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There’s No Place Like Poland

There’s No Place Like Poland

MalborkCastle

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!


  • Ian Waugh

    Holy Pics :)… Beautiful place! Poland is also having an oil field boom like the northeast United States.. Say hi to Halliburton over there :)

  • Bryan Waugh

    Couple of photo comments: 1) The “beds” you see slept up to 6 people on each level. There were more than 700 prisoners kept in a 7,000 sqft building. 2) The “burning” photo is one of 2 photos snuck by prisoners at Birkenau; it’s of the Nazis burning bodies after they were pulled from the gas chambers. I took a picture of the picture.

  • Bryan Waugh

    Ian, thanks for your comments! Great to hear from you on almost every post :-) Glad someone’s reading this stuff :-) Take care cuz!

  • Mama Waugh

    Wonderful blog and photos…very informative and you are looking good Kristin. I would love to see all of the gnomes :) Yes, I was in your favorite store and saw all of these see-through tops, but I assumed that one is supposed to wear a tank or something underneath….maybe not…lol

  • Gerald & Vanessa

    Awesom blog Kristin, not only is it interesting reading about you guys travels, it’s educational as well. It brought back memories of our travels in Poland. Bryan, the photos are breathe taking!

  • Dad Munch

    Great blog. Poland is a unique country. The sign over Auschwitz, “Arbeit Macht Frei”, is very ironic because it means “work sets you free”.

    • Kristin Waugh

      Wow! I was wondering what that sign meant – that’s crazy!

  • Mama Munch

    Powerful images of such a sad, sad time in history. That must have been a very difficult thing for you and Bryan to see. We need to never forget that those horrible atrocities happened.
    Kristin, don’t be jumping on that see-threw fashion bandwagon. Bryan, stop creeping.
    Love your blogs full of fascinating facts and the pictures bring all your words to life. Love & miss you guys

  • Mama Munch

    Oops. I mean see through.

  • Kelly Waugh

    Kristin, I gotta ask…do you take notes while yall are traveling and touring all of these places? Or do you just remember all of the details and history? :o) Awesome job guys!! Love and miss yall!!

    • Kristin Waugh

      Hey Kelly! Thanks! I wish I had the memory to remember all those numbers. I can barely remember which country I’m in each day! :-) We take notes and pics of signs and then I look up more info about things online afterwards. Hope you had fun jet skiing! Love and miss you and all your boys! xoxo :-)

  • Joyce King

    Wow! What an interesting blog. I couldn’t keep from crying while I was reading about how those people were treated. I knew some of it, but we really don’t know a lot of the things that were done to them. How can someone be so evil? The way you write makes it seem like I’m right there. Very interesting. By the way, Miley Cyrus just got that hair-do that you described. I wonder if she got it from Poland. Have fun and keep on blogging. Love it! Joyce

    • Bryan Waugh

      Thanks Joycee! Kristin barely scratched the surface in her blog. It was unreal to read and see some of the stuff we did.

  • grandma

    Very very interesting blog.Lots of happy memories and many sad.I remember hearing about all the torture when I was quite young.I feel like I’m traveling the world with you.Wonderful photo’s.Keep up the good work and I know it has to be time consuming for you doing these blogs.Miss you.

  • Kimberly Fogarty

    I rather take your history class than the ones I did in grade school/college. I had to read this blog twice to make sure I captured all the detail that you put into the post. WOW- speechless! Great job and nice photos Bryan. See you all next month!

  • Aaron Silins

    Wow! another great blog from the world wandering Waugh’s!! I look forward to one day walking in your footsteps and enjoying the world as you 2 are. Your blogs are one of the few things I look forward to while im out to sea!

  • Ashley

    Honestly, I’ve never really thought much about Poland, but this definitely makes me want to visit!

  • Mary & Milton

    inside joke…..WHOO! Dancing Debbie…She aint my mama!!! miss yall. later

    • Kelly Waugh

      Hahahaha!!! I still want to meet Dancing Debbie!! :o)

  • Erik Waugh

    Hey where are the pictures Bryan took for me?! This fashion style needs to make it to the USA asap! :)

  • Ted

    Hi Kristin,
    Nice to hear that you enjoyed your visit to Poland and sampled pierogi and other ethnic foods. When I don’t travel to remote areas, I visit Poland and stay with my friends in Gdansk, Warsaw, Krakow and Cieszyn. This summer I have been traveling in Canada, Montana, Wyoming and Arizona. Now I’m resting and planning my next trip. I enjoy reading your stories. Keep on trekking. The world is beautiful. Ted

    • Kristin W.

      Hi Ted,
      We really loved Poland, as you could probably tell! That’s great that you get to visit often. Sounds like an awesome trip last summer – we hope to make it through more of the US and into Canada someday soon. What will your next trip be? Take care and thanks for following our travels! :-)

  • Ted

    Hi Kristin,
    I was thinking about taking a trip in May 2013 on a private yacht (97ft) to Galapagos; but this particular yacht takes onl6y 15 people and does not stop at the Komodo Island to see Komodo Dragons. Now I’m undecided whether I should travel to Galapagos or wait and travel to Argentina and Antarctica in January 2014.
    When I was in Grand Tetone, I was climbing and fractured my left wrist (noting serious). I should be OK in 6 more weeks. Take good care of your health and be careful while traveling. Ted

    • Kristin W.

      Wow! That sounds incredible! I love the Galapagos and hope to go back someday soon. I didn’t know there were Komodo Dragons nearby. Don’t they also live somewhere in the South Pacific? Argentina and Antarctica are amazing, too, so that’s a tough choice!
      I’m sorry to hear about your wrist. I hope you are feeling better soon!
      Keep us posted on your future trips and thanks for following us! :-)

  • Erin Wederbrook Yuskaitis

    Incredible post. I had no idea that Poland had such colorful buildings! I love learning about each country’s history, even though some is painful and heart-wrenching. Thanks for showing both sides in a respectful manner. I can’t wait for these blog posts to become a book!

  • Agness

    Believe me or not, but although I come from Poland and been travelling there a lot, I’ve never visited Krakow. It’s definitely one of the most beautiful places in Poland which offers a great variety of sightseeing spots. I can’t wait to get back home next month so I can catch up with travelling!

    • Kristin W.

      That’s funny you say that, Agness! I’m actually back in the USA right now (San Francisco/Napa Valley, California) and we are looking forward to being back on the East Coast this summer to explore our own region more!

      Taking a road trip around the US and Canada last summer with our dogs and visiting family and friends we hadn’t seen in decades was wonderful. As were the National Parks in North America.

      Safe, Happy Travels!!! :-)

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