- The country went through unimaginable horrors in the 20th century. World War II took a terrible toll on Poland and its people, and then they had to deal with decades under Soviet influence. This is a land with sad sad stories. They are visible everywhere on the streets in Warsaw – including the plaques on the walls of buildings in the main streets recording massacres by the Nazis, the haunting memorial that was the HQ and grave of the fighters of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and is built from the rubble of the street, the signs indicating the location of the Ghetto Wall, the infamous prison and the domineering communist-era building overlooking the city (the Palace of Culture and Science).
- And of course, we can never forget Auschwitz-Birkenau.
- The Church. Catholicism has survived intact in Poland, and churches abound. (Though sadly, they are not always aesthetically pleasing.) From Poland, Pope Jean Paul II (Karol Józef Wojtyła) was the first non-Italian pope since 1523, and statues – both good and bad (clearly depending on the budget) – of him are everywhere.
- Handbag heaven. I thought I would buy an Italian leather handbag when in Italy. I learned early the most important sentence in Italian: “Quanto costa questa borsa?” (How much is that handbag?) But I’m not much of a shopper when I am travelling, and when my friend from Warsaw visited us in Puglia, I was lamenting the fact I still had not purchased my Italian handbag. “Don’t!” she advised. “Buy it in Poland. There are good, leather, handbags at very reasonable prices.” She was right …
- Chopin. I have played a lot of Chopin on the piano. And though I didn’t get time to visit the Chopin museums in Warsaw, it was a special pleasure to visit his birthplace on a Sunday afternoon. The large gardens are beautiful to stroll through, and you can sit on a bench and listen to Chopin piano pieces on speakers. It was packed with people, to my friend’s surprise. Which brings me to the next item …
- Autumn colours. We realised, after leaving Chopin’s birthplace and visiting a palace a few miles down the road, that this is what the locals do in October, much as we visit the tulips in Wellington’s gardens in spring (and starved as we are of autumn colours in our green city). According to a new friend who helped us understand the entrance fees, once a year the locals visit beautiful gardens, and take in the sheer gorgeousness of the autumn colours. Couples strolled, or sat in a golden haze reading. friends chatted arm in arm, and children played in the leaves. The light changed the colours, from green to yellow to orange, red and brown, as we moved around the estate. And as dusk fell, it was time to leave.
- Krakow. It deserves its reputation as a highlight of Poland. There is real rivalry between Krakow and Warsaw – the locals believe there is a reason that the train to Warsaw leaves from the most distant platform at the station! Krakow was the capital before Warsaw, and escaped destruction in WWII. Its Old Town is therefore beautiful, its Castle remains intact, the ghetto and Schindler’s factory remain. One of the oldest universities in the world provides plenty of students who enliven the square (flash mobs dancing or rollerblading in the evening) and are a plentiful supply of English-speaking labour for the tourist industry.
- Warsaw. It’s the poor cousin to Krakow in tourist terms, and so is often left off visitor itineraries. Unfortunately the most picturesque town square was being maintained when we were there, but the reconstruction of the Old Town is extraordinary, and conveyed, to me, an extraordinary spirit of both pride in their past, and hope for the future. That hope is now obvious in this vibrant city; the home of Copernicus (The husband can vouch for the Science Museum) and Chopin, with beautiful parks, a castle, interesting and inspiring museums, it is well worth a visit.
- Stay in a castle. When it is cold, because castles should be cold, and the roaring fires in the bar are cosy. Preferably it should be haunted too. Just because. Our castle, in the lakes district and near Hitler’s wartime HQ, also gave us the opportunity to stay in a small village, and to see some of the countryside.
- Time. You need more than two weeks to do credit to Poland. We spent five days in Krakow, three days in the beautiful lake district, and seven days in Warsaw. We didn’t get to Gdansk, or unfortunately to Schwersenz, the town near Poznan where The Husband’s great-grandmother was born, before she set off at the tender age of 18 to migrate to New Zealand. So maybe, one day, we might have to go back.
I wiped my eyes. The temperatures in Warsaw were plummeting by the day. The chill wind stung my eyes, and caused them to water. We shivered in our layers, and lightweight coats -the Poles, more sensibly, were quickly into their winter woollies, hats, boots, and scarves. It didn’t stop us sightseeing though, and led by our friend we had no choice but to keep up a rapid pace. The town centre of Warsaw, destroyed in the war by the German occupying force, was completely rebuilt in the years following, and is a beautiful sight. We were privileged to get a private tour through the heritage museum with the son of one of the architects, showing us his father’s work, and talking about the process of reconstruction. Of course, this occurred during the Soviet era, so it wasn’t without difficulties, and his father ended up being forced to escape to Australia. In fact, he said that many people in Poland (non-Jews and persecuted minorities of course) consider the Soviet era to have been more difficult than the war years.
I wiped my eyes. For hours I had been straining them in an effort to see the deer we had been promised. But after three days in a car over the weekend, and into our third hour on the train south, the deer were proving to be elusive. The fellow travellers in our compartment, an American couple, suggested we admit defeat. They too were tiring of looking. And of course, as is the way of things, soon six or seven deer appeared at the edge of a cornfield, skittishly running off as the train sped past. I sat back and relaxed, satisfied.
It had been a good weekend. A four hour drive from Warsaw, our friends had planned the trip and we were only too happy to leave the decisions to them. We found ourselves sleeping in a haunted (supposedly) castle, though the ghost did not show itself, eating and drinking in quaint restaurants and old SS barracks, shivering at Hitler’s headquarters (the Wolf’s Lair), squishing through a marsh in search of Europe’s largest swan colony, smiling at a newly married Polish couple and their guests celebrating outside the church and loudly honking their horns as they drove round and around the village, sighing at the utter beauty of the lake district in full autumn colours, and snapping photos at the (unstaffed) Russian border. The countryside in Poland proved to be an unexpected pleasure, with rolling hills, beautiful tree-lined (albeit slow) roads, and soft, autumn light.
And now we were on the train to Krakow, former capital of Poland, and a beautiful city undamaged (physically) by the Second World War. The town square is large and beautiful, and even in the October chill it throngs with tourists. Wawel Castle overlooks the Old Town, and churches appear every street or two. University students (there are 120,000 in the city) form flashmobs, roller blading around the square in the evening, and square dancers entertain under the gaze of the old church. There are endless churches and museums, a rare Da Vinci to ogle, and plenty of history to keep you amused. If the Husband annoys, you can even send him to the Salt Mine (though you might find it interesting yourself, even if the final ride to the top in an industrial lift is a bit too claustrophobic for my liking).
Just down the street from our hotel is the Jewish quarter, now a bustling area with restaurants and clubs, and the Old Synagogue. And across the river you will find the infamous former Jewish ghetto, streets that look familiar from countless documentaries and movies. And at the edge of the former ghetto is Schindler’s factory, now a museum telling the story of the Jews in Krakow, and of the factory and its workers.
No first-time visit to Krakow though is complete without visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau. It seemed appropriate to be there on a cold, gloomy day. The sights again are familiar, as are many of the stories and much of the information. But standing there, taking in the sheer magnitude of the horror, seeing the barracks and execution sites, walking through a gas chamber, past the train tracks where selections occurred, walking over the cobblestones – approximately 1.2 million representing the lives lost there – and imagining what it must have felt like, is indescribable.
I wiped my eyes.