Originally published on 6 May 2012.
Happy Throwback Thursday, everyone! Here’s the first post from a life-changing trip through Poland, Slovakia, and Czech Republic. Why did it change my life? I met my husband on this trip! Our second wedding anniversary is coming up, as well as the fourth anniversary of our first meeting, so for our next few “throwback” posts, we’ll be reminiscing about that time I met the man I’d been praying for all my life. Join me!
Well, hello all! I have indeed made it safely over to Poland and spent the last two days exploring Warsaw. A lot of people have asked me why I picked Poland, and the answer is simple: 1) I’ve never been here before; 2) one of my favorite college professors, Dr. Ablamowicz, is from here; and 3) it’s in the same region of Europe as my final destination, Prague, where I’ll meet up with my friends next weekend!
As you well know, I am always up for a new grand adventure. But the adventure didn’t start when I got here–it started many hours before! The flight seems like a week ago, but I really did just get here yesterday! This was my first flight on Lufthansa, which is a German airline, and I think it was the nicest overseas flight I’ve had! I sat next to a girl from Czech on the plane, so that was nice. She told me all about what to see and even gave me her mom’s phone number in case I need anything while I’m in Czech! We both changed planes in Frankfurt, Germany and went our separate ways, but I made a new friend! =) The only bad thing about the flight was that there was no coffee! There was a mix up in DC, and they didn’t have water for coffee and hot tea with breakfast–oh no!
I snoozed a time or two on the plane to Frankfurt, then about an hour in the airport, and I can’t tell you how excited I was when they brought out the drinks on my next flight–coffee for me, please!
Landing in Poland, my first impression was in the bathroom! There’s a separate room for the sink that you come to first, then there’s the room for the toilet. Something one experiences everywhere in the world is…the bathroom.
Next stop, the baggage claim and then the bus! I had to ask someone about the tickets and where the bus is, and that sort of went off without a hitch. The next thing I learned was to never stand behind the door of the bus. It will hit you in the behind! Nothing on the bus was in English, of course, but I was able to recognize the name of each stop with the names on the map, so I did in fact get off at the right stop… and the first thing I saw was a Starbucks sign! You can get a taste of home just about anywhere if you’re a coffee-drinker. I had a bit of trouble following the walking directions to the hostel, but I asked someone where the hostel was and showed them the address, and they kindly showed me the right street. Much to my surprise and delight, it’s just a block from the Frydreyk Chopin museum!
The girl working the front desk at the hostel was so helpful and really nice, which I was REALLY thankful for. This was my first time staying at a hostel on my own with mixed rooms (I stayed in Turkish hostels with Andrea and Dan last year, but never before being just me!), so being here and seeing the accommodations was a positive experience. The sheets were folded on the bed (yes, you have to make your own bed, but you know it’s clean!), there were three bunk beds in the room, and the bathrooms are actually much nicer than I expected–nicer than the ones in Turkey! There are two toilet stalls and two shower stalls, and there’s even a little area, still in the stall but separate from the shower, to get dressed. The toilet paper and your clothes don’t get wet every time you shower. Hooray! Little thing in life…
So anyway, here I am in Warsaw and ready to get going! With only about two hours of sleep in me since 7:00 Thursday morning (it was 10:30 Friday morning in Poland by now), I set out for a free tour in Old Town Warsaw! I am counting this as research for me as a tour guide. I got there a couple of minutes late and had to ask a few people where the tour guide was, but lucky for me the group hadn’t left yet. It was just the guide (Aleksandra), two other tourists, and myself, which was a nice small group. I asked a lot of questions and took notes, which I think made Aleksandra a bit nervous. She was very cute and really knowledgeable (she’s an architectural history student–just the person you want to have as a tour guide in an historic district!), and she was probably a couple of years younger than me. Her English was WAY better than my Polish of course, but I think she was nervous about having giving the tour in English. She did a great job!
We started at the column and statue of Sigismund III, who was King of Poland around the 1600s. He was actually a Swede, and he was also Catholic, which is the official religion of Poland even today (~95% of Polish people are Catholic, so I was told). He is very important to Warsaw because he moved the capitol city from Krakow to Warsaw in 1595. He was a scientist and an artist, and the story goes that he was conducting experiments at the castle in Krakow, but something went wrong and he set the castle on fire! So he moved the capitol to Warsaw, where there was already another castle built by the Masovians. Anyway, his son had this really tall column built in honor of him.
This was extremely controversial because on top of the column is a statue of Sigismund carrying a cross. At the time it was built, the Catholic church said only statues of Jesus and crosses could be built, not regular people–not even a king. But Sigismund’s son didn’t care. The only reason it was actually allowed was because the statue was build just outside the city gates. Now it’s one of the primary symbols of Warsaw!
One of the most interesting things on our tour was about the bricks on the streets. Pretty much all of Warsaw was destroyed in WWII, but we can still see the original stones with which the city was paved. Aleksandra, our guide, pointed out the difference in the colors of the bricks. The dark grey ones are the city streets of the original Old Town, the reddish ones are from the city walls, and the lighter ones are the newest.
Another something interesting about Poland’s history is their independence. They first gained their own independence on May 2, 1791, based on the United States’ model of independence. But then they lost it just four years later in 1795 when Poland was divvied up between Russia, Prussia, and Austria. They gained it again after WWI on 11 November 1918, and they celebrate both days as national holidays. Anything for a party!
Our guide (and at least one or two other Poles have) said they have been through so much in the last 90 years that they still don’t really have a sense of themselves. Russia, Prussia, and Austria, then the Nazis, then Communism… and they’re still trying to find their own independence. Anyway, things were basically demolished in WWII, then came the Warsaw Uprisings–their fighting back. After the War was over, the Poles decided to build everything back the way it was–not “bigger and better” as Americans would do it, but just the way it was. This was to honor the history and those who fought and died to maintain their country. They started in 1947 and finished in just 5 years. By 1952, all the buildings and monuments were completely rebuilt as if to say to the Nazis, “Try it again. We will not be brought down.” It’s pretty impressive to do it so precisely and so quickly!
Moving along, we then went to Kanonia Square, which is one of the lesser-known squares in the city, but also a very significant one to those who know the history. This is the sight of the first cemetery from Medieval Poland! This is also where they have a famous wishing bell–yes, a bell, not a wishing well. Close your eyes, make a wish, touch the bell, and your wish will come true! We’ll see what happens!
Also at Kanonia square, they have the world’s shortest street and …(drumroll)… the narrowest HOUSE in the WORLD! Many of you know that my claim to fame is that I live across the street from the narrowest house in America, so you can imagine my delight when I saw the narrowest one in the world! It’s tucked in a corner, and it actually widens as the building goes back. It’s the one in the corner!
Next impressive sight: one of the only medieval tenement houses to survive the Warsaw attacks. People still actually live there, which I think is pretty cool! It’s red brick, and there are two spears coming out of it beside the doors. It’s right next to what used to be a medieval dump, which is now a pretty little park where people can go to look out over the water. Interesting fact: no one ever removed the trash and excrements, they just built on top of it! That would be one interesting archaeological dig!
And next we came upon the Old Town Market! This is like Old Town Alexandria’s Market Square, but moreso! There are several cafes around, as well as merchants selling things like paintings, jewelry, shoes, wooden dolls, etc. All the row houses around it are colorful and cute–again, built just as they had been 600 or so years before. But the most interesting thing to see was… The mermaid! (Which our guide kept calling a “mai-merd”, which was really cute!)
The Warsaw Mermaid is one of the most recognized symbols of Old Town Warsaw, and there’s a fantastic legend associated with her. There were two mermaid sisters from the Baltic Sea, once upon a time. One day they decided to go ashore. One swam up to Copenhagen, Denmark, where you can still see her today. The other came to Warsaw, Poland. She sang for the people of Warsaw, but one day a very evil man came to take her away. He wanted to take her on tour and charge money for people to hear her sing. But never fear! A young, handsome fisherman’s son heard her singing about her love of Warsaw and how she wished to return there, so he rescued her and took her back to Market Square! She was so grateful for her rescuer, and the people of Warsaw were so happy to have her back, that she decided to stay forever and defend Warsaw. She can be seen there now with a sword and shield. Hooray!
Next up, we took a little break at a Polish bar. Our guide had arranged for us all to have a shot of Polish vodka and a snack. She said it is incredibly rude and unacceptable to decline alcohol when it’s offered, except if you’re pregnant or for religious reasons. Well, I hated to be rude, but of course I had to decline! Since part of the reason for my not drinking is because of my faith, that is the excuse I offered, which thankfully was acceptable! The snack was traditional Polish: brown bread with fried lard and a pickle–interesting! Not something I’d want to eat all the time, but when in Poland, eat like a Pol! The reason for the snack chaser is because their vodka is around 40% alcohol, and you just need something fatty to counter-act that.
And onward we went. We saw a couple of other statues of famous people who have defended Warsaw and been important to Poland, but one of the most interesting was a monument to the children who served in the Warsaw Uprisings. The monument was pretty moving, but there are a couple of key things to know about it: 1) The child in the statue is a boy of about 5 or 6, but this is not accurate. The children and young people who served were already into their mid-teens. 2) The boy is also carrying a gun–also not accurate. They did not give guns to children. It’s a very moving monument, however, which is the purpose of it.
We also learned the significance of the white eagle on the Polish flag, which can be seen most anywhere in Warsaw. It symbolizes freedom, much like the United States’ eagle does! The legend behind that says the man who founded Poland was looking for a place to settle, and when he saw an eagle’s nest with babies in it, he took that as a good omen and settled there.
At last we came to one of my most favorite sites… the Barbican Gate! It had to be reconstructed after WWII, and it’s really very impressive. Old city gates are fascinating to me–we don’t have them in the States, at least not like they do in other countries, so that makes it more exotic, I guess!
After our tour, we went our separate ways. I went to see the river (there’s a beautiful fountain down there at a park), then back to Old Town to look around at a more leisurely pace, and to keep myself awake! I stopped at a restaurant around 3:00 for lunch/supper, and I got my first real, official Polish food! There was another American couple in there, so we talked a bit, like I do. I got piergois, which are Polish dumplings filled with various things; mine were filled with meat and cabbage, which seemed to be the most Polish to me.
It was very tasty! They gave me a side of what I think was cubed bacon to eat with it–also tasty! I also got dessert pierogis, just for the fun. =) They were stuffed with raisins and poppy seeds and sitting in a vanilla sauce, which was interesting. I didn’t finish it because I was quite full and it wasn’t my favorite. Glad I tried it, though!
And then I turned into a pumpkin and headed back to the hostel. By this time it was nearly 5:00, and I was just exhausted! I called my Dad via Magic Jack (mom wouldn’t have been able to answer her phone at work), wrote some post cards, got ready for bed and was basically passed out by 7:30! I woke up to the sound of a jackhammer at 1:30 am (yes, it’s true), but I was back asleep around 2:30 and didn’t wake up till 9:30-ish. Whew! I should have made myself get up sooner, but alas I did not! Check back soon for Warsaw Day 2!