Thursday, September 21, 2023

Poland: a trip of a lifetime

 We had spent several days in Poland seven years ago on an extended tour of Central Europe.

Katie on our hike in the Tatra Mountains that border Slovakia

The visits to Warsaw, Krakow and Auschwitz whetted my appetite for a more extensive look at the homeland of my paternal grandparents.

We realized that the first two weeks of September with 15 days on a trip that extended from the the Tatra Mountains in the south on the Slovakian border to the Baltic Sea on the north near the Gdansk suburb of Sopot.

We also visited Wroclaw, Torun, Poznan, Auschwitz, Zakopane, Gniezno, and Malbork, as well as revisiting Auschwitz, Warsaw and Krakow.

It was an exhausting trip that revealed to us an historically significant country that is central to Europe's war torn and cultural history.

My big takeaway was how Poland has overcome adversity and its powerful neighbors like Russia,  Austria, Germany and Sweden to become a vibrant, modern country.  The future, not withstanding an invasion by Russia, looks bright.

The biggest battle it has won is re-emerging as a nation in 1918 after 125 years after Russia, Austria and Prussia consumed it.  Then, just 11 years later,  Germany and the Soviet Union, invaded and conquered it, and then after WWII the Allies agreed to adjust its borders, taking the eastern part of the country and giving it to Ukraine, and expanding the western border into Germany.  It wasn't until 1989 that Poland finally shook off domination when the Soviet Union collapsed.

On this trip we saw ample evidence of the effects of war on this country in places like Poznan and Warsaw. 

Given Communist hostility toward religion I was surprised how well Poland's Catholic churches held up.  We toured many of them and even those that had been damaged by the various wars were reconstructed beautifully.  While the Catholic Church flourished while uniting the country against Communism, it, like in other western European countries, is in decline.

Poland has been flooded by Ukraine war refugees, but the country has absorbed them seamlessly into its thriving economy.

We didn't see much indication of fear of the war in Poland.  But when the topic of the war came up, there was an optimism that Ukraine would prevail.

Poland is an exceedingly safe place to be given its lack of crime.  One of our tour guides told us that her daughter had hoped to go to college to become a forensic investigator but was dissuaded because the country has such a low crime rate.

Other guides indicated that Polish emigres are coming back to the country and that students who at one time would have chosen the United States for a student exchange are now shunning America because of gun violence and fear of our crime.

So, highlights of this trip were the modern Warsaw, the beauty of Gdansk, the safety of the country, the High Tatra Mountains, the recovery from World War II and communism, and Poland as a tourist destination.

I was very surprised to see the high number of tourists in places like Krakow and Zakopane.

It is also an extremely inexpensive place to tour.  A fancy meal for two with alcohol, dessert and the tip would come to no more than $25-$30. Our bus trip from Krakow to Zakopane 60 miles away was $4 per ticket.  Entrance to the Tatra National Park was $4.  Our bed and breakfast in Zakopane was $66 per night.

Generally, I found Poland to be overcrowded everywhere.  Perhaps it's my Montana sense of space.  Poland is only 80 percent as large as Montana, but has 40 million people, while Montana has 1 million.  There were lines everywhere, and market squares were overrun.  It was bumper to bumper on the highways.   I didn't like this part of the trip.

The country's landscape is quite varied.  I felt like I was in America's Midwest on the country's western side.  The Tatra Mountains, though lower than the Rockies, are real mountains. The forests in the mountains of the southwest in Silesia are impressive.  There's the Baltic Sea.  We didn't have time to go to the extreme northwest near Belarus or Lithuania, but I'm told this Masurian area is as lake-filled as Minnesota.

While Poland is predominately white, we did see black people, and veiled Muslims and Hispanics.  I was impressed by the height of the people, particularly the beautiful and fashionable women.  The men, as a rule, are stout and barrel-chested. 

We had pleasant encounters with the locals, particularly our Air B n B  hostess, Magda, in Zakopane, who kindly baked us the Polish szarlotka apple cake specialty, and relatives of  Great Falls friends in a suburb of Krakow, who had us over for a visit.

I got to test my limited Polish language skills , and it went well.  I could read many signs, and menus, and ask simple questions and understand the answers.

The moving sculpture in Wroclaw commemorating the Katyn Massacre
We quickly got our fill of the Polish dumpling, the pierogi, opting for more international food from other countries.  I guess you could say we experienced the so-called European "Tomato-Potato Divide," and found ourselves in the camp of southern Europe that favors the tomato-fresh fruits and Mediterranean diet as opposed to the heavier northern European fare that likes the root vegetables, meats and heavy creams.

I would love to return to Poland to see some of the sights we missed on this trip ---- the last remaining European bison herd in the Bialowieza National Park near Belarus, the Masurian Lake Country, and Galicia in the southeast.

I'm not holding my breath I'll ever be able to see those parts of Ukraine that were once part of Poland where my grandfather was born, given the Russian invasion.

The monument in Gdansk to the Solidary Movement founded in that port city

Katie and I in Sopot on the Baltic Sea

Katie enjoying a sunset in Gdansk

The Warsaw skyline at night

The Birkenau concentration camp receiving gate at Auschwitz

The twin church towers at night in Wroclaw

General Kosciusko in the Battle of Reclawicka diorama in Wroclaw

Malbork Castle of the Teutonic Knights, largest brick castle in the world

The grand palace in Warsaw often compared to Versailles

At the Josef Pilsukski statue at the Belvedere Palance in Warsaw's Lazienki Park

It is more likely we'd go back through the lovely country of Slovakia to recross the Tatra Mountains.



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