Poland

Downtown Warsaw by night

No post for Holland as I’ll be back again in a month and will include all of my time there in that post.

My second trip to Amsterdam was short and sweet, but I’ll be back again in early October for a third time as it is one of my favorite cities in Europe to date. I left the city on Wednesday night bound for Warsaw, Poland via Berlin. So far, my transport from city to city has been fairly painless, a 45-minute flight here, a five hour bus ride there, but the series of transportation to Poland was quite long. I spent the better part of twenty-two hours on two separate buses, one from Amsterdam to Berlin (nine hours), and another from Berlin to Warsaw (nine hours as well). With a four hour layover in between buses, you can imagine the drowsiness I was feeling once I finally arrived in Warsaw.

One of my best friends from college has family spread out extensively through Poland, and I decided to come and meet him and another friend (both named Alex) for a week and a half in Poland, Berlin, and Prague. My friend’s family lives on the outskirts of Warsaw, and we planned to spend four nights at his grandma’s house with other extended family of his. It’s nice to get some home-cooked meals every once in a while, and the Polish, I think, do it better than anybody else. Immediately upon arriving to his grandma and aunt’s house we had a delicious meal of stew, sausages, tomatoes and onions (a staple dish in Poland and a part of every meal), and potatoes, lots and lots of potatoes. Little did I know that this was just the first of a weeks worth of meals where it was completely unacceptable for me to leave the table the least bit hungry. Never in my life have I felt so obligated to eat as much as possible because as soon as one dish was finished, another, more hearty, portion was placed in front of me. The Polish know how to cook and eat, and they do both very well.

Interior of the Cathedral in Krakow

Our first full day in Poland we spent traveling Krakow, an historic city in the south of Poland which was relatively untouched during WWII (Poland got completely decimated during the war, but more on that to come). Krakow is a beautiful city nestled high on the banks of the Wysla (pronounced Visla) River with a castle to top it all off. The city is largely a tourist city, being the closest big city in to Auschwitz, the most infamous Nazi death camp from the War. Upon arriving in Krakow, we were meted by our tour guide for the day, a local Polish man who would be tasked with giving our group of ten a guided tour in both English and Polish over a four hour period as many of those in our group were unable to speak one of the languages (myself included). Our tour took us through a large portion of Krakow, visiting the castle, central square, cathedral, and more during the day. We finished the tour with a traditional Polish lunch of beer and sausages (a typical day in Poland included the consumption of 4-5 sausages over three meals).

Following lunch we headed into the Jewish district, a very historic part of Krakow. Before arriving in Krakow I was unaware of the gruesome past it had as being one of the main roundup places in Poland for Jews. Early on in the war Krakow was taken over by the Nazi’s and immediately ghettos were setup for the Jews to contain them to certain areas. These ghettos were overcrowded, dirty, and limiting for the Jews of the time, though somewhat of a haven before being sent to a concentration camp where their likely death awaited them. Krakow was the site for several mass executions by the Nazis as well, and until you actually witness the locations of these execution sites, it’s hard to understand the magnitude of the Nazi’s rule. Before coming to Poland, I knew that they were a central figure in the war, but I did not realize how extensively they were really involved. Situated directly between Germany and the Soviet Union, Poland was a central battleground and a hotbed for both Axis powers. Being it that Poland had the highest population of Jews in the entire world, Hitler made quick work of decimating the population of the country, executing upwards of 6 million Jews in Poland alone between 1939-1945. The Polish people bore some of the most gruesome days of WWII, and it was quite evident in Krakow. 

Myself, Alex, and Alex spent the night in Krakow and headed back to Warsaw in the morning in order to spend a little bit of time downtown. We got back midday, and after a big dinner we headed to downtown Warsaw for the night with the entire group. We drove first into the Old Town area of the city, one of the few parts of Warsaw that was not razed during the air raids by Germany during the Warsaw Uprising, a planned attack by the Polish citizens against Germany to attempt to reclaim the overtaken city. This part of the city, though some of it destroyed, is still relatively intact, and it is evident in the architecture of the area. We made our way down to the river to enjoy a fountain laser light show which is apparently a common thing in Warsaw and Europe during the summer months. The show was filled with images of Warsaw and music, and was an impressive visual display. Following the light show, some of our group headed down to a “beach” district along the river, a collection of dance clubs and bars along the river that are open during the summer months.

Homecooked meal in Poland of chicken, slaw, tomatoes and onions, stuffed cabbage, cucumber salad, and potatoes. MMMM

Saturday our plans were to have a big family dinner with all of Alex’s family. His entire extended family was back in Poland for a couple of weeks (or at least those who’ve left), and so we got the real Polish experience for the afternoon with a giant, Thanksgiving-like meal in the middle of the afternoon. Cousins, uncles, aunts, and grandparents were all invited, and our meal consisted of everything Polish you could imagine: coleslaw, spiced chicken, sausage, potatoes, stuffed cabbage, cucumber salad, and more. Two plates to many and I was severely stuffed and ready for a food coma to set in.

On Sunday we spent the day being tourists, walking around the city, visiting museums, and wandering through neighborhoods we weren’t familiar with. On our list of museums was the Warsaw Uprising museum, a newly opened and powerful museum about the Polish resistance to the Nazis. This museum was filled with artifacts and relics from the day, and showed how truly vicious Germany was during this time in history. Though I claim to know a lot about WWII, I learned a lot of new information during this exhibit that I had absolutely no idea about before.

Following our Uprising experience, we visited the Jewish museum in Warsaw as well, a brand new museum with an extensive exhibit on the history of Jewish life from 1000 A.D. to the present. Never before had I realized how much persecution the Jewish community has experienced throughout history. It was also a very well done museum, and for the cost of 10 Zloty (about $3), it was definitely well worth it.

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As this was our last day in Warsaw before heading off for Berlin, we tried to squeeze in as much as possible, and concluded the day by visiting the Praga district of Warsaw, part of the 20% of the city that also wasn’t destroyed during the War (mainly because it was the German district at the time). Previously a very poor and rundown part of town, Warsaw has invested a lot of money into renovating this region over the last five to ten years and it is now one of the fastest growing regions in the city. There’s still a lot to go, but it reminded me a lot of Detroit in the sense that even when a part of a city looks like there’s not much hope, there are still ways to help turn it around.

Tomorrow we head off for Berlin on a road trip across Poland in Alex’s cousin renovated Volkwagen van. Based on looks of the van alone (pics in the next post), I’m predicting it’ll be an epic drive across the country.