MY DAY IN HEL
By C. McGrane.
Hel is a hot place I found out. At least it was the day I was there. Not fire and brimstone hot, but hot enough. I saw a lot of people in Hel that day and it actually seemed to me like an OK place, to be perfectly honest. So I can understand why lots of people aren’t afraid of going straight to Hel. However I do now believe in “a cold day in Hel” too. Judging by its location I’d say there are many cold days in Hel. Going to Hel is easy, leaving Hel can be difficult.
My day began at Happy Seven Hostel in Gdansk, northern Poland. The manager there told me I should go to Hel. She told me where I could catch the ferry and where to buy a ticket. It costs around 6 Euro (24 zloty) each way.
The ‘F1′ ferry docks only a few minutes walk from the hostel in a picturesque historic area of Gdansk, in view of a 15th century cargo crane. People were lining up to go to Hel. The two-hour trip takes passengers past what seems like endless ships, cranes and warehouses along the Kaszubski Canal. Gdansk has a storied past as a ship building center, and was prominent in the 1980s due to unprecedented strikes by dock workers which led to the ‘Solidarnosc’ trade union sweeping through Poland under the leadership of Lech Walesa who later became Poland’s president.
Other sights along the way are the Wisloujscie Fortress, now a historical museum, and the popular Westerplatte which is at the mouth of the river and features a beach and an old guardhouse where it is believed that the first shots of World War 2 were fired.
On exiting the river into the Bay of Gdansk, that is actually part of the Baltic Sea, the cities of Sopot and Gdynia are visible on the left side. These three cities together form a continuous beach along the shallow bay. If your vision is good enough maybe you can see part of Russia to the east! The bay is a major shipping lane into Gdansk and some massive cargo ships are usually travelling in and out or else anchored in the bay. Passenger boats sail from Gdansk and Gdynia to Finland, Sweden and Germany too.
Hel sits near the end of a long narrow peninsula to the north and appears on the horizon after a short time. Others may drive to Hel by land or take the train, and it takes about the same length of time as the ferry. Lots of the home owners on the peninsula live and work in the cities, so it is a perfect location for weekends or holidays. The peninsula is so narrow in fact that it can be crossed on foot in ten or fifteen minutes therefore it’s east to swim in the Bay of Gdansk, then in the open Baltic itself on the northern side. The lighthouse sits in the middle as it can be seen from both sides. The usual tourist resort facilities are on offer in Hel including many restaurants specialising in sea food. Obviously!
There are many stalls in the street market selling souvenirs and stuff that most people don’t need. Food can also be purchased from street vendors as well as in restaurants. It’s always a bit more quaint eating in the open air. Pierogi is the stereotypical ‘must eat’ food in Poland. It’s a type of dumpling that can be filled with anything from meat to vegetables to sweet things.
I noticed a number of people who were enjoying Hel so much that they missed the ferry back to Gdansk. It’s a long swim or walk, and only three ferry trips are made each day in the summer. It must feel awful to be running down the pier as the ferry is pulling away. But, they could be in worse places than Hel! Getting back to ‘Danzig’, as Gdansk was known in German, and back to Happy Seven Hostel to thank the manager for a great recommendation. The young lady Agnieszka is always willing to help with ideas, she is the most courteous manager and a fabulous friend. Degustatornia Piwa is a very cool bar downstairs from Happy Seven and it stocks a vast range of beer selections. Poland has many of its own brands most of them quite strong!
Gdansk draws tourists mostly to its red brick dominated Old Town and in particular the enormous Saint Mary’s church, built in 14th century and rebuilt after destruction in WW2. The tower can be climbed for panoramic views of the city. The stairs wind around the inside of the bell tower, and I’ll admit, it can test some nerves! Large numbers of tourists are more interested in the party scene in Sopot. I would suggest though that more people should go to Hel.