Sightseeing Central Europe: Part I, Poland

It’s been years since I’ve been on a vacation with my mom, so I was thrilled when she asked if I wanted to go see the capital cities of Central Europe with her using a tour group she’s traveled with before. I am new to taking guided tours, and while I actually love trip-planning and love the idea of an open itinerary or “traveling where the wind takes us,” I have to admit I also love not having to make (or even think about) any arrangements such as hotels, transportation, admission to attractions, etc. Guided tours really take the stress out of traveling and allow you to just enjoy the moment, carefree. Some may say being part of a flock of tourists is uncool, but I say it’s a more environmentally-friendly way to travel and of course, a great way to meet new people and make new friends.

Rolling in a Mercedes bus.

Over ten days we visited five amazing countries: Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Austria, and Czech Republic (technically renamed Czechia in 2006). Over my next few posts I’ll be covering our Central European excursion and first up is Poland!

Ahh…I have always wanted to see Poland and was super excited to learn that we would be spending two nights in Warsaw and another two nights in Kraków. After landing in the capital city of Warsaw, we met up with the rest of our tour group, which consisted of 34 other travelers. Next we were treated to a traditional Polish welcome dinner hosted by our local Polish guide.

We started the next morning bright and early with a city tour of Warsaw, Poland’s busy business hub. Most of Warsaw was completely demolished and reduced to rubble during World War II when it was relentlessly bombed by Nazi Germany, and therefore just about everything seen there today is new, post-war construction. Ever resilient, Warsaw, like the Phoenix rising from the ashes, is now a thriving city with 1.7 million citizens.

Warsaw’s been home to quite a few famous residents. One of my favorites is virtuoso pianist and composer, Frédéric Chopin, who was born in a nearby Polish village but grew up Warsaw. A beautiful park with a fountain and statue is dedicated in his honor. The statue features Chopin seated under a willow tree that is blowing in the wind, symbolic for Chopin’s inspiration from nature.

Chopin’s time was cut short due to tuberculosis and although he had left Poland for Paris, throughout his life he was always very proud of his Polish roots. When he became terminally ill, he requested that following his death, his heart be removed from his body and returned to Poland, where it remains to this day.

One of the downsides to traveling in the off-season is that fountains are often drained and foliage is not yet in full-bloom, but I think the cooler temperatures and lower crowd levels make up for it.

Another famous Pole who is honored in Warsaw is Nicolaus Copernicus, the astronomer and mathematician who proposed that the sun was the center of the universe, rather than the earth. A bronze statue of Copernicus sits in front of the Polish Academy of Sciences.

Though we didn’t visit any of the monuments dedicated to her, Marie Curie, the first woman to win a Nobel Prize and the only woman to hold two Nobel Prizes, was born in Warsaw and lived in the city until she moved to Paris at age 24.

Today, Warsaw’s Old Town Square could be described as colorful and charming. However, the Old Town area was completely demolished in the war and buildings here were rebuilt to look like the originals using bricks and decorative items that were recovered from the ruins. Established in the 13th century, the Old Town is one of Poland’s 15 UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

In the center of its square is one of Warsaw’s mermaids, fiercely holding a sword and shield. According to Polish folklore, a mermaid made her home along the shore near the Old Town and became the protector of the city and its people.

After exploring the city all day, mom and I met some others from our tour group and walked to Zapiecek for traditional Polish boiled dumplings. I ordered the most amazing potato pancake with mushroom sauce and parsley.

They say a trip to Warsaw would not be complete without visiting Wilanów Palace, one of the few structures that was damaged but not demolished during the war. This grand baroque style palace was built for king John III Sobieski and later became one of the first public museums in Poland.

The grand interior is filled with tapestries, vases, sculptures, and paintings. Many of the paintings are accompanied by a three-dimensional version which allows people who have visual impairments a way to experience the art by touch.

We also visited the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes which was built on the site of the former Warsaw Ghetto. After Nazi Germany’s Invasion of Poland in 1939, Jews were imprisoned and impoverished, forced into overpopulated housing districts known as ghettos. Jews were provided with a meager 200 calories of food per day and as a result many died of starvation. Disease was deadly and widespread due to poor living conditions and lack of access to basic necessities.

Non-Jewish Poles, Catholics, and Christians of other faiths were also forced to live in the ghetto, being racially classified as Jewish by the Nazis. “Shoot to kill” was the order for anyone who was caught trying to escape the ghetto, which was surrounded by a tall barbwire fence and shut off to the outside world. The only escape from the ghetto was deportation to the Nazi concentration and extermination camps where death was all but guaranteed.

A memorial sculpture depicting Mordechai Anielewicz and other resistance fighters.

However, the ghetto also had many brave heroes who fought back by planning and leading an uprising, even though they knew that they would not likely survive. One of these heroes was Mordechai Anielewicz, who died fighting in opposition of Nazi Germany’s attempt to deport the Warsaw Ghetto’s remaining prisoners to extermination camps where they would be murdered.

There were also heroes who worked from outside the Ghetto walls. Irena Sendler, for example, was a Polish social worker who courageously smuggled 2,500 children out of the Warsaw Ghetto, saving their lives.

Our next stop was the city of Kraków. On the way we stopped at the Jasna Góra Monastery to see the famed painting known as the Black Madonna of Częstochowa.

Can you see her in there?

She’s four-feet-tall, over 600 years old, wooden, bejeweled, and receives an average of 14,000 visitors each day. People have been making walking pilgrimages to see her at the monastery since the Middle Ages. She’s pretty spectacular as a survivor of 12 wars and has even been attributed with miraculous powers.

During our visit a special ceremony was being conducted were monks were taking their vows. Visitors were not able to enter the shrine or get too close to the painting but we felt lucky to admire her from afar.

Later we toured the Wieliczka Salt Mine, another of Poland’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Good old table salt was mined in Wieliczka from the 13th century until 2007. It is one of the largest and oldest salt mines in the world.

Literally everything here is made from salt, even the floor tiles. Throughout the mine, the artistic endeavours of old miners can be seen in the form of life-size sculptures made from rock salt. There are also massive relief sculptures carved into the cold, salty walls.

If you didn’t believe me when I said it’s one of the largest salt mines in the world, just check out this humongous cathedral that was built down in the mine, adorned with crystal chandeliers.

Or this modern meeting room…

Or this eerie pool of brine…

And then we saw Kraków, which ended up being one of my favorite stops on our tour. Dating back to the seventh century and the original capital of Poland, Kraków has that beautiful old world charm that Europe is famous for.

We visited the former site of the Kraków Ghetto and Kazimierz, the former Jewish district. While in Kraków we also visited Auschwitz-Birkenau, the former Nazi concentration and extermination camp. I felt that Auschwitz-Birkenau needed its own post, so I’ll be covering it in my next update.

I fell in love with Kraków’s incredible architecture. Some of my favorite was in Wawel, the historic centre of the city and yet another of Poland’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Tadeusz Kościuszko Statue at Wawel Royal Castle.
Wawel Hill.

Wawel Cathedral was particularly impressive with its beautiful chapel domes and dramatic towers. Photography is not allowed inside, but the grand interior of the 900-year-old cathedral contains the sarcophagi and tombs of Polish monarchs.

Wawel Cathedral.

As we walked through Kraków it seemed like there was something interesting and photo-worthy around every corner.

Entering the Main Square.
Kraków Cloth Hall in the Main Square.

Also worth a photograph and a taste (or two) are the traditional Polish Pączki. These fluffy pastries are essentially medieval donuts, stuffed with a variety of yummy fillings and then fried to sweet, buttery perfection. I tried one with mixed berry filling. And another with Nutella that I bought for my husband and ate on his behalf. They were amazing.

Historically, the recipe for these treats was created as a way to use up all of the sugar, eggs, and fruit in the house prior to the Lenten season, when eating these foods was forbidden. So smart! Poles devour Pączki and other indulgences on Fat Thursday, their celebratory feast held the last Thursday before Lent, although Pączki can be found all over Poland year round.

Kraków is also known as the “City of Churches.” There are over 120 churches in the city, most of them Roman Catholic. Among the most famous is the Baroque-style Saints Peter and Paul Church, built in 1597.

Saints Peter and Paul Church.

On our way out of Poland towards Hungary, we stopped to see one last, unique church nestled in the southern hills. Constructed in 1650, the Parish Church of St. John the Baptist is one of Poland’s historic wooden churches and is currently being considered for designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The church was built using larch timber in a horizontal log construction, a common building technique during the Middle Ages. The church’s ornate interior is filled with rich, colorful paintings.

Poland was amazing and definitely a place I’d love to return to someday. I left the country with great memories, beautiful photographs, and deep admiration for a nation that has overcome unimaginable challenges. Next our group was headed to Hungary where we stayed for two nights in Budapest. Stay tuned for more. Thanks for reading!


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