Sunday 18 February 2018

Getting a kick out of Gdansk

PADRAIC McKIERNAN

Ask any Irish native to compile a list of their most desirable European destinations and, outside of the shipyard equivalent of trainspotters, it's a fair bet that the Polish city of Gdansk wouldn't figure too prominently on anyone's Top 10. Up to a couple of weeks ago, it wouldn't have featured on mine either, but a recent short visit has prompted a rethink.

This impressive port city is guaranteed to explode into the national consciousness on June 14 when it hosts the eagerly awaited Euro 2012 mis-match, sorry match, between Ireland and World Cup-holders Spain, but there are non-football reasons to propose Gdansk's name for consideration in the pantheon of great must-see cities.

Take its epoch-defining past for starters. As well as being where the opening shots of the Second World War were fired, Gdansk provided the citizens whose heroic actions in the shipyard precipitated the eventual collapse of Eastern Bloc Communism back. in 1990. Would communism have bitten the dust if not for the actions a decade earlier of a group of brave Gdansk strikers led by Lech Walesa?

Spend some time in the Roads to Freedom museum close to the docks and you'll discover how instrumental these men were. Churchill declared democracy to be the "worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried". Walking through this chamber of communist horrors, with its prison-cell reconstructions, surveillance posts and other Orwellian snapshots of life in a totalitarian state, you get a visceral sense of the wisdom of Churchill's words.

We had travelled to Gdansk to get an overview of Polish preparations for Euro 2012, so it was time for a tour of the stadium that is destined to be the source of so much agony or ecstasy for Irish fans.

Less than a 10-minute tram-ride from the town centre, the PGE Arena will be the location for Ireland's crunch match with Spain, and it's truly an imposing structure.

Built especially for the European Championships, its futuristic spaceship aesthetic is breathtaking while, inside, it contains all the fan-friendly comforts required to facilitate smooth transportation to that bastion of blissful blokedom known as Planet Football. Workers were still putting the finishing touches on the day we visited but pitchside, a sense of the awesome spectacle that awaits the players as they emerge from the tunnel was palpable. Close your eyes and it's almost possible to hear The Fields of Athenry echoing out around this towering stadium after James McClean has streaked down the left wing to score the winner in the 90th minute.

We all know given Trapattoni's previous I-Can't- Believe-It's-Not-Big-Jack form, the mercurial McClean may be lucky to get out of his track-suit but, hey, they don't call these places theatres of dreams for nothing.

The match is already a sell-out but my spies tell me that black-market tickets could become available closer to match day.

Either way, the ticketless multitudes will find consolation closer to the town centre, where a massive fanzone capable of accommodating up to 50,000 has been constructed. Noel Gallagher is just one of the big-ticket acts rumoured to be providing post-match entertainment.

The centre of Gdansk is well worth a visit in its own right. With its Dutch and Italian Renaissance-influenced architecture, the quaint Old Town is especially picturesque. Like most of Gdansk, it was reduced to rubble at the end of World War Two, though it has been painstakingly restored to its 17th- and 18th-Century appearance over subsequent decades. The streetscape is the perfect fusion of the modern and the medieval, and makes a striking contrast with the Soviet-chic architecture to be found in the city's suburban sprawl, where battalions of brutalist-style apartment blocks dot the skyline.

The simplest way to take in the sights is to follow what's known as the Royal Way.

The route was used by the kings of Poland on their annual visits to collect taxes, and takes in many of the city's cultural highlights, such as the Amber museum and the majestic Neptune fountain.

The Royal Way leads you down to the bustling waterfront area of Gdansk.

With its array of chic cafes and outdoor bars and restaurants, it's likely to be the main gathering point for Irish fans during their stay. Well, Napoleon did say an army marches on its stomach, and while an argument could be made that the Green Army marches on another internal organ more associated with the chemical breakdown of alcohol, now is not the time to go there.

Let's just say that with prices ultra competitive, you should be able to eat and drink like one of those aforementioned Polish kings for the equivalent of under €20 a pop.

The Baltic has been described as the world's biggest lake, and the resort city of Sopot comes recommended for those who want a chance to achieve a more panoramic perspective on this part of Poland's coastal cachet.

The easiest way to reach Sopot is by taking the frequent commuter train from Gdansk's main railway station. It takes around 25 minutes and with its many trendy bars, restaurants and nightclubs, it's easy to see why this buzzy, upmarket destination is a magnet for day-trippers and clubbers alike. It also boasts what locals reckon is the longest wooden pier in the "universe".

I'm not so convinced but, either way, it's the ultimate chill zone and delivers the last word in appealing vistas out over the Baltic Sea.

Sopot has been chosen as the Irish team's basecamp for the Euros, and it seems an inspired choice.

Other outfits, such as the Germans, have taken the far-from-the-madding-crowd option and chosen to be billeted in a nearby luxury leisure complex surrounded by a dense forest.

Playing to our traditional strengths, however, the FAI have opted for the classy Sheraton Hotel and its central location ensures that the Irish team will remain relatively up close and personal with its fanbase for the duration.

Worryingly, it also keeps them perilously close to the nocturnal delights available along nearby Massini Street, Sopot's famous party zone. Think Temple Bar without the cobblestones. So let's hope the Boys in Green are better than Oscar Wilde at resisting temptation and the pre-match curfew doesn't prove to be an issue. We don't want another Saipan-style meltdown now do we? Of course we do, sorry, don't... Er, let the fun and games begin.

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