The weather didn’t always play ball during our time on the Baltic and, even though Sopot was transformed into Temple Bar-on-Sea for much of the past week, the essential charm of this beautiful seaside resort still managed to shine through the often cloudy skies and mainly happy bedlam.
Holidaymakers who like clean crisp air, beautiful golden sands and, by Irish standards, an attractive cost of living, would be well advised to try Sopot as an alternative summer destination to the usual Mediterranean suspects but only, as even the local guidebooks can’t help admitting, if the tourist is prepared to pack a poncho along with the sun block.
And for those with an interest in history, the Baltic Sea coast, in common with the rest of Poland, makes for an endlessly rewarding destination. Walk out to the end of Sopot’s famous wooden pier and when you turn around to take in the lovely panorama of town and woodland and beach, a look to the left directs your gaze towards a point in the distance where the world twice turned on its axis in the 20th century.
For there is Westerplatte, the headland at the port of Gdansk where the first shots of World War II were fired when a German battleship opened up on September 3, 1939 to launch the Nazi invasion of Poland.
And there too, clearly visible to the eye, are the great cranes of the Gdansk shipyards where, with the 1980 strikes, the seeds were sown for the eventual collapse of Communism and the eclipse of a Red empire.
Indeed, even little Sopot itself has a very personal link with the darker past, the imposing Grand Hotel, which faces onto the beach — and where some of the Irish players’ families and friends were billeted last week — having briefly played host to Adolf Hitler as his armies marched east.
On the morning of Thursday’s game, a few of us went in early to Gdansk for a visit to the shipyards and to take in the ‘Roads To Freedom’ exhibition which chronicles the rise of Solidarity. The itinerary called for being ferried around town in an electric car which had the appearance of an oversized golf buggy, a handy but not entirely dignified mode of conveyance for men of our stature. Irish supporters we passed on the streets took considerable pleasure at seeing Irish hacks thus exposed. At one stop, in the shadow of the shipyards, a fan approached me and asked where we’d found “that yoke”.
“At Gdansk Golf Club, obviously,” I replied. “But I’m afraid I seem to have badly hooked my drive off the first tee.”
Once inside ‘The Roads To Freedom’ exhibition, we pulled the old trick of tagging onto the end of an English-speaking tour, and were lucky to land an excellent guide who talked us through the strikes, the emergence of Solidarity, the brutal imposition of martial law and the eventual full flowering of democracy in Poland.
Easily the most evocative and affecting part of a compelling exhibition was the archive footage from the early ‘80s, featuring black and white images of the merciless police and army crackdown on protestors.
Our guide recalled that, when he was a very young boy, he and his mother were once stopped by the police for being in breach of curfew — a crime punishable with immediate imprisonment — when they found themselves running just a few minutes later on their way home one evening. Fortunately, the authorities were hunting for bigger fish — one of the main Solidarity activists who was a neighbour of theirs — but only after a threatening interrogation were they allowed to go on their way. Our guide said he’ll never forget how pale and shaken his mother was by the experience.
Looking again at the stark newsreel from that time, he also recalled how, as kids, he and his pals were used to seeing this violence every night on television, with the protestors who were campaigning for trade union, free press, voting and other basic rights, always portrayed as pernicious enemies of the state.
“Is this war?” the anxious children would ask their parents. The parents, who knew only too well what war entailed, reassured them that it wasn’t. But in one way it was much worse, for this was a time when it was Poles turning water-cannon and bullets and batons on their fellow country-men and women.
One especially distressing piece of footage showed a protestor being run over by an army truck. Our guide told us they hadn’t included the full clip which showed how the truck had chased the man for some time before finally knocking him to the ground and crushing his legs under a rear wheel. The man survived and is still alive but has remained in a wheelchair since.
Some historians argue that the main responsibility for the collapse of the Soviet empire and its satellite states rests with key international figures of the era, such as Reagan, Thatcher, Gorbachev and the Pope. But exhibitions like ‘Roads To Freedom’, and the still potent iconography of the nearby shipyards — though many of them are now derelict — are a vital and moving reminder that, when the oppression was still at its most intense, it was the so-called ordinary people who, in finding the courage to do extraordinary things, were the first to punch holes in the walls of tyranny.
Caught between the evils of Nazism and Stalinism, Poland suffered more than any other European nation in the 20th century. In contrast to that monstrous past, this must seem like a small thing, I know, but as the Irish prepare to head home early, I feel strongly that we should leave wishing only the best for the Polish national team at the Euros.
The good people of this remarkable country deserve every bit of joy they can get.