Monday, 12 January 2015

Sea, snow and fireworks - New Year's in Sopot

In the north-east of Poland, on the Baltic coast, lies Gdansk Bay.  At its northernmost point is the Hel peninsula, a huge populated sandbank stretching 30-odd kilometres into the sea to form a barrier from the worst of the stormy waters, and at its southerly extremity lies the estuary of the Vistula river that flows just over a thousand kilometres from the Beskidy mountains (close to the Czech border).  On the shores of the bay lie the Trojmiasto (the Three Cities) of Gdansk, Sopot and Gdynia. 

The southernmost (and the largest of these) is Gdansk, formerly the Prussian Hanseatic port of Danzig, and home of the Solidarity Revolution in the 1980s that ultimately spread throughout the country and brought about the downfall of Communism.  In its heyday it was a major shipbuilding centre but funding problems and antiquated machinery and practices have led to a collapse of the industry in recent years as capitalism has replaced communism and its huge state subsidies (and captive Soviet market).  The northernmost is the port city of Gdynia, still providing ferry services across the cold sea to Sweden and other Baltic states, and an increasingly prosperous tourist destination.  I worked there for a year or so back in 2001-2, staying in the Nadmorski Hotel right on the beach, and thoroughly enjoyed it.  In fact, Gdynia was the first major town outside Warsaw that I ever visited, in the summer of 2001 for a weekend, staying in a very cheap but comfortable hostel close to the central railway station.  I remember spending a pleasant couple of hours drinking cold draught Tyskie beer at a beachside bar watching scantily clad beauties playing beach volleyball in 30C sunshine and thinking Poland was not such a bad place at all….

Between the two rapidly modernizing port cities lies the third of the Trojmiasto, Sopot.  In contrast to its larger neighbours, Sopot retains a run-down and scruffy elegance from its early 20th century heyday as the health resort frequented by the rich and famous from across Poland and Germany.  After the Second War, it remained a leisure resort for the Communist leadership and with their downfall its popularity as a seaside resort has remained.  It may lack the busy ports and shopping malls of Gdansk and Gdynia (although that is changing, with a new shopping complex close to the pier), but its beaches are perhaps cleaner and its hotels and bars generally more atmospheric – less modern, certainly, but pleasant for all that.  At its centre lies the Molo, stretching some 515 metres out into the sea (and in total some 650 metres long), and the longest wooden pier in Europe.  Unlike a typical Victorian English pier, it lacks the tacky amusement arcades and seafront theatres, and instead is little more than a place to stretch the legs and take the sea-air, but at the beach end there is a selection of souvenir and jewellery stores specialising in Baltic amber creations, and some good seafood restaurants.  Right next door sprawls the Sheraton Hotel complex, and next to that the older and perhaps more luxurious Grand Hotel, both with their own private beach areas and expensive dining.

 Sopot in the snow

It’s a nice little town, and this year, just for a change, we made the 400 kilometre drive to stay there and welcome 2015.

The drive was good, on quiet highways, although the weather could have been better.  It was a cold day, so there was patchy fog throughout the journey.  Then about 40 kilometres south of our exit we ran into snow, and by the time we came into Sopot it was near blizzard conditions.  The road down from the highway winds through a pleasant forest parkland, so it was very pretty even if the road itself was treacherous.

We stayed at the Pensjonat Eden – more of a guest house than a hotel – situated in the town centre just a couple of hundred metres from the beach and pier.  If you look at Tripadvisor there are some very negative reviews, complaining about unfriendly staff, poor repair and decoration in the rooms, and a lack of amenities.  Look at the hotel’s website and some of this is justified – the hotel, especially the outside, could do with a lick of paint, and by modern standards the rooms are perhaps not the best: we had a family room that was not much more than a modern double room but squeezed in a double bed and a convertible sofa bed as well as a table and two armchairs and a toilet/bathroom.  But it had a balcony and sea view, and was warm enough.  And everything worked ok.

 The Pensjonat Eden

 Nice staircase....

To expect more of a hotel that is a hundred years old and run for most of that time as a family business is to me a little unreasonable.  The Eden is not a Sheraton or a Grand or a Sofitel or any of the other global brands, and does not pretend to be.  It is what it is – a guest house close to the sea, and should be judged by those standards, not those of the hotel chain.  Taken that way, then it has a quiet and homely ambience, and an old fashioned comfort and charm missing completely from bigger and newer places, and for me that is part of the attraction.  I’ve stayed in hotels all over the world, and sometimes it’s difficult to tell them apart, to distinguish the Sheraton from the Sofitel.  Every Sheraton has its Someplace Else restaurant and piano bar, serving the same menu.  Stay in one boxy Holiday Inn double room and you’ve stayed in them all.  Nothing wrong with that – they serve the market very well and I’m happy to use them.  But they can be soul-less places.  

The Eden is none of that.  The Reception area is small and not at all hi-tech, but the receptionist was friendly and welcoming and spoke excellent English (always an advantage wherever you go).  Step into the hotel and you are confronted with a massive open staircase winding its way up like something out of Hogwarts.  At the top of the stairs is a massive skylight, covered in snow during our visit but in summer it must illuminate the whole place beautifully.  To the right is a big dining room, and beyond that a bar and lounge area full of old furniture and paintings and leading onto a pleasant enough terrace (again, one for warm summer evenings).  I found the place a delight, and without question would stay there again.

 The dining room and lounge area

We settled in and dressing up warmly went for a stroll across the beach and along the pier.  To this Englishman there is something inherently unreal about ankle deep snow on a sandy beach.  It’s jusr…..wrong.  Beaches should be somewhere to strip off and swim, and relax with a good book and a cold beer, and get comfortably sunburned.  They should not be a place where you need to swaddle yourself with scarves and woolly hats and gloves and thick winter coats and waterproof boots and thermal socks, unless they lie north of the Arctic Circle or south of its Antarctic brother.  The snow is bad enough, the film of ice rapidly forming along the surf line (the sea itself was millpond flat, and lapped gently against the freezing shore) surreal.  But that is the reality of the Baltic coast.  I still haven’t got used to it.  

 Ally and her snow rabbit

 Just a few of the Sopot swans

Paddling maybe 50 feet or so offshore were flocks of seagulls and ducks and improbably the better part of 20 swans, looking ghostly in the faint moonlight and illuminations from the pier.  The beach itself was pretty much deserted, and we only stayed a few minutes before climbing the steps to the pier.  We walked its length to the deserted marina complex at the end, full in summer months with small sailing boats and motor cruisers.  Along the coast we could see the bright lights of Gdansk and Gdynia, and a kilometre or two offshore some larger Baltic shipping anchored in the bay.  They were still there the following night, New Years’ Eve, and must have had a wonderful view of the firework displays all along the coast.  We took some pictures then headed back onshore and found a fish restaurant next to the Grand Hotel complex and right on the beach.  I remember going there one hot summers night several years ago with my wife and a group of friends and it was a disco then, and I gave my creaking joints a bit of a jig about between beers.  It’s now been converted, unless the disco has moved upstairs, and is a modern and light and airy beachside restaurant that served a delicious seafood menu.  I had a very pleasant salmon tartare with cottage bread and salad, and a main of cod with fried potatoes and mixed vegetables, all washed down with a couple of pints of mulled beer (that is to say heated and infused with a selection of herbs and raspberry juice – very pleasant and it warms you up beautifully when you are cold, as we were).  

The next day, armed with a bag of bread leftovers from our late breakfast, we headed to the beach again to feed the birds.  There were far more swans than we had thought, getting on for 50 I should think, a similar number of ducks and hundreds of gulls, and the bread didn’t last long.  In seconds we found ourselves surrounded by them, squabbling amongst themselves for the scraps we were feeding them, like a scene from Hitchcock’s classic movie The Birds, but they were friendly enough and delighted the kids by taking the bread right out of their hands.  

 Food all gone, sorry....

After that, we had a walk round the town, looking for sparklers to light to see the New Year in but by the time we found a shop that sold them it had closed for the night.  On our wanderings we stopped for a while at what looked, from the outside, like a cheap and cheerful cafĂ© serving zapiekanka (a long French bread stick, cut in half, topped with tomato sauce, grated cheese and a selection of meats – ham, salami, bacon -, chopped onions and mushrooms, and then grilled), various soups and pierogi, but it was expensive and disappointing.  My zapiekanka may have been half a metre long and filling but it was also overcooked throughout and charcoaled at both ends.  We found a better place perhaps a hundred metres further up the street that served up better food at half the price.  Ah well – you win some, you lose some.  Later we found another place that sold gofry, which is a delicious toasted waffle with a big selection of toppings like powdered sugar and jam, through about twenty different fresh fruits and whipped cream, to the inevitable kid’s favourite of thickly applied Nutella chocolate spread.  My two would live on the things if we let them.

In the evening, after a warm up bottle of wine in the room, we dressed up again and headed for the pier for the celebrations.  By 11:30 the pier was full of revellers along pretty much its entire length, and more crowds thronged the circle of shops at the landward end.  We parked ourselves there, nudging our way through to the seating so that the kids could see what was going on.  The fireworks were set up on the beach to the south, the usual batteries of rockets and huge roman candles and so on.  There was no countdown, but at midnight the first battery shot skywards and everyone broke open the cans of beer, bottles of wine and champagne, amid hugs and kisses and cheering.  We could see similar displays all along the coast into Gdansk to the south and northward to Gdynia.  I had hoped we would also see the displays out along the Hel peninsula too, out across the bay, but we were a little too far south to make them out.  But it was a spectacular display, and went on for a good twenty minutes. 

 Happy New Year....... you all!

We headed back to the hotel through the park, swigging cheap champagne from the bottle (except the kids, who had Lipton’s Iced Tea instead).  In the park we paused for a while to set off a small bunch of cheap fireworks one of our crew had brought along, and built a small snowman before all the snow had melted (it had got warmer during the day and a thaw had set in).  Back at the hotel, we had another drink and some snacks, and crashed out about 1:30 or 2:00 a.m.  It had been a good day and an entertaining evening.

 The last drop.....Robs had it all.....

The next day we slept very late, but the dining room was still open when we went down for breakfast.  We picked up another bag of cast-off bread and cakes, then packed and loaded the cars for the drive home.  The snow had all gone by now, but it was a damp and miserable day, hungover like the rest of us, but the birds were pleased to see us when we went back to the beach to give them a final meal.  After that, we had another stroll around the little half circle of souvenir and jewellery stalls that were set up at the foot of the pier, and picked up a few gifts and bits to take back with us.

The drive home was fine but for much of the trip we were battling high crosswinds that made it a battle to keep a straight line, especially overtaking the convoys of TIR trucks heading south from the docks in Gdansk and Gdynia.  But again, just over four hours, including a comfort break and a burger break at McDonalds on the highway about half way home and close to Torun, was pretty good time and we were indoors by tea time.

It was a good trip, and good value for money, but I’m sorry, snow on the beach is just WRONG.