Day 03: Westerplatte and The Big Game

This morning we were up and heading out shortly after 9:00, but first stopped to ask the desk clerk which bus we should take to Westerplatte, the very place in Gdansk where WWII started.  Now, I will wager a guess that Westerplatte is mentioned in, oh, every single guidebook written about Gdansk and that many a tourist has visited the site before us.  Like possibly millions of tourists, all who managed to get there and back again.  But so began a unique phenomenon we experienced a few more times along the trip, the phenomenon where it’s like the person to whom you are posing the question is hearing this question for the very first time in their life.  She stared blankly at us for a few moments, seemingly trying to grasp the concept of a tourist in Gdansk trying to get to a historically significant location, before employing the services of that handy device on the desk, the computer.  After much consternation, she determined that we should take bus #210.  But wait, isn’t that the bus to the airport, we asked after having been on that very bus just 2 days prior and feeling pretty sure it didn’t go to Westerplatte?  Take bus #210, she assured us.

Trying to get to Westerplatte?  Don't stand at this stop.

Trying to get to Westerplatte? Don’t stand at this stop.

We next made a beeline for the TI to get the straight scoop, where we learned conclusively that we need to take bus #106.  Ok, that is good intel, and please, where does one catch this bus #106?  The TI lady showed us on the map exactly where to get on, right down to which side of the road to be on.  You must cross that busy road, she said, pointing on the map and drawing a circle where we should stand.  Okie-dokey, we were on our way.

You need to be at THIS stop.

You need to be at THIS stop.

In no time we made our way to the bus stop near the Music Academy, which involved crossing the busy road by way of an underground passage tunnel.  The bus was set to arrive at 10:46 and we were quite early (it was just a little after 10).  While we waited we noticed that bus #106 was not one listed at this particular bus stop, but the TI lady had been especially clear about where to stand so we continued to wait, our confidence waning a bit.  After a few more minutes of questioning ourselves, we went back down the underpass to the other side of the busy road to see what the bus stop said for traffic going the opposite direction.  The #106 was listed on this stop but with a big red note in Polish.  Hmm.  Wonder what that means?  Well, at least it’s listed and if it’s going that direction, surely it has to go the direction we need, too?  So back down the underpass to the other side of the busy street we went again.  This time a woman was now standing at our stop so we attempted to ask her but there was quite a bit of a language barrier.  She did, however, indicate that no such bus stopped there.  Well, now what?  As it was nearing 10:46 we decided to wait and see what happened, but to no surprise, bus #106 never arrived.  We waited until 11:00 in the hopes it was running behind, to no avail.  Dejected, we went back down the underpass to the other side of the busy street and started to walk down a side street away from the busy street, back to Main Town thinking the mission must be scrubbed for the day.  A block later I glanced up and lo and behold, there was a tiny little sign that read those elusive three numbers:  106.  We looked at the schedule and noticed that in addition to the #106, the #138 also goes to Westerplatte and the next #138 was scheduled to arrive at 11:28.  Ok, we’ll bite, that was only 25 minutes away and since most of our morning thus far involved waiting for a bus what’s another 25 minutes?  Lo and behold, at 11:30 bus #138 arrived with the signage Westerplatte on the front of it (and was reconfirmed by the driver when we asked).  Finally, we were off.

The Westerplatte sign

The Westerplatte sign

This 30 minute bus ride terminated at Westerplatte, where we got off to take a look at the very spot where WWII started.  Just a few years prior we had stood at the intersection in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, where Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated, thus leading to the outbreak of WWI.  In many ways, this felt much more significant to us because WWII still seems to be so much more recent even if only 25 years or so had separated the two wars.

A watchtower used during the siege

A watchtower used during the siege

It was at this site where Hitler made his first attack during the first week of September 1939, going after the Polish munitions depot and soldiers who were guarding Gdansk harbor.  The Poles put up one heck of a fight but in the end they were outmanned and outgunned and things went downhill quickly in Poland after that.  The memorials and exhibits at Westerplatte were very informative and moving (the displays are generously in both Polish and English), and I’d rate it a must see for anyone interested in WWII history.  Take the #106 or #138 buses, not the #210, and for heaven’s sakes, don’t stand like a lump at the bus stop on the busy road near the Music Academy.  That will get you nowhere.

A bombed out barracks

A bombed out barracks

After viewing all the ruins, displays, placards, and monuments, and taking a brief walk along the Baltic Sea, we needed to start heading back to town to get ready for our evening’s big event, the long awaited football match.  The bus schedule indicated the next bus would leave at 13:22 so promptly at 13:03 it arrived and left.  I’m telling ya, it’s tough to pin these Poles down with their public bus information.  The good news, however, is that we were early as usual so we were ready to go at 13:03.

PGE Arena, proud home of Lechia Gdansk

PGE Arena, proud home of Lechia Gdansk

We headed back to the room to change and get ready for The Big Game before heading right out again.  Because this was our first European football match (again, soccer game) we wanted to be extra early to make sure not to miss a thing.  We made our way to the main train station to catch tram #97 to the PGE Arena (the stop says Amber Expo).  Hoo-boy, we were early but excited.  The PGE Arena was built in 2011 to host the UEFA Euro 2012 football finals, which apparently was quite the honor.  The stadium is huge, holding over 43,000 people, and is built to look like glowing amber from the outside because much of the world’s amber comes from near Gdansk.  As we neared it we could see the first security checkpoint that was set up near the street on the stadium’s outer perimeter, where I was only asked if I had any glass bottles on me (I did not) but Jim was frisked.  He does looked shifty, that one.  We were then allowed to get closer to the stadium and find the assigned gate we were to enter.

A little about the stadium security measures:  hooliganism has been alive and well at European football matches for years and years.  Poland is no exception, experiencing their fair share of violence and death during and after games.  Now, I don’t know much about how other football stadiums throughout Europe work, but this one seems to have been built with stringent security measures in place.  Firstly, we were searched twice, once mentioned above and then again just past the gate in the actual stadium.  The second time I received a full pat down along with Jimmy.

Empty concourse, just us and the staff

Empty concourse, just us and the staff

Movement within the stadium is severely limited.  Imagine the stadium like a rectangular box, two long sides (along the field) and two short sides (where the goalposts are located).  You can only enter the stadium through the giant rotating steel cage door on the side where your seat is located, and once inside you are not able to walk the concourse around the entire stadium, you may only walk back and forth on the side where your seat is located.  Inside by the field is no exception, as each of the 4 sections are fenced off from each other and the field.

So excited for the game, we arrived before the players

So excited for the game, we arrived before the players

The sections behind the goalposts on each side hold the most, how shall we say, enthusiastic of fans (read: possibly the ones most likely to instigate trouble), one side being the home team’s most fervent fans and the opposite side being the (brave) visiting team’s fans.  Along with the visiting team’s fans being completely fenced in, all of the adjacent sections just outside the fence are no-sit zones where ticket sales are not allowed, leaving huge buffers on all sides.  For good measure, security personnel also form a human perimeter by the fence.  This all sends a very strong No Monkey Business message.  We abided.

Behind-the-goalpost fans hanging banners

Behind-the-goalpost fans hanging banners

Once we made it inside we noticed we were practically the first ones there.  Literally, it was us and the stadium staff even though it was only an hour and 15 minutes before game time.  I’m pretty sure even the players were still off site, eating dinner, finishing up a few phone calls, maybe even watching a little Poland’s Got Talent on TV before thinking about heading over to the stadium.  That worked out well, as I was able to take a ton of photos without risk of possibly offending someone.  Mind you, we were well aware of our Ps and Qs and not about to incite any international incidents; low-profile was the name of our game here.  Eventually we made it to our seats around 16:00 (1 hour to game time), which were at the equivalent of the 40-yard line in an NFL game and about 20 rows off the field.  We watched the teams warm up, fans trickle in, and the battle of hanging banners commence.  The Battle of Banner Hanging involved the “most enthusiastic” fans on their respective sides behind the goalposts to each hang banner after banner along the rails, seemingly trying to out-banner each other.  I like to say “we” won the War of Banner Hanging (go Lechia!) as we had more.  In terms of banner ingenuity, wit, and grammatical accuracy, well, who knows – they were in Polish.

The few - but brave - Jagiellonia Bialystok fans in their buffered zone

The few – but brave – Jagiellonia Bialystok fans in their buffered zone

Our seats were comfortable with good viewing and up until a few minutes before game time we even had an empty seat on each side of us and the rows behind and in front of us were only sparsely populated.  This all abruptly changed at about 4 minutes to game time, when from out of nowhere people filed in and we soon found ourselves packed in like sardines amidst very large, very boisterous Polish men, many of whom had been doing their own pre-game warm-ups with a keg of beer.  Jim felt the stadium was a ratio of 97:3 men to women (which was great because the women’s bathroom was a quiet oasis with no line.  In fact, both times I used it I was the only one in there in spite of the concourse madness just outside the door).  Then, promptly at 17:00 something remarkable happened:  I must have missed the signal, but suddenly everyone in the stadium stood up and commenced singing a song, presumably the National Anthem.  No music accompaniment or anything, just singing, everyone on key.  And then as fast as they stood, they sat.  We had to scramble to keep up and mouth words as if we knew what we were doing, a bit intimidated we’d unwittingly be called out for anti-nationalist behavior.

Banners hung, scarves adorned, it was game time

Banners hung, scarves adorned, it was game time

Then the spectacle that is a Polish football match started, with Lechia Gdansk facing off against the visiting Jagiellonia Bialystok.  It was very clear the game had commenced because immediately the spirited pro-banner hanging fans from behind the goalposts started chanting, then singing, then chanting some more, complete with organized clapping and choreographed arm waving and this did not stop the entire game.  They were led by a couple of shaved-head individuals with a microphone who stood at the front of the crew with the authority of bandleaders, along with a drummer who led the appropriate cadence with a giant marching band bass drum.  Together, they seamlessly shepherded the entire section from one song, chant, or cheer into the next like a DJ spins continuous music.  It was exhilarating, entertaining, and hard not to get swept up into the action in spite of not knowing Polish.  Measured clapping, however, knows no linguistic bounds and we found ourselves participating in much of that.   Jim, who has been to a couple of Chicago Fire soccer games, said this magnitude of fan involvement took things to a whole new level.  In fact, the players on the field only seemed to be working marginally harder than those in the stands to propel the game to a home victory.

Scarf protocols.  And the empty seats across the way?  Those are the expensive seats, which clearly not many like.

Scarf protocols. And the empty seats across the way? Those are the expensive seats, which clearly not many like.

Another feature of the game worth noting were the knit team-logoed scarves worn by a large percentage of attendees.  We had noticed a lot of people in Gdansk wearing them around town earlier in the day, and at the stadium it seemed to be part of the fan uniform.  I came this/close to buying one myself but became somewhat glad I didn’t because it turns out the scarf has very specific uses throughout the game.  At certain times you are to remove it and hold it up defiantly and proudly like a banner, other times you are to loop it and wave it around furiously.  There seemed to be a lot of scarf protocols to follow and it was for the best we didn’t have them so we didn’t inadvertently violate scarf-wearing policy.  Maybe next time.

Oh, and there was a game being played, too

Oh, and there was a game being played, too

All in all it was a very exciting game, “we” scored, then they scored, “we” scored again and then they tied it up.  Ok, I don’t remember the exact order of all that but we did score first.  At halftime between the two 45-minute periods almost everyone filed out of their seats to revisit the beer keg and fuel up for round two while Jimmy and I stretched our legs in the concourse a bit.  Because we’ve both been to a number of inner-city sporting events, we had decided that we would try to leave a few minutes before the game ended (blasphemous, I know) so we could catch a tram back to the city center and avoid the rush.  As such, for the second period we found two new seats in the corner of the stadium that had easy aisle access, as no one – no one – gets up and down during one of these matches and we needed to be as unobtrusive as possible when facilitating our exit.

All tied up

All tied up

Toward the end of the game when it was still tied 2-2 we politely and quietly excused ourselves, slipping into the absolutely empty concourse and out the steel gate door.  Full of enthusiasm ourselves, we practically skipped back to the tram stop on a sporting high and proceeded to wait, thankful we were getting out before the masses and surely ahead of any trouble that may be instigated around the stadium afterward.

We found ourselves at the appropriate tram stop, a bit smug with our plan, as there was only one other person waiting on the platform.  As we waited, a couple other people joined us and we all stood patiently at first, but the minutes ticked by and there were no trams, not even going the opposite direction.  We waited, and waited, and it soon became apparent that the game was over and the masses were filtering out.  Dang it, our carefully crafted plan was being shot to hell.  As more people joined us on the platform we noticed that one by one they were reading the schedule and leaving, heading down the busy street in the general direction of town.  Pretty soon the only knuckleheads still standing on the platform were us and an old man who just sat there chuckling.  I honestly think he had nowhere to be, he was just sitting at the tram stop to get out of the house for a while.  We asked him in very broken Polish if the tram was coming and he just laughed and said, “Maybe – one hour.”  Confused, we asked if a tram was coming in one hour and he cryptically said, “Maybe.  The game, no tram.”  Well, now what?  It had become clear that no tram was coming for whatever reason due to the game so we joined the crowd in walking toward town, unsure of where we were going, where the road would take us, and how long it would take to get there.  This had become bus #106 to Westerplatte all over again.

The walk took us through a slightly scruffy area of Gdansk and while there were other people about, most were scarf-adorned game attendees, many of whom were a bit pickled and a few that looked to be up to no good.  A couple of kilometers later we gratefully saw the Politechnika Gdanska SKM train station that was operational and took the SKM commuter train back to the Gdansk Glowny.  As an aside, when we asked a TI staff member the following day about the lack of trams he said that, sadly, after football games they don’t run public transit near the stadium out of fear of vandalism and whatnot from over zealous fans.  He felt it incredibly stupid to leave so many fans stranded like that and thought that would ultimately lead to more problems.

Safe and sound back in Main Town, we stopped at Bar Pod Ryba for some eats, where Jim had trout and fries and I had a baked potato with broccoli, mushrooms, and a delicious garlic sauce.  As good as the food was, our waitress was not and we wondered if she had noticed our fan cards and wasn’t a diehard Lechia fan like we were.

After such an exciting day (spent largely waiting for public transportation), we crashed back in the room, exhausted.

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