30 May 2017

Visiting Baltic Sea - the Town of Hel

Hel is a town in Puck County, Pomeranian Voivodeship of Poland. It's located on the tip of the Hel Peninsula, about 33 kilometers from the Polish mainland.
The Kashubian village of Hel was first mentioned in 1198 as a centre of herring trade area named Gellen. In one of the Danish chronicles of 1219 it is mentioned that a damaged ship of King Valdemar II the Victorious was set ashore on an "Island of Hel". By the 13th century the village became one of the most important trade centers of the area, competing with the nearby town of Gdańsk.

Initially the town was some 1.5 km from its present-day centre. It contained a church, hospital, city house, two market places, several guest houses and a small port. However, during the 15th century the peninsula started to shrink through marine erosion and soon the town was moved to a safer place. In 1417 St Peter's Church was built in the town, devoted to the patron saint of fishermen.

In the 17th and 18th centuries prolonged warfare and a series of natural disasters severely damaged the town. It was severely depopulated and in 1872 the government of the newly formed German state abolished the city rights granted to Hel six centuries earlier. After that the village of Hela (German name) lost much of its significance.
The period of decline was halted in 1893 when a fishing harbour was built in the village. It provided a shelter for fishing vessels, but also became a popular destination for weekend trips of the inhabitants of Danzig and Zoppot. In 1896 the village was granted the status of a sea-side resort.

As a result of World War I and the Treaty of Versailles Poland was re-established as an independent nation. Hel, before the war a predominately German village, became part of Poland. In 1921 a new railway was built along the peninsula connecting the town to the mainland. The authorities of the Pomeranian Voivodeship also planned to build a road to the village, but the peninsula was found too narrow at the time. Soon Hel became one of the most important tourism centers in Polish Pomerania. New suburbs of villas were built for tourists, as well as a new church, school, fishing institute and geophysical observatory. In addition, the village became one of the two main naval bases of the Polish Navy. The harbour was expanded and in 1936 the president declared the peninsula a "Fortified Area" under jurisdiction of the Polish Army. The naval base was expanded significantly and a battery of coastal artillery was built to provide cover for the military facilities.

During the invasion of Poland the Hel Peninsula was one of the longest-defended pockets of Polish Army resistance. Approximately 3,000 soldiers of the Coastal Defence Group units under Kmdr Włodzimierz Steyer defended the area against overwhelming odds until 2 October 1939. Shortly before capitulation, Polish military engineers detonated a number of torpedo warheads, which separated the peninsula from the mainland transforming it into an island. During World War II the Kriegsmarine used the Hel naval base to train U-Boat crews. At the end of the war the village was the last part of Polish soil to be liberated: the German units encircled there only surrendered on 14 May 1945, six days after Germany had capitulated.

After the war the village yet again became a naval base. In 1960 a road linking Hel with Jastarnia on the mainland was built. Three years later city rights were reintroduced. Since then the tourist industry started to recover and several hotels, guest houses and pensions were built. In 1996 the Polish Navy sold all remaining parts of the peninsula to the civilian authorities and only a small naval base is there today.
The harbour now serves primarily as a yacht marina, though there are some fishing boats and ferries to Gdańsk, Sopot and Gdynia in the summer.
Hel houses a sea life biological laboratory and there are interesting examples of naval armament and equipment exhibited throughout the town. There is popular beach along the shore between the inner and outer harbour walls, with a seal sanctuary.

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