Warsaw and Kraków, To Jest Piękne.

By Steven Wright

One of the things I love about traveling to a destination that you have never been before is discovering something special and generating lasting memories that were unexpected when you departed. The main motive for me to visit was touring Auschwitz and other historic Jewish sites during WWII, but I left with a great appreciation for the beauty, culture and cuisine of modern day Poland. Not to mention that Canadian dollars are at a 1 to 3 exchange to the Polish zloty.

We started our journey in central Warsaw which is dominated by the tallest building in Poland, the Pałac Kultury i Nauki, the Palace of Culture and Science. The building is surrounded by squares and parks adding presence to the size of the building. One side of the building is Parade Square which also gives you access to the Centrum Metro station and the Galeria Centrum shopping mall across the street.

I found central Warsaw to be a bit grey with many of the buildings built from concrete and stone, but there are some recent developments on Aleja Jana Pawla II, adding some modern architecture and and colour to this busy neighborhood. Shop the outdoor stalls for freshly cut flowers, fruit and vegetables before heading into the Mirowska market to see all there is for offer. Across the street there are many boutiques, shops and cafe’s to visit as you travel south. At Zlota you will reach Zlote Tarasy or Golden Terraces, whether you love to shop or not, this is a mall you must experience. Its charm and glamour is exuded in the natural light that streams through its amazingly contoured glass ceiling. Grab a coffee for some people watching inside this amazing structure.

For me, the beauty of Warsaw is found by traveling through the wall into Old Town. Here the city comes alive, the squares are filled with restaurant patios, the buildings are adorned with sculptures, mosaics, murals and brightly coloured tiles. It is the place to gather and have a relaxing dinner with friends while enjoying the sites and history along the Wiska River. There are even opportunities to climb up one of the towers for a great view of the square, old town and the modern city growing beyond.

When your feet have tired of walking on cobblestones venture over to Ogród Saski, The Saxon Garden. Pass the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier to the magnificent fountains and statues behind, venture further through the park to gardens a man made lake and a change to sit and relax at the pillared gazebo at the top of the hill.

We then boarded the Polish Railway on a first class car from Warsaw to Kraków. I have used Euro Rail and the member railways to travel all over parts of Europe. When ordering you tickets through your travel agent before you depart or when you are purchasing tickets in your destination I would encourage you to compare both 1st and 2nd class tickets. With a 2nd class ticket there are some limitations including seat availability, having to purchase on board snacks and drinks, and if you are on a busy route the sheer volume of passengers. If you have a 2nd class ticket board the cars with a large #2 on the outside. On a longer haul or a very busy route, I would suggest upgrading to a 1st class ticket. For a little more money, you are guaranteed a seat, sometimes you will even get a private cabin for your journey, often food and snacks are complimentary as well as access to VIP lounges including drinks, WIFI and more at departure and arrival stations. Boarding and departing the train can also be easier without groups of tourists sitting on their bags at exit doors.

Kraków is a much more colourful city than Warsaw, the city is focused around Rynek Główny, the Grand Square in Old Town. Around the square find many restaurants with patios, cafes and boutiques. The square is alive with artists selling their goods, tourists and locals sitting on patios people watching, and others passing through on their way to the next destination. Operators promoting their tours by horse carriage, golf cart, or bus to the historical sites of the city and Jewish memorial sites are here looking for their next hire.

The Old Town area is filled with churches and other places of worship and continued learning including the Pontifical University of John Paul II. I would suggest that Bazyliki Mariackiej (St. Mary’s Basilica) in the Grand Square is the one to explore, and probably the most famous in Poland. The interior is breathtaking with incredible paintings, brightly painted walls adorned with gold and a hand craved altar. You can also climb the stairs to the lookout on the tallest tower and hear the story of the 13th century trumpeter who was shot in the throat while sounding the alarm against an attack on the city. There is an homage to event every hour on the square as a trumpeter’s tune is ended abruptly from the top tower.

There is an amazing series of parks all around the old walled city, filled with people on bikes, walking with strollers, hanging out on benches or playing with their dog. There are fountains and statues and exposed sections of the wall, the area is simply picturesque, you may want to grab a seat on the bench and rest up for the upcoming staircase, giving you access to Wawel.  The parks lead around the old city to The Royal Castle perched on Wawel Hill overlooking the Wisła River.

The Cathedral Basilica of Sts. Stanisław and Vaclav is the main attraction as it was the coronation site of Polish royalty, is the Cathedral of the Archdiocese of Kraków and Pope John Paul II offered his first Mass as a priest here. There are also a couple of museums on site showing the armory of the royals of Wawel. There are a couple of great cafes here giving you a great view and a light snack.

Poland Posts:
The Best Tomato Soup I Have EVER Experienced (and other good eats in Poland)
Photo Galleries:
Krakow Gallery
Warsaw Gallery

Exploring Warsaw and Auschwitz & Auschwitz II / Birkenau

By Mike Kerr

When Steven and I were planning annual trip to Europe we knew we were going to be meeting his sister in Berlin, but had a week before to fill in. After visiting Anne Frank House I wanted to explore more of my Jewish heritage and managed to convince Steven that Poland would be a good place to start our trip.

In Warsaw we set off to find the area that was once the Jewish Ghetto, when we got to the area highlighted on our map it was difficult to tell what had taken place in the area. Most of the buildings were in excellent condition, and more than anything it felt like we were in a quiet suburban area with a spattering of shops and restaurants. The one striking feature here was the high brick wall that was marked as a Jewish cemetery and former ghetto wall. Being a trip to explore this side of my heritage we made way for the entrance. While we were making our way around the long wall I started thinking about the day of the week: Saturday. Normally a Saturday is just that, but as a word of advice, when you are going to visit a cemetery that happens to be the burial site of mass numbers of a particular religious group, double check you aren’t going on their day of rest. As it turned out, when we finally made it to the entrance, a Jewish cemetery is closed on Sabbath as funerals are prohibited.

Luckily all was not lost, just around the corner from the cemetery was one of the most beautiful things I have ever stumbled upon. We came across a large stone pillar set within a walled cement base. The sun was rising over the top, making it look like the peak was set ablaze. This memorial to the lives that were lost in the area, standing in its solitude in this far corner of town is something I would say is a must see. It is located on the South side of the cemetery, just outside of the Museum of the Jewish Cemetery Foundation. It is an easy stop if you are heading to the Arkadia mall just up the street, and only about a 25 minute walk to get between the two.

After taking in Warsaw, we departed for Krakow on a quick express train, booking ahead can help get you a seat, but paying the small premium to get into first class easily means an assigned seat, and possibly your own booth. Getting in touch with a travel counselor can make these bookings easy.

Arriving in Krakow, the buildings were 10-fold more colourful and detailed than anything we had seen in Warsaw. As you make your way out of the train station you will be able to tell this is a city saturated not only in history from World War II and the holocaust, but even earlier as well. On any guided tour you will hear about the history of Wawel Hill, its settlement 50 thousand years ago, how Polish leaders found the thriving community an ideal place to take up residence, and the history of Wawel Castle. These tours can also include a trip to the Krakow’s salt mine where you can take a tour underground through 3-kilometres of the mine and see the one of a kind chapels, statues, and underground lake. Among other great sights you must see are Krakow’s squares lined with restaurants, the museum which was once Oskar Schindler’s factory, and the jewellery stores with beautiful amber pieces Krakow is known for.

One of the biggest draws to Krakow is the proximity to Auschwitz and Auschwitz II/ Birkenau. You can choose to find your own way to get to these locations, or you can book one of several guided tours to make things a little easier. With all of the options available, a travel counselor can be a valuable asset to match you with the best tour suited to your needs. The tour Steven and I took started with a history lesson on the bus ride to Auschwitz to familiarize the group with what we would be experiencing. When the bus finally arrives you will be ushered into the entrance hall to be given a headset to listen to your guide through the tour and given a chance to visit a restroom before taking off on the first leg of the tour.

If you have seen any movies about the holocaust you will no doubt recognize the area you walk into outside. A path through a double layered (non-functional) electric fence is adorned with a sign reading “Arbeit macht frei.” For me the effect of standing at the entryway to this camp, actually walking in the footsteps of the prisoners, and feeling almost taunted by the words “Work will set you free” were chilling. I had seen them a thousand times before, but being there with the memory of those who had once walked this same path was surreal. After getting off of the train from their native lands (Greek Jews actually had to purchase their own tickets) prisoners would be sorted and catalogued before entering the camp.

The guide explained as we walked how prisoners were kept in the camp from 1940 on, how prisoners were sent out of the camp daily to work, and a roll call was taken at the beginning and end of each day. If there was anyone missing at the end of the day, the other prisoners would be punished. If a prisoner died while working that day, it was the duty of the others to return the body for roll call at the end of the day. We were told how prisoners with certain skills were “privileged,” for example if one could play a musical instrument they were in charge of playing music to support a calm environment for the camp.

The tour came to Block 11, the camp prison where those who broke one of the camps many rules were punished. You are brought down into a basement where you are led down a dark damp hallway barely wide enough for one person. Along the walls are a variety of cells, the most disturbing being the standing cells. Considered one of the most severe punishments, prisoners would be kept in the cell just big enough to stand up straight in for 3 days or more with minimal food and water.

After leaving Block 11, you are brought outside into a small courtyard with one wall that has been made into a sort of memorial. The guide will explain to you that this is where the punishment of the death penalty was carried out. Prisoners, mostly political and rebellious in nature, and most non-Jews, would be kept in Block 11 where they would await a trial in front of a Gestapo court. The guide explained how most of the people destined to land in the court were considered guilty before the trial which was mostly for show. After sentencing, prisoners disrobed, were led out to the shooting wall in groups and were executed.

The wall you will find here now is a replica, so you won’t find any markings from bullets, or blood, but the reality of what happened here is still striking. Groups of people whose death had been predetermined, were being held just to delay the inevitable, and finally when their time had come, were further degraded before an escape of sorts. There are hundreds of flowers and candles left by countless visitors, and also small stones you will notice adorning the wall. If you have ever been to a Jewish burial site you will be familiar with the practice of leaving stones after a visitation. I personally recommend leaving one whether you are of the faith or not. As it has been explained to me, the stone is not only a mark of your being there, but also taken as a sign that the memories of what has transpired and of those who have been lost to time are not being forgotten, and the memories are in fact growing.

From here you will be brought out to a grassy hill away from the residences. Out the top of the hill is a chimney, and brickwork can been seen bordering the hill. Be prepared for what is coming, I remember this being the hardest part of the tour. Being subterranean the crematorium has a natural chill, the inside of the hill was hollowed out and lined with cement. Prisoners at the camp would remove their clothes and were brought into the the gas chamber, where SS officers wearing gas masks would drop Zyklon-B (a highly toxic pesticide) through four openings in the chamber. Once the group inside the chambered had been exterminated, and the gas vented, other prisoners would sort the clothes, and check for any hidden gold in the mouths of the deceased, and finally the bodies would be cremated.

After leaving the gas chamber you will be given a short break for refreshments before boarding the bus to go to Auschwitz II/ Birkenau. Upon your arrival the bus will park outside the watchtower, recognizable from the train scene in Schindler’s List when the train of women and children was routed there by mistake. Through the gate you will be presented with a long gravel path leading past rows of brick houses on one side which once housed the female prisoners, and with brick chimney’s on your other side where there once stood wooden buildings which housed male prisoners which were burned in an attempt to destroy the evidence.

At the end of the path is a memorial to the millions of lives lost, it comes to you at this point (if not before) how much of an impact this event had on the world, not just the Jews of Europe. In multiple World languages plaques have been left as a beacon of remembrance of what transpired, to prevent history from repeating itself. Stones are also left here, as a similar rite to the shooting wall, which should not to be seen as leaving “dirt” on a plaque. The stones are a sign to those that have passed and those who will come in future, that you in being here, in experiencing this piece of history have grown the memory and kept it alive.

Around the memorial you will see the remains of the crematoriums. One destroyed in an uprising by the Jews in the camp, and the rest ordered demolished and the blown up by SS officials. The size of the ruins of these buildings is jaw dropping, although the hill at Auschwitz I is big, the number and size of the crematoriums overpowers it by far. It really gives scale to the “extermination” carried out by the Nazis, and with such big buildings and so much time it is easy to see how so many people succumbed to them.

After visiting the memorial and ruins, the tour brought us to the stone houses. Once inside it is awful to think of the possibility of living in those conditions. The beds are made of wood planks, and are almost too small for one, let alone many; the overhang of the roof left a large gap between it and the walls, which themselves were not air tight and only one brick thick. In light of the cold, damp conditions, the prisoners were given one small wood stove, and most likely not enough wood to burn in it. The space was frightening overall, and left a horrible feeling about what it would have been like in the wooden shacks if they had been standing.

After a long walk back Steven and I were brought back to Krakow’s downtown area, and it wasn’t really until we left that the weight of what we had experienced hit us. It is something we have noticed with multiple locations, whether they are beautiful like the gardens at Versaille, or darker like the experience here or at Anne Frank House, while on the tour it doesn’t seem to faze most people, but once you leave and actually have time to process the large amounts of information you have just been given you are ready for a good cry, it can take a lot of energy out of you to be in such emotionally rich places, but they are some of my favorite things to do.

Photo Galleries:
Krakow Gallery
Warsaw Gallery
Poland Posts:
The Best Tomato Soup I Have EVER Experienced (and other good eats in Poland)
Warsaw and Kraków, To Jest Piękne.

The Best Tomato Soup I Have EVER Experienced (and other good eats in Poland)

by Mike Kerr

When Steven and I went to Poland we knew we would most definitely end up discovering a lot more about my Jewish heritage. What we didn’t know was that with the Canadian Dollar being worth about 3 Zloty at the time, it would turn out to be REALLY easy on the wallet when it came to eating. Growing up my mother would prepare the occasional Polish dish so I knew we were in for some savory food over the course of our stay.

While we were in Krakow we found ourselves eating at the central square on most nights, there was a summer market that had been set up and it was great to wander through while deciding which patio we should choose for the night. In Poland the traditional dinner is two courses, the first being a soup, and the second course being protein and potatoes.

One of the most important things I think I need to mention is to try the tomato soup while you are in this city, I don’t know how every restaurant we visited manages to pull it off, but they all know how to make a kick ass soup. I can only imagine the lengthy process that must come with such an incredible bowl, making the broth, preparing the soup vegetables, slow-roasting the tomatoes, and putting it all together with the elegantly placed swirl of cream. Once it finally makes it the table and you find yourself getting to the bottom of the bowl, you’ll find the bay leaf that was hidden away, secretly building the body of the broth to new heights. Not every place makes exactly the same soup, but they are definitely of the same quality, and should not be missed.

One night when we were feeling like something different, I decided to check out the iPhone app Foursquare. We found a tip about a place called Bordo that was a little off the beaten path, but with a special for a 3 course meal  (Soup, Entree, and Dessert) for only 12 zloty per person (4 dollars Canadian). The reviews for the restaurant described a quaint location with fresh food in large portions all made from scratch. Needless to say, with a price like that we couldn’t resist. As soon as we walked in the door, we were promptly greeted by a server and seated. After having the special described we were so impressed we took it and the server disappeared to place the order.

Not even 10 minutes into the meal and the server was back with the first course, another indescribably good bowl of tomato soup. The second course was an entree made up of a nice chicken Kiev, that despite being fried and stuffed with butter wasn’t too greasy, and was hot enough to know it hadn’t been sitting waiting under a heat lamp. The entree came with three salads: a well seasoned coleslaw, a garden salad with a house dressing, and grated carrots with an oil dressing, all of which tasted very fresh. For dessert we were given the option to have pie and ice cream, but after the massive portions of the entree, we couldn’t possibly have had another bite.

In Warsaw, we were once again happy with the freshness of the food, and most of all the endless supply of incredible tomato soup. On our last day in town, Steven and I found our way to Warsaw’s Old Town. While there we found Arkadia, on the price scale this location was a little higher, but with the exchange rate, it could have been more expensive. Steven had a meat stuffed cabbage roll that could have fed two, and I  enjoyed a good sized piece of salmon that was served with a great dill sauce. The service on the patio was a little slow, but it was well worth the wait for the meal, and again after a day of being on our feet, a little down time is never a bad thing.

After finishing our days Steven and I would always head to our Polish staple: Coffee Heaven. All of the locations were extremely well laid out with the serving area out of the way with very large seating areas that could hold the large number of students and locals. Their hot chocolates, cappuccinos, and caramel macchiatos  were served quickly, and with the perfect coffee-milk-foam ratios every time. Far better than anything we could have experienced at Starbucks, where a cappuccino isn’t really one unless you order it bone dry, Coffee Heaven is one of those places you could go back to a city just to experience the perfect cup of coffee whenever you want it.

Poland Posts:
Exploring Warsaw and Auschwitz & Auschwitz II / Birkenau
Warsaw and Kraków, To Jest Piękne.
Food Posts:
Quick Eats in Amsterdam
Gnoshing in Brussels
Pasta in Paris, Brunch in Blue – My guide to finding good eats