Sydney Paulden was in a small group shown round North Poland’s Three Cities by Boruslaw Becla, Director of the Polish Tourist Office in London, in advance of Euro 2012 Football ChampionshipsIn a packed itinerary of only three days, we enjoyed great company with lots of jokes and good humour. The food was not only plentiful but beautifully served and very, very fresh. The sightseeing was fascinating. And there was an array of modern, high quality facilities for events of all types and sizes.
In Gdansk on Poland’s Baltic coast.
Why were we there?
Well, to all intents and purposes, to have a good time, so that objective was certainly achieved.
However, we did attend the first football match to be played at the brand new 41,000-seat PGE Arena Gdansk. Poland took on Germany. This is the first stadium to be completed of the four that Poland is constructing to hold the EURO 2012 UEFA championships in June. The other three venues are in Warsaw, Poznan and Wroclaw.
The match was an exciting 2-2 draw, much of the excitement coming from the mistakes made in front of goal by both sides, although Arsenal goal keeper Wojciech Szczesny did a great job for the home country. Poland’s passion for football was very evident when Poland went in front in the 90th minute, only to see Germany equalise in time added on.
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Access to the new stadium was well organised and visibility inside very good.
The friendly match was all the more apposite, as the stadium design is the work of German architects. It is very modern, but cleverly related to its location. The stadium design features roof supports to resemble the hull of a ship under construction.
Gdansk is the home of the shipyard where the movement Solidarity was started by Lech Walesa, then a shipyard electrician and later to become President of Poland. Now retired, he is back at home in Gdansk.
Northern Poland is also famous for its amber jewellery and at night the illuminated stadium was very reminiscent of glowing amber, visible for many miles. There is no doubt that it will be a tremendous asset during the EURO 2012 finals, but more importantly, will increase Poland’s attraction long term as a destination for the largest events.
Our very short visit took in what are known as The Three Cities. Strung along the Baltic coastline, these are Gdynia, where we stayed, Sopot, which is a very popular resort, and the biggest, Gdansk.
Together they offer virtually everything that an event organiser could desire. Boguslaw Becla, happy to be called ‘Bogdan’, accompanied us. He is the Director of the Polish Tourist Office in London and he never missed an opportunity to point out the injustice of calling Poland ‘Eastern Europe’. He maintains: ‘Poland is so central, it has suffered from it through history. All the major European powers have seen Poland as a vitally strategic position central to Europe.’
The region of North Poland is very cosmopolitan and so event organisers should not be put off by those tricky Polish names and spellings. English is widely spoken and it is not a problem for delegates to stop passers-by to ask for assistance. Not only is it highly likely that they will speak good English, but almost as likely they have actually had work experience in England.
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Poles have flocked to the UK, of course, and it is understandable when one learns that a teacher in Poland earns around £6,000 a year. But it is also obvious that they are very happy to return to their roots. They are fiercely proud and go out of their way to make visitors feel welcome. And, as we discovered as a group, they are only too pleased to toast that welcome in Polish vodka around a table groaning under the weight of plentiful, good food.
Every type of MICE facility
Poland has benefited greatly from huge sums of EU financial aid. It is very evident during a visit to the Gdansk area where the money has gone. We were shown tragic photographs of the appalling wartime destruction of the beautiful medieval town centres; but then we were able to see for ourselves how they have been restored in absolute detail so that strolling round the narrow streets and admiring the buildings on both sides you get no sense whatsoever that they have been rebuilt in the last couple of decades. However, the functions of many of the buildings have changed dramatically. Going inside we found a Radisson Blu Hotel full of character; the Gdansk Hotel with rooms themed in nautical style; restaurants, such as The Salmon, serving the freshest of fish dishes; and shops offering amber jewellery designed and made on the premises. Corporate groups can watch their own souvenir items being fashioned by the craftsmen. We were even shown a spider perfect in minute detail that had been trapped in the oozing amber 40 million years ago!
And, of course, the three cities have had modern facilities added in the shape not only of the PGE Arena, but sports halls, brand new hotels and auditoria.
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After checking into the Gdynia Orbis Hotel, our first taste of the region was at lunch in the Barracuda Restaurant in Gdynia. We sat alongside the sandy beach that stretches 300 miles from the German to the Russian border. Whilst there we saw a group of people in business attire walking casually past us. Leading them was the Polish Prime Minister who was hosting an EU meeting at the Nadmorski Hotel on the hill overlooking the restaurant.
We were able to visit the beautifully located 90-room hotel that has been selected already as the base for the Swedish national football team ready for the EURO 2012 championships. It has four meeting rooms, able to seat up to 200 delegates.
We then went down to the port of Gdynia and watched the manoeuvring of some of the 30 tall ships that parade there annually. I had caught sight of them when I was in my room at the Gdynia Orbis Hotel. I then enjoyed wandering around and getting lost in the park at the port and waiting with a litre of beer at one of the scores of picnic tables until my hosts reclaimed me.
Sopot was next on our itinerary, just a few minutes away. It boasts the longest wooden pier in Europe and has that atmosphere of elegance that the grandes dames and their escorts would probably have enjoyed at the turn of the 19th century.
Adding to that impression is the beachside hotel the Sofitel Grand. Built in the 1920s it still boasts the original chandeliers in its ballroom. It has 127 spacious rooms and corridors and the public areas have superb views over the sea. The hotel boasts an excellent spa and private beach.
It is the kind of venue that would impress any delegate of an upmarket group, yet its room rates are only 400 zloty in the low season and 700 zloty at peak times. The low season more or less coincides with the out-of-holiday months that are most popular for event organisers, which means that the 400 rate, at roughly 5zl to the pound, is only £80 rack rate. Furthermore, the Day Delegate Rate, at 200zl, is only an additional £40 per person for coffee and tea breaks, lunch and meeting room hire.
We discovered on our trip that the cost of flying to Poland is rapidly amortised by the low costs of accommodation and food, yet, with help in selecting the right venues, quality need not be jeopardised.
Typical of the Three Cities, the immediate neighbour of the veteran Grand Hotel, now a Sofitel, is the brand new Sheraton Sopot Hotel, Conference Centre & Spa. It has 189 rooms and 4,000sqm of function space in 14 meeting rooms, able to seat up to 650 delegates at a time.
Contrasting memories of Gdansk
Gdansk offers a remarkable mix of experiences and constantly comes up with surprises. There cannot be more contrasting ingredients in a tour than the Holy Trinity Cathedral in Oliwa and the Gdansk Shipyard.
The oldest part of the cathedral dates from 1186. It boasts a magnificent church organ and its recitals attract large numbers of tourists. How does this fit in with an event organiser’s requirements? Well, it is possible to book an organ recital specially for a group as part of an incentive or a leisure programme. The cost is only 200zl (£40) for a 20-minute programme that can be a medley of church and popular music. In company with scores of visitors, out little group was enthralled by Ave Maria as well as Edvard Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite.
View the embedded image gallery online at:Without doubt the most memorable part of our visit to the Three Cities was the Gdansk Shipyard. It was special for me, in that I had been taken round the shipyard in 1966 in the depths of winter and in the depths of the Cold War. At that time thousands of men worked on shipbuilding and ship repair and engine building on a site of thousands of acres. It had been called the Lenin Shipyard. Now, in 2011 it is still a working yard employing about 1,700 men on ship repairs in a dry dock, but with extensive areas of derelict land.
However, it is a destination of pilgrimage for visitors from all round the world, as well as Poland. This is where Lech Walesa first worked as an electrician and then stood up to the brutal intimidation of the Soviet Union and made his union, Solidarity, a symbol of resistance that helped to release the iron grip of Communism on so many countries of Europe, not only Poland. The original shipyard bus rattles groups round to different locations on the site. One large multi-storey workshop serves as a gallery for budding local artists, but it is also the place where groups can see Lech Walesa’s original bench that still has his work tools. Here we were also able to watch a video composed of original news film from the stirring times of the 1980s uprisings.
Quality cuisine is affordable
Dine-arounds have to be an integral part of a visit to the Three Cities. We sampled some delightful restaurants. There was the Blue Poodle in the nightlife district of Sopot, the Villa Uphagen Restaurant close to the new stadium before the match and Salmon Restaurant for lunch before leaving on the third day.
There are numerous old family mansions with original antique furniture providing quality cuisine, specialising in using local produce. And prices are within every corporate group budget.