team.  At times Spain, global superstars to a man, were playing football as riveting as the work in the local shipyards. 

Torres nabbed a brace, with Silva and Fabregas completing the 4-0 score.  Our reactions ran a range of emotions; our team was being played off the park, but at the same time there was no antagonism towards the Spanish.  There was a definite sense we were witnessing one of the finest sides of all time playing at their peak (Torres and Iniesta was generously applauded when they were subbed).  You’ve got to give Spain credit …unlike the IMF.  Ha!  Ha! 

Towards the end, we started singing The Fields Of Athenry over and over, as a gesture of defiance as much as anything.  Our team may have lost heavily and are out of the tournament, but we will still support them to the end.  Apparently this has sparked waves of praise worldwide for the Irish fans, along with some dissenting voices condemning us for going along for a drink and a singsong, not caring for the team etc.  I could write an entire post about why this is utter rubbish.  Suffice to say, what would these malcontents have preferred us to do?  Slink home quietly?  Smash up the town in anger?

I was back within the city centre a mere 25 minutes after the final whistle.  It was still raining heavily, and I didn’t feel like drowning my sorrows, especially with an early morning flight tomorrow.  So I hailed a cab and went back to my hotel situated in the outer skirts of the outskirts.  The Hotel Walewscy was a very nice place though, huge rooms and all matte black furnishings.  Next stop Kraków.
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