Saturday, June 13, 2009

The beach riviera in Poland

The Baltic beaches have a distinctly Mediterranean feel - but at budget prices. Ruby Warrington visits Sopot

Sopot is one of the cities (along with Gdansk and Gdynia) of the Tri-City area — or Polish Riviera — and flooded with tourists from all over Poland and Germany during the summer months.

And it’s time we got in on the act. Out of the euro-zone, it offers an unbeatably cheap version of the classic Mediterranean city-on-a-beach.

From May, the beer gardens on the main street of Monte Cassino fill up, the beach sprouts volleyball nets and blow-up banana boats and the bars — where the favoured local tipple is Zubrowka Bison Grass Vodka with cloudy apple juice — throb with life until the early hours.

With its quaint, leafy streets, cafĂ© culture and everalluring seafront, Sopot has the feel of a 1950s Brighton. Indeed, there is even a wooden pier — the longest in Europe — jutting out into the blue-grey sea, and the oldest, and finest, hotel in town is called the Grand.

Built in 1927, this five-star property sits directly on the beach, with windows from the spa on the ground floor looking out directly across the flat, white sand.

We had our most authentic dining experience on the beach, at the fish shack Bar Przystan. After queuing to order, we received a number and waited again to be called – but the fish, as fresh as can be and on your plate for as little as £2, was worth the wait. It would have been rude not to sample the local speciality of dumplings or pierogi. They are served in most pubs and are delicious washed down with a pint of Zywiec, the local lager.

Culturally, Sopot will never be able to rival city beaches such as Barcelona or Naples, offering instead a Polish take on Biarritz. The surrounding countryside is hilly and often forested — we took a 40-minute walk though lush, green pines from Sopot along the cliffs to the pier in Gdynia, where the view across Gdansk Bay is of open water as far as the eye can see. By night, the city reveals itself as charmingly bohemian. Restaurants are low-ceilinged and non-showy, and the bar scene verges on the avant-garde. For that first Zubrowka, head to Spatif — Sopot’s oldest bar and run by local artists.

Full of larger-than-life characters, the atmosphere is one of impending anarchy and the music a mish-mash of everything from Elvis to the Cure, 1980s disco and everything in between. Puzon is a laid-back jazz pub, with ancient vinyls covering the ceiling, while Sfinks — just outside town among the pines — is a grimy late-night dance club, where the DJ booking policy extends to some of the coolest names on the European circuit.

And, yes, the local climate is balmy enough in high season that you could even kid yourself you’re in the Med. From June until August the average high is 23C (73F), while temperatures of up to 40C have been recorded in recent years.

The Grand (recently renovated by Sofitel, its new owner), with its restaurants, bars and spa, is the high-end option for accommodation, where a double room will set you back from £102 a night, while at the other end of the spectrum, a pension can be had from as little as £20 a night ( ). Prices which, much like this unassuming, quirky seaside gem, seem to hail from an altogether different era.

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