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Along the Amber Route: Gdańsk

Much of Gdańsk’s Old Town has been painstakingly re- constructed after its devastation in the Second World War, and walking along Ulica Dług (Long Street) today, it is not hard to picture the Danzig where Glückel’s young relation traded in amber. At the point where the street broadens out into Długi Targ (Long Square) stands the Town Hall, looking much as it did in Braun and Hogenberg’s panorama. Construction began in 1379, when Danzig was controlled by the Teutonic Knights. In 1457, after the region rebelled against the Order, the city became subject to the Kingdom of Poland, while retaining autonomous rights. Trade flourished, and the Town Hall was enlarged, but it was only after a disastrous fire in the mid-16th century that it assumed its present form, a blend of Gothic and Renaissance, with an 83-metre clock tower topped by a gilt statue of the Polish King Zygmunt II Vasa (1548–72).

124The Old Town is surrounded by gatehouses, and at the western end of Ulica Dług, beside the busy ring road, stands the Brama Wyzynna (Upland Gate), a Baroque triumphal arch of 1568, renovated in pompous Prussian style in 1886. In front of it, the 16th-century Prison Tower now houses the city’s Amber Museum. In his essay ‘Unpacking My Library’, Walter Benjamin recalled that in the early years of the 20th century, the building was occupied by the antiquarian book-seller Hans Rhaue; and it was from the top of this tower that Oskar Mazerath, in Günter Grass’s great Danzig novel The Tin Drum, first practised his window-shattering vocal technique.

You enter up a narrow, winding set of stairs, beneath beams that still bear the graffiti inscribed by prisoners. Beneath the low, vaulted ceiling are displays of clear and cloudy amber, great lumps the size of coconuts – one, with a tawny, pitted surface, from the Vistula lagoon, and another from Ukraine. One large, fractured piece is dark brown outside and sulphur yellow within. There is amber from afar afield as Spain, Morocco, Indonesia and Sakkhalin in Russia’s Far East. One alcove houses a microscope carousel; push the button and a series of inclusions – plant fragments, a whole leaf, mosquitoes and other insects – revolve under the lens. The star of the show, however, is a whole lizard encased in a lump of amber, found on a beach near Gdańsk in 1997 by the amber hunter Gabriela Gierłowska and purchased for the museum by the L. Kronenberg Bank Foundation.

From Along the Amber Route by C.J. Schüler

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C.J. Schüler

C.J. Schüler