Chris brought his kids and his parents to experience the country where his family came from. Chris did an overview of the country on a bus tour.
Chris started in Warsaw with the Saxon Gardens and the historic center of the city. Much of the city was rebuilt after the bitter fighting at the end of World War II and the Warsaw uprising destroyed 90% of the city. Chris’s tour visited the tomb of the unknown soldier. You may leave your heart in Warsaw (at Holy Cross church) like the composer Chopin did, although hopefully less literally.
On the way to Częstochowa, they stopped at the pilgrimage site of Jasna Góra Monastery to see the black madonna. The monastery also holds items from Pope John Paul.
“In my opinion, Krakow was one of the most beautiful places in Poland. I absolutely loved it. I probably could have spent two weeks just in Krakow. The old town square is a UNESCO world heritage site.” At St Mary’s Basilica, there is a trumpet player that plays a song, but the song ends abruptly to remember the trumpet player who warned of an attack in the 13th century but was killed for his troubles. They also visited the Wawel Castle on the hill overlooking the city which was the traditional home of Polish Kings. They visited the old Jewish neighborhood of Kazimierz where Schindler’s factory was located. They also visited the Wieliczka Salt Mine which is a UNESCO site and includes an entire cathedral carved from salt.
Chris also visited Zakopane which is the winter capital of Poland and the home to the Polish highlander culture and the source for a lot of Polish folk music.
Auschwitz (another UNESCO site) left a big impression on Chris as well as his son. Seeing all the abandoned items of some of the victims helped personalize the horror of the place. The site has a taped tour so that visitors can take it in at their own pace.
Their tour also included the hometown of Pope John Paul. They saw more UNESCO sites in Wadowice, Świdnica, and Toruń, and also visited the Baltic coast town of Gdańsk (formerly Danzig).
Cover photo by Gary Arndt of Everything-Everywhere.com.
Travel to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania – Episode 259
Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
Warsaw Old Town
Warsaw Uprising Monument
Holy Cross Church
Sofitel Warsaw Victoria
Jasna Góra Monastery
St. Mary’s Basilica
Radisson Blu, Krakow
Wieliczka Salt Mine
Grand Hotel Stamary
St. Elizabeth’s Church
Churches of Peace
Leaning Tower of Toruń
Best places to visit in Poland
Chris C: Amateur Traveler Episode 441. Today the Amateur Traveler talks about pierogis, klezmer music, cathedrals, synagogues, and unfortunately concentration camps as we go to Poland.
Welcome to the Amateur Traveler, I’m your host Chris Christenson. This episode of the Amateur Traveler is sponsored to you again by BloggerBridge. If you’re a company looking to connect with bloggers check out bloggerbridge.com.
Chris C: I’d like to welcome back to the show Chris Bogdon from Pittsburgh, who’s come to talk to us about Poland. Chris, welcome back to the show.
Chris B: Hey, Chris, thanks for having me.
Chris C: I say welcome back, it has been, what, three or four years since you were on the show doing Episode 259 on your hometown of Pittsburgh, but this time we’ve gone a little further afield. What brought you to Poland?
Chris B: Well, a couple things. Number one, I’m half Polish so both my wife and I are half Polish and we wanted to go back to where our family was from, but more importantly, we wanted to take our kids and wanted our kids to kid of experience Europe and we got to go with my kids’ grandparents. We wanted to go with them and make it kind of a big family vacation to show that this is where we came from.
Chris C: Interesting. You did this on a bus tour so this isn’t independent travel just so people know.
Chris B: Yeah. So we left out of Toronto. We left out of a tour company called Chopin Tours from Toronto and they specialize in basically Polish travel, not really Eastern European, basically Polish travel. It was a two-week bus tour and we went in 2013 in August, the first week of August. We were there for about two weeks.
Chris C: Okay. Then this one is going to be an overview of Poland so we’re not going to go into great detail on any of the cities. We’ve previously covered Krakow if people are interested in more information about that city and I suspect in the future we’ll do other episodes focusing in more specific on some of these, but what was your itinerary?
Chris B: Okay. We basically saw the entire country and the itinerary was we started in Warsaw, that’s the normal place that someone would fly into Poland. It has the largest airport. Unfortunately we only spent one day there and in hindsight I probably would have liked to have spent more time in Warsaw. It was a very big city which really surprised me and it kind of reminded me, believe it or not, of like Washington, D.C., mainly because of the whole capital of the country and you saw a lot of the buildings like that.
Whenever we landed, as soon as we flew from Toronto to Poland, basically the first day we just took a walking tour and the whole bus trip. They dropped us off and we had a tour guide and we basically walked around normal sights in Warsaw that basically were the top sites to see.
The first thing that really surprised me about it that they told us was that Warsaw was really the City of Gardens and what they said is a quarter of the city was actually filled with parks and gardens. It was very beautiful from that perspective, and one of the gardens that we went to that I would probably say would be a good place to start would be called Saxon Garden. It was actually where they have there in Poland the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, so it’s very similar to what we have in the United States but literally there’s a Tomb of the Unknown Soldier right in the middle of the garden.
When we went in 2013 it was under construction. They were renovating the park, but still we got to experience it and it was definitely a very nice way to start the trip.
Chris C: Now when you talk about touring, I assume you’re touring the historic center of the city mostly since it’s a large city. You’re obviously not walking the whole width and breadth of the city. But the one thing I wonder is I know that there was a whole lot of fighting in Warsaw during World War II because of the uprising for instance, and so it was fairly flattened. How much of the historic center is left, or rebuilt, I should ask you?
Chris B: Well, the funny thing about it is it was completely rebuilt and whenever we went on the tour, obviously every time in Poland we went to the historical town, that’s just the typical European thing.
Chris C: Sure. Right.
Chris B: Whenever we went through there they were telling us histories. They supposedly said that 90% of Warsaw was destroyed within World War II and it was completely rebuilt, so literally you couldn’t tell. Obviously you still see bullet-holes on some buildings and things like that but they said literally the entire town was rebuilt.
What was really interesting is the Warsaw Uprising was like the famous uprising in Warsaw and it was an amazing kind of a monument that we got to walk to. It wasn’t far from the Old Town, kind of the center of Warsaw, but it was basically a monument that kind of symbolized that whole Warsaw uprising. If people are not aware of it, basically what it did is whenever Germany or the German soldiers and the Russians were kind of converging on Warsaw, a lot of the people in Warsaw decided to rise up.
Chris C: This is the Germans are about to leave Warsaw . . .
Chris B: Yeah.
Chris C: . . . and the Russians are advancing.
Chris B: Exactly.
Chris C: Yeah.
Chris B: Then I guess what happened is when the Russians started advancing they stopped short of Warsaw and then all the Polish residents had to fight for themselves. Supposedly they fought for 63 days and according to what I read and what they told us, is it was one of the single largest resistant movements in World War II in Europe. So it definitely was impressive. They said 90% of the buildings were destroyed and what was very interesting is the week that we were there they were filming a movie on the Warsaw uprising and it was really nice because you had people dressed in World War II clothing and it really put you back into that picture of maybe what it kind of felt like in World War II.
It was hard to tell that it was rebuilt but it definitely was. Like all towns in Poland, the historic Old Town is absolutely amazing. It’s probably one of the most famous pictures of Warsaw. Every time I see a picture of Warsaw they always seem to show the historic Old Town and it is a UNESCO Heritage Site as well and that’s something that I guess all people when they go to Warsaw they have to go.
Chris C: Okay. Any particular building, museum, or site stand out from that historic center?
Chris B: No. Unfortunately we didn’t really spend a lot of time at museums in Warsaw and, like I said, if I could do it again I definitely would.
Chris C: Right. You said just the one day.
Chris B: But definitely, there’s just a lot of sites to see, really nice sites around Warsaw. One place we did walk past that they told us to look out for is a place called the Holy Cross Church. That is where Chopin’s heart is actually in a display. Like you can’t see it, but there is an exhibit outside that after Chopin died, basically this is where his heart resides. So that’s something that is definitely a tourist stop in Warsaw as well.
Chris C: Okay. Anything else we want to talk about Warsaw before you move on?
Chris B: No. The last thing is since we were on this tour, I’m going to kind of recommend some hotels that we stayed at. We actually stayed at a hotel called the Sofitel Victoria in Warsaw. It was included in our trip. It was literally right across from the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. So the Saxon Garden which I was talking to, it was a great location, nice hotel, and it was just in a very central location. It was within walking distance of the Old Town and stuff like that but that was where we stayed in Warsaw.
Chris C: I think of Sofitel as kind of a business class hotel chain in Europe.
Chris B: Yes. Actually the nice thing about this tour is every hotel we stayed at was a nice business class hotel. They all had very good breakfast buffets and things like that. Like you said, if we would have planned the trip ourselves we may have stayed at different places, but it was all included in the tour and it definitely made the tour extremely nice.
Chris C: Okay. Excellent. Where did you go from Warsaw?
Chris B: Warsaw is kind of in the eastern center of Poland. From there we started south on our way to Krakow. The first stop on our way was about 221 kilometers south of Warsaw and it was a town called Czestochowa. One of the things about Poland is there’s a lot of Catholics in Poland, so churches, religious places are very big there. Czestochowa basically there’s a monastery there called the Jasna Gora Monastery and it’s probably one of the more famous pilgrimage locations in Poland. I guess what is big there is there’s the Black Madonna there.
Chris C: Okay.
Chris B: It’s a very famous monastery, very famous Madonna, there’s tons of people there and it’s definitely something that if you’re into kind of seeing the whole religious pilgrimage type things, it is definitely a place to go. We definitely enjoyed it. A lot of great pictures there and there’s a lot of historical things also.
For example, whenever you go in and you see the Black Madonna there, there’s actually things from Pope John Paul II, actual garments that he wore when there was an assassination attempt on his life and they were there because of all of the miracles which occurred. It’s definitely something that is very important to Polish people. There’s a lot of Polish culture even in the U.S. that are very big on the Black Madonna. There’s a lot of the shrines around the U.S. and it’s definitely something that if you’re going past it, it’s definitely something that I’d recommend to stop.
Chris C: Excellent.
Chris B: That was a short couple of hours we spent there and then we made our way to Krakow and Krakow is about 142 kilometers south of Czestochowa. This is kind of more in the southern part of the country. In my opinion, Krakow was probably one of the most beautiful places in Poland. I absolutely loved it and I probably could have spent two weeks just in Krakow. It was just a great a place.
Once again, the Old Town was a UNESCO Heritage Site as well and it was just absolutely an amazing place. One of the things that really impressed me about being at the old square in Krakow is I’ve been to Italy, I’ve been to Germany, I’ve been to a lot of other countries in Europe, and literally if you sit in the old square in Krakow and if you close your eyes and kind of not listen to the language around you, you will feel like you’re in any other country in Europe. It just has that same European feel and it was just absolutely awesome. We loved it and the nice thing about the old town square in Krakow is it was closed to all traffic. Only pedestrian traffic was allowed around that square.
Chris C: As I recall, Krakow is a little different from Warsaw in that Krakow was relatively undamaged in World War II and so these are the original buildings rather than reconstructions.
Chris B: Yes, yes. So this was a bit different. This wasn’t damaged like Warsaw was. All of these buildings were whole.
The one famous thing is Saint Mary’s Basilica. It’s a church in the Old Town square and basically it was an interesting story there. Two towers that they were building the church, they’re different sizes and supposedly the story there is two brothers were trying to build these towers and see which one can build the towers of the church higher. I guess the older brother was dismayed that his tower was shorter so he actually killed his younger brother. That’s one of the stories as to why this church has two towers of different sizes.
The very famous part of those towers is something called the Trumpeter of Krakow. What this is is every hour on the hour there is a trumpet player that plays a song and in the middle of the song it is abruptly stopped in mid-stream and it represents in the 13th century the trumpeter was there to warn the town of attackers. What happened is one time he was playing this song and one of the attackers shot him in the throat with an arrow. It represents that song and kind of that 13th century [inaudible 00:12:51]. So that is awesome. It’s something that you just stand in the middle of the square and you listen to and it’s pretty amazing from that perspective.
Chris C: Excellent.
Chris B: From there another famous thing in Krakow is the Wawel Castle and it’s kind of the home to a lot of the kings of Poland. We got to tour that and it was absolutely amazing. It’s kind of on the hill overlooking Poland and we spent actually a lot of time there. There was a very good art museum there so there was a lot of art, there was a lot of religious type things there. I guess the one thing about it is back in 2010 the Poland president actually died in a plane crash in Russia.
Chris C: Right.
Chris B: His remains are actually buried in that castle. There’s a room for him and his wife, to talk about him and what he meant to Poland, so that’s definitely something I’d recommend as well.
Chris C: Yeah. In fact, conspiracy theorists would say that he died under suspicious circumstances in the plane crash in Russia but I’ll let you be the judge of that.
Chris B: Yes, that is absolutely true. The other interesting thing about Krakow is we stayed at a hotel, it was called the Radisson Blu Krakow. Really nice about it is it literally was two blocks from the Old Town and it was a great location, everything there was was within walking distance. Either we could walk to the Wawel Castle, we could walk to the Old Town, so I definitely recommend that one as well.
The other thing that did happen in there is one of the oldest universities in Poland was the Jagiellonian University in Krakow and it was founded in 1364. One of the things that happened was when Hitler entered Poland, one of the things he did was he closed this university and this is one of the first universities that he sent all of the professors to the concentration camps. So that was kind of the big famous thing about this one back in World War II. But it is there and it’s right near the Old Town square as well.
Chris C: When we say “entered”, we mean the word “invaded”.
Chris B: Exactly. Exactly. Yeah.
Chris C: Wasn’t a polite invitation, yeah.
Chris B: No, it was not a polite . . . From there the other thing we did is we went to the old district and I’m probably not going to pronounce the Polish word very well, it was called Kazimierz. What this was was basically where the Jewish population lived. We actually got to eat at a Jewish restaurant there, which actually was very interesting. We got to hear a live klezmer band playing Jewish music in the restaurant, but what was really interesting about this section is this is where Schindler’s factory was, so if you know the history of Schindler’s factory . . .
Unfortunately, we didn’t get to stop. Once again, the bad thing about being on a tour is sometimes you don’t get to stop at those museums we want to, but we got to drive past where Schindler’s factory was and there was a pretty nice monument there. If I ever went back I’d definitely would like to stop there.
The other thing that was really interesting in this part of town it just gave you a different feel because it was very Jewish, all the writing on the walls was in Jewish, all of the restaurants were. A lot of Schindler’s List was actually filmed in this spot also so there’s a lot of the pictures you could see from the movie of Schindler’s List so I definitely recommend that. That’s a very famous part and what someone told me is that, I guess during World War II, 64,000 Jewish people basically left their homes there for Auschwitz and basically only 6,000 returned. So it’s definitely a nice place to stop from a historical value in Krakow.
Chris C: Just to keep us from getting comments on the episode he does know that when he talks about Jewish writing on the walls we’re talking about Hebrew.
Chris B: Yeah. I knew that, I was just about to say that. I can’t believe I said that. I apologize.
Chris C: That’s all right.
Chris B: So then finally there we went to a salt mine.
Chris C: Oh, excellent.
Chris B: Southern part of Krakow there’s something called the Wieliczka Salt Mine and it’s, once again, another UNESCO World Heritage site and it’s one of the world’s oldest salt mines. It’s about 1,000 feet deep and what is very interesting, there’s a lot of claims to fame, but one of the things about this was in the salt mine itself there’s an entire cathedral carved out of salt. The altar, I mean it’s absolutely amazing. Pictures can’t even describe it but it was just amazing how big this underground cathedral is carved completely out of salt. Everything, even the chandeliers were actually carved out of salt.
Chris C: Oh, interesting. Okay.
Chris B: So this is definitely something that I think a lot of tourists stop at. It’s definitely well worth it and I would have to definitely say it’s something you definitely should see. No, the one thing I was going to say is if you do go there, you have to pay to take pictures. You can’t just walk in and take pictures. There is a fee for the ability to take pictures.
Chris C: That’s true in a lot of places. The one thing I should say relative to that salt mine which is a World Heritage Site, I think you may have mentioned.
Chris B: Yep.
Chris C: There is an interesting “This Week in Travel” moment where Gary Arndt, my co-host on that show, the second travel podcast that I do, actually called us while we were doing an episode of “This Week in Travel” that he wasn’t able to make it to from the salt mine, from however many feet down, and was talking to us on a video chat and it would have been this great moment. It just happened unfortunately to be one of the only episodes of “This Week in Travel” that we’d forgotten to press the record button and so we have no evidence of that moment.
Chris B: Wow.
Chris C: So I have seen the salt mine that you’re talking about, but only on a video chat.
Chris B: Okay, cool. Yeah, no, it definitely was worth while and at first I wasn’t sure if I’d like it but I have to admit it was definitely something that you definitely have to see.
Chris C: Yeah, no, it’s a very significant in terms of historically. I mean back when salt was very expensive, somebody was worth their salt, as it was.
Chris B: Yep. One of the things we really enjoyed doing, because we were with the family, is every single night before the kids went to bed we went into the Old Town and just had a beer and dessert at the Old Town square and it was probably some of the most beautiful things that I recall from the trip. Just sitting there every single night in Krakow and just enjoying kind of the food with all the atmosphere around it. It’s definitely something that I would recommend.
Chris C: Just before, I want to get to the food here for a second. The one thing we forgot to mention, the salt mine you mentioned the cathedral but you didn’t mention the carving of the Last Supper out of salt which I think deserves a mention.
Chris B: Yeah. You’re absolutely right.
Chris C: In terms of Polish food, I don’t know that I really know Polish food that well. What kind of things were you eating at the restaurants in Poland?
Chris B: Actually, because we were on a tour, they got basically a pretty much basic meal each time. Nothing was crazy because there was obviously a bunch of people that we had to take care of with their different tastes, but what we did is we were able to go out and eat on our own. That’s when we got to try different things, different types of pierogis, or different types of fish.
Chris C: Pierogis, all right.
Chris B: We got to eat just all types of food. The food was very similar to what you get in a typical kind of Polish church or a Polish restaurant here in the U.S. Nothing was crazy, there was nothing out there.
Chris C: See, I don’t know that I know what I would get at a Polish Church or a Polish restaurant. That’s why I was asking. Pierogi is the one thing I know.
Chris B: Well, pierogis are definitely one thing and we seemed to eat a lot of the pierogis there.
Chris C: Describe what a pierogi is for our listeners.
Chris B: A pierogi is like a dumpling, so it’s like a potato dumpling filled with something. I guess the normal pierogi that you would get in the U.S. is you would get potato or cheese kind of in a dumpling. The one thing I found out in Poland is there was a lot more different types of fillings you could use in pierogis. In the U.S., you can sometimes get fruit, like around Easter you can get cherries or blueberries or prunes within a pierogi. But we were at some restaurants where we had like liver in pierogis and I had to try it. I had to try it, and it definitely was good. So I definitely enjoyed that.
There’s a lot of the soups. We tried a lot of different soups in Poland also but the food is, I think, most people would like the food because there’s nothing crazy there, there’s nothing very spicy and there’s nothing obscure from that perspective. There’s just a lot of meats, potatoes, food like that.
Chris C: Of course you’re talking to someone who likes it very spicy so . . .
Chris B: Well, actually that’s the same thing with me. I love spicy food so I didn’t find too much hot sauce in Poland.
Chris C: Excellent. Where to next?
Chris B: From there we went to a town that was basically on the border between Poland and Slovakia. It’s a town called Zakopane and it’s a very small town. There’s only 28,000 people but this town is very significant to me and my family in a variety of reasons. Number one, first of all, this is the Winter capital of Poland so this is where people go to go snow-skiing things like that. Even though there’s only 28,000 people there there’s really a quarter million visitors a year to go to Zakopane.
The reason why it’s kind of important to me is on weekends I actually play in a Polish polka band in the U.S. and a lot of the music and a lot of the culture that we play in this band comes from this region of Poland. It’s kind of a region called the Polish Highlander culture. They call them the Goral or the mountaineer people, it’s just a different type of culture. It’s where a lot of the ethnic Polish stuff that we see in the U.S. in Chicago or in different places like that, this is the region where that ethnicity comes from.
Chris C: Now is that because that particular region tended to immigrate more, or . . .?
Chris B: I think so, but the other thing I found out, learning more about this culture, is these are people that are very proud of their culture.
Chris C: Okay.
Chris B: It’s a very small part of Poland but it is so important to their culture. To this day people still dress up in kind of the Polish Highlander outfits. The men wear thick wool pants even in the summer because that’s just what their culture does. They’re very proud of their heritage and it’s a very beautiful part of Poland also. It’s very different because it’s in the mountains so everything’s made out of wood. It’s in the mountains, a lot of the trees and all of the houses are made out of wood. It kind of reminds you of like a typical town, actually, for me in Pennsylvania, in the mountains, the ski resort towns, things like that. But it’s just a very nice place to stop and see.
Chris C: Okay.
Chris B: One of the things we did there, we stayed at a hotel called the Grand Hotel Stamary, which is right downtown in Zakopane and it was once again within walking distance. There isn’t an Old Town, it’s not like kind of an Old Town in Krakow or Warsaw, but there was a downtown and there was a downtown shopping district where you could walk around and get a lot of Polish type things. Whether they be food, there was a lot of leather goods that we were able to purchase, and very nice stuff. Very good place to go and buy a lot of the souvenirs that you want to take back.
The one thing we learned in this region is there’s also this great cheese that I absolutely love. It’s called Oscypek. What it is is it’s a cheese made out of salted sheep milk. I just fell in love with the cheese and I tried to find it here in the U.S., but it’s much harder to find. It’s definitely something that if you’re in Zakopane you definitely should try some of that.
Chris C: Is that a hard cheese or?
Chris B: It’s a smoked cheese.
Chris C: Oh, interesting. Okay.
Chris B: So what they do is they kind of make it. When you’re driving up to Zakopane the funny thing about Zakopane is it’s like a two-lane road, it’s just a very small road you wouldn’t even think there’s like a resort town there. But there’s all these houses in the mountains and that’s basically where they make the cheese. They make the cheese, they smoke the cheese there, and they sell them in small pieces. You just grab them and you keep them in a paper bag and supposedly they’ll stay good for the entire trip. You don’t have to refrigerate them.
My wife did not like it. My kids really didn’t like the taste. But I just fell in love with the taste. With that and beer, it was just the perfect combination for me.
The other thing we did that, once again, because Zakopane was near the Slovak border, or Slovakia, there’s a river that runs between Poland and Slovakia and it was called the Dunajec River. One of the things we did, once again, because I play in a band and a lot of the people that were on this tour were about kind of music and stuff like that, you got to ride on a boat ride. Basically they take these flat-style boats and we got to go on a two-hour tour of this river between Poland and Slovakia. It was just awesome. It was a great experience.
What we got to do that was really interesting is we were there on a Sunday and I brought my accordion, I play the accordion. We had another guy that played the saxophone and the entire way down the river all we did was kind of play Polish folksongs and everyone was singing, then you’d come around a corner and get to a bunch of people on the Slovak side so we changed and we played Slovak music and then they all started singing. It was just a great experience and we had some great pictures of that boat-ride down that river.
Chris C: So you also know Slovak music?
Chris B: We did, yes. The one guy I was with he also knew some Slovak songs, we played some Slovak songs. He sang and then the crowd, the guide, the people on the side of the river were singing with us. It was just an awesome experience. It was one of the greatest experiences of my life, actually.
Chris C: Excellent.
Chris B: So then, like I said, we spent three days there. Probably you don’t have to spend three days there but we spent three days just because it was kind of our culture, it was our heritage.
Chris C: Sure.
Chris B: From that perspective.
Chris C: That makes sense and I think a lot of people as they’re going back on I want to say a heritage tour, and that really is what this is for you, it does make sense to spend more time in that particular area. For me it would be in the town of Thisted in Denmark, for instance.
Chris B: Yeah.
Chris C: Or wherever my German relatives are from, right.
Chris B: Exactly. Well, the funny thing about that is we actually did go to a restaurant. It was called Volucia Goshenko and it was actually in the mountains. What it was is they kind of put on a show for us in this restaurant. Basically the people dressed up in kind of the Polish Highlander outfits. What was really interesting about it is they had a live band there, and because they knew that I played music, they called me up to play with them and my wife and my kids and their grandparents got to dance and stuff like that.
It was real festive and what was really cool about it is after that they went outside and they built a giant bonfire and we just stood around the bonfire, played music, singing songs all night and it was just one of those experiences that I know my kids will never forget that. Same thing for me, from my perspective. I will never forget that for as long as I live.
Chris C: Every time you say “Highlander” I think “kilt” and I’m clearly getting the wrong mental picture there.
Chris B: Well, no it’s actually very similar. It’s not a kilt but it’s basically that Polish traditional outfit. That’s kind of the Polish culture. We left there and we stopped at a small town called Wadowice. The reason why we stopped there, that’s where Pope John Paul II was actually born.
Chris C: Oh. Okay, I knew I recognized the name but I was not coming up with what that was from. Okay.
Chris B: Yeah. So once again Pope John Paul was obviously very important. Everywhere you went there was a lot of things towards him since he was the first Polish pope, but we just got to walk around and one of the things that was really good was there was a restaurant behind the church that sold this pastry. It was called kremowkas. It was just the pastry that Pope John Paul loved and obviously it’s one of the most famous pastries because that’s what he used to eat in the town so we just had to stop and get some pastries. It definitely was good, don’t get me wrong, but I think it was more the historical fact that that’s what Pope John Paul did.
Chris C: Okay.
Chris B: From there, since we were in the southern, the next place we went was probably not the most exciting place to go in Poland but we stopped at Auschwitz. We could probably talk an entire day of Auschwitz so I don’t really need to go into all the details of Auschwitz. You could actually do a whole show on that right there. But it was about 130 kilometers from Zakopane. So we went to Auschwitz and we basically spent the entire day there. That obviously is another UNESCO Site and it’s definitely something that if you go to Poland, wherever you are in Poland, you have to stop there. It is a historical site, it was absolutely amazing, and it’s hard to even describe it. I know that my kids were kind of mentally exhausted just by spending the entire day there.
Chris C: Well, and I’m curious, how old are your kids?
Chris B: My daughter’s 13 and my son is 9. I don’t think my 9-year-old could grasp what it meant but my 13-year-old did. When you walk through some of the barracks, they basically have barracks where they uncover personal items from the people that were at Auschwitz.
Chris C: Right.
Chris B: It puts something towards that. It just ties it back to, “Hey, this was real. These people were real.” It’s hard to describe the feeling you get there. The one interesting thing about it that I didn’t know about Auschwitz is Auschwitz is the German name. The Polish name is actually Oswiecim. A lot of the Polish people, from the way I understand it, they don’t like to call it Auschwitz because Auschwitz was a German name. They would prefer to call it Oswiecim. So that was something that I didn’t know before we went to Auschwitz.
The other thing I didn’t know is there were several complexes of Auschwitz and a lot of the famous things you see on Schindler’s List or some of the movies, were actually at Birkenau, which is kind of right down the road a bit.
Chris C: Right.
Chris B: It’s much bigger, there’s not as much there now. Like the gates are there where the train went through and stuff like that, but it’s something you have to see. From what we heard at the time we went in 2013, they supposedly were building a joint-museum. Not sure if that’s done yet or not but that is something that may be open now.
Chris C: Well, and one of the reasons I was curious about the age of your kids is we have talked about Auschwitz way back in an episode we did with a family of four. I think it was fourintheworld.com was their blog, who had traveled around the world for a year. One of their memorable experiences was Auschwitz but they had four kids and the older ones went in and the younger ones, they had to decide at some point, how young is too young to understand, to appreciate, and even to deal with the kind of level of evil that you’re talking about that creates something like Auschwitz. They kind of decided that the two younger kids who were younger than your son’s age were still a little too young to deal with this.
Chris B: Yeah.
Chris C: I mean, I don’t think there is a kid’s book version of Auschwitz because I don’t know how you can talk about it.
Chris B: It’s hard to describe and it’s pretty much where you get to see a lot of it. You get to walk through some of the furnaces and some of the gas chambers and it has a very good tape tour. They gave everybody kind of the tape that described it, where you’re going as you’re walking through the different buildings. It’s definitely worth it.
One of the the best parts of it is after we left Auschwitz we went up the road to Wroclaw, which was the next town we stopped at. But we were talking to a lady on her bus on the bus trip, that it turns out her parents were actually in Auschwitz. She told us this absolute story about how her father was a shoemaker and he actually befriended one of the guards in Auschwitz and they asked him to make him boots. So this Polish guy actually made boots for this German soldier and in exchange for that, this guy and his wife got to leave Auschwitz.
It was one of those stories that was like, “Wow, this is real.” There’s a person here on this tour that had a personal tie here which actually I think put everything in perspective. But I do have to admit after we left there it was a very solemn ride the rest of the way to Wroc?aw, which was like 228 kilometers away.
Chris C: Oh sure. Yeah. I have to wonder as a tour company, what do you put after that on your itinerary. It’s like, “And now let’s go to a fiesta.” It’d be a tough thing to do.
Chris B: Well, I think the nice thing about it is Auschwitz wasn’t far from Krakow so I think if we went back to Krakow, we probably wouldn’t have enjoyed it that night much. But being that we were on a bus for another 228 kilometers, by the time you got to the town, it kind of passed.
Chris C: You had some time to process it.
Chris B: Exactly. It was definitely worth it. So basically what we did is the next town, like I said, we went to a town called Wroclaw, which was I guess if you look at a map it was on the Western center of Poland. It was a very nice town, some interesting things about it. It probably wasn’t my favorite town in Poland. We spent three days there, there was a couple UNESCO Heritage Sites there.
There’s something there called Centennial Hall which we had a stop at. Basically what it was was a recreational building. It was just a very large recreational building with some amazing fountains outside. I think the reason it was an UNESCO Site was because of the construction. Not the historical value, but, “Hey, this is a concrete building.” Just the construction techniques they used, which is why it was on the UNESCO Heritage Site.
The town of Wroclaw is actually on a River called the Odra River, O-D-R-A, and there’s 12 islands. The town is comprised of 12 islands there. It, like all other towns in Poland, have a very large market square, we spent a lot of the time there. This had a lot of outdoor restaurants so the one nice thing about Wroclaw is there was a lot of outdoor restaurants with a lot of different Polish food. We even ate some Italian food there. The one day we just wanted to go eat something different, so there was a lot of food around this market square.
Chris C: Just because we haven’t been talking about Polish spelling and understanding things.
Chris B: Yes.
Chris C: I believe that the town you’re saying is W-R-O-C-L-A-W.
Chris B: Yes, and I meant to say that is… I’m not the best…
Chris C: Even though you’re saying “vroat-swaw’.
Chris B: Yes.
Chris C: Their W’s a V, and our C is an S.
Chris B: Yes. So the W is a V, and the L there’s an L with a line through it so it’s like ‘Vroat-swaw’. But yeah, that’s exactly how you pronounce it.
Chris C: Interesting, okay.
Chris B: So the other interesting thing about this town when we were there that is very famous, and it’s kind of newer but it is very famous, is it started in 2001 but there’s a lot of gnomes. There’s a lot of these gnome statues throughout the entire town and it never really dawned on us until we got there, but it started in 2001. The reason why it started it was in support for an underground movement against the opposition of the communist government.
It started back in the ’80’s, it was a movement called “The Orange Underground Movement” and what they did was they created a gnome in one of the street corners and it just started spreading. So there’s like 300 of these little statues across all of the town, my kids were just absolutely in love with it because everywhere you went there was a different gnome in a different pose and stuff like that. It’s very famous from that perspective and it’s one of the tourist sites there also.
Chris C: Excellent.
Chris B: The other thing there was is there is a church there that actually had one of the best views of the town. It was called the St. Elizabeth Church Tower. It’s one of the oldest buildings in the Old Town and you get to climb to the top for just an incredible view of the entire town. So I definitely recommend, there’s like right off the Old Town square so that was really nice also.
The other thing that was nearby that I don’t even know why we went there at first, there wasn’t much in this town, but it was a town called Swidnica. What there was, and I think it’s because there was a UNESCO Heritage Site there also, but it is the largest timber-framed church in all of Europe. It is this enormous church called the Church of Peace. They’re trying to reconstruct it because it’s kind of falling in disrepair. It wasn’t far from Wroclaw, but it was just an amazing church and you could see they’re really trying to recreate it. Everything was in wood and not sure if it’s worth taking the drive to go see, but it was definitely interesting while we were there to go see this site.
Chris C: Okay.
Chris B: Once again, we spent about three days in Wroclaw. We ate at some nice restaurants and things like that, nothing really stuck out at me but then after we got done there we drove to Torun. So Torun was basically in the kind of Northern or center of Poland, and it was about 274 kilometers away from Wroclaw. Believe it or not we only stayed in Torun for one day, but it turned out to be one of the towns that I wish I could have spent more time there. It was just an amazing town and it’s a UNESCO Heritage Site also mainly because it was the birth place of Copernicus.
Chris C: Oh, okay, okay. Torun, why is that sounding familiar? Okay.
Chris B: Exactly. So it was the birthplace of Copernicus and there’s an amazing statue in their Old Town. It was a lot smaller and it was very medieval so it had a completely different feeling of everything single town we went there. It was basically the Teutonic Knights, the way the story is, they actually built a wall around the entire town so it’s very . . . just the feeling is completely different.
One of the other things that was very interesting is it wasn’t even touched in World War II. So this is one of the towns that it was almost like there were no soldiers there because there was no damage from the entire war. Like I said, we stayed there only one night. We stayed at a gorgeous hotel kind of right near the Old Town called the Hotel Bulwar. I wish we could have stayed there multiple times. I would have loved to gone and kind of see more of Torun, things like that. But it’s definitely a town that I definitely recommend to go to.
One of the other things that stood out about that town was they’re also very famous for gingerbread cookies. They make a type of gingerbread cookie there called “pierniki” and they were absolutely awesome. Just walking around the town square and purchasing them right there was just absolutely awesome.
Chris C: Of course it’s not unusual that Torun had a wall, what’s the unusual thing given where it is is that it kept the wall. So many of the cities that we know in Europe, when they outgrew the Medieval ages and during the ages of canons, tore down the wall because they weren’t that good a protection anymore anyway.
Chris B: Yep. The one other interesting thing we stopped at is there’s something called the Leaning Tower of Torun.
Chris C: Okay.
Chris B: Actually, I don’t know if that’s the true name, but that’s what they seem to call it. On one of the parts of the wall there’s a tower that they built on an angle and basically there’s all kinds of stories about it, but I guess the way the story goes is if you stand up against the wall they basically say that only those without sin can stand against it and not fall forward. So my kids thought it was really cool to go and try to stand . . .
Chris C: And were your kids able to do it? That’s really the big question.
Chris B: No. Nobody was. It’s something that you just can’t do. So it’s something, once again, it’s on the wall there and it’s definitely worthwhile but I definitely would recommend Torun. Awesome town, like I said, if I had to go back I would love to stay there and see more of that town. Then the other famous thing about me as I was talking before about the pierogis, that was the town where I had the pierogis filled with liver.
Chris C: Okay.
Chris B: Then from there we went to the last town and we drove 168 kilometers north of there to Gdansk.
Chris C: Oh, excellent.
Chris B: Yes. This was, believe it or not, one of my favorite towns also. It was absolutely incredible. It was built along a river, it kind of reminded me . . . it was kind of hard to describe but our hotel, we stayed at The Hilton, essentially right on the river itself. Basically there was a river walk there with tons of restaurants and tons of things like that around it. It was just a great place, especially to end our vacation.
If the listeners are not familiar, Gdansk is basically near the Baltic Sea. So it’s always on the northernmost part of Poland. It was a very important port in Poland also. It definitely had a different feel, the food was different because now you started to eat more seafood and it was just a complete different change from all of the restaurants we actually went to.
Chris C: Well, and we should say historically this is a Hanseatic League Town and so it had a real Germanic influence and Danzig, is the other name for it.
Chris B: Yeah.
Chris C: But I think the Germans largely got kicked out at some point, I think under the Soviets, but don’t hold me to that. We’ve actually done two episodes of the Amateur Traveler on Gdansk. You’ve just never heard them because unfortunately they didn’t quite make it. Not every episode of the Amateur Traveler works.
Chris B: Okay.
Chris C: So unfortunately we’ve twice tried with the same guest to do an episode on Gdansk and someday we will succeed but not so far.
Chris B: Well, it’s definitely something that I probably would do an episode on because there’s definitely a lot of things to see. The nice thing about it is when we went there there was a massive arts festival in down town so literally every single street that we were walking on was teeming with local artists and there was almost even like flea markets there selling European antiques and stuff like that. It was just awesome to walk up and down all of the streets and see those things.
Chris C: Well, and because it is one of those old trading cities, I mean, it reminds me of Amsterdam. It has a very different look to it . . .
Chris B: Yes, yes.
Chris C: . . . in terms of the historic part.
Chris B: Yes. The other thing that I didn’t know about, which is where some of the historic things, is there is a place north of it called The Westerplatte – I think that’s how you pronounce it. But basically what it was was a military depot, a little north of it right near the Baltic Sea. It turns out that was the first clash between the Polish and German forces in World War II. So that right there was actually where the European theater of World War II began.
Chris C: Oh. Because there were German forces in East Prussia.
Chris B: Exactly. Exactly.
Chris C: I was trying to think how can it be that far inland in Poland? Okay, of course. Because that wasn’t Poland at the time.
Chris B: It was actually strange because when we’re walking along the river walk there there was like a mock pirate ship and it was the strangest thing in the world to see a pirate ship there. Lo and behold we jump on this pirate ship and we go up the river and all this stuff like that, but where it ended up was kind of where this first battle of World War II began. There was a massive monument there, it basically commemorates that that where the first clash between the Polish and the German forces were. What was also an interesting thing about it is because that was basically right near the Baltic Sea, we got to basically, me, my, wife, and my kids got to go and walk in the Baltic Sea and just take off our shoes and walk around and just take some pictures up in the Baltic Sea so that was definitely worthwhile.
Chris C: Excellent.
Chris B: The other thing that was very important about it that we stopped by to see was obviously the Solidarity Movement. This was where the whole Lech Walesa started the Solidarity Movement. What it was is it was a social movement in Poland that basically was anti-Soviet. So back when it was a communist country, Gdansk, in those shipyards, was where that whole social movement began.
Chris C: Well, and I wouldn’t see it quite as anti-Soviet, at least in the beginning. It was pro-labor which should be pro-communist, but of course that was the irony there is that this does become the seed that eventually leads to the fall of the wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, but a lot of people give real credit to that movement as being the spark that started things.
Chris B: Yeah. It was interesting because it’s obviously very important in Poland, but Pope John Paul II was a very powerful supporter of that movement also. So there was a lot of, I think, Catholics behind it and things like that. But what we got to see is right where those shipyards, right where that movement, began. They were in the process of building . . . it sounded like they were building a museum there but it was just pretty interesting just to be there and to kind of see that historical value of what that place meant to the Polish people.
What we did is we took a couple side-trips and the side-trips were kind of interesting. We went to a town called Gdynia, G-D-Y-N-I-A, and there wasn’t much there, but what is important there is that is where the immigrants that came to the United States left from this port.
Chris C: Ah, okay.
Chris B: So it’s a port there. That’s where a lot of the Eastern European people, when they wanted to come to the U.S., that’s the port that they actually left from. So we had several people on our tour that their parents and they themselves came through this port and they’re in the process of building kind of a Polish Emigrant Museum there. It was just interesting to see. I tried to do some research to see where my grandparents came from and I could only surmise that that’s probably where they came through also.
Chris C: It depends. Quite a few came actually even as far over as Antwerp. There’s another museum which we’ve talked about on the show in Antwerp about the Red Star Line. What they did is they included with the price of your passage also a train ticket from as far away as the Urals or Ukraine or wherever. So some went that far and some went through other ports, so it depends.
Chris B: The other place we went to is we went to a resort town called Sopot, S-O-P-O-T, and it was a seaside resort. It was just an enormous pier, I think it’s one of the largest piers in Poland built out into the Baltic Sea. The day we went there there was like a Ferrari car show there that was absolutely awesome and just tons of people. It was on the weekend and it just pictures most sea-side resorts you’d see in the U.S. or most countries. That was very good to see.
Then the last thing on the way back to Gdansk we stopped at a place, it was called the Oliwa Cathedral, O-L-I-W-A. I guess what was very famous about this cathedral is its one-of-a-kind pipe organ. It was this amazing pipe organ there designed in the 1700’s. It’s built out of 5,000 pipes and it basically takes up the entire church and there’s all these different things and movements that go on as the pipes are going.
Every day there’s a 20-minute concerto that you have to be there before it to go in and listen to it. It was just absolutely awesome. To see it and see all the pipe organs and all the animations of all the pieces was just absolutely awesome. So if you wanted to go and see something like that, it was nearby and I would definitely recommend that also.
Chris C: Excellent. What surprised you about your visit to Poland?
Chris B: What surprised me, I think, was a couple things. Number one, whenever we went to Poland, everyone I told that I was going to Poland they would always ask, “Why?” They’re like, “Oh, there’s so many better places to go in Europe.” I’d think it’s one of those places. Like when you want to go to Europe you want to go to France, or you want to go to Italy, or Germany. Poland’s probably not one of those places but what we found out, and what really surprised us, is it is a great European destination just like all those other countries out there.
It feels like other European countries, it has the same feeling, and the same historical value. When I got back, I guess my answer to all of these people that said, “Why Poland?” My wife, myself, and my kids could just rattle off tons of reasons why if you want to experience a great European country, Poland is one of those places.
Chris C: Well, and my impression from what you’re saying is that you don’t have to be Polish to enjoy Poland at all, although I’m a little worried about that liver pierogi there, but other than that everything that you’re talking about in terms of all, especially the UNESCO World Heritage Sites which call out to me . . .
Chris B: Exactly.
Chris C: . . . definitely sounds like that’s not going to be something that, “Oh, gee. You’re not Polish. You’re not going to enjoy that.” Although it is one of those things that my family, or half my family are German, although where that town is now I’m not sure which side of the Polish-German border it’s on.
Chris B: The other thing that surprised me is I speak just very little Polish. Obviously if there’s a Polish person listening to this they’re probably going to think I can’t pronounce the words real well, but I think at the end of the day it was very easy to get around the entire country. Now, we did have some people on our tour that spoke fluent Polish, but we never felt like if my wife, myself, and my kids would go around, my kids would order food themselves. It seemed to be very friendly from that perspective.
Chris C: The one thing you haven’t said, which we talked about off-air, is that even though this was a bus tour you actually did have a lot of free time on this.
Chris B: Yes.
Chris C: So it isn’t like you were always with a tour guide every moment.
Chris B: No. We basically had a tour guide every day that we did a couple things, maybe three hours and then we’d have the rest of the day for ourselves. So we got to see a lot of stuff as a group, but then we got to do things on our own also. The other thing that surprised me me, and this is, I think, another reason why I say Poland is compared to other European countries I’ve been to, it’s very inexpensive.
Chris C: Sure.
Chris B: Very affordable because Poland is a member of the EU, so it is a European country or a member of the EU but they have their own currency. They’re not on the Euro, so it was very affordable. I went back to my Visa yesterday to look at all of the restaurants I went to when I was in Poland, and there wasn’t a meal that I ate, as a family of four, that we probably spent more than $70 at on the U.S. side.
We could spend $70 or more at a local chain restaurant back in Pittsburgh, but we would go we’d get wine, we’d get alcohol, we’d get dessert for a family of four and you could spend 70-some bucks, so it’s not too expensive from that perspective. I’ve been to Germany, I’ve been to Italy, I’ve been to the U.K. Obviously those are very much more expensive, so one of the reasons why I tell a lot of people is if you want to go experience a foreign country and if you want to experience a European country much more affordable, Poland is a great destination for that.
Chris C: Something you wish you had known before you went.
Chris B: I wish I would have done more research on some of the museums at some of these places.
Chris C: Okay.
Chris B: I do have to admit I didn’t do as much research on some of the museums. I wish I would have gotten to go see some because I would have really loved to kind of explore some of the history a little more, but the nice thing about it is it’s a reason for us to go back to Poland.
Chris C: You’re standing in the prettiest spot you saw in all of Poland. Where are you standing and what are you looking at?
Chris B: For us it was when we were in Zakopane, we were staying at the resort, we would open up our window every morning and we’d look at this beautiful mountain range. It was just absolutely incredible. The sun would be coming up on the mountain range and it was just a sight that I think I will never forget as long as I live.
Chris C: Okay. One moment when you realized Poland is not Pittsburgh.
Chris B: The only place I could think of that, and it’s kind of funny, I was thinking very hard about this, I think was Auschwitz. It just felt so distant to anything that I’m familiar with or my family or stuff like that. In that place when we went there to experience it, I just felt like I was in a complete different world from that perspective.
Chris C: As we get here to our final three questions, anything else that we should know before we head out to Poland?
Chris B: The only thing that you do have to know, always bring change with you because you need to pay to go to the restrooms.
Chris C: Sure.
Chris B: So when you’re walking around a lot of the little towns you have to pay to use a restroom. We found that out after the first day. The other thing is the last day when we were in Gdansk my kids were dying to try some sushi and I would not recommend sushi in Poland. That’s all I’ve got to say.
Chris C: Yeah. Okay.
Chris B: The food was great, trust me I recommend the food, but we tried sushi and it’s not what I would recommend.
Chris B: Well, and you had mentioned the meals that you were eating with the group didn’t stand out as much as the ones you did on your own and I find that’s pretty typical. I mean part of the thing with a bus tour is that you’re limited just to restaurants, for instance, for one thing, that can hold 40 people dropping by or by bus or two.
Chris B: That’s right.
Chris C: We’ve done a couple bus tours and I’ve found that to be one of the things that you give up, unfortunately.
Chris B: Yep.
Chris C: You give up that little tiny little interesting restaurant.
Chris B: Yep.
Chris C: As you know my style is not bus tours but the more free-time is definitely something that would make that more palatable to me than the death-march approach to bus tours.
Chris B: Exactly. Exactly.
Chris C: One thing that makes you laugh and say, “Only in Poland.”
Chris B: Well, I was talking to my wife about this and I do have to admit when you walk into a restaurant and you get pierogis with liver inside. It’s something I’ve never seen and it’s only in Poland.
Chris C: As far as I’m concerned, that can stay in Poland. Finish this sentence, “You really know you’re in Poland when . . .” What?
Chris B: I’ll tell you what, this is kind of a bigger story but you know you’re in Poland when you could walk down a street and you get a large chunk of bread slathered in lard and topped off with pickles. It would seem like every town we went to had that and we never knew it was lard until someone told us after three days. But literally you walk down the street, you get this giant piece of bread, great bread, slathered with lard, and then basically topped off with pickles.
Chris C: Did you like it until you found out it was lard?
Chris B: I did. The funny thing about it is on every single table they would serve you home-made bread and there would always be this thing there. Once again, it took us three days to figure out that it was lard. But every single day, every table, instead of getting butter and stuff like that, they would give you this whole jar or this whole little container of lard.
Chris C: So a warning to our vegan and vegetarian listeners that’s something to watch out for it sounds like when you go to Poland.
Chris B: Yes. Exactly.
Chris C: If you had to summarize Poland in just three words, what three words would you use?
Chris B: Affordable, under-appreciated and, finally, European.
Chris C: Excellent. Our guest has again been Chris Bogdon. Thanks so much for coming on the show, Chris, and telling us of your new-found love for Poland.
Chris B: Thanks, Chris.
Chris C: I want to remind you again that all episodes of The Amateur Traveler, including this one, are getting transcribed and that is all thanks to our friends at JayWay Travel. JayWay Travel is a leader in Eastern European travel such as Poland. So check out jaywaytravel.com and thanks to them for transcripts.
With that, we’re going to end this rather long episode of The Amateur Traveler. If you have any questions, feel free to send an email to host at amateurtraveler.com or to leave a comment on this episode at amateurtraveler.com. You can also follow me on Twitter @Chris2x, and as always, thanks so much for listening.
Transcription sponsored by JayWay Travel, specialists in Central & Eastern Europe custom tours.