Picturesque Poland Trip

Six nights, seven days.

March 31

Got to the airport a bit early. Breezed through check in, Lot Polish Airlines checks in through the Lufthansa Star Alliance. Got to the gate around 8:00, and there was no one else there. Hmm, maybe I am way too early. Debbie and Janice arrive in 15 minutes. We chatted until the gate agent called everyone for Warsaw. We all piled on to the bus, which took us out onto the tarmac to the plane. So of course we're then outside, climbing onto the plane in the Munich rain. Janice got on the empty plane first; she said she'd never walked onto an empty plane before.

We waited a bit; they announced that more passengers were coming. Another bus pulled up and Chris & Barbara joined us. The group was now complete.

An uneventful and fast flight got us into Warsaw by 10:30. We went outside. Our friend and owner of Picturesque Poland, Ewa, showed up in about 5 minutes. She had ready for us 2 cabs and we zoomed off to the hotel. Warsaw was overcast, looked a little grey. There are still quite a few old Soviet-style buildings: flat, ugly, and concrete. The most interesting was the Palace of Culture & Science (nicknamed Stalin’s penis) that was right across the street from our hotel. Our hotel, the Polonia Palace, was lovely though, a leading and most prestigious Grand Hotel in Warsaw since 1913. Hotel underwent recent renovation; it blends a fresh revitalized sense of history and old fashion elegance. The hotel as Poles say has Polish Soul, very rare find in Warsaw, a city of chain hotels. We dumped our luggage off, checked in and piled back into a couple cabs to get to old town.

The cabs let us off just outside old town. We walked across the square, with its plinth topped by King Sigismund, and set off up one of the side streets to find lunch. We ended up at Grandmother's Place. Everyone but Carole ordered pierogi; she had bigos. It was a good lunch with lots of flavors to try. Some of the flavors were a bit unusual though, and they would remain so for most of the trip. It seems that the Poles are not yet wine connoisseurs, and not even real familiar with how to pick and store wine. Barbara and Chris are wine connoisseurs and they valiantly tried glass after glass of yecchy, too- sweet or too-long-open wine throughout our week. Sometimes just one sip and the glass was set down at the edge of the table with a shake of the head. "It's not dry at all." Or "It's gone off." and back the wine went.

After lunch, we headed back to the square to go to the castle. We toured it on our own, looking at many of the rooms that had been the king's apartment. It's good to be king. Debbie liked the floors best - beautiful parquet work, while the entire room of Canalettos impressed Janice. The castle was built relatively recently, and redone only 20 years ago - it had been destroyed just after WWII ended. More on that later. We stopped for coffee in the small café inside the castle. Some of us found out later it was a bad idea to have coffee at 3:30 in the afternoon - Ewa and Carole didn't sleep very well that night!

We met up with our first guide of the trip, Anna, back in the square outside the castle. Of course by now it's started to rain. Umbrellas up, and Anna started acquainting us with Warsaw. She told us that the castle had been destroyed after the war. We walked up a main street, past the presidents’ residence, the statue to a famous poet who never lived in Warsaw; saw some of the street palaces built by the nobles who wanted to be close to the king. At one point, we saw the royal guard parading up the street on patrol. Debbie got a good picture of them against the swirl of everyday life on the street.

We went in to Holy Cross church, famous for containing a relic of Chopin - his heart is interred in a pillar in the church!

We walked to the big modern "square" - not actually square but a vast open space. Workmen were constructing bleachers and a backdrop - the memorial to Pope Jan Pawal II was going to take place on Sunday evening, a year after he died, exact date April 2nd 2005 at 9:37pm. Across the square, we saw the tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Anna told us that they had chosen between 3 soldiers to inter there; from WWII.

We walked back through another section of the old town. Past St John's Cathedral, went inside. This church was destroyed during the Warsaw Uprising. One the outside all, there is a tank tread embedded as a memorial. Nearby is symbol for the Warsaw uprising. We continued on the Royal Way and came to a very pretty square with old houses ringing the cobblestones. The mermaid fountain in the middle of the square is the symbol of Warsaw. We walked out the other side, past old city walls. Apparently Poland was not a very war-like country. It took some persuading to get the city walls created, and at one point in history, it just so happened that the Polish army was elsewhere when the Swedes invaded. So the Polish army ended up fighting for Warsaw, against their own walls!

We then saw the monuments to the 1944 Warsaw Uprising. Just as WWII was grinding to a stop, the citizens and soldiers of Warsaw rose up against the occupying Germans. The Russian army was just across the Vistula River, and the Warsawians assumed they'd come to help. They didn't. The uprising raged for more than 3 months, and the city emptied as people fled into the countryside. As the Germans were leaving the city, they destroyed it block by block so that there was nothing for people to come home to.

This ended the formal tour. We went back into the old town, stopped at a café for some warm drinks (Polish Glühwein). Barbara and Chris had another "wine surprise", bummer! We walked up the way in about an hour, and went to a new restaurant called Secrets for dinner. It was elegant, the food was wonderful and the wine was good. We got back to the square by the castle, caught 2 cabs back to the hotel.

April 1

Breakfast the next morning in the hotel was wonderful. It was in a beautiful room, all light colored marble, chandeliers and mirrors. They were cooking omelets to order. We were taking the 8:50 train to Malbork castle. We decide to walk to the station, as it was close by, and not raining. Unfortunately most of the escalators were out of order so we humped our bags up & down stairs to get to the right platform. We got the train, found the right car, and got into our first-class compartment. Our Picturesque Poland Ewa quickly got us to the central train station and onto our train and we settled in for the 3+-hour ride. The countryside was a bit bleak, soggy with rain and scrubby with winter grass. We saw some snow still in the trees. We piled out of the station at Malbork, having a bit of trouble getting our bags down the steep steps off the train. But our Picturesque Poland driver, Andrew, was waiting for us; he pointed in the right direction and we got into the Mercedes Mini-bus. Very spacious, lots of tall windows. It was a quick ride to the castle. We disembarked, and marveled at the sheer size of the brick castle. It is very medieval looking, with dry moats, turrets and wooden bridges connecting upper walkways, and defensive walls all around.

After taking a few pictures, we followed the driver to the restaurant inside the castle for lunch. Had a great lunch of soups and sausages. Then, on to the tour. Our English-speaking guide came to the restaurant to get us. She took us back around to the front of the castle, explaining that it had been the home of the Teutonic Knights, called back from the Holy Land in later 1300s, to spread Christianity to the pagans in the area. As we learned more we decided that we quite disliked this ferocious group of men who tortured and murdered people, forbid any women in their presence or castles and terrorized the neighborhood in general. The castle, however, is magnificent. Working drawbridge and portcullis, many interior rooms, of gothic construction so with very high, many-arched ceilings. There was a rather modern central heating system, several large furnaces burned wood and the ducts carried the heat to the castles. Malbork is actually 3 separate castle buildings - the High castle, middle and low.

Here we first heard about the battle of Grünwald - in 1410 the Poles rose up against the Knights and won. In 1457 the King of Poland bought control of Malbork from Bohemian mercenary troops residing there - they hadn't been paid by the Teutonic Knights. By 1466 the order had primarily disbanded.

The castle was restored starting in the early 1900s, only to be severely damaged in fighting between German and Russian troops in WWII. It is restored again and a great sight to see if you can get to the area. The Church of Our Lady is still being restored; we were able to see it in progress. Looks like it will take a long time before that part is complete.

The castle was restored starting in the early 1900s, only to be severely damaged in fighting between German and Russian troops in WWII. It is restored again and a great sight to see if you can get to the area. The Church of Our Lady is still being restored; we were able to see it in progress. Looks like it will take a long time before that part is complete.

Oh yeah, Poland has not converted to the Euro, they use the Zloty. It's about 4 to 1 Euro. Prices for food, clothes and other items were quite good.

After we finished our buying, we gathered and walked into the old town of Gdańsk. Our hotel, the Królewski, has started its life as a granary, on the granary island. The windows were numerous and small, and the walls were very thick. We walked past the docks - mainly empty, the Gdańsk Crane, icon of the city, and across the bridge into town.

Old town Gdańsk is several pedestrian streets, lined with old-style buildings. We wandered a bit and then ended up at The Red Door for dinner. It is a very pretty, cozy place, situated in a 17th century Burgher house. The food was only OK - but the wine here was good.

April 2

The next morning, we were due to meet our Picturesque Poland tour guide at 10:00. Donna was prompt and we started off again, learning that there had been over 300 granaries on Granary Island in the heyday. Transportation was by water; and Gdansk had been a wealthy town.

By 1308 Gdańsk had became a flourishing trading city with some 10,000 inhabitants, but in the Gdańsk Massacre of November 13, 1308, it was occupied and demolished by the Teutonic Knights. Bastards.

Most of the buildings we saw in old town were reconstructed after the war. Gdansk (Or Danzig, in German) was purportedly a favorite town of Hitler, so the Russians reduced it to rubble towards the end of the war. Donna told us that in the beginning of the reconstruction, people were awarded houses in the old town and that now; some people could not afford to maintain them. We saw beautiful houses next to ones that were crumbling.

St Mary's Church is the largest brick church in the world it can fit 24000 people. We walked around the outside, and took a quick trip inside as Mass was ending.

We walked back through the pedestrian area, past the Neptune fountain. You can see 3 Neptune statues from one spot; he's the symbol of Gdansk.

We stopped at the Millennium Gallery for the obligatory demonstration of how amber is polished, and a lesson in how to tell if it’s real (it floats). They had an interesting assortment of upscale designs and many of the ladies indulged.

We ended our tour back at the main gate; saw the government buildings that still contain an office for Lech Walensa - the spearhead of the Solidarity movement, which overthrew the communist regime in Poland in the 1980s. Walked down the side of the canal, to find a restaurant for lunch. We ended up at the cafe Goldwasser, sitting outside in the sun, which felt wonderful. Ewa called our driver to come get us earlier than planned. We had been going to leave at 6:30, but felt we had seen all we wanted to see so we left at 4:00. Our driver was amenable to a bit of a side trip on the way out, so we ended up at the Baltic coast. We walked along the beach for a bit - although it was sunny it was still very cold. We stopped in 2 beach spots. Ewa says in the summer you can hardly walk for all the people on the beach.

Our Picturesque Poland driver got us all into the minivan and we were off to Toruń, our next stop, arriving at about 7:00. As we were driving in the town we noticed many people all walking in the same direction, towards a church that we saw up the block. We remembered that this evening was the anniversary of the Pope's death, and figured that everyone was going to a memorial service.

We checked into the Hotel Heban, 17th century tenement house which front façade was covered with black plaster good example of late Renaissance. The attractive interiors were decorated with 17th and 18th century polychrome paintings. Heban hotel was small and very pretty, although there was no lift, the bell guy wrangled all our bags up to our rooms; we did a quick wash-up and set out to explore the town. By now it was 7:30 or so, and people were still heading in one direction. We followed the crowd and came to a square around a large church. We stopped there and watched the procession come down from the other church, headed by robed acolytes bearing torches. The priests were miked, so we could hear the Stations of the Cross being said. The procession wound around the other side of the church from us, and stopped, and people started filling in the square. 20 minutes later, the procession, with everyone carrying a lit votive candle, was still streaming into the square. The head of the procession started to move again, so we got in front of it and walked the other way back into town. We explored a few streets, and then some of us wanted a bit of dinner. At this point, Debbie peeled off and went back to the memorial. The rest of us ended up in a pizzeria. Shared a huge pizza that cost less than 3 euros! Janice got a very generous Greek salad that she shared too. We all puzzled over what the dishes of ketchup and mayo were for so Ewa asked the waitress. They were indeed for our pizza!

April 3

The next morning, our next Picturesque Poland guide, Michal, met us at the hotel. We started our tour at the statue of Copernicus, who was raised in Toruń and went to University there. The statue serves as a barometer of current student activity- the day we were there he was dressed in a Hungarian? Flag to show solidarity with their fellow ex-communist country as it approached elections.

Walk through town, the Post Office which gets "oohs & ahhs" from the tourists - a lovely brick building. The jail. Toruń was not bothered by the Germans, not bombed.

We walked past the leaning building, made so that someone who leans against it and pulls his or her arms away from the wall finds it very hard to stay against the building. Legend was that a priest of the Knights took a lover. When found out, she was killed but he had to do penance by constructing these leaning buildings. Anyone whose sins were greater than his would not be able to stand against the wall.

We walked down to the river, the Vistula again. Back up into town, past where the Copernicus family lived (in one of two adjoining houses, they're not exactly sure which one.) into the St. Mary cathedral, which was normally closed that day of the week. We saw magnificent examples of medieval art, carved scenes dating from the 14th century.

We finished our tour at the ruin of another castle of the Teutonic Knights. Our guide was finishing his PhD in the study of medieval merchants and the Knights. He was concerned with the goods & merchandise that the Knights used.

We had an hour until our lunch reservation, so we hit the town shopping. Ewa and I went to the clothing stores. Debbie and Janice looked for folk art. Chris and Barbara started back at the hotel so Chris could get her coat - it was another sunny but cold day. I was wearing several layers by this time, and coming down with the cold.

Lunch was at the Spichrz Restaurant (I guess you have to be Polish to pronounced it), peasant style place with folk band playing most of the evenings. Chris and Barbara found some good wine, and had the meter of sausage - we have the pictures to prove it! Debbie and Janice shared another meat platter. Ewa and Carole had perogis upon Ewa's recommendation. All the food was excellent. We all tasted everything. The sausage was smoky an a bit spicy; great with mustard. The perogis were the best we had - very thin pasta around succulent fillings. The meat platter was several roasted meats all cooked very well, juicy and great with the horseradish sauce.

We went back to the hotel to be picked up by our next driver, to take us to Warsaw. At this point, we were noticing the unique Polish driving style. If someone wants to pass, and oncoming traffic isn't too far away, everyone just moves over and makes room. Tailgating is the norm in some areas. And everything is 3 hours from Warsaw. I told Ewa that Chris & I were curious, why we drove these back roads instead of the freeway. Oh, she laughed! Said she was going to tell this joke to all her Polish friends. Expressways are not common in that part of the world. In fact, the driver told us he made sure to take us by the route that had the least bird flu roadblocks. That night we stayed at the Warsaw Marriott, a huge hotel just across the street from the train station. We went to Champions, the sports bar, for dinner. Had American style burgers and beer. And I learned that the food is American style at the Champions in all Marriotts. Next time I crave a burger, I'm headed to the next UBahn stop up the line from the apartment and going to Champions!

April 4

The next morning we were up early. The breakfast buffet was lavish, we were sorry we had to leave so quickly. But an 8:05 train was taking us to Krakow on the Wisla River, no time to linger over waffles. Once again we humped our suitcases up & down stairs and heaved them onto the train that Ewa had identified for us. We left most of them outside our compartment this time. No one complained and the train was not that busy. We got to Krakow around 11:30. Ewa had two taxis for us to go to the hotel. While Ewa, Debbie & Janice went to the Czartoryski Museum to see Da Vinci’s Lady with an Ermine (one of his only 4 paintings of women, with Mona Lisa being the most famous), Carole, Chris & Barbara returned to our waiting Picturesque Poland driver who took us to the Wieliczka Salt Mine. Carole was already nervous about going down into the mine, and when we got to the ticket counter it said that, due to work going on, there may be delays in getting in and getting out of the mine. Nothing sets off my fear of claustrophobia faster than the thought of being in a space I can't get out of. Barbara talked me down and I decided that having come all this way I had to do it. We bought our tickets and went to the café to pass our waiting time in another exercise in odd-tasting wine. I had half a beer. Our driver was so nice - he waited around and then checked to see that we were going on the tour before he left.

The mine tour was interesting to a point. Our guide seemed to be doing her spiel by rote - we detected no personality. We went down 50 flights of steps, and started going into the rooms that had been carved by the miners. They were connected by long, log-lined tunnels. The "tah-dah" room is the Kinga Chapel; a magnificent large room with carved altars, the last supper, the crucifixion, etc. It was spectacular. But the rest of it was just OK. We got back up to the surface in the miner's elevator; several cages on top of each other into which they piled 10 people. It was tight and when we got to the top, our doors didn't open, but we could hear people above or below us getting out. We had to go back up one floor so they could let us out. I was glad to be back at the surface.

We got back to the hotel, the lovely Hotel Grodek. Carole went upstairs to recover as best she could - the cold was really getting bad now - so she took a lovely hot bath and then slept for a bit. Everyone else was shopping in Krakow.

That evening, we met another Picturesque Poland arranged guide Marta at 5:30 at the hotel. She took us on a tour of the old Jewish part of town. Poland was a very tolerant country for most of its history, and many Jews settled there. Krakow had a very large Jewish community. We saw an old synagogue, toured several streets and ended up the Isaac synagogue that contains a permanent memorial entitled “Memory of Polish Jews”- many pictures of people in the community before 1932, and then some as they were being labeled, and taken away to the camps. Too bad it was already late and most of the places were closed. There are two fine Jewish museums, 7 synagogues and a very interesting cemetery but then again we cannot see everything and this was not a Jewish Trail Tour also offered by Picturesque Poland.

We finished up around 7:30. Stopped in one restaurant to have a drink before dinner, but they were all full, (We had seen several other tourist groups of 20 - 30 people roaming the Jewish quarter earlier.) So we went to the Ariel Restaurant, where we had reservations, early. I had a wonderful tea - rose hips and black tea and cherry brandy - and then the matzo ball soup. Matzo balls I can leave - they rank right down with knodel - but the broth was delicious. While most of the others went with the safe stuffed cabbage, Janice tried the stuffed goose necks-, which she claimed were delicious. I revived for about an hour, but then I knew I was about to crash. Ewa called a taxi, which whisked me back to the hotel where I collapsed back into bed. The rest stayed in the restaurant where the Jascha Lieberman Trio was to play Jewish music. They said the concert was great - a modern take on some folk songs and classics.

April 5

The next morning we woke up to mixed rain and snow. Snow! After breakfast, Marta, our Picturesque Poland guide from yesterday was already waiting to take us to the castle and cathedral. I was wearing just about everything I could, plus 2 scarves. We all trudged along under our umbrellas. I was glad the hill up to Wawel castle wasn't too steep - I was puffing hard already. We walked onto the grounds. Marta told us that most of the Polish kings have been crowned and buried in Krakow. Part of the ceremony is that the kings walk from the coronation to the Florian Gate, on foot. A sign of humility for the king to do this. Even one of the kings who had been crowned in Warsaw came to Krakow to take this walk.

The cathedral was magnificent. We heard about the legend of St. Stanislaw, who was quartered after his murder (it's a tough life, becoming a saint) and all the pieces were laid to rest in a stupendous silver casket. As longs as they remain together, Poland will not be divided. (In the 1700s Poland was "partitioned" between Russia, Prussia and Germany. It was only in the 1920s that Poland became a unified country again, only to get occupied by the Germans then taken over by the Russians.)

There were many works of art here, both including the tombs of beloved rulers and paintings and altars off to the side of the cathedral. We climbed the bell tower to the Zygmunt Bell. Touching it with your left hand is supposed to bring luck, and to the unmarried women, a husband. (Not sure if that's lucky or not.) We duly touched and Marta took our picture. We exited the cathedral through the catacombs, where the kings are laid to rest. We got a story for each room.

We went into the courtyard of the castle, which was built by an Italian designer. Marta pointed out that the walkways between the wings are all outside (to go through the interior, you had to go through private rooms). Great for Italy, but not so much for Poland. Did I mention it was snowing? In April?

There's a spot in the inner courtyard that is one of the chakra points of the Earth. We all stepped up; I could hear & feel a buzzing. I'm sure it wasn't the cold medicine! I want to go back when I'm well and go there again, plus do more clothes shopping. A quick flight, a weekend shopping and attuning my chakras to the Earth's, what could be better!

We left the castle ground through the Dragon's cave - a set of spiral steps down to river level. There are natural caves there, some quite large. Marta said that early peoples lived in the caves.

We walked back into town, stopped at a Ukrainian cafe for a warm cup of something. I tried the warm beer - it was on the menu. It did warm me up, but tasted awful. Needed lemon & honey. Some of the others tried tea with shots of raspberry syrup or spoons of jam stirred in- interesting.

Then we went to the more modern Franciscan church, with windows in the Art Nouveau style by Stanislaw Wyspiański. It was beautiful. With that, the tour ended. We went for lunch at Chlopskie Jadlo, a country-style restaurant. Their afternoon was spent shopping; I was back in the hotel napping.

That evening, we went to a very cute café for dinner. Had salads! What a change from the meat/cabbage/potatoes what we'd been having. We walked to a nearby liquor store so people could buy Goldwasser, a vodka-based drink containing gold flakes. Then Debbie and I went back to the hotel, we were both very chilled. The rest of the crew went to the Jazz Club U Muniaka, where they thoroughly enjoyed the music. The first set even included Poland’s great tenor sax payer Janusz Muniak, who owns the club.

April 6

The next morning, after breakfast we went for last minute Polish food shopping and then headed back to the train station. Another 3-hour train ride put us back in Warsaw. Our Picturesque Poland ready cabs sped us to the airport and we caught our flight back to Munich.