I just got back from a two-week trip traveling throughout Poland. Yup, you read that correctly. Poland. I've gotten many quizzical looks, and even questioning natives asking why I chose Poland for a long vacation. The short answer is I have always wanted to go due to my largely Polish ancestry. That, coupled with my mounting desire to explore more of Eastern Europe after I fell in love with Prague (my only prior experience in the general area), led Michael and I to book a 16-night adventure in this country. These ten moments/places/things left an impact on me and convinced me that Poland is such an underrated destination for tourists. So when are you planning to visit Poland?!
Here are the top ten things (in no particular order) that stood out to me on my trip:
1. My First Plate of Pierogi
If you are familiar with this Polish dish, you should know that it is unlikely you have experienced a true pierogi in all its greatness outside of Poland. If you have never seen the word pierogi before, let me explain. They are dumplings - dough pockets filled with a variety of things, often meat, potato, cheese, cabbage, mushrooms, or even fruit fillings for dessert. We tried a diverse sampling during our trip prepared different ways: the traditional boiled, pan-fried, oven-baked. All delicious. Though the most memorable was the first time I ate pierogi in Poland.
We arrived in Krakow hungry and excited to experience Polish cuisine. I couldn't just walk into the first restaurant we passed by. Instead, I dragged Michael to a seemingly hidden restaurant called U Babci Maliny. Meet Grandma Maliny:
There are two locations in Krakow, but we went to the harder to find location of course. You enter the Polish Skills Academy which feels like a building you shouldn't enter and wander through, but you do it anyway. You walk straight back and take a left through the courtyard, where you finally see a restaurant sign pointing down. You descend the stairs, follow the corridor to the right, and open a wooden door...and enter into this bizarre wooden house of sorts, complete with an aquarium in the middle and pictures of athletes lining the walls. No matter though. Just like an eclectic grandma's house, it may be full of odd knickknacks but the thing that really matters is the food. And oh, grandma can cook.
One bite into these pan-fried pierogi and it was like I never had really eaten a pierogi before. Certainly among the best of the trip, although there were numerous ones that followed. But I will always remember that first experience as an introduction to just how wonderful Polish food is.
2. The Perserverance of Warsaw
I felt like I couldn't plan a trip through Poland and neglect its capital city, though it sounded like many past travelers were much more enthralled by charming Krakow rather than modern Warsaw. Yes, it was full of modern skyscrapers. Outside of the rebuilt old town section, it lacked that pretty European Old World face. But then I learned about the city's recent history which changed my perspective completely.
I'm not sure if I just wasn't paying attention in history class or it wasn't mentioned in the large scheme of the World War II history we were taught (which I'm more inclined to believe), but I never knew about the Warsaw Uprising of 1944. Let me break it down for you:
The Nazis had taken over Poland and the Russians were advancing from the east. The Polish Underground Home Army decided to fight back against the Nazis to liberate themselves before the Russians arrived so they could be free again and not ruled by either country. Oversimplified, gruesome fighting raged through the city for 63 days. A city of over 1 million people lost 200,000 civilians during this time frame. Just to give you an idea of some of the tactics the Nazis used, they would do things like go into a hospital and kill everyone - the injured, nurses, doctors. Throw bombs in the sewer pipes because that was the safest place for people to get around the city at that point.
Warsaw was pretty much completely wiped out by the end of the war. After the destruction during the uprising, the Nazis went through and systematically destroyed what was left of the city.
Walking through Warsaw and understanding its bloodstained history, I could look past the design of the city. It's a city that's been deeply scarred but not defeated. The present and the future is filled with hope as it moves forward. And when you get that, Warsaw becomes a beautiful place.
3. The Beauty of Gdańsk's Ulica Długa (Long Street)
Gdańsk was such a pretty city to visit, right alongside the Baltic Sea. It has a history marked with strife like many places in Poland. It's the spot where the Nazis invaded Poland. And also is credited with a place in history as paving the way for the end of communism in Poland and other Eastern European countries. The place I will remember in Gdańsk is one of its main streets, Ulica Długa.
We spent four days in Gdańsk and often walked up and down this street. We stopped by the pastry shop in the morning (Sidenote: do you know how delicious Polish doughnuts are?!), saw the beautiful interiors of Town Hall and Artus Court (a meeting hall), took in some radiant sunsets, and ended one night with a drink outdoors beside cozy heaters. I have so many good memories from this one street.
4. Solidarity in Gdańsk
When I think back on history, I view the end of WWII as turning point for European countries - a victory to celebrate and the start of a rebuilding and healing process. Which is probably true for many countries, but not really for Eastern European countries. In Poland, the war might have ended but times were still tough during communist rule.
In 1970, an increase to prices of food and goods was introduced in Poland right before Christmas. There was already food shortages and such, and the people stood up to the regime with a series of strikes and sit-ins. When they did return to work, workers at the shipyard were greeted by the police and army. Over 40 workers were gunned down in an unprovoked attack. Reading the names and ages of the victims on the wall I was even more disturbed and saddened to see so many under the age of 18.
Thankfully the story doesn't end there. In the nearby Roads to Freedom museum, the entire history is presented. Ten years later a union called Solidarity formed and during a strike, negotiated with the government to gain freedoms. Things did not go smoothly from that point on, but it was the beginning of the Polish people fighting for their rights and freedom. And the monument and museum taught me a whole chapter of Polish history that I was unaware of, and a reminder of how recent these events happened. Poland has certainly come a long way since it gained its freedom.
5. Making Gingerbread in Toruń:
Toruń is a small town in Poland between Warsaw and Gdańsk, known for two things. It boasts that it is the birthplace of famous astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus. (You know, the guy who said that the sun is at the center of the solar system instead of Earth.)
Secondly, and maybe as importantly, it is known for its gingerbread.
Perhaps these two claims to fame give you an idea of how much there is to do in this town. With two full days here and not much tourist sights to check off, I had to at least go to one of cultural "museums": the Muzeum Piernika.
It's not a museum in the way we normally think of one, where you view objects and read plaques. This 16th century gingerbread factory gives a hands-on approach on how gingerbread is made (and has been made for the past 500 years).
The first segment was a group explanation on making the dough. Which is when I got called out to do the final mixing of the dough. Things you should know about this situation: Michael and I were the only non-Polish speakers in the group (though everything was translated into English as well). We were also one of two couples who were not visiting with small children. I got my starring role as the gingerbread batter must be mixed by a woman.
It was a fun and different activity to do whether you're a kid or young at heart. Michael and I rolled out our dough too thin which made it burn a little, so we decided to leave the rest of the gingerbread making to the professionals in Toruń.
6. Remembering Auschwitz
I don't think you can go to Krakow and ignore the decimation of its Jewish population. You can even see part of the ghetto wall still standing in the Podgorze neighborhood.
I am really interested in World War II history, especially the pieces related to Jewish and Holocaust history. I have always been interested in it, and then I found out that an entire branch of my family perished in concentration camps. As morbid and sad as it may sound, I have always felt the need to visit Auschwitz for myself. So I finally made it there.
There really are no words for the experience. It is horrifying, it is heart-breaking, it is deeply moving. It is a story we need to remember, a mark of extreme hatred, elitism, superiority, discrimination, de-humanization. To me there is a bigger picture to keep in perspective. There are still groups of people being killed because of the same evils, the same mindsets. And so the question is, do we collectively acknowledge this or even care?
Anyway, if you are interested in the Holocaust like me, I recommend you read Rena's Promise. It is an incredible story of two sisters who survived despite being among some of the first transported to Auschwitz, enduring over three years there. Just be warned it is emotionally difficult to read.
7. Gnome-hunting in Wroclaw
The city of Wroclaw is so cool. Get this - they have hidden about 250 gnomes all around the city!
Of course, this prompted a full-out gnome spotting competition between Michael and me. Where we lost all decorum and broke out into a full out run in the center of town to be the first to spot some gnomes.
It was a really fun idea for a city to have a running motif throughout the city. It took me a day after leaving Wroclaw to stop looking out for these little statues! (And apparently you can really get into the gnome thing - the official website not only has a map of where they are located but names and descriptions for each!)
8. Poland's Castles
When I think of castles, I envision the many that spring up all over Germany or the vast number of châteaux in France. I had no idea of the caliber of castles in Poland before this trip!
In Warsaw, we visited the Royal Castle. It was beautiful and huge, but most surprisingly, all new. As you can imagine from point #2, nothing was spared during WWII, certainly not a castle. Most of the castle that stands today was rebuilt and it wasn't opened to the public until 1984. It was interesting to be in a historic building, knowing it had been recreated in such recent times yet just as grand as other European castles.
And although the physical structure of the castle was destroyed, much of the interior was saved. Furnishings and art were moved out of the castle and hidden during the war. It was a lovely place to visit.
Then there was Malbork Castle, a little ways south of Gdańsk. Let me just say now that no picture I took accurately captures the immensity of this place. It is the largest brick castle in the world, the largest brick building in Europe, and by surface area, the largest castle in the world.
The castle belonged to the Teutonic Knights, a group from Germany who ruled over a portion of Poland in the Middle Ages.
There was much to see as our audioguide tour led us through building by building, covering a lot of ground in this huge complex. Certainly an impressive castle to get the opportunity to visit!
9. Krakow's Kazimierz Neighborhood
I have to declare, of all the places we went to in Poland, my favorite neighborhood was Krakow's Kazimierz. Kazimierz was the Jewish section of Krakow before the Jews were forced into ghetto. Today it is a lovely mix of synagogues, Jewish cemeteries, and really cool cafes and eateries.
Kazimierz was where we ended many a night in Krakow. There was the candlelit Mleczarnia and the funny and super friendly bartender at Artefakt Cafe who introduced us to a drink that tasted exactly like apple pie in liquid form. Accomplished with some vodka, of course. And this place, called Singer, for its sewing machines tables. I just need a few more nights to get to see more of these charming hang-out spots.
Don't think this neighborhood is only for evenings though. The day should start at Bagelmama.
I strongly believe in trying local food when traveling. And let me tell you, I had more than my fair share of wonderful Polish doughnuts. But occasionally when I come across a bagel shop, the Jersey girl in me can't resist trying to get a taste of home. Although I'm quite sure I will never find a bagel that surpasses my favorite place in Jersey, Bagelmama gets the distinction of making the best bagels I have ever had in Europe. And the best breakfast sandwich. In fact, it was the last meal I ate in Poland, and three bagels even made their way back to Paris with us. I probably don't need to explain how good fresh goat cheese and French confiture (jelly) is on a toasted bagel.
10. Descending into the Wieliczka Salt Mine
The Wieliczka Salt Mine, located outside of Krakow, was such a unique sight to visit. A tour guide led our group down 380 steps and through over a mile of tunnels, which is a small percentage of the vast mine. (It would take days to explore the over 178 miles of the mine.)
We learned about the miners and the tough job they had. But the visit isn't just about learning the day-to-day mechanics about mining. There are salt sculptures periodically, underground lakes, and chapels that miners built to be able to pray and ask for protection as they went about doing a very dangerous job.
Here's a look at the huge Chapel of St. Kinga. You are looking at a lot of salt - salt sculptures and carvings, even salt crystals in the chandelier. Mass still takes place in this chapel, and for a price you can even book a wedding down here. It was an incredibly unique experience.
And there you have it - 10 things that I will always remember from my journey through Poland. I am both convinced that this place is underrated as a tourist destination, and that I need to find my way back to visit again!
Have you ever been to Poland? What stood out to you?