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History by the Sea

Gdansk, the capital of Pomerania, breaths history. From the ancient Nordic invasions to the crumbling of the Iron Curtain in the 1980s, the city has been in the center of many historical events throughout the thousand years of its existence. Gdansk is a far cry from the gloomy stereotypes of Eastern Europe. The Gothic-style buildings, vibrant with color, the castle-like towers, and perfectly preserved city gates give Gdansk a fairy-tale presence and stand witness to its colorful history. The city was built by Poland's first Christian king, then ruled by powerful Pomeranian Dukes bravely resisting the Viking invasions, and finally it blossomed as a cultured, rich city of the Hanseatic League. Invaded repeatedly by the Teutonic Knights, it changed hands many times going back and forth between Germany and Poland, until the Treaty of Versailles finally declared it "The Free City of Gdansk". In 1939 Westerplatte Peninsula in Gdansk heard the first guns of World War II, and in 1981 the Solidarity Movement and its leader, Lech Walesa, started a movement which subsequently freed Eastern Bloc from Communism.

Hanseatic League Of The Northern Seas

Despite its 1000 years of turbulent history, the city of Gdansk remains amazingly beautiful. Although built as a stronghold as early as 980CE and thriving as the starting point of the Amber Road in the Middle Ages, the city grew into power when in 1358 it became one of the principal cities of the Hanseatic League (along with Lubeck, Brugge, London and Riga), a medieval alliance of trading guilds which monopolized Baltic trade and protected the merchant ships from piracy and raids. Like other Hanseatic centers, Gdansk became a city republic with self-government, a large and prosperous seaport and a lively community. The 16th and 17th centuries were Gdansk's Golden Age in trade and culture, with many ethnic groups living within the city: Poles, Germans, Scotsmen, Dutch, Jews and Lithuanians. Gdansk, also known by its German name Danzig, to this day abounds in rich maritime traditions, architectural and artistic gems, and the influence of the Northern European Renaissance seen in the richly decorated burgher houses and palaces.

The Teutonic Knights

One of the highlights of Gdansk is visiting Europe's largest medieval castle in the town of Malbork, near Gdansk. The imposing brick structure was built by the Teutonic Knights and it offers a fascinating insight into the medieval politics of the Catholic Church. The history of Malbork and the Teutonic Knights begins in the Holy Land. After Palestine was lost to Islam, the famously zealous Teutonic Knights, a rowdy band of monks with a lust for slaying and converting needed a new base of operations. But the Dark Age's crusades were partly an excuse to get people like this out of Europe. Finally, a Polish king offered them sanctuary in return for help against the pagan Lithuanians. The Knights were happy to help, but they were also happy to form their own state and control the amber trade. In addition, in 1308 they massacred the citizens of Gdansk that they were supposed to be protecting.

The Amber Coast

In Gdansk, amber is everywhere. The city seems to be adorned with tons of glistening amber jewelry, displayed on wooden carts in the streets and in the shop windows of exclusive boutiques. Rows of earrings, glass cases full of necklaces and unique brooches overwhelm the senses. The smooth surface of one gem contrasts with the rough, uncut stone just beside it. While amber's best-known color is a deep gold-brown, it varies from misty yellow to bright orange to speckled green. Amber, the "Gold of the North," is the fossilized plant resin of primeval trees, between 30 to 90 million years old. The Baltic nations are well-known for amber, which is found along the coastline in the quartz sand of the beaches. A vital component in ornamental objects, amber has been admired and used by humans since the prehistoric times. The early Middle Ages saw the beginning of the Amber Road, an important link between Northern and Southern Europe which led from here to Italy, Greece, the Black Sea, and Egypt.