Friday, 11 June 2010

Poland 2: Gdańsk by iPhone

Anyone who has an iPhone knows how impressive it is as a portable computer that also provides telephony - and also just how poor its inbuilt camera is. There's no flash, no zoom, and it struggles in low light.

However, give the iPhone camera some strong, consistent light and you can take a decent shot with it. I took my iPhone 3GS's camera for a test run yesterday as I walked through the streets of historic Gdańsk, Poland, on my current Lonely Planet assignment to update the Eastern Europe guidebook.

Here's what the lens caught...

1. Rivers of Gold(wasser). This statue of Neptune is the symbol of the city, and stands above a fountain in the main market square, Długi Targ. It's said to have once gushed forth the famous gold-flecked Gdańsk liqueur, goldwasser. I suspect this of being a tall story invented by the city's tourism marketing department a few centuries ago; perhaps after the Thirty Years' War, when visitor numbers had presumably slumped.

To be honest though, the real miracle about the statue is that it's here at all - the entire city centre was little more than rubble at the end of World War II, and was painstakingly restored in the decades which followed.



2. The Milk Bar That Shook the World. In the communist era, the state subsidised a type of cheap cafeteria known as a bar mleczny (milk bar), which supplied basic meals to the proletariat for nominal prices. Most of them have vanished since the fall of the regime, but a few have survived by moving with the times. Behold the Bar Mleczny Neptun, with its cheap snacks and (shock!) capitalist cola...



3. Silent Picture. I love it when buildings bear faint traces of previous incarnations. On the wall of the Dom Harcerza, a budget hotel, you can just make out the word "KINO" - as it was once a cinema.



4. The Medium is the Message. Just outside the old city wall, I spotted this slightly dilapidated floral arrangement. As Czyste Miasto Gdańsk means "Clean City Gdańsk", I assume it's connected with some sort of environmental awareness program.



5. I Want to Break Free. It's a largely forgotten fact these days, but between the First and Second World Wars, Gdańsk was its own independent micro-state. The Free City of Danzig (Danzig is Gdańsk's German name) was established by the League of Nations as an independent enclave between Germany and the then newly reborn Poland.

I stumbled upon a small new museum in ulica Piwna tht's devoted to the Free City era, called Historical Zone: Free City of Danzig. It exhibits lots of artefacts from the era, such as promotional brochures, maps, stamps and passports. It was intriguing, and the caretaker was so taken by my enthusiasm that he let me handle some of the documents. Below is the cover of a tourism brochure of the period, in English.



6. You Are What You Eat. Sigh... there's just no way to take a sexy "food porn" pic of dumplings, is there? But take my word for it, these pierogi from the dumpling specialists at U Dzika made a tasty lunch.



7. Completely Drained. This decorative drain pipe in ulica Mariacka, Gdańsk's amber retailing strip, catches the eye as effectively as the nearby outdoor stalls selling amber-studded jewellery.



8. Water Sports. It's always a pleasure encountering something new in such an old city. I happened upon this fountain, installed only last year, which seems to encourage passers by to interact with it. These guys were having a lot of fun trying to anticipate its spouting patterns and getting each other wet.



9. Tall Timber. Speaking of history... here comes the Galeon Lew, which takes tourists along the Motława River to Westerplatte (which, you might be interested to know, was the spot where World War II broke out in 1939, when German gunships attacked a Polish fort there).



10. Wall No More. Finally, some recent history - a piece of the Berlin Wall, encountered outside the Roads to Freedom exhibition. The museum is devoted to the downfall of European communism, which began when the Solidarity trade union took on Poland's communist regime in 1980s Gdańsk. This slab is a fragment of history, and a thought-provoking one.



So, the photographic verdict? Clearly Apple has a long way to go in providing an iPhone camera that you'd want to use as your sole photographic device. Of course this could all change with Apple's upcoming iPhone 4, which is rumoured to contain a vastly improved camera. For the time being however, I'm certainly not ditching my regular Olympus compact digital camera.

But, as you can see, given enough light, a close enough proximity and an interesting enough subject, even the iPhone 3GS's camera can turn out a surprisingly good travel photo.