I can’t narrow it down to just one aspect, but there’s something I truly love about Poland. Maybe it’s the delicious Pierogies, or the quaint and diverse architecture, or maybe it’s the strength and unity of the Polish people. Poland just has a positive vibe that makes you feel welcome and at home even when you’re very far from yours.
Gdansk was our first stop in Poland. The “G” is silent, so its just “Dansk.” We took an overnight bus from Kanuas, Lithuania which brought back nightmares of the 17 overnight buses we took in South America. Unfortunately, buses here have much less leg room than those in South America. We arrived at 5 a.m. with little to no sleep and I fought hard against my crankiness and impending breakdown. Luckily, Gdansk was a charming city and after a plate of tasty pierogies I was feeling quite content. The city has some charming architecture right on the water, including the largest Medieval crane in Europe. A short 15 minute train ride away is Poland’s version of The Hamptons – Sopot. It’s a trendy beach resort town on the Baltic Sea. In July, it’s filled with European vacationers. The beach wasn’t too shabby and the water wasn’t even very cold. Another great day trip from Gdansk is Malbork, home of the Malbork Castle. Malbork is actually the largest castle in the world and the largest brick building in Europe. The castle was home to the Teutonic Order of the Knights back in the day when Poland was Prussia and the Crusades took place. The castle is so huge that it housed 800-1,000 people, and it took us well over two hours to tour a small portion. The castle was built starting in 1274 and took over 170 years to complete. Unfortunately, about 70% of Malbork Castle was destroyed during World War II but much is rebuilt and restoration is an ongoing process.
There are a lot of things I miss about the U.S. But one thing I don’t miss is the Presidential campaigning that’s happening right now. I vote, but I get tired of hearing all the mud-slinging commercials. It’s one of Bryan’s pet peeves. We haven’t heard much about the election in our little Backpacker bubble so we were surprised to run into Republican Presidential Candidate Mitt Romney in Gdansk, Poland! He was in Poland on a week-long foreign tour that also included the UK and Israel. We turned a corner and there were crowds of eager bystanders, security, and media waiting. We had no idea what was going on but figured it had to be good. The first time we encountered a scene like this was in Austin, Texas and we saw Matthew McConaughey (heck yeah!) and last summer we saw another crowd in Cleveland, Ohio and saw Yankees pitcher Mariano Rivera. I was a little disappointed it wasn’t Matthew McConaughey back to see me again, but it was exciting and unexpected to see Romney. On his way out, I was surprised he didn’t shake hands and kiss babies. I thought that’s what all politicians were supposed to do with an excited group of people. He just gave a quick thumbs-up and hopped in his black, tinted Tahoe. Bryan and I found it hysterical that his secret service was drinking apple juice sippy boxes while they were waiting for him. All they needed were some goldfish crackers and Happy Meals to really look hardcore. When they finished their drinks Bryan said, “Uh oh, Romney must be coming, Secret Service just threw down their sippy cups.”
On this leg of the trip so far, our hostels have been excellent. Those in South America were more hit-and-miss; some were great, some were terrible. All of our Europe hostels have been incredibly clean (and we’re picky about that), comfortable, updated, welcoming, and informative. I actually have been more comfortable staying in them than a lot of hotels! My favorite so far was Mamas and Papas Hostel in Gdansk. The place was nearly brand-new, super clean and comfortable, and had excellent breakfast. The owners were the best part though. You could tell they loved owning a hostel, helping travelers, and meeting people from all over the world. They had Bryan put a tiny Virginia flag on their world map, walked us to the train station, and made us Polish-English flashcards to help us get to Malbork. When Bryan asked for a recommendation of a restaurant with Polish food, they gave us bowls of a homemade traditional summer Polish soup called Chlodnik. It’s bright pink like Pepto Bismol, served cold, and has boiled eggs, yogurt, beets, potatoes, cucumbers, and dill. It was definitely unique, but refreshing.
We debated going to Warsaw, Poland’s capital city. The majority of the city was destroyed in World War II so we didn’t think it would be too great. My dad was just there last month for work though, and he recommended we visit for a day or two. We’re definitely glad we listened to him. For barely planning any of our Europe portion of the trip, we’ve had incredible timing. The day we spent in Warsaw just happened to be the city’s most important date in history – the anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising. On August 1, 1944, the citizens of Warsaw joined together to fight the evil dictatorship of the Nazi regime. Nearly all of Warsaw’s residents joined in, even children acted as couriers, brought drinks, or helped in other ways. Although Warsaw only had a makeshift military, they fought off the powerful Nazis for 62 days (even through countless air strikes from the Nazis). Warsaw put up an impressive fight and even had the upper-hand for awhile. The Warsaw Uprising was originally planned because Warsaw thought that the Soviets would be coming to help them fight against the Nazis (Soviet propaganda told Warsaw to fight). Sadly, though, the Soviet military didn’t help. At Stalin’s orders, the Soviets just sat on the other side of the Wisla River and watched and waited. The Soviets only crossed the river into Warsaw after the city was in ruins. Hitler was so livid after the Warsaw Uprising that he demanded the complete destruction of what was left of the city – leaving 850,000 Warsaw residents dead and 85% of the city destroyed. The Warsaw Uprising was an important display of strength in the face of adversity for the Polish people. 200,000 Polish people bravely sacrificed their lives in the fight. Every year there are ceremonies, parades, memorials and other events to commemorate the anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising.
(Video of what we witnessed)
At 5 p.m. on August 1st (the time when the first shots were fired), the whole city comes to a complete stop for a moment of silence. Buses, trams, pedestrians, bikes, and cars freeze to show their respect. It was a touching moment and definitely something I think we should do in our country to honor all of our Veterans and Soldiers and all those lost on September 11th.
After two overnight buses, I was thrilled to finally have a daytime bus ride to Wroclaw. Overnight buses come in handy because they save you money since you don’t have to pay for accommodation that night. But you definitely don’t get a quality night sleep on a Polish bus. Wroclaw is actually pronounced “Vrot-slav.” The city has over 120 bridges and some refer to it as Poland’s Venice. That’s a bit of a stretch, but Wroclaw is a gorgeous place. The colorful buildings and detailed, varying architecture are extremely impressive. Unlike Gdansk, you don’t have to walk through hoards of other tourists to enjoy Wroclaw’s sites. Be careful where you step though because all through the city their are hundreds of little gnome statues – estimated about 210. The gnomes are doing all sorts of things like fighting fires, reading outside the university buildings, and even pouring shots outside of a popular bar.
As we’ve traveled south through Europe over the last few weeks, we’ve noticed some major changes. Remember how amazed we were in Finland that everyone stops for pedestrians at cross-walks? Well, this doesn’t always happen in Poland. We were walking across a cross-walk in front of our hostel in Wroclaw and a car sped up to go around us so he wouldn’t have to wait. The next car slammed on his brakes to nearly avoid hitting us, and the car after that slammed into the back of that car. I think we will just wait until there are no nearby cars before we cross now. Who knows what the next country’s traffic laws will be. Less and less people seem to speak English as we move south, too.
We’ve also noticed some interesting fashion trends in this region. Starting in Latvia and Lithuania and into Poland we noticed many women with see-through clothing. Shirts, skirts, dresses, whatever. They even go to work with see-through blouses! I’m out of the loop on U.S. fashion trends, but is this common in the States now, too? Bryan definitely doesn’t mind this fashion trend. He tried to get a picture of a girl in a see-through white dress to “show Erik” but it didn’t turn out and he was starting to look pretty creepy. It also appears that it’s popular in Poland for girls to shave portions of their heads. It’s kind of funky because different sections of their hair is long, short, and shaved.
Krakow is Poland’s most popular destination city. And it’s Poland’s only big city that suffered barely any structural damage during World War II (though Polish citizens suffered tremendously). The old city architecture dating back to the 12th century is gorgeous, especially in the main squares where you are surrounded by enormous buildings and a towering church where a bugle-player announces the hour. However, it’s difficult to enjoy the city in the summer because there are hoards of other tourists. Everywhere we walked in the center I felt like we were always in other peoples’ photographs or salespeople were asking us to take a golf-cart tour of the city. There is still much of the medieval city wall surrounding Krakow. Centuries ago, people tore down parts of the wall to use the bricks for other things.
There’s a few reasons why you may have heard of Krakow. Pope John Paul II went to University in Krakow (he was actually very involved in theater in the city). He also served as Archbishop in Krakow before becoming the first non-Italian Pope in 400 years. Krakow is also well-known for being the city where the real-life Oscar Schindler from the movie “Schindler’s List” lived and had his factory. Steven Spielberg and his crew filmed the movie in the city (but many of the scenes were filmed in nicer areas and not where the true Jewish ghetto was). Although the city buildings survived the 1940′s unscathed, the same cannot be said for Polish residents. In fact, many believe that Poland suffered more than any of the other German-occupied countries in Europe during that period. The Nazis focused on eliminating all “Polishness” from the country. They outlawed all Polish companies, associations and unions, restaurants, cafes, publications of all kinds, and churches. Polish citizens of all demographics and religions were murdered. By 1940 Hans Frank already declared, “If I wanted to put up a poster for every seven poles who were shot, the Polish forests would not be enough to produce the paper for such notices.” The distorted Nazi goal was to create an empire of people with only “true German blood.”
About two hours by train from Krakow are the camps of Auschwitz-Birkenau. Of the many concentration camps established by the Nazis, Auschwitz-Birkenau was the largest and most horrific and is now the biggest cemetery in the world. During the years of 1940-1945, at least 1.3 million people were deported to Auschwitz (including 232,000 children). 1.1 million of these people were murdered there. 90% of the murdered were Jewish but there were also other Polish citizens, Roma and Sinti Gypsies, and Soviet Prisoners of War or Prisoners from other Ethnic Groups. The numbers are horrible and astonishing but what really breaks your heart is walking through the hallways and seeing the photographs of the prisoners. Their sorrowful, honest eyes stare at you, pleading for help. Some of the framed photos have flowers left from loved ones. The practice of taking photos of the prisoners was only done in the beginning of Auschwitz so all of these photos are only a small portion of the victims. In one building there are rooms filled with personal belongings from the prisoners. And if their photos don’t break your heart, then these exhibits certainly will. There are enormous glass rooms filled with piles and piles of shoes, glasses, suitcases, kitchenware, and hair. The hair was probably the most disturbing and something we were prohibited from taking photos of. The glassed-in hallway contained mountain-like piles of hair. This hair was from only the women killed in Auschwitz gas chambers and it weighed 4,290 pounds! And hair is so light, so imagine how much hair that was. Much of the hair was actually sold to German textile companies! When prisoners were processed into Auschwitz, (if they weren’t immediately killed) they were stripped of their clothes and belongings and their heads and bodies were shaved with a blunt object. This was particularly humiliating for women because this was done by a group of jeering male soldiers. And keep in mind that these people were separated from their family, cold, wet, shivering, and facing death.
A few minutes from Auschwitz, is Birkenau (also known as Aushwitz II) – the place where most of the murders occurred. There are train tracks that run up to the old compound. When the trains filled with people arrived, the soldiers (with help from the doctor) divided up the people into two groups – those that were fit to work and those that would be killed immediately. To avoid mass panic, those that were sent to the gas chambers to be murdered were told they were going to shower. There were even fake shower heads in the gas chambers. The evil Dr. Josef Mengele also picked out the people that he wanted to experiment on. He was especially fascinated by twins and performed “medical” experiments on 1,500 pairs of twins that came to Auschwitz. He did horrific things such as sewing together twins to make conjoined twins (they died from gangrene) and putting chemicals in peoples’ eyes to try to change the color. We spent nearly 8 hours at Auschwitz-Birkenau and could have spent more time. It’s a heartbreaking place but its important that the truth of what happened be carried on into the future so nothing like this will ever happen again. I have a tremendous amount of respect and sorrow for the populations that suffered during these terrible times. And as you can see, thankfully, strong Poland survived and still retains their wonderful Polishness. And in Krakow, the Jewish population is now growing and thriving.
The Jewish District Kazimierz in Krakow is now one of the most popular areas in the city. There are lots of restaurants, bars, and pubs. There is a section in the center of many of the bars with stalls selling the Polish national snack, Zapiekanka, day and night. Zapiekankas are huge baguettes toasted with cheese and mushrooms and pretty much any topping you want – tons of different vegetables, cheeses, meats, and sauces. They are a cheap, delicious treat!
From Krakow, Poland, we will continue South into the Tatras Mountains to Slovakia. It’s time for some hiking after all of these pierogies!