“Emma, I’ll do the room sweep.’ Lily says. Our bags are packed. Rooms are checked. Goodbuy Holiday Inn Krakow!
The taxi guy at the stand says ‘Meter’ in a deep accent but I wave him off. He suggest 200 PLN, which is $50 and I accept with no further negotiation. We’re on a half day trip to the oldest salt mine in Europe.
The Wielicaka Salt mine has been in continuous operation since the 13th century, and was a source of salt for hundreds of thousands of years for those that were willing to evaporate it’s waters. They stopped mining only about 20 years ago as it ceased to be profitable. It was operated by many occupying countries including the Soviet and German.
I’ve been warned that this was touristy, so my hopes are low. Lily wants another Lody – ice cream cone which we eat as we wait for the English tour that goes every thirty minutes. Our guide tries to make jokes but even she knows they aren’t very good. Lily starts to sing ‘It’s a small world’ and indeed, you’d be reminded of older Disney exhibits except everything is made of salt. People laugh.
The salt itself is grey and mixed into the rock. It is cool to be walking on salt-rock. The rooms are huge and impressive in places. But there are goofy ones too like the Snow white and the seven dwarfs with Eight dwarfs and no Snow White. The guide says dryly ‘She’s at home cooking dinner and making babies.’
We get rowdier. Later Lily adds to our bad reputation by opening a bottle of soda water too quickly and spraying herself and the salt floor with water.
And with a grand speech, the tour guide points to the exit which dumps us into….you guessed it. A gift shop. Bath salt? Salt figurines? Salt shaker? We race out. Drive to the airport and fly to Gdansk. We have been to a few museums that were worse, but not many. Dr. Ragabs in Cairo and the Snake Farm ‘Museum’ in Bangkok are worse. But this might be #3.
Hotel Liberum has a good breakfast for a small hotel – I eat open face fresh dark rye bread with that ubiquitous northern European yellow breakfast cheese, tomato and cucumber. It’s situated on Dlugi street which is a pedestrian mall with Gold gate at one end and Green gate at the other. In bewteen is the famous Neptune fountain, for Gdansk’s special relationship to the sea. It’s been Poland’s primary seaport for centuries.
It starts to rain and it’s quite cold. I make a decision to do the two museums today instead of Malbork Castle, which we will do tomorrow. It’s seaside weather and the rain comes and goes.
By the time we arrive at the European Solidarity Center it’s sunny again (but still cold.) There do not appear to be many people here and it looks more like a conference center.
We couldn’t be more wrong. Well, it does look like a conference center. But it hosts an amazing museum about the Polish resistance movement under Communism with emphasis on the Solidarity movement of the 80s. They have a large library and appear to host conferences too, so it’s designed as a multi-use museum which is good. It’s too bad that they named it that way, I almost overlooked it. Polish Resistance Museum and Solidarity Center or something like that would be better.
Luckily we didn’t. I remember the early Solidarity movement and repression vaguely at age 11, and the later developments as the Soviet Bloc fell apart better. But I had always focused on Russia so I’m genuinely excited to close that gap in knowledge. I knew I’d like the museum. However I figured I’d have to explain the historical context and give some personal connection with it to keep the girls interested.
Again, I couldn’t be more wrong. This museum is so well developed and designed that they were riveted – particularly older Emma but Lily too. There is a wonderful flow to the museum in and out of detail, from the big strike in 1980 to the historical precedents to the repression and finally the collapse of the communist state. It’s utterly well done and we spend 2 solid hours learning about 15 years of Polish history.
Of course it’s more than just Polish history – it’s part of the history of Soviet and Eastern European Communism and and a major tipping point for the disintegration of the ‘Dictatorship of the Proletariat’ There is a lot of technology including a touch screen table with documents that works like a proto-scifi interface where you can sweep documents in and out with your hand. Lily loves that.
It’s also just beautiful. There is art in every display. Beauty is something history museums are often not good at even when they are good. The iron gates of the shipyard that the military rammed through are placed like sculpture in the middle of the room.
One room’s exhibit walls are carved to read “Solidarnosc’ which you only notice if you look at the mirrored ceiling. (Lily noticed this.)
What brought me to tears was the original 21 demands, handwritten on wood and hung from the shipyard gates in which they had locked themselves. (the first photo) It was preserved from destruction many times. And there were many rooms of Communist era stuff that are very similar to the Russian buildings and apartments I saw in 1989-92 when I spent time there.
And a giant wall in the end of notes that you can write on with a huge map of the order and time stamp in which each state of the former Soviet bloc was liberated. (At least temporarily. Some have reverted…) We wrote notes and left feeling good. It’s an uplifting story, although like much of the world it hasn’t turned out as good as hoped. The embrace of democracy is weaker in Poland now than it has been since the first (mostly) free election in 89.
Still it’s progress.
Stupid Google maps is so bad at walking directions sometimes. We walk out of the museum, which is in a semi-abandoned area off the old city of Gdansk. It tells us to walk down a no existent street past large construction. We eventually find our way, but are now hungry and the next museum does not have an operating restaurant. As luck woudl have it, we find a tasty pizza place just 10 min away and gorge.
The restaurant of the Gdansk WWII museum isn’t operating because it only officially opened to the public two weeks ago! How lucky is that? We actually get to see one of the world’s newest major museums by chance. Their register isn’t working either, and after 30 minutes of waiting in an increasingly long line, they let us in for free.
What an amazing museum it turns out to be. It’s very linear, which is often good for a historical museum. The headsets, which occasionally turn off and replay in polish, are very well done. You don’t have to hit any buttons, they just come on when you enter the next room, which
they are always careful to explain (‘take the door to the right under the bust of Hitler’ says the audio guide.’
WWII is really really hard to boil down to any digestible size for a museum visit. And we start to rush a little by the end out of exhaustion, but we spend a solid 3 hours learning about various aspects of the war. The pacific theater is barely covered and that’s to be expected. They cover the military, politics, holocaust, other atrocities, home life, resistance movements, material and human devastation, diplomacy and some economy.
The art display is larger in scale but a little less clever than the Solidarity museum, but that’s not a criticism. In particular are two nearly lifesize ‘streets’ as the might have looked before and after the war. It’s very effective. Full size replica of planes, torpedos and tanks and railway cars fill the cavernous underground museum. I don’t think I mentioned that this is another mixed-use space. The whole museum is deep underground. The above ground is office space and other stuff.
Perhaps the best thing is seeing WWII from the polish perspective. They really, really, really got fucked in WWII by the Nazis, Soviets and by negligence, the Allies. The museum doesn’t even need to make a big point of it – the facts make it painfully obvious. Poland was, as it had been most of the century before, just a currency with which to settle scores. It’s very moving. The three of us appreciate the alternate perspective and we get why they put this museum here. It belongs here. They deserve it.
They do a good job showing the Soviets as nearly equal enemies of the Polish nation in WWII despite being ‘on the same side’. The Katyn massacre of 22,000 Poles shot in the back of the head, but another 1.5 million were deported and relocated deep into siberia. Few returned.
I wish they had connected the dots a little more, but I suppose it would be politically difficult in today’s poland. Poland used to be one of the most tolerant and heterogeneous states. In 1930 less than 2/3rds were Polish Catholics, now it’s over 90%. It’s one of the most homogenous places on the planet. Yes there were collaborators and sympathizers, but this was largely Stalin and Hitler and the Ribbentrop pact of 1949. Truly sad.
We could go on about this great museum, and in fact that’s exactly what we do – continue talking about it on the ferris wheel at sunset and over some expensive but delicious sushi along the Gdansk Canal.
Lily and Emma are both lively with conversation about WWII – this museum and it’s non-american perspective is really a hit. We all agree these two museums are the best we have ever seen, and together they deserve to be on our top 20 best experiences list. (Not near the top, but there are no other museums.)
Nicely done Gdansk.