Poland – Best Kept Secret
Lynne Potts visits four cities – Warsaw, Gdansk, Wroclaw & Krakow – on a peripatetic tour of Poland
Why Poland? friends asked, visibly shocked. Do you have relatives there or do you just like to waste vacation time? My reasons were so vague I usually didn’t answer. But I had a strong feeling, after reading some history, that Poland would be a fantastic place to visit. Now, having just returned from a train and peripatetic tour of the country, I’d have no hesitation in saying Poland is not only beautiful and charming, but interesting, disturbing and inspiring in a way that is rarely found in one country you can comfortably visit in ten days.
Think about this. The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was the largest political entity in Europe for almost 200 years, and yet it was essentially wiped off the map for more than a century. Poland served as the bread basket for Western countries during the 16th and 17th centuries but the noble class greedily dominated and left peasant farmers to penury in the 18th. In the 19th, Poland fell prey to neighboring aggressors (Russia, Prussia and Hapsburg Austria) that partitioned it and took possession until the early 20th when the country had a brief reunification after World War I. In the turmoil after World War II, however, Poland was swallowed up once again — this time by the gobbling Soviet Union. Finally in 1989, the country won its independence for good. It has been heroically rebuilding and restoring itself as a nation ever since.
I had heard Poland had several beautiful cities as well as quiet, scenic villages that are irresistibly pleasant, but I knew also, that it had not tried to erase the horrors of what occurred during the 1930s and 40s. After all, Poland was site for some of the most heinous crimes in all of human history. I wanted to see this dark side of Polish history as well as its obvious beauty.
During my ten days in Poland I saw four cities: the capital, Warsaw; Gdansk, port city on the Baltic Sea; Wroclaw, ancient seat of the first Polish kings; and Krakow, gem city of Polish art and culture. Between these I took various trains from whose windows in spacious second class compartments I could look out on fields and farms, forests and villages as we wound our way though the countryside.
Happily, Poland is not tourist ridden all the time – and finding accommodations is not difficult. I used a combination of guidebooks and the internet to find places to stay. With possibilities in all price ranges, I tried to find those closest to the center-of-town. I had no problem booking on line and quickly secured the Polonia Palace only blocks from the Old Town and major museums for my first night in Warsaw. The hotel had the added advantage of being close to trolleys that went out to areas where people lived. I took a couple of these to see apartments and single-family homes in nearby neighborhoods. Not luxuriously, for sure, but comfortable, as was apparent from the condition of buildings, houses, and parks.
My favorite way to travel is to get the “lay of the land” on a city map and then to “play it by ear” – walking the streets, eating in local restaurants and watching people in public squares and cafés. I always have a book and the proverbial notebook so I can watch people without being too conspicuous. Sometimes I’m lucky, like I was with a waiter in a Krakow restaurant who recognized me as an American and wanted to talk. He had come to Poland as a student on a year abroad and married a Polish girl who came to the states for a while but wanted to go back home. “Poland’s great,” he said, “so much calmer and more relaxed than the U.S. I like it here — and the culture is catching up with Western styles. But I probably won’t stay forever. People are different here.”
For one thing, they are more serious — as well they may be after their history of invasion and occupations. But they are also invariably polite and responsive to questions. Furthermore, there are very few places where one would think to protect a backpack or purse. I left my day pack behind once when I stopped to sketch something in a Krakow museum and an hour later had it returned by a clerk at the desk who said someone had found it and brought it to her. It had all my papers and money intact.
The cities I visited were all walk-able, though each with a character that was distinctively different from the next. The one feature common to all, however, is a large open square in the center of the original town from which the rest of the city radiates. These squares, generally lined with shops and eating establishments on the street level, and with offices and housing above, offer a geographic center from which the visitor can venture out and explore.
Krakowskie Przedmieście, Warsaw’s wide and elegant avenue leading to Old Town is lined with shops and monuments (most notably Copernicus and the great Polish poet, Adam Mickiewicz), ending at the Royal Castle, seat of the kings of Poland until 1791. Do not be deceived, however, by the sculpted 17th century facades of the buildings inside the walls of Old Town; 85 percent of Warsaw was burned, bombed, or otherwise gutted by the Germans during World War II. Warsaw Poles, determined to preserve the memory of its pre-war grandeur, have rebuilt the area to be a near-exact replica of the original. Using family photos, press pictures, government images and anything else available, builders raised old homes and buildings from the ashes to become dwellings that mirror the architectural detail (down to paint colors) of the past.
From Warsaw, we headed north on an overnight train to Gdansk. Situated along the Motlawa River less than a mile from the Baltic Sea, the city wall runs along the river’s edge with massive brick arches opening to market streets, the central square and residential areas where you can walk to find eating places and sites to see – most notably, its churches. Gdansk has seven massive brick churches in all, each one meticulously maintained as current places of worship. St. Mary’s, the predominating one begun in the early 14th century, is said be the largest brick structure (including castles) in Europe.
The day I strolled Gdansk, the weather was sunny and crisp, and the yellows, pale greens, blues and pinks of Old Town houses almost glittered in the sun. Most all restaurants feature local cod fish and pike; shops feature amber. In fact, the Amber Museum is one of the city’s highlights, showing the origins, qualities, varieties and infinite number of uses amber has as jewelry, utensils, dishes, sculptures, wall carvings, tool handles, etc. My favorite was an exquisite amber goblet about six inches tall, and a display case with scores of amber-ized bugs.
Gdansk was so sunny I decided to take one of its fake Viking Ships up the Motlawa to where other tourists and could disembark and walk to a small beach along the Baltic Sea. On the way we passed dozens of giant metal cranes loading and unloading wares to the Gdansk shipyards made famous when 17,000 workers struck against the Communist government in 1980. The Shipyard Museum, a fifteen minute walk from Old Town chronicles how the strike sparked a resistance in Central Europe that finally led to the collapse of Communism in 1989. It’s not to be missed.
It took almost seven hours to reach Wroclaw from Gdansk by train. This south-western city, established in the ninth century by a Slavic tribe, became the seat of the first Polish king in 1025. I spent my first day there walking around the spectacular Rynek (city square) with its 900 year old Ratusz (town hall) and high-end shops (where I bought a luxurious linen tablecloth for my daughter.) The castle-like Ratusz serves as a museum for the region, with paintings, furnishings, murals and special collections from the past. I was fortunate that my visit coincided with a special collection of porcelain art all the way from early French decorative bowls and figurines to sculpture by Salvadore Dali and Andy Warhole. A rare retrospective treat!
I had also wanted to go to Wroclaw to visit the legendary wooden church in nearby Swidnica. It was a miserable rainy morning when I took the bus to this sleepy little town, but once again, well worth the trip for Polish history and revelations about contemporary attitudes and culture. The town is a another example of the determination with which Poles have rebuilt since World War II and Soviet occupation. Streets are clean, houses and apartment buildings freshly painted, and parks made attractive with flowers and fountains. Teenagers getting on the bus outside of town were loaded with books on their way to school. I watched an old man walk from the market with a bag potatoes and a mother with a child on each side carrying a bag of groceries into a low-rise apartment building near the central square. Life as usual.
The protestant church I had come to see was built in the 17th century when the region (Selesia) was under Roman Catholic domination. Protestant church construction was allowed only if the church was made entirely of wood, lacked a steeple or belfry, and was completely built within a year. Which is exactly what was accomplished. But the surprising thing is that the church is vast, seating hundreds and displaying elaborate Biblical paintings on the walls and vaulted ceiling. This church and one like it at Jawor are now preserved by United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as an architectural phenomena unique to the region.
I had to wait in the rain until the church opened so I headed for a small guard house nearby only to run into a man in a parka and rain gear waiting as well. “Where are you from?” he asked in English with a distinctly Polish accent. When I told him New York, he said his home was Swidnica, but now he lived in Queens! He comes back periodically to visit but this time to get dental work done as it’s much cheaper in Poland. He’s an avid outdoorsman, he said, camping in parks when he comes back. “Swidnica is known for the church, of course, but there’s lots more to learn about,” he said. “This city has 29 underground shelters and arsenals built for the Nazis by thousands of prisoners who died of starvation or exhaustion doing the work. There are underground tunnels used by Nazis for going back and forth to Germany in another town 15 miles away from here.”
I found the Polish people straightforward in business dealings, and honest – but on that bus trip back to Krakow that morning the driver, who gets paid in hand when you board the bus, short-changed me. When I noticed it, I showed him what he had returned, and asked him for the full return which he promptly did. An Australian across the aisle leaned across to tell me that that sort of thing happens a lot on buses and in small towns, but not much in the cities where the government emphasizes the value of tourist income.
Krakow, a good three-hour ride from Wroclaw, is regarded as Poland’s jewel in the crown. Often praised as comparable to the Czech Republic’s Prague for its beauty, Krakow flourishes as a lively modern city while retaining the charm of one that has been around for thirteen centuries. It is enough just to sit in one of the many outdoor restaurants or cafes lining the Rynek Glowny (city square) to be amused for hours, but you can walk in any direction to find attractive shops, galleries, museums, and churches worth visiting. Right in the middle of the Rynek is the 14th century Cloth Hall, ancient indoor market place with stalls showing off Polish fineries, especially jewelry (more amber) leather goods and fashion accessories.
I took a afternoon to wander the streets near the Academy of Fine Arts where I found galleries with contemporary work as well as older pieces, most notably work by the famous 19th century Polish painter Matejko. Hearing music from upper windows of a building near the Academy, I ventured in to see what was going on. A group of young artists were hosting an exhibition and were only too eager to show me their work. All spoke English, by the way. I also visited the fascinating Pharmacy Museum — five floors in a medieval home off the Rynek with displays of old medicines, vials, bandages, prophylactics, and faux cures from the distant and not-so-distant past. The polished wood chests and cabinets for powders and potions alone made it worth the trip, but I was most fascinated with glass ware and various measuring and weighing equipment. It was all riveting.
Of course everywhere you go in Poland, you are aware of the devastation wrought by the Nazis on the Polish people during World War II. I spent an afternoon in the Jewish Quarter visiting synagogue ruins, memorials, and the Jewish cemetery to begin my journey into this past, but sobering as that was, I did not feel the full impact of the monstrous Nazi cruelties until I went by bus to Aushwitz and Birkenau’s concentration camps. There, tour guides lead us through the frail wooden dormitories where thousands of Jewish adults, elders, teens and little children either starved to death or collapsed under the brutal work and living conditions. The mind and heart refuses to believe it, but there it is, in all its hideous detail. Though hard to endure, if you visit Poland, you must go to the camps to feel the enormity of what suffering millions endured.
I felt the same about the Warsaw Uprising Museum. I took the last day after Krakow to make the leisurely trip by train back to the capital city and to see what I had missed first time around. The highlights of that brief visit was a trip to New Town (older than Old Town as it is original buildings) and the Uprising Museum. The latter’s vast display in an old tramway power station chronicles, with a barrage of media (rifles and guns, an airplane, soldier uniforms, military equipment, videos, photographs, broadcasts, posters, fliers, and movies) the famous attempt that Warsaw Poles made to throw off their German occupiers in 1944. Over 6, 000 people were killed in that effort, and though it failed without promised Russian support, it shows the overwhelming determination of a people trying to repossess their homeland after years of oppression.
The Poles were the first in Europe to have a national constitution, and one of the only European countries to tolerate religious differences at all levels of society. I was glad to see, on this visit, how they have finally prevailed. In fact, one the greatest rewards of visiting Poland is seeing how its people have bravely acknowledged the painful defeats of its past, but have, in many ways recovered much of the country’s past glory.
Originally published in Online Travel Journal.