My first-time visit to the region of Pomerania shared by western Poland and eastern Germany was a compelling and enchanting odyssey from the amber city of Gdansk to Berlin, gateway to the Baltic, and the beaches and fairy-tale castles in between.
I flew from Los Angeles to her sister city, Berlin, and then took an hourlong connecting flight to Gdansk Lech Walesa Airport in Poland, named after the country's second president, leader of the Solidarity movement and Nobel Peace Prize winner.
My introduction to Gdansk, a seaport city of 460,000 people on the Motlawa River and the provincial capital of Pomerania, started with a walking tour at Old Town's popular Long Market Street, the 700-foot-long car-free "avenue" inside the former walled city.
Gdansk's shipping history dates back to the Middle Ages and its role as a member of the powerful Hanseatic League, which from the 13th to 17th centuries controlled the burgeoning shipping industry throughout northern Europe. Here I enjoyed the regal landscape of Long Market with the imposing Gothic Town Hall and its gilded spire built in the mid-14th century, the Fountain of Neptune constructed in bronze in 1617 (brought out of hiding after World War II), and the expansive walkway lined with stately Dutch narrow houses originally occupied by wealthy traders, merchants, mayors and writers.
Centuries before, Long Market was the Royal Route when Polish monarchs visited Gdansk, then one of the most powerful trade and cultural centers of Europe.
Captivated by the view before me, I found it hard to imagine that Gdansk was painstakingly rebuilt from old photographs during the 1950s and '60s after World War II bombings completely destroyed the city.
Gdansk, founded in 997, had a precarious history before and after that war. It bounced between Polish and German rule during the Partitions of Poland, and from 1920 to 1939 it was the Free City of German-speaking Danzig. By 1980 trade union activist Lech Walesa successfully led the Solidarity movement at the Gdansk (formerly Lenin) Shipyards, resulting in an independent trade union and the democratic process for its members.
By 1989 communist rule in Poland came to an end, inspiring a "European Spring" throughout the Eastern Bloc countries.
"The shipyards have become the most important attraction in Gdansk," explained my scholarly millennial-ish guide Mariusz Lewy.
Close to the shipyards, the "Roads to Freedom" exhibit, built underground, is the powerful story of Solidarity's crusade shared through dioramas, video footage and a timeline charting the events that changed world history.
Today Gdansk pulsates with an entrepreneurial freshness amid the multitude of shops, hotels, cafes, museums and jewelers selling amber, the "gold of the Baltic." A plus for shoppers is that one Polish zloty, the local currency, is worth $3.25.
At the Amber Museum, housed in the 14th-century former prison tower and torture chamber, I got an eye-opening education on amber (fossilized tree resin), which was once the area's richest resource. Gdansk was at the center of the ancient amber trade which contributed significantly to European culture during the Middle Ages. The "Amber Road" stretched from the Baltic to the Mediterranean.
"Ninety percent of the world's amber comes from this region," a museum guide explained.
Trees in coniferous forests that oozed the yellowish liquid are now covered by the Baltic Sea. Amber nuggets still wash ashore on the coastline of Gdansk Bay, also called the Amber Coast. Spectacular sculptures and exquisite jewels by amber craftsmen, including the Faberge Millennium Egg, a gift to the city in 1997 on its 1,000th anniversary, inspired me to acquire my first piece from the museum's jewelry store.
Moving westward beyond the city lights, roads less traveled (at least by Americans) opened to the romantic Pomeranian countryside. An overnight stop at the Hotel Podewils Castle in Krag was a wondrous step back into the 15th century. Holiday-seekers, mostly European, escape to this knight's castle, built in 1414 in the middle of a forest and perched majestically at the edge of a peaceful lake.
Hotel Podewils has 50 rooms and is among many historic castles throughout Pomerania that have been restored into cozy country hotels following years of neglect during the communist era. The furnishings and amenities were comfortable at best. The draw was its utterly romantic setting.
My road tour was an amazing way to take in a region of Europe said to be most dense with castles, many built during the thriving amber trade period. And visitors needn't book a room to take in the magic. At the Amber Palace in Strzekecino (an hour from Krag) I walked the grounds, then relaxed with a coffee and luscious Charlotteka apple cake, a specialty dessert I've had nowhere else.
An hour and half away I took lunch at the handsomely renovated Hotel Palace in Ryman, which has a gorgeous new spa. Every morsel of my dish -- tagliatelle pasta with sweet cherry tomatoes and a luxurious Boletus mushroom sauce -- was sublime.
The last stop in Poland was Szczecin on the Polish-German border. A busy seaport of 407,000, it is the capital of western Pomerania. It also played an important role during the Solidarity movement and is today one of Poland's most liberal cities.
At the center of the city, the Pomeranian Dukes' Castle, built between 1346 and 1428, was yet another magnificent Gothic masterpiece destroyed during the war but carefully rebuilt between 1958 and 1980.
The wide avenues and roundabouts reminded me a lot of Paris. Indeed, Szczecin's urban planner, Georges-Eugene Hausmann, also designed the streets for the City of Lights.
Once I crossed the border into northeastern Germany (two hours from Berlin), the intrigue of Pomerania continued at the palatial Grand Hotel Heiligendamm in the state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern near the Hanseatic city of Rostock. Dating back to 1793, Heiligendamm (then "Heiliger Damm") was Germany's first sea spa. Its earliest high-society guests spent their holidays bathing in the Baltic Sea, renowned for its therapeutic qualities.
After numerous incarnations Heiligendamm reopened in 2003 with the 181-room Grand Hotel. The compound of stark white Classical buildings seemed sterile at first, but the mystique grew on me. The nostalgic "White Town by the Sea" is still considered the most elegant health resort in Germany.
My final stop in northeastern Germany was Schwerin, the capital of Mecklenburg-Volpermmern, where I enjoyed refreshing walks through the quaint streets of the "Royal City." Surrounded by lovely lakes, it is quite the fairy tale itself, for it was spared bombing during the war. Built in the Brick Gothic style on an island between 1260-1416, Schwerin Castle is the heart of the city that rises with majesty and grace.
WHEN YOU GO
How to get there: Airberlin, a member of OneWorld global air alliance, began nonstop service between Los Angeles and Berlin in May 2012. For flight information, visit www.airberlin.com.
Where to stay: Radisson Blu Gdansk, Dlugi Targ 19, Powroznicza 80-828, Gdansk, Poland; 011 48 58 325 4444; www.radissonblu.com
Hotel Podewils Krag Castle, Krag 16, 76 010 Krag, Poland; 011 48 94/34 70 516; www.podewils.pl
Hotel Niederlandischer Hof, Schwerin: Alexandrinestrasse 12-13, 19055 Schwerin, Poland; 011 0049 (0) 385 59 1100; www.niederlandischer-hof-de
What to do: German National Tourist Office, 212-661-7200 or www.germany.travel
Polish National Tourist Office: 201-420-9910 or www.poland.travel
Athena Lucero is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
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