I had heard of the northern Polish city of Gdansk as a kid in Russia, but knew nothing about it until I opened the guidebook (which Mr. bought me to convince me to move to Poland) and discovered a city with a super cool riverbank filled with ships and colorful burgher houses.
So when in late July we left Warsaw to do a little "tour of Polandia", as we called it, I was quite excited to check out Gdansk for the weekend. What I didn't know is that the weekend we chose was when Gdansk hosted three simultaneous festivals: a music festival, a Shakespeare festival, and St. Dominic's Fair.
What's St. Dominic's Fair, you may wonder? Oh, it's no big deal really. Just one of Europe's biggest fair, a Polish answer to Oktoberfest if you will, which has been happening here annually for the past... wait for it... 750 years!
Being a little clueless about all things Polish, we learned of St. Dominic's Fair after we got there and noticed a bunch of tents being set up. Regular weekend market, we thought. But when we came back out on the street the next morning, it was clear there was nothing regular about this thing.
Imagine a literal river of people that carries you, whether you want to or not, past endless stalls filled with amber necklaces, furry slippers, pots of simmering cabbage stew, fur coats, wooden Christmas toys, bras, life-size carved wooden statues of villagers, Polish wine (what, that's a thing?!), cast iron horseshoes, jacuzzis (yes... cuz winter is coming), garlic garlands, leather jackets, and those automagical vegetable slicers I remember from the 1990s, which under a deft hand of their hawker leave in their wake an impressive hill of shredded cabbage and perfectly thin potato circles that make housewives drool with desire. All these wares whiz by you with as you try, futilely, to climb out of the People River onto some semblance of shore.
And that's St. Dominic's Fair.
St. Dominic's Fair lasts 3 weeks and attracts an average of 5 million people to Gdansk's Old Town. Gdansk's regular population is only about 500,000, so imagine that! And towards the evening, the streets get filled with what I call The Turnip People, but we'll leave that for another post...
If you ever end up going, here is The #1 Thing To Do at St. Dominic's Fair: eat a lard sandwich. It is big. It is filling. And it will make you feel one with the people.
We found two ways to escape the craziness of the fair and see the actual city. One was to climb on top of St. Mary's Church, which with 405 steps will help shake off any extra lard you may have eaten:
The second great escape from the fair was the European Solidarity Center. It's a museum that opened in 2014 to tell the story of the Solidarnosc movement, which started in Gdansk and ended up making Poland the first domino to fall out of the Soviet Union, leading to its collapse.
While I witnessed the fall of USSR as a kid in Moscow, I never learned its history and didn't know anything about Solidarnosc or what part Poland played in the whole thing. So I'm really glad I went. The European Solidarity Center was a very thorough, interesting, interactive museum that changed my understanding of the 1980s, of Eastern Europe and of what happened to the country where I was born.
So if you're ever in Poland, go check out Gdansk's lovely Old Town and make sure to go to that museum as well. I'll leave it up to you if you want to come here during St. Dominic's.