Poland Trip: Final Thoughts

 

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We’ve been back for a little while now, time to put down my final thoughts on Poland.

We have visited other formerly Communist countries: Estonia, Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia. But Poland felt the most thoroughly European. There were still signs of the past, but a coat of paint or a building veneer hid much of it. But Poland seemed like it had been Western for a long time.

We were impressed with the Poles. They were helpful and friendly. And thin! We were amazed that almost all the Poles we saw were a healthy weight. And it reminded us how much of a problem obesity is in the US.  We saw couples having wedding pictures taken everywhere. That symbolized hope and optimism.

Poland acknowledged its history, that its major cities had been 1/4 to 1/3 Jewish until World War II. The monuments and memorials were in very public places throughout Warsaw and Krakow. And Auschwitz and Birkenau are chilling and life-altering places to visit. Having just been at the concentration camps, it made the current situation in Gaza strikingly clear: when you are dealing with an enemy unwilling to recognize your right to exist, you have to take those threats deadly seriously. Having also been to Dachau, I think we may be done with concentration camp visits though.

It was a pleasure visiting a European country that wasn’t outrageously expensive. Our most expensive dinner was $70. Our SIM cards cost $5 each. Poland is very affordable.

I think we are now done with bringing a separate GPS. This was our 2nd trip that we used Waze on my phone as our navigator, and it worked perfectly. Where we travel light clothes-wise, taking just a weekender suitcase, my backpack weighs too much. So I’m looking at all the equipment I haul around to lighten the load.

I hope you enjoyed traveling along with us. We don’t have a next big trip planned at this point. Our upcoming move will take much of our attention (and money) in the near future. We have committed to a 30th anniversary trip in December 2015 to Cuba. But there will be trips before that!


Day 8: Cemetery Visit & Return to Warsaw

Today was a logistics day to get back to Warsaw for our return flights tomorrow.

We started with another walk through Zakopane, this time to visit the Cmentarz na Pęksowym Brzysku cemetery. Next to a church that dates back to 1841, it has some amazing wooden tombstones. Take a look!


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We then started the 5 hour drive back to Warsaw. For lunch, we stopped at the Fashion House Outlet Center in Sosnowiec, really only because it was at an exit that had the food sign on the highway. We ate a not so great meal at the food court, but I did happen to find a Polish soccer jersey at the Nike Outlet Mall, which adds to my collection from Barcelona, Argentina and a Ireland rugby jersey. It is the only souvenir I look for anymore.

Just after 6pm, we made it to the Warsaw Airport. We are staying for free using Marriott points at the Courtyard here, so that we have it easy making our flight at 12:25pm tomorrow. We executed the fun ballet of checking into the hotel and bringing our luggage up, returning the car, taking the Europcar shuttle to the airport, then buying bus tickets to take the 175 back into Warsaw.

We found a modern Polish restaurant, Opasly Tom in town. I had spinach and ricotta ravioli, Ellen had pasta and boar. We had lody (ice cream) one last time, and took the bus back to the hotel.

We’ve had a great trip, Ellen did her usual phenomenal job of planning the itinerary and selecting the hotels. I’ll share my thoughts on Poland in a post soon.

 


Day 7: Salt Mine and Zakopane

Time to leave Krakow, a city that we liked very much.

First stop today was the Wielicka Salt Mine. It is on the UNESCO World Cultural & Natural Heritage list. It has been in operation for over 700 years and made Polish kings rich. It has miles and miles of corridors, salt sculptures, lakes, even a chapel. Even with all that, we weren’t that impressed. It is no longer an active salt mine, it is just a tourist attraction. We took the tour, almost 3 hours, and it was interesting, but we agreed that it is a sight that could be skipped. But hey, we did get to see a salt Saint Pope John Paul II.

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Next was the drive to Zakopane, a resort town in very southern Poland, near the border with Slovakia. At times, we thought we might never get there, we ran into rain, construction, one lane bridges and a train crossing. But just before 4, we arrived. We are staying at the Great Hotel Stamary, a spa and resort. And for the first time on this trip, we relaxed. As soon as we got there, we went down to the pool, jacuzzi and sauna and relaxed. Might even have dozed off in a chair for a few minutes. It was very nice.

We then walked through town. Mountains to see, people too. And we heard no English except between each other and when we ordered our food. Lots of tourists, but it was all Poles. Dinner was at Dobra Kasza Nasza, and we had groats! We had to look up on Google what a groat was. I enjoyed my pumpkin and turkey groats a little more than Ellen did her meatball groats. But it was an experience! Then some wandering along the pedestrian street to people watch and back to our hotel. An easy day for us.

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Day 6: Auschwitz, Birkenau and Krakow

We got up very early and were ready to leave the hotel around 6:45am. We knew breakfast didn’t start until 7, so we expected to miss out. When we went to the front desk to pick up the car keys, they invited us down to breakfast, had us help ourselves and gave us coffee/tea in to-go cups. Just awesome. The early start was for Auschwitz and Birkenau. We wanted to get there before the crowds and the heat. And we did. It was about an hour’s drive to Auschwitz. I published some pictures from each place earlier, Auschwitz and Birkenau. First part of the experience was at the WC when some American Jews came down. On the 1 zloty charge (33 US cents) for the bathroom? “First they kill us, then they charge us to pee.” Like Polish girl working there also a Nazi.

I added no commentary to the pictures, because they need none. But here where my takeaways on what we saw:

  • The numbers. The sheer numbers. At the 2 camps, 1.1 million people were murdered. Almost 1 million were Jews, from as far away as Norway, Greece and France.
  • The Nazis were economical though. They shaved heads either before or after gassing, selling the hair for 1/2 mark per kilo to textile factories, who made blankets and German war uniforms out of them.
  • The trunks. With names, cities, dates on them. The Jews clearly expected to be relocated, but expected to live.
  • The camps were never intended for the detainees to survive. Food rations for those put to hard labor were insufficient, so you’d work hard and die anyway.
  • Birkenau is where you got off the train and were selected for work or death. Hard to say what you should have preferred.
  • Warming sight: we heard a noise when walking back from the “sauna.” Wasn’t sure what it was at first. But turned out to be Israeli young man, arms joined in a circle, singing.

Everyone should go to Auschwitz. EVERYONE. It is chilling, unbelievable and yet real.

We drove back to town. Tried out a milk bar for lunch. Cheap and filling, eating like the Polish! We then walked up to the cathedral. It’s referred to as the Westminster Abbey of Poland. Worth the climb up the hill, even though it was 30°C today, way hotter than we were expecting! DSC_0347 We decided to go to the Schindler factory next, but splurged and took a cab ($10) instead of walking in the heat. The factory is now a museum, and told the story of Krakow and World War II with words, sounds and pictures, while also telling the true Schindler story. It was worth it. We walked back to our hotel in stages, stopping first in the Jewish quarter, also known as Kazimierz. Walking back, we stumbled upon the Plac Bohaterów Getta (Ghetto Heroes Square), which has an interesting display of chairs representing the loss of the Jews (and their belongings). DSC_0358     There are several synagogues, cemeteries and restaurants. Although it was this house that stopped us in our tracks. DSC_0364   Dinner was at an Italian restaurant just off the main square. Great meal, and it totaled $21 with tip. Crazy.


Day 6: Birkenau

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Day 6: Auschwitz

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Day 5: Krakow

It was about a 4 hour drive from Lublin to Krakow. It isn’t that far, it’s just that there are no equivalents to interstate highways here. The speed limits ranged from 90kph to 30. Lots of speeding up and slowing down, stopping for lights, passing and being passed.

We are staying at a great hotel (when does Ellen not book great places?), the Hotel Grodek.  It is maybe a 3 minute walk to the main square. We did a Rick Steves walking door, went into the churches, saw so many weddings, wedding picture photo shoots and even a christening. Poland is alive with young people. We stopped for beer and soda in the afternoon, then walked around the castle grounds.

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The hotel made us dinner reservations at a restaurant just around the corner, the Kogel Mogel. We shared a salmon tartare appetizer, then Ellen had spare ribs and I had duck. We walked back up to the square to see it at night. Just beautiful!

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