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New Europe

Day Ninety-seven: Gdansk

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Main town, Gdańsk, with the town hall tower in the distance. Immaculate restoration of a medieval merchant city, smashed in the Second World War.
Michael Palin - New EuropeThere is life beyond multi-media exhibitions and some shipbuilding still goes on here, though the workforce has been reduced from 15,000 to 3,000. Andrej Buczkowski, general manger of the yard, takes me in the back door, as it were, past lines of empty red-brick offices, their windows smashed and their walls graffitied, where weeds scramble up drainpipes and onto disused gantries. Andrej is open and candid about the problems. No party line here. The Gdansk Shipyards went bust in 1996. They are now owned sixty-two per cent by the government and thirty-eight per cent by Gdynia Shipyards, a few miles up the coast. Much of the yard has already been sold off for redevelopment: housing, supermarkets, light industrial stuff.

Then, around the corner, is a glimpse of the old days. A towering steel hull, enmeshed in scaffolding, soars above us, dwarfing man and machines. Its massive bulk rings with the sound of drilling and riveting, and the crackle and flash of welding. Pre-cast steel sections, 30 feet wide, trundle alongside on vehicles piled so high they look as if they're being squashed flat by their load. And dominating everything, the iconic gantry cranes, using their enormous height and power to straddle the ship.

These heavy cranes would have witnessed many struggles, from the strike in the 1970s when some fifty people were killed, to the momentous events of the 1980s when Solidarity was born here, but if the orders don't come in then they too will come to an undignified end.

Andrej blames the situation on rising costs since Poland joined the EU in 2004. With the free flow of manpower the only way they can keep skilled workers is to raise salaries, which raises costs, which in turn can make a big, old-fashioned yard like this as uncompetitive as the British yards it once undercut.

Solidarity is now only one of four unions on site, and Lech Walesa, its legendary founder, who was once an electrical maintenance engineer here, is too busy on the political stage to be the saviour of his old employers.

Andrej is hopeful that the slipways will fill again, and he has no doubt that, in ten years' time, and under new owners, the Gdansk Shipyards will be more than just a museum of freedom.

I wish I shared his optimism. To me, the shipyards seem to be battling against that inevitable contraction of heavy industry that transformed my home town of Sheffield in the 1980s. To me, there's something sad about seeing heavy engineering replaced by heavy shopping, but it's all part of a process and what comes out at the other end may dismay the sentimentalists, but so it probably should.

Muse about this over zurek, a gastronomic first. It's a sausage-based bortsch, served inside a small, round hollowed-out loaf of bread; a sort of edible tureen. Delicious.
Choose another day from New Europe


  • Series: New Europe
  • Chapter: Day Ninety-seven: Gdansk
  • Country/sea: Poland
  • Place: Gdańsk
  • Book page no: 230

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  • Eating
  • Day 5 
  • Around the World in 80 Days
  • Day 3 
  • Full Circle
  • Day 6 
  • Pole to Pole