Warsaw

Resilience Personified- Poland

Flanked by Germany to the west and the Soviet Union to the east, Poland was one of the biggest victims of World War II. The country was divided and annexed by their powerful neighbours while cultural hubs were systematically destroyed in an effort to wipe out traces of Polish identity.

Unfortunately, much of the historical landmarks in Poland today are not original, such was the destruction brought forth by the occupying Nazi forces. Warsaw, the capital, was almost completely razed to the ground by the Luftwaffe. Over 80% of the city was destroyed and had to be rebuilt in the mid-20th century.

When the war ended, Poland was in tatters. The Red Army had pushed the Nazis out, but this was the beginning of an era of Communist rule in the country. Living conditions were awful, many people left for Western Europe after the fall of Communism in 1989. Life isn’t always easier abroad, Poles are often the subject of discrimination due to their tendencies to take on more menial jobs.

Maciej, my host in Bialystok for a night returned after a decade in the UK, he told me he doesn’t need a high paying job in Poland anymore. Owning real estate and working a medium-wage job (for Polish standards,) he seems set for the rest of his life. The country has developed a lot and that is no small feat for a population of almost 40 million with such a heavy past. I was very impressed by the big cities like Warsaw, Krakow and Wroclaw, the streets were clean, public transportation was excellent. It is a country that has bounced back and not looked back.

 

 

Warsaw- The Modern Capital

I effectively started my tour of Poland in its capital, Warsaw. I could not imagine how the city would have looked after the Nazis left . How could this traditional, sunny, uplifting major capital city been a pile of rubble and dead bodies just over 70 years ago? 

Rynek Stare Miasto Warsaw
Old Town Marketplace in Warsaw. The city’s old town was nearly completely destroyed and it took a major rebuilding effort after WWII to restore it. I could not tell most buildings were not original because they used as many of the original bricks as possible during the rebuilding process. Pre-war and 18th century architecture plans were used to recreate the facades making it effectively the newest old town in Europe.

Building facade, Warsaw
There is a story behind the three faces painted between the two rows of windows. The former owner of the unit had 3 daughters, the one with a floral crown is not married and available for courtship. This is how the bachelors in town were notified. I am unsure if this is original or recreated, it would be amazing if they actually recreated such detail from the past to preserve a story.

Krakow- The Ancient Capital

Krakow was capital of Poland until 1596. It is one of the cities left unscathed from Nazi occupation because the Germans thought it was an “ancient German City.” Instead of destroying it, they segregated it and attempted to Germanize the city. The infamous Krakow Ghetto was formed, citizens of Jewish ancestry were forcibly moved there, followed by Poles and Roma before being transported to Auschwitz Concentration Camp or Plaszow. 

If you watched Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List,” you will notice many familiar buildings and places in the Jewish Quarter because many scenes were shot here. In fact, Oskar Schindler’s factory is still here, now serving as The Historical Museum of the City of Krakow, dedicated to the period surrounding WWII. 

Krakow
Unlike Warsaw, Krakow remained intact throughout and after WWII. There has been a long existing rivalry with Warsaw regarding which city is the true capital of Poland. This will be explained in the photo below. 
Wawel Castle
Wawel Castle, the historical royal residence, burned down in 1595, instead of reconstructing it, the king opted to move permanently to Warsaw, effectively making it the new capital. The castle did get reconstructed eventually but over the years, neglect, war and foreign occupation has seen it detoriorate. Today, it is a national museum.
Auschwitz-Birkenau
Unfortunately, a huge part of Krakow and Poland’s modern history has ties with Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. However, I sincerely believe no trip to Poland is complete without a tour here. It is here that you learn the true horrors of the Holocaust. There were many rooms and chambers that gave me goosebumps I never knew I could feel and in today’s political climate, we ought to learn about the dangers of extreme nationalism.

The Tri-City Region

The most visited area in the north of Poland is probably the tri-city area with the three cities being Gdansk, Gdynia and Sopot. This is a coastal area and is a little more different from Warsaw and Krakow. The unusually hot summer of 2018 made for some interesting sightings. Despite that, Gdansk is probably the prettiest city out of all I visited in Poland. 

Motlawa River
Algal-bloom in the Motlawa River during a very hot summer. Not surprising nobody was enjoying a swim. At the beach in Sopot, nobody was allowed in the water for a few days due to the growth of a harmful bacteria because of the heat. Climate change is real and not 100% natural, do not listen to nutcases and conspiracy theorists who claim otherwise, educate yourselves.
Gdansk viewpoint
View of Gdansk from St. Mary’s Church tower. I climbed 409 steps of a very narrow spiral staircase to get here, worth every step. The tower in frame is the Town Hall tower which offers another viewpoint. Most of the buildings you see were also rebuilt as 90% of the city was ravaged by the Nazis during WWII. Some of the older destroyed buildings in Poland could not be rebuilt to the exact likeness of the original as no existing drawings or plans exist.
Sopot Pier
Walking along the longest wooden pier in Europe in Sopot.

Lublin, Wroclaw and Poznan

Getting around Poland was very easy despite its size, (thank you Flix Bus.) I was very lucky to see more of the country. Believe me, this is a country you want to spend more time in, there is so much to unveil, from learning how to pronounce “Wroclaw,” to trying the St. Martin’s Croissant in Poznan, a recipe protected by the European Union.

Lublin Castle
Lublin is small compared to the other places I visited. it was also a little sleepy because I visited on Sunday and a Monday. There were also less English speakers here so I felt a little lonely. However, Lublin Castle is fresh in my mind because it is the most distinct castle I have ever visited. Moorish in design, it is unlike most other European castles. Lublin is also home to some of the best ice-cream I’ve had, pay Lody Bosko a visit. Poland has some very good ice-cream, or “lody” as they call it.
Ostrow Tumski
Ostrow Tumski (Cathedral Island) in Wroclaw is infinitely beautiful at night with the lights all turned on. I was very lucky to have spotted a daily ritual in practice, more to follow below.
Lamplighter Wroclaw
I caught the lamplighter of Ostrow Tumski on camera! Wroclaw is one of the only two cities left in Europe to have its own lamplighter (the other being Brest in Belarus.) For over a hundred years, a lamplighter wearing a cape and a hat will light up the gas lanterns around the island everyday at sunset. He moved rather quickly so I had to follow him around in order to get some blurry shots.
Wroclaw dwarf
Wroclaw’s biggest attraction however, are probably the tiny sculptures of dwarfs scattered throughout the city. They initially served as a symbol for the peaceful protest group known as the Orange Alternative back in the 1980s. Today, there are around 400 of them in Wroclaw and I spent around half a day looking for them, managing to find almost 20. You will never have a dull day in this city, you can always do some scavenger hunt.
Poznan
The colourful market square of Poznan is vibrant and uplifting. Pictured are a row of “merchants’ houses,” a row of narrow shop houses dating back to the 13th century. They used to serve as herring stalls that also sold everyday items like salt and candles. Today, artists and souvenir vendors set up shop here. The town hall is on the right.

Every midday, two mechanical goats on top of the Poznan town hall clock will come out cuckoo style and do battle. This unique event attracts huge crowds especially grandparents and children. I watched on as I tried the St. Martin’s croissant exclusive to this very city because the recipe is protected by the EU. This means the baking of this pastry needs to follow the exact recipe with no exceptions. The croissant is made up of 81 layers consisting of white poppy seeds, raisins, orange peel, walnuts, biscuit crumbs, eggs and almond flavouring. For me it tasted a little sweet, but the feeling of having tasted food protected by the EU is priceless. My apologies for not having images for both these amazing things!

All in All, Visit Poland

There’s something for everyone. Pierogis, Kielbasa and Polish Sausages for the foodies, a glut of history (both tragic and triumphant) for the scholars, pristine coastal areas for the beach bums, and well-developed cities for the city slickers.

It is simply amazing how this nation rose from the ashes of war and then emerge from an oppressive regime as one of the most developed country in an unfancied region of Europe. The Poles are nothing if not resilient, see for yourself. 

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