A trip to Poland is probably not the first on a list of places in Europe to visit. There are reasons why a tour of Poland should be under consideration however. It has a rich culturally history (much of which is unfortunate), it has characteristics of both old and new Europe, a large diaspora with many of those residing in the United States, and is significantly less expensive than other European nations. Our tour of Poland was with a family having Polish roots. The patriarch wanted to see the city where his grandfather came from. In the end, he was not able to make it to the small town, but was instead engrossed by the country that he was able to trace is lineage back to.
Our first stop on our tour of Poland was Warsaw. Modern day Warsaw is basically a new city that is still developing. Old Warsaw was completely destroyed by the Nazis in World War II. The city is in a struggle whether to rebuild in a more modern style or rebuild in the architectural elements that existed prior to World War II. What everyone appears to agree on is a disdain for the Soviet-style architecture that flourished under Communist rule. Some of that still exists though.
Our first tour of Poland took us to the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews. It’s a museum on the site of the former Warsaw Ghetto where Jews were forced to live after Germany invaded in 1939. The Warsaw uprising occurred in 1944 when it appeared the Soviets were about to liberate the city from Nazi rule. The inhabitants led their own uprising so that they would not be indebted to the Soviets for liberating them. They however expected the Soviets to assist in fighting the Nazis. The Soviets instead watched from across the river as the Poles were slaughtered. Hitler ordered Warsaw burned to the ground and 95 percent of the city was destroyed. As Poles do, they have rebounded from this tragedy.
Warsaw is now a city of 2,000,000 people of which 300,000 are students. It is an eclectic, business center that is sort of a gateway between Western and Eastern Europe.
After four days in Warsaw we continued our tour of Poland and spent three days in Krakow. The people in Warsaw told us that Krakow was a tourist destination: a phrase that does not connotate high regard. Krakow is much more than a tourist place.
Krakow was not destroyed in World War II as it was the Nazi headquarter in Poland. The city therefore looks like old Europe with narrow streets meant only for walking and a vibrant city square. The city is dominated by beautiful churches that were built centuries ago. A source of understandable pride is that Pope John Paul II was archbishop of Krakow before being elected to the papacy in 1978. You can visit the church he led and see the hotel room from which he famously greeted crowds when he returned back to Krakow.
A short distance outside of Krakow is the The Wieliczka Salt Mine. This is one of the top tourist attraction in Krakow the locals usually refer visitors to. The people in our group were split regarding this site. The salt mines is 100 meters underground and requires an initial descent of 364 stairs. From there you see what is essentially an underground city with the primary attraction being a massive cathedral. The tour requires a good deal of walking, about 2 miles over 3 hours.
Next on our tour of Poland was to the concentration camps of Auschwitz and Birkenau. You cannot go to Krakow without going here. The Poles know this and seemed a bit embarrassed by it. They want visitors to see the beauty of Poland, but know people that travel to Poland want to see what horrors occurred there even though the Poles were not the ones responsible for inflicting the horrors.
The bus ride is about one hour from downtown Krakow to Auschwitz. At the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum you are greeted by the familiar sign hanging above the entrance that says “Arbeit Macht Frei”. It translates to “work sets you free” as Auschwitz was originally established as a labor camp. The tour involves visiting the tightly-packed buildings many of which have been turned into museums. Photographs are allowed at most areas, but one. That one is large room that contains the hair of individuals that was cut off when they arrived at the Auschwitz concentration camp. The Nazis would ship the hair back to Germany to turn into shawls. This hair could not be shipped back before the camp was liberated in January, 1945. No photos are allowed out of respect to the victims and their families.
The concentration camp part of our tour of Poland took us to other places such as the gas chambers and crematorium. You walk through the gas chamber and see scratch on walls where the victims struggled before succumbing. Each person has a different view as to what the most chilling part of the tour is.
Concentration camp of Birkenau is about one mile from Auschwitz. Physically, it is larger than Auschwitz. Parts of it was destroyed by the Nazis as they wanted to hide their atrocities shortly before knowing the camp would be liberated. Much of the camp remained intact however.
One of the crematoriums there was actually destroyed by Jewish prisoners. Female prisoners were able to smuggle in items that they gave to male prisoners to make a bomb. The male prisoners made the bomb and blew up the crematorium knowing that they would be captured and executed.
Our Poland tour guide gave us the opportunity to miss the Birkenau part of the tour. If given this opportunity you should reject it. Both camps have to be seen. Although both were established for the same purpose they are different from what is seen as each camp and the stories to be told. You come away amazed that anyone could have survived even a few days in the depravity that you saw. We visited at the end of April where the temperature was an unseasonable cold 40 degrees Fahrenheit. You are told and shown where the Jewish prisoners had to sleep in barracks in the wintertime that had no roof and only a small stove for heating. The prisoners only received a small piece of bread and soup each day. Disease and dysentery ran rampant.
Our tour of Poland ended the same way it started, with a vodka tasting. Poles are proud of their vodka and upset that other nations are competing with them in this area. They feel that France should stick with making wine and leave vodka to Poland. We tasted many different brands of vodka, each having their own story.
Finally, the questions everyone asks when about to visit a new place – is it safe and how is the food. We stayed in the heart of both Warsaw and Krakow. There was no issue as to safety or walking around both cities at night. The cuisine is what you would expect from a northern European country. Poland is diverse enough that in addition to eating Polish cuisine (which is characterized by meats, game and fermented vegetables) we also ate at Indian, Italian and British restaurants.
Poland is a place to visit not often thought of. When you tell someone you are going to visit Poland for a vacation the whimsical question is “why?” Having gone there the response is that it is inexpensive place that meshes Old and New Europe with the historical significance of seeing probably the most infamous place of the 20th century. For those longing to see Europe, but cannot afford the expense of a Prague or a new locale such as Slovenia, Poland has everything to offer. There are plenty of places to visit in Poland. We absolutely recommend that you visit and have a tour of Poland for your next vacation!