Saturday, December 22, 2007


I knew I would love Poland. I've wanted to go for several years, but it's a bit out of the way of my usual destinations. I left Prague and took a 8.5 hour (scary) train ride to Krakow. I transferred trains in a small town named Katowice, and my twenty minutes in the train station there scared the hell out of me wondering what Krakow would be like. I was a little disoriented in Katowice, as the trains weren't running on schedule - something I've never experienced in Europe - and I went to several people to ask for help, but no one spoke English and they were all rude as hell. I was hoping I'd just hit three or four rude people and that I wasn't in for a rough time all week. (That definitely turned out to be the case, as everyone else I encountered was incredibly kind and warm.)

I didn't know what to expect with Eastern Europe. Prague isn't really Eastern anymore, it's more like the center of Europe, so I hadn't really been to Eastern Europe. I was in Russia (Soviet Union then!) in 1990, and it was rough. I loved it, but it wasn't exactly a luxury vacation, so I wasn't sure what to expect with other former Iron Curtain destinations.

When I left the train station, I pulled my bag towards the center of town and almost immediately walked right by a huge modern mall with a L'Occitane store in the front. I couldn't have been more suprised. I admit it was a relief, even though I wasn't planning on doing any shopping. I like the rustic feel of less touristy places, but when I have a blister and need an apothecary or lose my mittens and need to find new ones quickly, it's nice to have resources.

I stayed in a crappy little B&B right on the town square, and I loved it. I spent 12 - 14 hours a day doing guided walks from a Rick Steves book, and found Pope John Paul II's old apartment, church, and pew, some great Polish restaurants, a theater where I saw a great local movie, and Oskar Schindler's factory. That was a huge thrill! I've only seen the movie once many years ago, but I loved finding the factory. I followed directions from my guidebook, taking public transportation across the river and then walking a 1/2 mile or so down empty streets. The factory was almost deserted, and I stumbled around the rustic entrance area for a while wondering if I could even go inside. Pretty soon a guy popped through a door and yelled, "Office! Office!" and pointed up a familiar staircase, and I found Schindler's office and surroundings exactly like it is in the movie. They're working to make the factory into a museum, but I felt like I'd stumbled on a great secret. Later, while walking to find a portion of the Jewish Ghetto wall that still stands, I met an older couple from the UK. They were looking for the factory and were lost, so I walked back with them and we had a great time talking. When I told them I was from New York (this gets a much better reception than when I used to say I was from Oregon, by the way), in a thick accent the husband told me, "We sit down for tea and biscuits every Saturday and my wife tells me, "I wish I were at Macy's!"" They were darling and friendly.

After the Mika concert in Berlin, and the Chick Corea concert in Prague, Krakow had a lot to live up to. Happily, the second day I was in Krakow turned out to be their Independence Day. The entire Old Town area was decorated with red and white flags, and I attended an outdoor concert of choirs singing traditional Polish songs in celebration of the holiday. Huge crowds were gathered listening to the choirs and singing along. It was a wonderful "Pinch me, I'm in Poland!" experience.

The next day I took local transportation to Auschwitz, 1.5 hours away, and spent the day at both concentration camps - I & II. I've visited Dachau in Germany and Mathausen in Austria (I highly recommend Mathausen - it's deserted and far out of the way and a different experience), but Auschwitz is the most documented and is extremely powerful. It started to snow there just as I entered the famous main gate. I spent several hours walking the grounds, reading the descriptions and see the haunting exhibits - shoes, suitcases, glasses, hair - and then took a taxi to Auschwitz II two miles away. It's difficult to describe what it was like. Maybe the closest I can come is to say I felt an incredible burden like one might feel if they know a very important and tragic secret, and I felt like the whole thing was surreal, like I was walking around a story in a book, but also like maybe it was sixty years ago and maybe I would walk into the next set of barracks and prisoners would still be there. At the same time, the world felt very small, tiny, like I could walk across the street and be home in NY. It was overwhelming, very personal, and very emotional. I'm glad I went. Again, pictures here.

One other experience, although very different, that stands out from my time in Poland. I visited a local museum quickly to see two specific works - a da Vinci and a stunning Rembrandt, the Good Samaritan - that my guidebook highlighted. While admiring the de Vinci, I noticed the opposite wall had an empty frame and I checked my guidebook for details. Rick Steves told me the frame was empty to represent a specific work by Rembrandt that was stolen by the Nazi's and never returned after the War. The empty frame took on much greater significance knowing the story. So a few minutes later I heard a loud New Yorker (you can't miss that accent) talking about the frame, and telling her companion that the picture must have been out for restoration. I interrupted and let them know the story that I had just read, and ended up spending thirty minutes or so talking with the nicest and most interesting older woman. She, too, had been a solo world traveler many years earlier and wanted to know all about my travels. I listed some of the places I've been and she had been to most of the same places, too. She asked if I was married - a question that always comes up - and when I answered, I barely had "no" out of my mouth when she said, "Of course not. You're too smart." What a refreshing take on the single life. And a great reminder about the power of words and labels. I've been feeling like a genius ever since.

After five days I intended to leave Krakow for Budapest, but was unable to find a connection through eastern Slovakia, and ended up going to Vienna instead. I'd overnighted in Vienna once with my sister on a trip from Italy to Czech, but I'd never spent time in the city. My time there turned out to be full of pleasant surprises.


  1. It's really refreshing and strangely odd for me as a Pole reading that you've passed through "small town" of Katowice, which in fact is currently more a part of soon-to-be Silesia metropolis :)

    For the next visit I propose you Wroclaw, where you'll also meet with WW2 remains here, as about 70% of the Festung Breslau was destroyed during the war, and there are still buildings that show their scars from bombs and bullets. Also it's second wealthiest city in Poland and one of the most beautiful - a great mix of Polish, German and Czech cultural influence. And I find it more attractive than Krakow to be honest.

    Also a city worth seeing is Lodz, but only if you like David Lynch films ;)

  2. ah. your write-ups make me want to get out there and see the world. that's my goal this upcoming year: to see as many places as my budget will allow.

    i like the single people are geniuses line also. i'm going to start using it.

  3. Wow, great to hear you're having another great adventure! I'm very envy of you.

    Can't wait to hear about Vienna.

    Travel safe and Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

  4. I loved comparing your vist with mine to KRAKOW. I changed trains in Katowice too....and Ostrava. And isn't the train station in Krakow cool that you were able to experience Independence Day with them......I'd love to go back here. Oh,and then there's Auschwitz.....we were there with our own personal driver and just a small van withthe four of us in it....very small group, personal, amazing.

  5. Rick Steves is my hero. I love the image of you running around with his book in your clutches. :)

  6. i love you. you are magnificent. i am thrilled to read your travelogue. She, too, had been a solo world traveler many years earlier and wanted to know all about my travels. I listed some of the places I've been and she had been to most of the same places, too. She asked if I was married - a question that always comes up - and when I answered, I barely had "no" out of my mouth when she said, "Of course not. You're too smart."

    of course not. again, magnificent. i so wish i were there. that is how i want to travel. fantastic.

  7. So good to hear of your travels. Funny how New Yorkers find each other all over the world. And it's true--when you say you're from New York rather than the U.S. you somehow get excused for all of our country's recent failings.

  8. I have to come out of lurkdom to say, I know exactly what you mean about Katowice!! That was my third solo trip in Europe, and I'd never felt so scared and alone as when my late train from Prague stopped there and I had no idea when the next train to Krakow came. I went down to the ticket counter lady, not knowing literally one word of Polish, and somehow I got her to write down the time of the next train. Thank God! I got out of there just fine. The funny part was, when I came back through in the daytime, on my way back to Prague, things seemed so much less scary, and I got a great pastry.

    Anyhoo, I'm loving your stories. Post more!!

  9. Jennifer - thanks for delurking! I can't tell you how fun it is to hear about your experience of Katowice! It is almost exactly my own. I felt the same way when I went through it again on the way back out of Poland. The first time I went to the left or whatever when I got off the tracks and found that tiny area with the ticket counter and a few tiny shops. The second time I went the opposite direction and found the whole station (duh) and enjoyed a pastry myself. Thanks very much for sharing your story. I'd love to hear about your trips, too.