Bialystok, Lake District, Poland
We had a happy reunion at Warsaw’s Chopin airport. The matter of our car rental was ably handled by our driver (Siân) and we ended up with a 1 series BMW for the same price of the Ford Focus that we had actually booked. No one complained. Unfortunately, the car did not have a map of Warsaw and once again, our skillful navigation saw us out of Chopin airport, through Friday evening traffic and on to the motorway heading east. No, our first stop was not Warsaw but north east to Białystok (pronounced Bee-ah-wee-stok). (Shyam and I are now so glad that we were persuaded by Siân to go east and not confine ourselves to the usual destinations of Warsaw and Kraków as the east of Poland is really beautiful.)We did not know any Polish words and so during the long drive, we taught ourselves a few Polish phrases and greetings. Dzień dobry ( pronounced jen dobry) means ‘Good Day’ and dziękuję (jen koo yeh) means ‘Thank you.’ ‘Tak’ which is thank you in Swedish means ‘Yes’ in Polish and before I knew this I was happily saying ‘tak’ for thank you (the Polish must think me very agreeable!). Language was a bit of a challenge as you will see in the photo of a menu that I’ve attached. Poor Siân always had folks speaking to her in Polish and she would, in her public school English, apologise profusely for not being able to speak Polish! No one attempted to speak in Polish to either Shyam or I … I wonder why?:-)
It was a long drive and having just come from Stockholm, we had to get used to the days being shorter! It started getting dark at 8.30pm. With absolutely no idea where the apartment we booked was, we stopped at a supermarket to buy some breakfast stuff – bread, butter, jam, cheese, milk, coffee etc and most importantly a map of Białystok. Map in hand we managed to find our way through the city to the Nowy Swiat Apartments where we were staying. Navigating/driving at night in an unfamiliar city was no fun at all. The apartment was everything they advertised it to be – conveniently located, spacious with a well equipped kitchen (plus point – it had a corkscrew!).The next morning, we set off early heading further east to the Białowieża National Park, which is Europe’s last primeval forest. The European ‘zubr’ or bison was once on the endangered species list but through efforts to ensure their survival, they have been downgraded to ‘vulnerable species’.
The reserve wasn’t quite what we expected – which was to be able to drive through and see wild bison roaming in their natural environment – this was more zoo-like with a few bison on show. The forest however was inviting. It is after all ancient, Europe’s oldest forest which lies across Poland and Belarus. It is thick, dark and deep and we thought enchanting … until we came across a disused railway track running through the forest. We reminded ourselves of Poland’s grim history and what horrors might have taken place in this beautiful forest and that lent a slight feeling of uneasiness.
Our drive took us off-road – the road gave way to lanes through tiny villages (we attracted a lot of stares) and the lanes gave way to beaten paths and eventually to dirt tracks … we weren’t quite sure where we were but it was absolutely beautiful! We did emerge from the forest finally and found our way back to the larger roads.
We thought it might be interesting to ‘peer’ across to Belarus and headed towards the border – only to find ourselves sandwiched between gigantic Russian, Latvian, Lithuanian lorries all headed the same way. A complete traffic standstill 6 km from the border and the drivers getting off and fraternising, resulted in a quick change of mind and we drove back.
We discovered the delightfully entertaining ‘RadioZet’ – a Polish radio station that played songs from the 80’s, that we gustily sang along to, heads bobbing (er, at least two of us did), interspersed with a few Polish songs, that we also chorused along to expertly!
We were famished by the time we got back and we had a fabulous pork knuckle ‘golonka’ and Polish dumplings ‘pierogi’ dinner. Golonka fast became Siân’s favourite, and she was craving for it everywhere!
The following day, we did a walking tour of Białystok. It’s really quite an interesting place. We visited the Medical and Pharmaceutical Museum, which set off my two doctor companions trying to recall their first year medical stuff.
The War Museum was particularly interesting and we spent hours there. Poland is a nation that has suffered much and its borders changed several times over the years. Poland was unceremoniously divided up among Russia, Prussia, Austria-Hungary in 1795 and was wiped off the map of Europe for more than 100 years! A fact I find absolutely astonishing. Barely had they regained their sovereignty when World War II broke out and then came the unimaginable horror of occupation, first by Nazi Germany and then the Soviet Union. It is no wonder then that the older generation here does not return smiles too readily; they’ve not had too much to smile about.
We covered a lot of ground and walked the whole day except when we stopped for another delicious pork lunch at the city’s best restaurant according to Trip Advisor. We visited the Branicki palace, the cathedral and did the ‘the wooden architecture trail’ tracing the old wooden houses of the region. We were quite exhausted by the end of it.
We also discovered the delectable Żubrówka Bison Grass Vodka! It’s a Polish vodka flavoured with a bison grass – it’s sweet and very tasty and featured regularly with our meals.
I write this while back at home. I happened to google Żubrówka Bison Grass Vodka – it is very popular and much sought after outside Poland. But there was this rather interesting little piece of information that we did not know while we were there; here’s how one article describes it – “Even teetotal travellers to Poland are likely to stumble across Zubrowka vodka. It comes in a bottle with a distinctive label featuring a bison, zubr, and a blade of buffalo grass, supposedly urinated on by one of these magnificent creatures” !! What I would give to see the faces of my two dear travel companions now!
Lublin, Eastern Poland
Instead of driving directly to Kraków (pronounced ‘Krakov’), we made a detour to Lublin. The road to Lublin took us through a peculiar town called Radzyń Podlaski. It was peculiar because there were no restaurants in town – not one! We walked down all of its three streets and weren’t able to to find any! We were desperately hungry and eventually found this place out of town that served such tasty Polish beetroot soup. As this detour was not planned, we googled to find a place for the night. We found ‘Hotel Jedlina’, which is tucked away in a small but evidently affluent village of Motycz. It is so well tucked away that we were caught in a twilight zone-like situation yet again (the last time being in Hudicksvall in Sweden), driving up and down like mad things, seeing the same people on the road each time. They must have thought it was Groundhog’s day! It was quite comical. We finally stumbled upon it and were not quite sure how we found it … one of those strange things…but the drive was quite something else. We kept stopping several times to take photos of the magnificent scenery we were passing.
Lublin was a nugget of a find. It is a city built during the Renaissance. It is as beautiful as Prague and without the bustle of tourists. In fact we didn’t see any tourists apart from us. It is so good to visit a place that’s still relatively untouched. No foreign languages heard, no tour buses, no crowds … we wandered around and took in as much of the place as possible before it got dark and then had a nice relaxing dinner in a small restaurant away from the main square. Our spirit of adventure kept taking us further east, so the next morning we drove towards the Ukraine border to Zamość – yet another hidden gem of a city. It is on the Unesco world heritage list, but one hardly hears about it. The Old Town is so magnificent and the architecture amazing. We spent hours in the museum there.
After wandering around some more, we finally made our way south to Kraków. This time, we had to take, as Siân aptly described it “a featureless highway”! However, the evening sky as we drove into Kraków was so beautiful. Map in hand this time, we managed to find our ‘aparthotel’, once again conveniently located near the Old Town.
The parking was a bit of a hassle but soon sorted out. It was late by the time we checked in and stepped out to look for food. Most places close at 10pm. Fortunately we found this small little Polish place nearby that serves till 3am. We were saved!
Krakow, Southern Poland
After yesterday’s long drive, we had a late start. Even ‘Sergeant-Major’ Rolfe who insists on packing every minute of the day gave in to a bit of lie-in 🙂 especially since the poor thing did all the driving. As we were staying only a street down from the Old Town, that’s where we started our day’s walk. After the relative peace and quiet of Białystok, Lublin and Zamosc, the crowds, the touts and the tourists were a bit of a shock. The place was bustling as you would expect the most popular city in Poland to be. The old Cloth Hall had been refurbished and converted to hold kitschy souvenir stalls. The cathedral required payment to enter, so we didn’t on principle. (We’d been going into cathedrals, churches and chapels all through our trip without being asked for payment. Had they asked for a donation instead, we would have obliged.)
We saw the shrine of the Black Madonna as we walked to the outer fringes and found a lovely Michelin guide recommended restaurant called ‘Jarema’ that served Eastern Polish cuisine. (As you can see we have become quite enamoured with eastern Poland!). After a very satisfying lunch, we walked along the park that surrounds the city and made our slow way to the Wawel Castle that is perched on a hill above the city. On the way, we saw a little girl playing the accordion badly and put some coins in her tin. She was the first beggar we saw on this trip. A little further along, we saw another child, also playing the accordion badly and then yet another further down, also playing badly! So this was they way the Polish do it – send their children out onto the tourist track with any instrument and let them make any kind of din with it! (Well, it’s still better than what they do to their children in India …)
Wawel Castle took better part of the afternoon … it was quite extensive and we only managed the State Rooms.
The evening saw us wandering along the Jewish Quarter, where we broke with our tradition of always eating local food and succumbed to biriyani! Yes, I agree it was rather incongruous to see a North Indian restaurant sitting in the midst of the Jewish quarter. The “Bombay” was the only restaurant in that row that didn’t have touts inviting you. No Bollywood music was to be heard as the Jewish klezmer permeated the square and drowned out everything else. The biriyani is different from the one we’re used to but it was quite good! We walked back to the Old Town to take in a bit of the evening’s vibrant atmosphere before we went back to our cosy, log and wood designed apartment for some wine and a quiet night. Tomorrow, Auschwitz.
Oswiecim, Southern Poland
50 km west of Krakow, by the Vistula River lies a medium sized Polish town called Oświęcim. The world, however, knows it better by the name the Nazis gave it – Auschwitz. The first and largest of all the extermination camps. The Nazis were to build 5 more in Poland alone. Having visited the Dachau extermination camp in Germany in 1987, I knew going to Auschwitz was going to be an emotional experience, yet, I had to do it.
Unescorted trips to the camp are no longer allowed. The guide we had was excellent and respectful when he spoke and he did it with such sensitivity. As we started our walk through the two camps – Auschwitz and Auschwitz-Birkenau, we pass through the main gate with the ironic and now well-known words “Arbeit Macht Frei” (“Work Makes You Free”).
We were taken to the various blocks, everyone quiet and solemn as we walked. In one room there were suitcases with the names and addresses of the victims’ on it. This was particularly poignant as these poor unsuspecting people were led to believe that they were being relocated and when they got to the camp, they underwent a “selection process” i.e the old, the young, the sick were sent to the “showers” immediately. The rest divided by gender and labelled – Jews, homosexuals, Romani etc. and put to labour…
In another room, behind the glass was a huge pile of human hair, almost up to the ceiling. The victims had their heads shaved before being sent to the gas chamber and their hair would be collected and made into fabrics, mattresses and socks…
Then there were these two walls with photos of the prisoners – heads shaved, terror in their eyes but forced to smile by the camp guards…
Between blocks 10 & 11 was the notorious ‘death wall,’ where prisoners would be shot at point blank range for minor infractions such as taking a toilet break …
The basement of Block 11 housed the dreaded “standing rooms” and the “suffocation rooms”. These were tiny rooms that the Nazis would force as many people as they could in and leave them there. They were so tightly packed, they couldn’t move. All they could do was stand. Until they died.
And then there was the block where Dr Jozef Mengele conducted his vile biological experiments … In the words of one survivor “Only pure evil can think of such cruel ways to kill.”
I shall not go on to describe the rest … it is truly unimaginable what man can do to fellow man.
And there are those who disrespect and trivialise the memories of those who lived and died there as nothing annoyed me so much as the current day graffiti (‘Ricki of Espana wuz here’ and the like) on the walls of the some of the blocks, etching their callousness for all to see. It is no wonder visitors are now not permitted to wander around without a guide.
The wars go on, the atrocities continue. In Dachau there is a memorial plaque which proclaims “Never Again!” in several languages as if to reiterate the resolve behind the statement.
And yet …
Zakopane, Southern Poland
After the sombre visit to Auschwitz, we were tired and hungry. It was a hot day and we had to walk a fair bit … which only made us think about the extreme weather conditions the prisoners had to face (on top of everything else) with little or no food, water or clothes. It was late afternoon by the time we left the camp and found a roadside restaurant called Country Haus. The corned pork and sauerkraut was so delicious, I can still taste it! We decided to drive south to the Tatras mountain range. They are the highest mountain range in the Carpathian Mountains and forms a natural border between Poland and Slovakia. Once again, we drove through such a beautiful part of the country.
The most direct way to the Tatras was through Slovakia. The Slovakian border sticks its finger into Poland, so you end up driving out of Poland, into Slovakia for about half an hour before coming back into Poland again. This was cause for much consternation. Did we need visas? Did the car insurance extend to Slovakia? As we approached the border, the control checkpost was unmanned and we were free to drive through, unchecked! (We checked later – we needn’t have worried, we were fine on both counts).
The architecture was immediately different. The houses were brightly and garishly painted but their churches were simpler.
We drove through this pretty village called Chochołów with its original Polish Góral highlanders’ wooden houses.
We finally got to Zakopane, a popular ski resort in the Tatra mountains, it was filled with tourists. We drove all the way down only to drive around for a bit and head back. Needless to say it was late by the time we got back to Krakow.
That night we watched the BBC documentary ‘Hitler’s Children’ on You Tube. It was a moving account of how the children of the SS grew up not knowing who their fathers really were and the atrocities they committed and how they coped with the discovery. It is worth watching.
Warsaw, Masovian Voivodeship, Poland
Our next and final stop – Warsaw. Our drive to Warsaw was not direct (were any of our drives?). We first made a detour to Oskar Schindler’s factory which has been converted to an amazing museum. We wished we had more time to go through it properly. The museum describes him as a businessman and a German spy who made a buck wherever he could. Yes, he did save thousands of Jews but one can’t help wondering why Spielberg painted such a romanticised picture of Oskar Schindler without also portraying the shady side of him. I need to watch the movie again!
We started out on the highway to Warsaw but very quickly decided the country roads were best. We drove through a village called Paradyz so we can now truthfully say we’ve been to paradise! This time, we truly went off the map as we drove through roads and villages that were not on the map and we were leaving villages before we had arrived in them – they were that small!
With our exceptional navigation, and Siân’s expert driving (and navigation), we once again found the road to the Chopin airport to return the car, dirty but undamaged. We had covered 2150 kms! Having handed over the car, we took a taxi to our aparthotel. This apartment wasn’t as well equipped (no corkscrew!). We walked to a nearby restaurant called ‘Folk Gospoda’. Turns out this place is quite famous with such famous patronage as Joe Cocker and other local artists. Need I add that we had yet another fabulous meal? Tomorrow we explore Warsaw.
Whenever people speak of Warsaw, even Polish colleagues, they always say there is not much to see or do; that the Old Town is not impressive because it was rebuilt after the war … so the general impression was not overwhelmingly positive. My impressions, however, were the opposite.
For more photos of this trip, pleasse click on the following link: http://www.shobhagopinath.com/Travel/Poland-2013/