Poland’s Riviera is worth to go.
That could have been why everything seemed so funny. The dancing. The vodka. The moon. Finding out that our hangovers had started before we had even passed out. Finding out that the only local hangover cure is offal stew. The whole experience was very childish. It put me off vodka for life – and has always brought me back to the Polish coast.
When you have the whole Mediterranean to choose from, the very idea of a Polish Riviera seems laughable. And yes, there is snow on the beach in January. But on 17 September last year, Sopot’s mercury hit 28C in the shade. Because like its people, Poland’s weather can be inexplicably hot, as well as utterly miserable. At least, like them, it is rarely boring.
Poland normally has a chilly spell in late August, followed by a złota jesień (golden autumn). It’s something akin to the UK’s fabled Indian summer, which this year is proving anything but elusive. It is often heralded by a blood moon and is glorious, not just for the endless forests of copper and golden leaves. There is also an amber light created by a sun that is lower in the sky; and most importantly, heat.
Most foreigners who visit Sopot go because of some personal reason. A British man with a Polish wife who misses her homeland; an Irish IT worker living in Kraków who misses the sea; a German with heritage in the area, perhaps with nostalgia for the pre-war, German-speaking Zoppot of Günter Grass and, before him, the Kaiser. There is also a contingent of marauding Scandinavians, who maintain the tradition of sailing across the Baltic to pick up cheap Polish alcohol and thrills. The rest, and there are many, are mostly Poles seeking value that cannot be found in Spain, Greece, or for that matter, Brighton.
For as far as sea-towns go, Sopot is refined. First of all there is the wooden pier, the longest in Europe. It is a pleasant, simple walkway into the open sea, with moorings and cafes as opposed to sugary souvenirs and scary fairground games. Much of the city’s architecture is over 100 years old and has been well restored. This is thanks Sopot’s origins as a spa town, which grew up around mineral springs. These create an air around them that is so clean that it seems sweet. Breathing it makes you feel like you are trying on a nice new pair of lungs.
This also might explain why the place looks so different to the treeless, windswept coasts of England. Healthy-looking sycamore, oak, chestnut and willow line not only the streets but also the seafront; some are growing on the beach itself. This comprises several miles of fine, golden sand backed by a protected dune that has been colonised by long grasses and flowering wild roses. Behind that is the coastal path which links tasteful wooden bars where Polish beer is now rivalled by elaborate cocktails.
A favourite has become the Aperol-prosecco spritz, which is served with pierogi (filled dumplings). By day, these bars are bases for beach-volleyball players, paddleboarders and parents watching their small children construct giant sandcastles. By night, some beach bars become impromptu music venues with live jazz acts and solo acoustic performances.
There are permanent structures such as Zatoka Sztuki, which in the warmer months has a posey roof bar, with hot tubs and a view. Nearby is the legendary nightclub and art gallery Sfinks. It’s the Haçienda of Poland, but without the guns, and has had the clever idea of celebrating its 25th birthday every day this year.
Sopot’s main promenade is Bohaterów Monte Cassino, named after the heroes of the second world war battle against the Germans in Italy, at which Polish and British forces fought side-by-side, and won. Particularly on the weekends, Monte Cassino can be crowded out by what are pejoratively known as dresiarze and blachary – boys who go out in sportswear, and girls who are assumed to like boys with sporty cars. For those who think they won’t fit in, it’s easy to escape.
A longer walk, or a ride on hired bikes, can take you along the beach path all the way to Gdańsk, for a feast of history if you want it. The city was Poland’s great seaport for centuries, attracting immigrants from Britain. Pinched by crusaders for a while (Malbork Castle, the largest in the world, is nearby), it was then the Prussian and German city of Danzig; then an interwar city-state; then the flashpoint of the second world war; and finally the birthplace of Solidarność (Solidarity), which helped bring the cold war to an end. Today, it has scrubbed up very well and is full of life. A 15-minute train ride takes you back to Sopot.
Fresh fish is plentiful. Stalls have a high turnover of flounder, a decent cousin of the plaice. At Bulaj we also ate excellent halibut (£11). The cosiest place to dine is Cyrano et Roxane (mains from £8.50), hosted by Frenchman Marc Petit and his Polish wife. They combine local ingredients with imports from Auvergne, such as livers for his homemade pâté de foie gras. If you want to go really fancy, there is L’Entre Villes (mains from £10), which feels like stepping in to some Polish oligarch’s Kensington mansion. We had starters, steak salad and partridge, all locally sourced and perfectly done, with impeccable service. Diners’ remorse meant that, of course, the next day was potato pancakes (from £1.50 for two) at a humble “milk bar”, Bursztyn.
Everything changed abruptly when I got a call from my Polish girlfriend, who told me to go to hell. Certain that it was all over, I politely – Englishly – asked if she’d mind telling me why. The reply: “Because it’s one of the best kitesurfing spots in Europe and it’s where I learned. You’ll both love it there even without doing any sport. There’s a ferry.”
That’s the ferry from Sopot across the Bay of Puck to Poland’s Hel peninsula, which is a very long, very narrow, spit of sand that is popular with lovers of fresh air, seaborne activity and corny puns.
The crossing took an hour and a half, and the surface of the water was as still as a millpond. We sat next to a friendly German father and daughter, the mirror of our vacation. They have no pre-war roots in the area, she was quick to say.
We snacked on sunflower seeds straight from their sunflower. The further out we got, the cleaner and sweeter the air became. That was probably what had magicked the ferry’s mist-coated cans of Tyskie into definitely the best beer in the world.
On arrival in Hel, we took a train for one stop to the village of Jurata, which is pronounced something like “you ratter”. Its beach is on the north side of the peninsula, and has powdery sand that is almost white, backed by pine-tree woods with a carpet of squidgy moss and heather in purple bloom. Locals forage for juicy, pungent mushrooms and have a knack for differentiating between the delectable, the hallucinogenic and the fatal. Tourists are advised not to play fungus roulette.
A 10-minute walk brought us to the south side of the peninsula, where there is a splendidly simple wooden pier. It presented a sunset that made the sea shine and set the clouds alight in a blaze of pink. The air was sweeter than ever. A lone fisherman ambled past a cafe, ignoring its offers of Moët and tiramisu. Across the water to the south were the Gdańsk shipyards, where the salt of the Earth had changed the world. To the west, kitesurfers leapt at the sky. Nirvana in Hel.