Gdańsk is the place where World War II began, and as any proud resident of the city will explain, it is the home of Solidarity, the workers' movement that brought about the beginning of the end of the Cold War.

Gdańsk has been a link to the waterways of Europe for centuries — it's where Poland's main river (the Vistula) meets the Baltic Sea. The city has long depended on shipping, so it's no surprise that a 15th-century crane still bulges over the scenic riverfront embankment. A rare example of medieval port technology, the huge, wooden crane was operated by several workers scrambling around in giant hamster wheels. Using just their foot power to engage the gears and pulleys, they could lift up to four tons.

The old town is a gem, boasting block after block of red-brick churches and ornately decorated mansions. These were the homes of wealthy merchants of the Hanseatic League, the trade federation and mutual protection society that dominated northern Europe in the late Middle Ages. Even the Polish kings came to visit this well-to-do city and gawk along the same route trod by tourists today — the main drag is still called the "Royal Way."

The historic main street was in ruins, but locals stubbornly rebuilt it. Sifting through mounds of rubble and ash, they reclaimed original brick and put the houses back together again. Today, excursion boats ferry history buffs from the riverfront out to Westerplatte point, the harbor site where the war's first shots were fired.

Imagine the bravery of these Poles. The protestors huddled behind the shipyard's main gate for 18 days, refusing to leave until they had won unprecedented concessions from the Communists — including the right to strike. Their action sparked a wave of strikes and sit-ins that spread along the industrialized north coast of Poland.

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