Can’t say either Chris or I had many preconieved notions of the place – except I somehow felt the general colur scheme would be a yellowish-brown. You know, muted and somber tones of a war-torn post-Communist country.
But I’d wanted to go because my friend Bert had moved there an invited us to visit. As luck would have he & his family are on summer holiday so aren’t even here. But as there are Polish shops popping up all over London, and my beloved vet is Polish – I was still curious.
Our first destination from Berlin was Wroclaw. The train ride was okay, but the fact we were travelling from Berlin on a Friday eve was a bad move – as it seemed everyone was travelling home for the weekend. Everyone rushed the train when it arrived, we were thankful we’d reserved seats! Then transferring in Poznan to our Wroclaw train was difficult, as all the platform monitors were blank. Luckily, Chris asked someone where to go and figured it out. Then another mad dash to push our way onto the train. We managed to squeeze in and get seats, as some elderly ladies took pity on us with our big bags.
We arrived in Wroclaw and walked 1km to our hostel in the rain. Our first taste of dealing with adverse weather whilst carrying 25 kilos (55 lbs) each.
In spite of our semi-rough journey here, Wroclaw is a lovely city. Though most of it was destroyed by the Nazi’s, the town has done a wonderful job restoring all the old churches and buildings to the point that it still looks very antique, and yet very clean at the same time. It’s full of impressive brick-built churches around every corner and in between are 5-story house-like buildings of various pastel shades of peach and yellow.
We had a simple day strolling around The Old Town and climbed up 91 meters to the top of the tower in St. Elizabeth’s Church.
We were both getting really winded, and then saw some 6 year old kid and very elderly gentleman coming down and felt quite ashamed. Lovely view from up there! There was also a nice lady who gave us free use of an English audio guide for inside. The church had burned down so many times, but I guess the people of Wroclaw just kept on rebuilding it. Real faith I guess!
We also visited their very peaceful Botanical Gardens, on one of the sand islands along the river. Being a botanist is a really universal career isn’t it, as all the names of plants are in Latin so are the same in every country. Very cool! The gardens really impressed me as though they were much smaller than the gardens in say Kew near London – there was so much to see as it was all divided into little mini-gardens with themes or climates. I was impressed by one section entirely composed of different grasses. While Chris loved the more formal flower gardens (which were the most English I thought), complete with lily pad pond.
We also made up for my previous mis-ordered meal of raw beef topped with raw egg (Note to self: Communist-themed food = not very nice) by visiting two great places – one vegetarian joint called Wega and Vincent (amazing Polish food, beautiful building and yet cheap!)
Chris and I both wanted to check-out a small Polish town to get a feel for life outside the cities.
We chose Swidnica as we could get two for one – and also traveled by bus to the home of Helmuth James Graf von Moltke, one of the Kreisau Circle. This is the group of men behind the assasination attempt on Hitler (remember, the one with the briefcase bomb?). His estate is very big and we spent a peaceful day having lunch and walking around the surrounds which include a river.
Then in the afternoon we visited the UNESCO listed Holy Trinity Church of Peace, back in Swidnicka. NOTHING in the guidebook prepared us for this place. So, so breath-taking. MThe largest wooden structure in Europe – not one nail was used and the whole thing had to go up in within a year, as part of the pact after the 30 Years War.
Turned out they were having a classical chamber concert just then (old Baroque instruments including early pre-valve flutes, a 6-stringed cello and harpsichord). So we stuck around and got an eye and earful of wonder!
Krakow “the jewel of Poland” as they say. And I can see why. Unlike Wroclaw, the city was left relatively untouched by the world wars and thus many of it’s oldest and most beautiful buildings are still there.
But, I must say we were both pretty tired in Krakow, and it was raining again. We relied on food to revive us – and I’d read about the revival in Krakow of the old Jewish neighbourhood called the Kazimierz. As building were being restored and culture renewed. I wanted to check out one of the places on Szeroka Street – for some Jewish cuisine and music.
We were both taken away to a time since lost at the Klezmer-Hois, and by the band that played that night that consisted of violn, accordian and double bass. I had chicken purim (a kind of chicken-wrapped in crepe with cinnamon and cranberries) whilst Chris had Knedloch (dumplings stuffed with chicken in a dill cream sauce). We also had Hungarian wine – it was amazing!
The next day we spent the morning at the famed Wieliczka Salt Mine, where they’ve been mining salt for 700 years. It may sound weird – and it is, but this place is an UNESCO World Heritage Site for good reason. We walked 2 km, 165m below the surface and only saw 1% of the mine itself. A very religious and superstitious people, the minors carved more than 40 chapels into the caverns and honoured famous people who’d visited by carving their likeness in salt. There is also a sub-terranean lake! The most amazing room was the Chapel of the Blessed King – complete with chandeliers and altars made of salt, by just two brothers.
We both really enjoyed Poland – and would really recommend for anyone to visit. Everywhere we went was beautiful and the people very nice. Also, it’s still pretty dang cheap.
But here are some top tips to help if you ever do decide to visit:
- Learn a few Polish words like numbers and key phrases for ordering food, etc. There are some great iPhone apps like LingoPal (44 languages in one app) or Lonely Planet does a good Polish App – both have audio to help with pronunciation.
- Ask your hostel/hotel to write scripts to show ticketing agents to help you book trains (we didn’t find any agents who spoke much English).
- Make sure you book a seat. This costs extra (a couple of dollars/pounds). Thus why hardly anyone does it, so it’s a special request of a ticketing agent.
- Mc Donald’s is (once again) your friend. Hardly any public loos anywhere. But you can count on McD’s for a throne from which to urinate in dignity. Charge a small fee for non-customers but it’s worth it!
Next stop: Czech Republic – Prague…