Who Saw Warsaw Coming?

Apart from that little long weekend in Singapore all the way back in February, I have only one trip planned for this year. But it’s a big one. Five weeks, yes five weeks, in Poland.  Well, mostly Warsaw.

IN THE SAME COUNTRY! I know right!

You know me, I usually like to tick off 5 or 6 countries when I visit Europe.  That way, it makes the super long flight worth it.  But this travel thing is about evolving.  And although I love getting to as many places as possible, on recent trips I’ve found myself really wishing I’d had more time in each place.

Well, this trip I’m giving myself plenty of time.  And with good reason because I am heading back to Warsaw, home of my paternal lineage.  It’s gonna be a kind of root finding exercise.  I will be searching for family birthplaces, possible new relatives and my lost pierogi-consuming, mushroom-picking, vodka-drinking heritage.

Dad’s family were part of a relatively unknown page of WWII history.  I say unknown, because many of the survivors were told never to discuss it.  They were ashamed to do so, just wanted to forget it or, even sadder, just didn’t think anyone would be interested.  I’ve done a lot of research into this period of history over the last few years and never realised the struggles my family faced.  Those who are interested are welcome to read about my geneology search at my website Looking for the Lukasiks.  For those who are not so interested, here’s a brief wrap up; because it forms the basis of so much of what this trip will be about for me.

World War II broke out in Gdansk on 1 September 1939 when the Germans swept into Poland from the West. The Russians swept in from the East on 17 September and deported the Poles living there to Siberia.  This area was named ‘Kresy‘, or borderlands.  Many thousands died and those who survived, spent the next decade, displaced and wandering the world, looking for shelter and safety.  New lives were created in new countries after the war; a new Polish diaspora.

I am lucky that the majority of my family survived, unlike others.  But I never really knew their story until recently.

My wishes for this trip?  That I can piece together a clearer picture of who my family was, gain a deeper understanding of my heritage and what it means to be Polish.

From what I’ve seen on social media, things have changed in Warsaw since my last visit.  I’ve been watching this city come alive with keen interest and looking back on the words I wrote after my last trip to Warsaw:

Warsaw – what can I say – I read recently that you have a face that only a mother can love. And it’s true. I know you want to open up, but I don’t think you can just yet. I’ll give you time and see how you go, but you are brave and you are a fighter and you have a fantabulous history that the world is waiting to hear about.

I’d say the buzz that was just starting when I visited in 2014 is now blooming and I can’t wait to check it out!  Let the count down begin.

Those Crazy Poles

This morning we leave Poland for our route home:  Warsaw to Frankfurt with a 10 hour stopover before heading off again.  So it’s gonna be a long boring couple of days.  Frankfurt Airport is horrible.  It’s massive.  But the signage and maps are totally unable to explain where you are and where you want to be going at any particular one time and there doesn’t seem to be any discernible rhyme or reason to layout.  Even when you ask the staff where things are they can’t explain properly.  One guy said he had been working there for 15 years and still had no idea how to get around!

I’ve talked and talked and talked for the last couple of weeks about all sorts of stuff and probably bored you half to death.  But believe it or not there are some things about Poland I may not have mentioned (ugh!) and given we’re (I’m) sitting here with not much else to do during our layover, here goes:

  • Poland (allegedly) boasts the most winners of the “World’s Strongest Man” title.
  • Poles who became household names include Antoni Patek (cofounder of watchmakers Patek Philippe & Co), Max Factor (the father of modern cosmetics) and the four Warner brothers (found of Warner Bros.)
  • Winston Churchill observed that Poland was the only country which never collaborated with the Nazis in any form and no Polish units fought alongside the German army.
  • The word ‘vitamins’ was coined in 1912 by Polish biochemist Casimir Funk.
  • ‘Esperanto’ was a Polish invention.

Anyway, its time to board our next flight and by now you know that no trip is complete without a couple of days in Singapore – don’t you roll your eyes at me!

Baby You Can Drive My Nysa

This morning we are in the hands of Adventure Warsaw to experience their “Off the Beaten Path” tour.  An our incredible journey starts in an original Polish van, the Nysa 522, symbol of Polish communist times.

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Our guide is Adam, and there are two other guests along for the ride.  Given we are already in the area, we start of with the former ghetto area, which is not usually included.  Adam tells us we have to listen to the buildings and they will tell us their stories.

Walicow shouts its story loud and clear with bullet holes littering it’s armour.   A surviving fragment of the Jewish ghetto.

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And the building across the road starred in a scene from Roman Polanski’s film, The Pianist.

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People still live in these hulks of memory.

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A bit further along, we come back to the spot Mum and I walked yesterday, Chlodna Street.  As well as the Footbridge of Memory and a few other sights, we also come across something I had trouble finding yesterday.  Etgar Keret’s house.  Keret is an author and he lives in a seriously, small, house.  It is one of the thinnest homes in the world.  Designed by architect Jakub Szczesny, the steel-framed construction is finished with Styrofoam and plywood with its widest point being 152cm and its narrowest just 92cm.  The house was built for Keret to use as a home in Warsaw.  When he’s out of town, the installation acts as a studio for visiting artists.  Found on what was the border between the large and small ghettos of Warsaw, the building can be found perched between a Communist era block and a pre-war tenement which provides the perfect social comment on the neighbourhood’s divided past.

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Can you see it?

Leaving the area, this is where the trip starts to get funny.  Our Nysa has decided that it doesn’t want to run properly.  We jerk along for a bit, then stall.  Adam gets the van going again, but she is stalling every time we brake, which with the day’s traffic, is quite frequently.  And at every set of lights.  We name the car’s new mode ‘Eco-mode’, as we coast along each time she decides to konk out.

We visit the Jewish Quarter of Warsaw, taking in the Palace of Science and Culture, and other remnants of the past and points of interest, still rolling along.

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A close up of post war Warsaw

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We stall along the way into Praga.  Praga is famous for all the wrong reasons.  For decades she’s worn the stigma of being the most run down, dull and dangerous part of Warsaw with derelict streets ruled by the criminal underworld.  But now the artists and musicians have moved in and Praga is cool.  It’s also home to Praga zoo and a group of bears living in Praski Park.

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Praga was relatively untouched during WWII.  My Babcia’s sister tied to travel to the countryside to meet up with the family, but it was too late and she couldn’t get out.  She remained in Warsaw for the remainder of the war and lived in Praga until her death a few years ago.  She was in her late 90’s.  They breed them tough out here.

We park our bright blue van on the footpath and head in to the milk bar for our lunch.  Milk bars (or ‘bar mleczny’) served traditional Polish cuisine to an endless stream of tramps, pensioners and students back in the socialist days, all for a meagre sum.  Poland’s first milk bar was actually opened in Kraków in 1948. Originally no hot dishes were served because this was a place where you went simply to enjoy milk.   They were the the Party’s attempt at popularising milk-drinking due to Poland’s surplus of dairy products.  And the food is ok.

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Compot, juice with stewed fruit in it

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When we return to our bright blue van, some bright spark has decided to park behind us, blocking us in on the footpath.  No worries, Adam has it covered…

Still sputtering and stalling, Adam creatively manages a 700-point turn in eco-mode to manoeuvre the van 180° to face the footpath in front of us, where will need to make our escape.  He deserves the massive round of applause he gets for that trick!

Lastly, we are invited for a shot of typical polish vodka in a communist style apartment, AKA Adventure Warsaw’s museum/office.  This is where we get to see all sorts of memorabilia from the era, some of it similar to the apartment in Krakow.  This tour was absolutely great, Adam was extremely knowledgeable, and not only in being able to drive the socialist relic of a van.  Like the Crazy Guides tour in Krakow, this was an amazing opportunity to see a different side of Poland.

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Having had a quick fix while we were busy skulling vodka, the van is now running much better and safely and more promptly, returns us to our hotel, where Waldek is awaiting us, ready to take us to afternoon tea at Stan’s.

I can’t believe our time here is at an end.

When the war ended, the task of tracing family members began. Notes were pinned to trees, electric poles, fence, and buildings as a short of public lost and found. On the fences of all the train stations were hundreds of notices containing addresses of those searching for lost loved ones. Large crowds gathered in front of these ‘forwarding offices’ from morning til night. There were many that would never be found; people like my Dad’s father, Krzstopf.

Warsaw’s Sad Panda

Mum and I are on our own today as Dad has gone down with a cold.  Whilst this is unfortunate for him, we are a bit excited that as well as sightseeing, it means there will also be an opportunity to do some shopping.

On the way to the old town (Stare Miasto), we stop off for some breakfast at a cafe that I read about called Café Zagadka (Zagadka meaning riddle due to the fact the owners didn’t have a name for the café).  It’s a very cool little place, Kings of Leon playing over the speakers.  We order salty (savoury) omelettes and when they arrive at our table they are massive and fluffy.  I’m sure by looking at it I won’t be able to finish it, but when I taste it, it’s incredibly light and delicious.

The meandering walk to the old town is full of graceful old (ah, new) buildings and hidden surprises.  There are lots of monuments, the importance of which I can’t understand (due to a lack of English descriptions), and lots of building going on.  This is the part that doesn’t look liked a communist lego town.

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Finally, we arrive at the old town. Being only 50-odd years old, Warsaw’s Old Town looks to be 200. The most valuable historical monuments were restored to their previous appearance based on original drawings and photographs, and these efforts were mostly concentrated around the Old Town. So complete was the restoration that it was granted the UNESCO Old Town World Heritage status in 1980. The Royal Castle wasn’t rebuilt until 1971 and was completed in 1984.

The old town itself is tiny and doesn’t take long to explore at all.

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The authorities had to build a whole new city from scratch, which unfortunately for many suburbs, and under Stalin, resulted in a city centre of bunker-like structures and prefabricated concrete blocks. New steel and glass towers are starting to break up the skyline though.

Our first stop in the old town is Kamienne Schodki.  These are the famous stone steps where Napoleon walked and for some reason it has caught a twig at the back of my brain as one of those tiny strings of information I recall my grandmother commenting on – not in any important way that meant anything to me – just a line that for some reason stayed buried deep in my brain. Turns out, the stone steps are a special place for all Poles. They are listed as a UNESCO Heritage site even though they are only 60 years old.

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This narrow street lined with a stone staircase, was first mentioned in 1527 when people used to pass through a crack in the defensive walls of the city in order to carry water from the Vistula River. In 1806, Napoleon Bonapart went down to the shore of the Vistula in the company of Prince Jozef Poniatowski via the stone stairs.

Napoloeon Bonaparte spent a great deal of time in Poland, and was revered by the Poles as a potential national saviour. He personally vowed to reverse the Polish partition that had been imposed on the country by Russia.

Not far from the steps, you come across a grassy knoll that offers sweeping views of the River Wisla. Known as Gnojna Gora (Compost Hill to you), this are once served as the town rubbish dump, and at one stage was renowned for its healing properties – this is where the rich would come to be buried up to their necks in rubbish as a supposed cure for syphilis.

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There’s nothing to commemorate the spot, so I’ll assume this is it.

The Barbican and City Walls is just around the corner. Warsaw is one of the few European capitals where a large portion of the old city wall survives. Like most things, the wall was partially destroyed in WWII, and had to be rebuilt in parts and the barbican was restored to its full scale.

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Even further around the corner is Syrena – symbol of Warsaw.  She’s plastered across everything.  Legend dates to the time of Prince Kazimerz, who allegedly got lost while on a hunting expedition in the area that is now Warsaw.  Behold!  A mermaid transpired from the marshland – um, righto – and guided the prince to safety by firing burning arrows.  Me thinks the Prince may have slipped into the forest to finish off a bottle of top quality Belvedere, fallen asleep and had a rip-snorter of a dream! Really!  Mermaids in marshes!

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The Poles are a superstitious bunch believe it or not, and if you come across the junction of Ulica Piekarska and Ulica Rycerska, you’ll find an area that used be home to a small square primarily used for executions. This is where witches and other ragamuffins would be burned at the stake, hung or have their heads chopped off.  I couldn’t find anywhere to commemorate this, but this is the only kind of square in the location, so once again, I will assume this is the area.

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There an abundance of churches in this neighbourhood, but the one we’ve come to see is the Holy Cross Church. Because in a small urn by the second pillar on the left side of the nave, is Frederik Chopin’s heart. Yep, you heard me right. It was bought here from Paris after Chopin’s death, in accordance with his will.  The church unfortunately doesn’t appear to be open.

Poland, or Warsaw in particular, is Chopin-mad! And they have a right to be because it’s here that he was born in 1810.  The city of Warsaw has installed fifteen musical benches, placed at key sites connected with Chopin’s life.  Made of cast iron and polished black stone, these benches feature a button which when pressed are designed to unleash a thirty second torrent of Chopin. Also equipped with a route map and brief explanations of the site, the benches also go techno – each one is encrypted with a special code – take a pic on your phone and send it to the instructed number and you’ll be rewarded with free access to Chopin melodies, facts, figures and photographs!  We managed to stumble upon one.

Leaving the old town, we came across the sad panda.  Head in hands, rollerblades on feet, he sits with a collection tin in front of him, bemoaning his bad luck.  He shakes his head, cries and rubs his pretend tears away.  He just wants your money.  Please help the sad panda out!

For lunch, we indulge in a tasting of pierogi and they are amazing.  There were a lot of different kinds on the menu, and it was hard to narrow it down, but we did well and the pierogi were amazing.  We had Russian pierogi, spinach and feta, wild mushroom, cheese and champignons and cream.  Sooooo good.

Now, it was time to hit the shops.  We didn’t do that much damage, but I managed to pick up some items for my niece and it was nice for a change of pace.  Across the road however, was something I hadn’t planned on investigating, but it was so close it would have been a shame to miss it.  The Palace of Science and Culture.

From below, surrounded by modern age buildings
From below, surrounded by modern age buildings
...and from the 30th floor, this is our hotel (the Hilton) in the background.
…and from the 30th floor, this is our hotel (the Hilton) in the background.

Also known as the white elephant in lacy underwear, it’s another one of those ‘gifts from Stalin’ that the Poles are still paying for, and they don’t like it one bit.  It’s actually one of the most interesting buildings on the skyline, so I think I would be right in understanding that the hatred of the building is based purely on feeling and not on asthetics.  Upon entering the marble clad monstrosity (there are over 3,000 rooms in this building), you can buy a ticket for a ride to the 30th floor, accompanied by a lovey grumpy polish woman on a chair, for the best view of the city around.  Unfortunately, you’ll probably have no idea what you are looking at, because not much is sign posted as with other look outs around the world.

What it did make us realise was exactly how far we had walked today.  So it was a well deserved taxi ride home to enjoy aa relaxing bubble bath and champagne before we think about what to do tonight.

We decide to have a quiet meal at the hotel and then take a stroll around our interesting neighbourhood.  At the intersection of Chlodna and Zelazna, are two giant metal poles connected across Chlodna by wires. This is the location of one of the most recognisable images of the Warsaw ghetto; the footbridge that connected the small and large ghettos. In fact, if you’ve seen the pianist, you’ll probably recognise it.  It is now a memorial called the Footbridge of Memory.

The footbridge as it was - easily recognizable from many WWII movies.
The footbridge as it was – easily recognizable from many WWII movies.
The Footbridge of Memory by day...
The Footbridge of Memory by day…
...and by night.
…and by night.

At night, the wires light up and create a virtual bridge in the exact location of the former ghetto bridge. The poles also have viewing windows where visitors can flip through images of life in the Warsaw ghetto. You’ll also notice the pavement outline that symbolises the ghetto’s borders which are found on the sidewalk along Chlodna.

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As I mentioned, I originally thought I’d made a mistake booking this hotel as it wasn’t in the best location, but in reality, it’s a neighbourhood full of hidden stories about the past.  The streets and buildings tell a million stories of battles won and lost and it’s historically fascinating.  After dinner, we take the opportunity to walk around the streets.  Here are some of its stories…

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Searching for Princes

So last night was our family dinner and I got to meet Stan (who is related by marriage a little way back, so not really a relative), his son Waldek, wife Dorothea and daughter Paulinka, plus the family of Dad’s cousin Graszinka, her daughter Dorota, husband Wyeslaw and daughters Paula, Susie and Maya.  It was an odd feeling to be surrounded by people talking in a language you don’t understand, though both Paula and Paulinka spoke English and Paula’s parents spoke about as much English as I know Polish, but the evening seemed to go fairly well.  It’s hard to form a strong bond with people who have not existed in your life before in such a short amount of time, but who knows what the future will hold.  It wasn’t a really late night, but we still had a late start to the day.

We were only going to visit one palace in Poland.  But whenever I researched the palaces of Poland, the elaborate rooms of Wilanow (vee-lah-noof), keep forcing their way onto the screen.  I didn’t think I could live with myself if I didn’t take the opportunity to walk through its vivid rooms.

About a half hour drive from the centre of Warsaw is where you will find ‘the Polish Versailles’.  Built in the late 17th century, Wilanow is opulent.  The grounds immediately surrounding the palace are filled with colourful flower beds and rose gardens, the larger garden grounds with large shady trees.

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It’s free to visit Wilanow on Sundays, but you still have to line up to get a ticket for 0 zloty’s.  Very Polish.  The tickets are printed with the time at which you are able to enter the palace (limited groups go through at a time), though of course, they don’t tell you this when you ‘buy’ the ticket.  So now you know.

The rooms are painted boldly, paintings adorning the walls en-masse, intricate furniture filling the spaces of its grand rooms.  Royal wallpapers and gold filigree live on the walls, ceilings and doorways.  The palace seems enormous and it feels like hours worth of exploring.

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Now I’m here looking for a Prince, so here are the lucky candidates….

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So I’m thinking I might just stay single for a little while longer.

The remainder of our day is to be spent at Lazienki (wah-zhen-kee) Park.  It is the largest park in Warsaw, weighing in at 76 hectares.   The grounds are a mass of shady trees with squirrels ferreting around the shrubs and tourists.

Lazienki Palace, also known as the Palace on the Water is it’s centrepiece.

In stark contrast to Wilanow, Lazienki Palace is a white elephant.

Where Wilanow’s rooms shout opulence, Lazienki’s whisper.

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Three gondolas adorn the lake, and we board one for a short but relaxing ride.  The sun is out, the park grounds Gondola Ride and Palace on the Water, Island Ampitheatre, White House and Belvedere Palace, with free Chopin concerts at noon and 4pm and ice cream (lody) – which the Poles are apparently mad for!

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Visiting Poland and not attending a Chopin concert is like… going to the Vatican without seeing the Pope, as a certain saying goes. It’s beautiful out this time of year (okay – most of the time), and the Łazienki park is lushly green and soothing and lovely – even more so when you’re listening to masterfully played piano music.  The concerts fittingly take place underneath the Chopin statue, and their tradition goes back to 1959, with the festival changing and evolving over the fifty-five years that followed.  Free admission, what else could you possibly want?  A fantastic way to relax and unwind this is.

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Wyeslav picks us up outside Lazienki and drives us back to his home for a dinner with the family.  A beautiful meal is set out on the table – wonderful sliced tomatoes covered with white and spring onions, hardboiled eggs, salmon, cheeses, glorious grainy bread home made by Dorota, home made butter with herbs in it made by Paula, cold meats and pierogis.  And there’s sparkling wine and vodka – lots of it.  It is a lovely evening even though only Paula speaks English from their side and only Dad speaks Polish from our side, but they are coming to Australia early next year and everyone is excited.

Treasures in the Rubble

Today we leave Krakow for Warsaw.

We are supposed to arrive at 1.20pm, but our train is over an hour late.  No idea why, the Poles don’t seem to think it is important to let passengers on their express intercity trains know in English what is going on.  Even the Polish announcement is almost inaudible.  It’s a very long and boring ride, especially because I can’t see out the window.

When we arrive in Warsaw, I am anxious that our hotel transfer may have given up waiting.  But there he is, angry face on, with a barrage of complaints about us being late (not our fault) and not waiting in the right spot (not our fault either – we can’t be expected to wait somewhere when we are not told where to wait).  I try to explain, but he keeps going on and on and on and finally I can’t take it anymore and burst into tears.  He can’t understand why and when we get to the hotel, he asks if we need a lift to the airport when we leave.  Ah, yes we do.  But not with you.

Not a good start to our time in Warsaw.

Warsaw.  This is where my father’s family hails from.  I already mentioned earlier that Dad wasn’t born here, so here’s what I do know.  There’s more to World War II in Poland than the mass extermination of Jews.  Our family were not of Jewish Faith, and yet were still persecuted due to Hitler’s hatred of the Poles and forced from to run from place to place to seek safety, food and shelter.  When the war broke out in Poland, my grandmother, who lived in Warsaw, was visiting her family in the country side.  She never made it back to Warsaw, instead beginning a long and arduous journey to safety, which ended with settlement in Australia.

So what happened and why?

The Third Reich had singled out the Poles for special punishment.  As Germans systematically reclaimed Polish towns and streets, even speaking Polish in public became forbidden; in Gdansk it was punishable by death.  The Nazi goal of more ‘living space’ or “Lebensraum” applied pointedly to Poland, where Hitler had ordered his troops to “Kill without pity or mercy all men, women and children of Polish descent or language”.

Dad still has family here in Warsaw, which I will meet for the first time.

I don’t know what to expect of this city which was raised to the ground under the instructions of a man named Hitler, but I’m certain I am about to embark on a journey of a lifetime.

There’s a shot in Roman Polanski’s film, when its main character Wladyslaw Szpilman emerges from hiding and walks out into the streets of Warsaw.  Everything is decimated, shells of buildings scream against the skyline, everything blanketed with ash.  I’ve never identified as strongly with the history of Poland as I did in that moment.  My heart ached at the thought of the decimation that Hitler incurred on this city.

“This is really an incredible city and I want to give you an idea of it, and don’et know how I can do it. It’s a big city, see. Over one million pre war. Big as Detroit. Now it is 90 per cent all destroyed…Wherever you walk here it is hunks of buildings standing up without roofs or much sides, and people living in them. Except the Ghetto, where it is just a great plain of bricks, with twisted beds and bath tubs and sofas, pictures in frames, trunks, millions of things sticking out among the bricks. I can’t understand how it could have been done…It’s something that’s so vicious I can’t believe it”.

John Vachon, Photographer in a letter to his wife Penny in January 1946

Needless to say, the Warsaw you see today is a rebuilt version.  Some buildings show recycled rubble from the bombed city embedded in their facades.  City planners used as many original stones in rebuilding the city as possible.  Lonely Planet describes Warsaw as having ‘so many booms, cranes and construction sites, you’d think you’d landed in Beijing’ – and they weren’t joking.  Especially in our area, near the Hilton Hotel, buildings are going up everywhere.  There’s even a subway on its way.

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Warsaw also gets a bit of a bad rap from tourists as being grey and rather, well, ‘Soviet’.  After the defeat of Communism in 1989, the Poles with their characteristic humour turned the former Gestapo Headquarters into the Ministry of Education, the former KGB Headquarters into the Ministry of Justice and the Communist Party Headquarters into the Stock Exchange.

So, we are staying at the Hilton, which is about a 20 minute walk from the old town.  When we booked the hotel, I thought I had made a bit of a mistake by being located away from all the action.  BUT it was a Hilton and it is supposed to be one of Europe’s best.  And it had its own casino – not just any casino – the largest in Poland.  However, the more I researched Warsaw, I learnt we are actually in quite an interesting location – the outskirts of the former Jewish Ghetto where ghosts and memories line the streets, even though the landscape has changed.

We have a couple of hours before the family dinner tonight, so it’s the perfect time to make a trip to the Warsaw Uprising Museum, which is conveniently located about a 5 minute walk away from the hotel.  Housed in a beautifully restored former trams power station, it lays on the edge of the former ghetto. It includes a brick wall with reverse views; holes through which visitors can glimpse daily life inside the Ghetto thanks to archival footage.  Opened in 2004, this is one of Poland’s best museums. It also features a short documentary entitled “City of Ruins”.  When news of the uprising reached Hitler, he ordered Himmler to send in his harshest troops, kill every Pole, and pulverise the whole city block by block, bomb, torch, and bulldoze it beyond repair as a warning to the rest of occupied Europe. “City of Ruins” shows you the result.

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“The Little Insurgent” – commemorates the children who served as messengers and frontline troops.

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On the third floor a B24 allied bomber plane replica lunges at you from the ceiling.

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The museum is brilliantly put together.  One of the best museums I’ve visited in the world.  We spent a couple of hours here and still didn’t see everything.  My only comment would be that it was a shame that all the books in the gift shop were in Polish because I would loved to have bought some, but obviously there’s no point as I don’t speak Polish.

Tonight, I get to meet some of Dad’s family at dinner.  I’m actually really nervous, not knowing what to expect and how much of the conversation I will actually be able to understand. I may find myself getting drunk – very drunk.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.

We are dining at Folk Gospoda (Folks Inn) which is conveniently only a block or so away from our hotel.  It is believed to be the oldest restaurant in Warsaw, although it burnt down in the 1831 Uprising and wasn’t rebuilt til 2004.  However, just months before our visit, another reason to visit occurred – Gok Wan visited Folk Gospoda.  And raved about it and well, if Gok recommends it…

Legends of the Wawel Dragon and Nowa Huta

In a cave at the bottom of Wawel Hill there once lived a terrible fire-belching dragon. This dragon roamed around the countryside and did whatever he wanted to. He ate sheep and cattle and scared the farmers so much that they didn’t let their animals graze in the field near the Vistula River. Many brave knights had tried to kill the monster, but before they could close enough to him, he blew fire on them and they were burned to death.

The king wanted this dragon destroyed. He invited knights and noblemen to come and slay the dragon, promising that whichever one killed the dragon could marry his beautiful daughter and become king when he died. Many tried to slay the dragon so that they could marry the princess, but the dragon killed them. The people became even more frightened; they were afraid to leave their homes and the country became poorer.

One day, a young, handsome but poor shoemaker’s apprentice named Krak asked the king if he could try to slay the dragon. The king said he could try, but noted that he had no armour, no horse and no sword. The apprentice had only his shoemaker tools and a plan. He didn’t need armour, a horse, or a sword.

Krak bought a deed sheep from the butcher and some sulphur (a powder that is used in making matches) from a miner. Then he cut the sheep open with his sharp shoemaker’s knife, stuffed it with the powdered sulphur and then sewed the sheep up with the shoemaker’s thread. He put the sheep by the dragon’s cave and waited behind a rock for the dragon to come out.

After a while, the greedy dragon came out from his cave. He saw the dead animal and greedily ate it. The sulphur caught fire, like a match, and the dragon felt his stomach burning. He ran to the river to quench the fire in his stomach, but drank so much water that he filled up like a balloon. He kneeled down and was very sick.

Krak came out from behind the rock, and began to throw stones at the dragon. The monster tried to blow fire at him but because of all the water he drank, all that came out from his mouth was steam. The dragon kept trying to breathe fire, but because he was so swollen, he exploded and died. At last the people were free of him.

Krak and the princess married. After her father, the King, died, Krak became King, as promised. He built a castle on top of Wawel Hill and for hundreds of years it was where the Kings of Poland lived. Around the hill, the people built a city which they named Krakow, after their new king.

This fire-breathing dragon lives below the walls of Wawel Castle, overlooking the banks of the Wisla River, and despite having a pair of black bras slung over one of his claws, is a prickly creature to behold.  You can take a lift down from the grounds of Wawel Castle or follow the footpath outside the Caste around to the river, past vendors selling plush or metal dragons, plastic knight masks, wooden swords and Polish bread snacks.

The castle grounds themselves are quite lovely with colourful flower beds adorning them, shady trees and cobblestoned pathways.  It’s nice to be here early before too many tourists arrive.

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For the remainder of the day, we had wanted to visit the Jewish Quarter, most notably Oskar Schindler’s Factory, but here’s where we discover that there’s not really any Wow factor in the Hop On bus.  The bridge to the area is closed for repairs to the large sightseeing bus, but they didn’t tell us.  When we pulled up outside one of the sights in the Jewish quarter, the small sightseeing bus was in front of us (they didn’t explain there were two busses and that only the small one would be going to the Jewish quarter).  Instead of saying “Hey, we aren’t going to the Jewish Quarter today but you can transfer to the small bus in front of us right now and it will take you there”, they said nothing.  It was only when we arrived back near our hotel that we realised what was happening and by that point, we would have had to repeat the route to get there.  So we had a quiet afternoon, and I was able to buy a suitcase to replace my backpack, so I could start buying a few souvenirs and bits and pieces.

After a bit of a rest, it was now time for some fun.  This evening we are catching up with Crazy Guides to do a Communism Tour with dinner followed by an 80’s style disco!  Our crazy guide is Cornelia and she speaks really good English, which she says she learnt from watching ‘Friends’.

Stalin apparently said “imposing communism on Roman Catholic Poland was as absurd as putting a saddle on a cow”.  But he went ahead and imposed it anyway, where it lasted from 1945 until 1989.  Crazy Guides have built up quite a reputation for their communism tours, and have even been recommended even by Michael Palin.  Their website is a crack up showing the crazy guides pulling crazy Russian style faces – check it out at www.crazyguides.com.

Picking us up in one of their vintage trabants which are renowned for constantly breaking down, our tour starts with a visit to the main square of Nowa Huta.  Driving in the trabant is like sightseeing on the back of a giant lawnmower, as we ‘over’rev our way through the streets to Nowa Huta.  We are told about some of the ‘gifts’ that Uncle Stalin gave to Poland, one of which was Nowa Huta.  It was meant to be a showcase of the communist regime.  A perfectly symmetrical community situated near a large scale steelworks, built in the 1950’s.  The steelworks accounted for nearly half the national iron and steel output and the suburb became an urban sprawl occupied by over 200,000 people.  It was an experiment, more or less, to inject industrial workers as an antidote to the strong aristocratic, cultural and religious traditions of Krakow, and it was of no interest to the planners that all of the raw materials would have to be transported from great distances in order to be produced.  On top of that, the steelworks caused catastrophic pollution.  Operations at the steelworks have been scaled down since communism topped (and in a more environmentally friendly way) and they can’t be visited, but you can still see the bland streetscapes.

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Outside the steelworks, I was given the opportunity to drive the trabant and I soon realised why Cornelia drove it the way she did – it’s nearly impossible to brake without the car stalling!

Next up, we visited an authentic communist apartment, where we were plied with cherry and lemon flavoured vodka and ‘forced’ to watch a propaganda movie about how wonderful life was in Nowa Huta and what a great city was being built for the people.  Over zealous smiles and everything just A-OK.

Welcome...
Welcome…
...to our warm and friendly apartment!
…to our friendly apartment!

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Vacuum cleaner or small rocket?
Vacuum cleaner or small rocket?
You know things are bad when the biggest deal in your life is collecting cans!
You know things are bad when the biggest deal in your life is collecting cans!
Queuing for the basics - in the 1980's!
Queuing for the basics – in the 1980’s!

Fully converted to a wonderful life in Nowa Huta, we return to the city centre to enjoy a VIP reservation at a Nowa Huta restaurant which has remained unchanged since the 1970’s (hey – back in my time!) and get a tasty Polish dinner of pork filet with mashed potato and cabbage – good old fashioned comfort food.  And we don’t have to go far to enjoy our 1980’s style disco because we are sitting right next to the dance floor!  When I booked this tour, I wasn’t quite sure what this part of it would entail, or how I would ever be able to sell it to my father, but with a smirk on his face, he agreed without any argument, so I booked it.  And it turns out the locals like a good disco too because in no time, the dance floor is crowded with couples waltzing around to Polish 80’s synth tunes and we all manage to have a dance (probably helped along by the vodka).

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I’m so glad Crazy Guides are making sure we get home alright…well, at least as far as the petrol station down the road, because this is where the trabant breaks down and we have to hail a taxi.  Hilarious!  We really, really enjoyed this tour.  It was eye opening to say the least and our guide was great.  It’s always great to see another side to the way things are or were.

By the way, if you are wondering what life was like under Communist rule – how about a game of Kolejka? Kolejka, which means ‘queue’ or ‘line’ was created by Karol Madaj who works in the Bureau of Education at Warsaw’s Institute of National Remembrance and aims to recreate communist shopping hell. Sold out on its first day of sale, this a monopoly like game where players have to line up to purchase a shopping list of items such as ham, bread and toilet paper.

Show Me Your Krak!

The word Krakow originates from ‘Krak’ or ‘Krakus’, and he, Krak, was the fabled ruler of the Vistulan tribes.  According to legend, he founded the city some time around 700AD, built Wawel Castle, slayed the Wavel Dragon (more about him a bit later) and beat back the armies of the Roman Empire.  Quite a busy guy.

Like many cities the world over, Krakow hosts its own Hop On Hop Off Bus.  Wow!  You may be thinking.  Well that’s what Krakow thought too, because that’s exactly what they named the bus route – Wow Krakow – and that’s what we are going to use today to get around.  It costs around $30 for two days of sightseeing, a load cheaper than the little electric carts you can rent and it seems to go to a few places off the beaten path, which I always enjoy.

But first up, there are a couple of things close to our hotel to check out – The Barbican and Rynek Undergound.

The Barbican was once a fortified outpost connected to the city walls.  Now it remains as a tourist attraction and as a marker to the entrance of the old town.  It was built in around 1498 and is one of only three surviving fortified outposts in the world Europe and this one’s the best preserved.

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Rynek Underground is a 4,000m2 exploration of medieval Krakow, where you can walk along authentic age old streets, 5m under the Main Square.  The museum combines modern technology with original world class artefacts.  The tour starts with a fog screen that allows you to walk through a thin wall and participate in the life of a medieval Krakow market.  You can hear all the sounds of market trade around you and see layers of actual cobble-stoned ground from the 13th and 14th centuries.  There are all sorts of audio visual and interactive guides to lead you on your journey and it’s really quite a brilliant trip to take.

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There was all sorts of interesting facts and information, like – do you know why medieval folk carried little pouches for their money?  That would be because medieval robes had no pockets!  And at one point Krakow’s dandy’s wore shoes so pointy that it was actually impractical to walk in them.

Rynek Underground runs from the corner of the cloth hall towards St Mary’s Basillica.  From one point within the room, if you look up to the ceiling, through the splashes of water spouts from the waterfall in the main square, you can see the spires of St Mary’s.  The market remains were excavated from 2005 through to 2010 and you would never know this museum was there unless you read about it.  A very informative and clever exhibition.  If you are in Krakow, make sure you go!

So now to the Wow Krakow bus and our first stop is Kosciuszko Mound located in Salwator.  It was constructed between 1820 and 1823 using soil from the battlefields where Tadeusz Kościuszko, the national hero of Poland, fought – the costs covered with donations from all over the country.  It was initially called Kościuszko’s Tomb.  Seen from just about anywhere in the city, it’s one of those places that most tourists consider to be unimportant, but let me tell – the effort is worth it.

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Top of Kosciusko

From the mound you can see the city.  I mean the WHOLE city.  At 333m above sea level, it’s the symbolic burial place of Tadeusz Kosciuszko, General, Polish & American national hero, freedom fighter and leader of the Polish Uprising.  The Mound itself is 34.1m high – hence the view.  It offers beautiful vistas of the entire Krakow and – in bright weather – also of the Beskids and the Tatra Mountains 100 kilometres away, which we could see today – if we knew which way they were!

And if you’re wondering why the name sounds familiar Aussies, it’s because the highest mountain in Australia was named in 1840 by Polish explorer Paul Edmund Strzeleck as Mt Kosciuszko, because of its resemblance to the Kosciuszko Mound.

I’m glad we made the effort!

After the climb, we ascend the Wow bus and drive through the streets of Kazimierz, full of interesting architecture.  Kazimierz is a historical district of Krakow which is home to the city’s Jewish quarter.   Named after King Kazimierz the Great in the 14th century, it’s world came tumbling down in September 1939 when Hitler made his mark on it.  As late as the year 2000, much of Kazimierz was still in ruins.  But it is undergoing a bit of a facelift at the moment and is fast becoming one of the hippest places to visit.

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When we arrive back in the old town, there’s a classic car display.  Engines are revving, cameras are going off and people are showing off.  There are some beautiful cars and the smell of fuel is intoxicating.   One by one they pull out on the road surrounding the square and do an honorary lap, before driving off into the sunset.

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From Zakopane With Love

The name ‘Poland’ originates from the tribal name ‘Polanie’ meaning ‘people living in open fields’.  And today, that’s where we are heading – to the fields.  Well, kinda.

A private tour to Zakopane and the Dunajec River Gorge awaits us today.  Zakopane is the most famous Polish mountain resort (it was even Pope John Paul’s favourite recreation spot!), located in the south of Poland, at the foot of the Tatra Mountains – the most beautiful and the only Alpine-like mountain range in the country.  While being the most popular winter sports destination, for the rest of the year Zakopane attracts tourists with its stunning take on nature, rich folklore and original culture.  Dad has been particularly interested in visiting Zakopane, having heard his mother talk about it lovingly. And I do have fleeting visions of gaudy embroidered cloths and engraved flutes adoring my Babcia’s house, which apparently came from Zakopane with love.

Only two hours drive from Krakow, and you arrive in the south of Poland where the Pieniny and the Tatra Mountains are situated.  We are on a private tour today with Janusz from Prime Tours so we can enjoy Zakopane in the comfort of our own company.

Along the way there’s a quick stop at the Chocholowska Valley with time to admire the wooden houses which are specific for the region and striking landscapes.  The main street of this 16th century village showcases traditional wooden cottages which are the best examples of highland architecture in the whole Podwhale region. Chocholow has a curious local custom that involves cleaning the walls of the building once a year until they are white.

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There’s a funicular between Gubalowka Mount  and Zakopane with breathtaking views of the Tatra Mountains from the top, though it’s a little foggy today.  It’s said to be the finest panorama of the Tatra Mountains from the northern Polish side of the range. The Tatras, the highest mountains in Central Europe, with alpine landscapes, lie within Polish and Slovak national park.  After a beer at the top of the mountain, we jump in the chair and down we go.

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We also have time for shopping at the traditional highlander market and shopping street.  Krupowki is the finest street in Zakopane. It’s lined with cafes, restaurants, exclusive souvenirs and art galleries and it’s impossible to avoid the market near the funicular railway station – on sale are kerpce (traditional moccasins), woollen pullovers, wooden ciupagi (sticks with decorative handles) and bryndza and oscypek (regional cheeses made from sheeps milk).

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Along the way, we stop at several historical wooden churches in the area.  Five of these wooden churches in the area are currently listed with UNESCO and some date back to the 15th century.  They were largely built with larchwood without the use of nails.

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The Dunajec River is a natural border between Poland and Slovakia. The river changes continuously from quiet to the bubbling of shallow mountain rapids and the highlight is taking an unforgettable leisure rafting trip on traditional, wooden rafts among the towering cliffs and the limestone rock formations of the breathtaking Pieniny Mountains. Depending on the level of the water, the trip takes between two and three hours.  The Dunajec is the only river that takes waters from the Slovak territory to the Baltic Sea.

Boarding  the raft in Sromowce, we set off rafting the route of 23km down the Dunajec River. The boat is led by experienced raftsmen, so its absolutely safe (and remarkably remaniscant of the raft trip Mum and I took in Arashiyama, Kyoto), with views of cliffs, trees and mountains.  We just sit back and relax.

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The view changes along the way and is really quite stunning.  The boat ride itself was a little long, probably given the chill in the air, and sitting on a wooden bench for two hours, but I can imagine it would be glorious if the weather was bright and sunny.

This is out last stop for the day, so we are back in the car and on the road home.  When we finally arrive back in Krakow it is lovely to see it lit up like a Christmas tree from afar.  It’s been a very long but interesting day and it’s always nice to get out and see the countryside.

Get that Knife away from my Sister’s Head!

Growing up I didn’t really know much about Poland.  I knew we had funny little folk costumes of garish red and green stripes, with peasant shirts and felt vests and ribbons and garlands of flowers for our heads, that there was different food at my Babcia’s (grandmother’s) house, and that my Babcia spoke a funny language – in fact even when she spoke English it still sounded funny: ‘please put in the light’ and ‘you have somesing on your mouse’ (translated to something on your mouth) always sent us into hysterics.

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So I can honestly say it’s been an absolutely fascinating experience researching this trip. I have devoured movies, documentaries, magazines and book after book, coming across amazing and unbelievable pieces of information day by day – these blog posts will probably be long because there’s just so much to say about this country. But I hope you will find it as fascinating as I do.

We were never taught to speak the Polish language apart from the odd word here and there and I don’t recall hearing stories about family. The contradictions of another language and strange customs were fraught with misunderstanding and, to a degree, fear of the different and unknown.

To be honest, as a young child, I mostly looked forward to visiting Babcia’s house because we were able to swing off the clothesline in the backyard and, if we were lucky, which was most of the time – there were lollies, especially the little fruit shaped jubes, all nicely boxed with a thin layer of paper covering the crystallised treasures from prying hands, awaiting us in the ‘sitting room’.

All my research, quite unexpectedly, made me pine for things lost and I began to feel as though a part of me had been missing all these years.  And slowly, as I read on, the pieces started forming a recognisable shape of my family before me and how I might have become who I am.

My grandmother’s family was from Warsaw.  My grandmother herself was visiting them in the countryside when war broke out, and she never went home.  From Warsaw they moved across Europe as displaced persons.  My father was born in Tehran, and then spent his early years in a migrant camp in Arusha, South Africa.  My Babcia and father boarded the General Langfitt bound for Fremantle and arrived in Cunderdin, to a community of Nissan huts, where they started their Australian life.  Australia was one of the only countries who welcomed single mothers with open arms.

Mum and Dad made their first ever trip to Poland several years back and let’s just say – it wasn’t on Mum’s list of favourite trips ever.  In Warsaw, they stayed with very kind and generous relatives who could speak only limited English (Mum speaks no Polish) and whom seemed to be apprehensive about letting them out of their sight.  Relatives who very kindly showed them the sights of Poland – mostly war memorials and sad relics of Warsaw’s past – but relatives that seemed, to my mother at least, to be fearful of something.  And then an angry little woman attendant in a public toilet shouted at her (in Polish) for not paying when she walked in – and I think that was it.  I can only imagine that the pieces of this puzzle came together to form a bleak picture of Dad’s family homeland.

It did make me recall an incident in my childhood – the inspiration for which became the title of this blog post – which I imagine summed up exactly how she felt.  At the time, my youngest sister would have been about four perhaps and, running around the house with my middle sister, collided with a wall or some other object.  I remember lots of tears and a huge lump starting to form on her forehead.  My Babcia was visiting at the time, and I remember her going into the kitchen in the flurry, searching through the drawers for a knife.  Procured knife in hand, she proceeded towards my sister’s forehead.  Hang on a minute, I thought, my nine year old eyes widening in fear – she’s going to cut the lump off her head. “Get that knife away from my sister’s head!” Panic, tears and screaming ensued as I begged my parents not to let her do this.  Yelling in two different languages filled the room. After several minutes, Dad finally revealed my Babcia’s intentions.  Turns out she only wanted to put the cool edge of the knife against the bump to help soothe it and make the swelling subside!

Unfortunately language and custom difficulties turned an innocent intention to a crazy situation and at our ages, it wasn’t something that we could just laugh off – it was another thing that made being Polish seem strange.

Now, from what I’ve heard, read and seen, I don’t get the picture that Poland is the cheeriest of places to visit – names such as the “Mausoleum of Struggle and Martyrdom” and the “Monument to those Fallen and Murdered in the East” don’t help.  But Poland has had a long history of battle to survive, having been invaded or having to fight for freedom 43 times between 1600 and 1945.  And at one point, Poland didn’t even exist when between 1772 -1795 it was divided up between Russia, Prussia and Austria and erased from the map!

“Cursed by its strategic location in eastern Europe, Poland had been invaded, sacked, and carved up many times, its borders ebbing and flowing; some village children learned five languages just to speak with neighbours.”

The Zookeeper’s Wife, by Diane Ackerman

In 1807 Poland was reborn as the Duchy of Warsaw under Napoleon Bonaparte, but his defeat in 1815 ended with Poland falling under Russian rule.  Not to mention what happened to Poland during World War II, when 85% of Warsaw (it changes depending on what book you are reading, but 85% is the lowest figure I saw) was raised to the ground under Hitler’s orders.

Needless to say, it’s been said that “Poland is a country half submerged in its heavily invaded past, fed by progress, but always partly in mourning.”

But you know I’ve always thought that it’s the things a country goes through that make it what it is.  So my goal for this trip is to take Poland for what she is, given her history (and most importantly my history), and insert some humour for good measure.

I arrive into Krakow from Budapest late, but I can see Mum standing at the arrival gate.  The airport is being remodelled, so it’s a bit of a tin shed, but seeing as I am travelling on the Schengen Visa, it’s awesome, cause I can just chat to Mum over the fence while I wait for my luggage.  I haven’t seen Mum and Dad for about three weeks now, because as I mentioned at the beginning of my trip, they have been making their way around other parts of Europe.

Our home for our stay in Krakow is a little place just off the old square, in the old town of Krakow (Stare Miasto), the Hotel Polski Pod Bialym Orlem, with a bit of character and surrounded by the old town’s defensive walls, next to St Florian’s gate.  The Florian gate is one of the best known Polish gothic towers.  First mentioned in 1307, it was built as part of a protective rampart around Krakow after the Tatar attack of 1241 which destroyed most of the city.  At the height of its existence the wall featured 47 watchtowers and 8 gates.

Opposite the hotel is the enchanting Czartoryski Dukes lane, with a statue of Mercury.  The hotel looks across to the medieval fortified city walls against which the artists of Krakow present their works.

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My room – yes we have separate rooms, because I like to sleep at night time and my parents like to snore (plus what if I run into that rich, young handsome Polish prince my Babcia was talking about me marrying!) – is very quaint.  Traditional folk rug on the floor, floral curtains which match my bedspread, carved wooden furniture and big windows you can open up to let in the fresh air.

An interesting fact to note is that the first floor in a building in Poland is regarded as zero.  So you need to press ‘1’ to go the 2nd floor when getting in an elevator.  Somewhat confusing – I hope the streets are easier to navigate!

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Our hotel is right in the mix of Krakow’s old town.  There’s so much to see and do here, apart from just wandering around and soaking up the atmosphere.  So we meander along the streets and make our first stop at the Cloth Hall, or Sukiennice. Originally built in the 13th century, expanded in the 14th century and re-modelled in the 16th century, it features food stalls, small shops, terrace cafes and flower stands – all surrounding a statue of Poland’s beloved writer/poet Adam Mickiewicz. From its very beginning in medieval times, it was a market hall and it is considered to be the world’s oldest shopping mall.

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Here you can buy Kracovian folk costumes, jewellery and other crafted objects and it’s apparently one of the places to pick up some amber. Most everyone returning from Poland brings back a piece of amber jewellery because that’s what Poland is, along with vodka and pierogis, known for.  This famous amber, which is fossilized tree resin, has been transported along the amber route from the Baltic Sea to the Adriatic Coast for over 1,000 years.

Moving along to fit in one last spot of sightseeing before the Polish night sky descends on us, we arrive at St Mary’s Basilica. From the tallest of its two towers, on the hour every hour, the bugle player plays the “Hejnal” (hey now).  According to legend, in 1241 as the Mongol invasion of Poland approached Krakow, a guard on the church tower sounded the alarm by playing the Hejnal and the city gates were closed before the city could be taken.  The bugler however was shot in the throat and did not complete the tune, which is why it now ends abruptly before completion.

We couldn’t actually see the trumpeter, the sound of his tune seemed to change with the wind, and we were running from one side of the church to the other trying to catch a glimpse without fail.  Thankfully we have a few more days to try and track down where the elusive trumpeter is hiding.

The square itself, is a lively place.  Young breakdancers, painted human statues, horse and carriages lining one side of the square and masses of pigeons.  As the sun goes down, hundred of candles illuminate the square, where diners tuck into their mostly oversized meals and relax with a glass of pivo (beer), blankets in lap to keep the cold at bay.

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I’m going to let the craziness continue by forcing my parents to dine at the Hard Rock Café tonight, which coincidentally sits right next door to St Mary’s.  This Hard Rock is home to the microphone Robert Plant used during an awards show in 1980, Billy Duffy’s (The Cult) 1960 Supro Val Trol guitar, Brian May’s butterfly shirt and Roy Obison’s blue and grey patent leather shoes.  But tonight I’ve got to say I’m here for the broccoli.  It’s been quite hard to find normal steamed vegetables on this trip and I now that I’ll find it here, accompanied by a good steak.  I know it’s not Polish, but sometimes you just got to do it.

After dinner, we pick ourselves a nicely plumaged horse and jump aboard the beautiful white carriage for a ride around the city.  It’s all very grand, listening to the clip clop of the horses hooves over the cobblestones, looking at the grand architecture of the streets and letting the excitement of being here soak in.

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I can’t believe I’ve finally arrived in Poland.  I can’t tell you how much I’m looking forward to the next week.  I hope you enjoy my journey too.