Historic buildings – reasons to be proud!
The capital of Pomerania would not be the same without its historic buildings. For hundreds of years, they have been impressing, drawing attention and piquing interest, as well as serving as proof of the uniqueness of Gdansk and its 1000 years of history. Below are our 5 picks for the most important historic buildings in the centre of Neptune’s City.
St Mary’s Basilica
The Co-Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Gdansk is a massive Gothic building – it is the largest brick temple in the world and has been dominating the Gdansk panorama for more than 500 years. Its tower stands more than 80 metres tall and is one of the city’s hallmarks. Often referred to as the “Crown of Gdansk”, the temple was erected over a period of nearly 160 years (between 1346 and 1506) and its builders were able to create something truly unique – a building impressive in every regard. An interesting fact – more than a million bricks were used in its construction, and very few people know that the final form of the Basilica is the result of extending a much smaller temple which used to stand in its place. The total area of the building is 5,000 m2 and its roofs add another 3,000 m2.
Many visitors want to know how it was even possible to build something so impressive. How was it possible to build something like that without GPS, computers and massive cranes? Well, this may sound a bit disconcerting, but the engineers of yore would simply “wing it”. They did not make use of super-detailed plans, without which it would not even be possible to build a small shop nowadays. At most, they would sometimes make “ad hoc” models of particular parts. And yet, using scaffolds (tied together with string!), several thousand bricklayers were able to achieve this challenging feat.
The temple houses the graves of many prominent residents of Gdansk. Over the centuries, many distinguished people were buried there, e.g. Admiral Arend Dickmann, as well as numerous patricians and authority figures. Marshal Maciej Plazynski and Mayor Pawel Adamowicz were also buried in the Basilica.
The interior of the temple is decorated with many works of art which were evacuated before the war, though the temple itself did sustain heavy damage. Hans Memling’s “The Final Judgement”, the Basilica’s greatest work of art, is currently located in the National Museum in Gdansk due to its value and the special care it requires. Visitors are usually drawn to the main altar and the enormous astronomical clock. The latter is a richly-decorated device which shows the time of various astronomical phenomena and the signs of the zodiac, as well as the times for particular agricultural activities.
The stairs of the Basilica’s main tower number 409 steps, and the tower is open for climbers provided that the weather is good (though it is quite a feat to reach the top). The reward for those who climb the tower is a marvellous panorama of the city, the Bay and the Zulawy Wislane area.
Gdansk would not be the same without the Crane – located among a row of tenements along Dlugie Pobrzeze, it is difficult to miss. The building is one of a kind – in the Middle Ages, it was one of the largest port cranes in Europe! In addition to its port functions, it also served as a city gate. Its construction took 2 years and ended in 1444. The internal mechanisms of the Crane are fascinating. The device was able to lift up to two tonnes of weight 27 metres into the air or, after linking both pairs of wheels, four tonnes up to 11 metres into the air. It was powered by human muscle via 2 treadwheels. In other words, the goods were lifted and lowered by men operating wheels approx. 6 metres in diameter. Currently, the building houses a museum. Several years ago, a competition took place involving jumping off the roof of the Crane into the Motlawa river.
The Royal Road
The Royal Road is the main axis of the centre of the city and its most official route. This is where the two beautiful gates are located – the Golden and Green gates, which were once used by Gdansk’s most prominent visitors. The Road features rows of carefully-reconstructed tenements, including Uphagen’s House (a modern-day Museum of Burgher Interiors) and the Main Town City Hall (with its beautiful White and Red rooms, as well as a magnificent sculpture of King Sigismund Augustus wearing a helmet). Due to its different coping, the City Hall tower appears shorter than that of St. Mary’s Basilica, but it actually stands a little taller at nearly 84 metres. It also features a vantage point. The City Hall building is now a museum with hundreds of exhibits. The building became the size that it is today in the 15th century, after several extensions.
Going further down the road, we reach the Artus Manor House. Its splendidly decorated interiors used to host (and still host) the most prominent of guests. It is also used for official meetings. Its hallmark is the largest masonry heater (11 metres-tall and numbering 520 tiles). The tiles depict European rulers, both Catholic and Protestant, which highlights the tolerance and openness of Gdansk to all religions, a rare thing indeed in the 16th century.
In front of the Manor House is a beautiful fountain topped with a statue of the Roman god of the Sea and Ocean – Neptune. It is the most frequently-photographed point of interest in Gdansk, and can be found on the majority of post cards. The 1633 fountain emphasises the city’s unbreakable connection with the sea. An interesting bit of trivia is that, according to a local Kashubian legend, everyone who visits Gdansk for the first time should kiss the Neptune statue “where the sun don’t shine”.
The Gatehouse Complex and the Torture Room
The Gatehouse Complex and the Torture Room (Prison Tower), formally parts of the Royal Road (which starts at the Highland Gate), deserve a separate paragraph. Two interesting museums are located inside – the Museum of Amber, one of Gdansk’s hallmarks – and one a little less pleasant – the Museum of Torture. It should be noted that, after the modern fortifications were erected and the Complex lost its defensive function, it began to serve as a courtroom and prison. Rumour has it that being locked up in there was not a pleasant experience. Provided that one survived it at all, that is… A pillory was located to the east of the Complex. It was a place of numerous public executions (something difficult to imagine nowadays) as both a warning and entertainment for the masses.
Minor Basilica of St Bridget
This temple is situated a little to the side, in the Old Town. It was constructed as a replacement for the old Penitent Chapel and as a result of a strong, 14th-century tradition of St Bridget worship. However, it was not until the 1980s that the temple became famous. It went down in history as a centre of resistance against the communist regime, especially after the events of August 1980. With the support of Prelate Henryk Jankowski, the church offered support for the striking workers, which was of great help to the Solidarity movement and a thorn in the side of the communists. The church is also known for its magnificent Amber Altar. The construction of this giant took 17 years. It is no wonder – acquiring that much expensive material was not easy. Nevertheless, the altar’s final size is impressive. It is nearly 13 metres tall and features 120 m2 of amber-covered surfaces – much larger than the famous lost Amber Room (4.2 metres tall and 78 m2 of total surface).
This list contains only a handful of all of the worthwhile historic buildings located in the centre of Gdansk. There are still many great places left to cover, such as those in Oliwa and Westerplatte. However, this is material for another article.