Not fond of small spaces, I surprised myself as I started to descend several hundred steps down a narrow mine shaft, 450 feet below the earth’s surface. What awaited me was even more surprising—a mysterious, medieval underworld of giant sculptures, brilliant chandeliers, and intricate wall reliefs, all created from salt.
I was in the world’s oldest, active salt mine, built in 1280. This UNESCO World Heritage Site in the Polish town of Wieliczka is approximately a 30-minute train ride from Krakow. There are 218 galleries and 190 chambers (not all available to the public), one with beds for children to sleep and receive improvements to their asthma and other respiratory ailments. For centuries, salt has been an effective treatment. I even enjoyed an elegant, gourmet lunch on a white tablecloth. What next? I heard they were building an underground hotel.
This was just one of many unexpected hidden finds that I encountered during my 10-day rail journey through Poland—from the petite town of Poznan to the stunning cities of Warsaw, Wroclaw, and Krakow. This was both an emotional and educational journey, as I stepped back into my Polish ancestry and became entrenched in my Eastern roots.
Feelings of sadness and horror overcame me, as I explored the never-ending monuments, museums, and memories of WWII and the Holocaust. Poland’s history is so complex and one of constantly regaining identity taken away by Russians, Germans, Austrians, and Prussians—to name a few. It wasn’t until 1989, during the fall of communism, that Poland started to rebuild its cities.
Most inspiring and astonishing, was the complete revitalization of the towns and renewal of the human spirit along with an acknowledgement and regret of the incomprehensible past tragedies.
With a European East Eurail Pass in hand and pre-booked seat reservations, I comfortably traveled between the major cities, slowly passing farmlands with rolling greenery and shingle-roofed homes. Riding the rails from three to five hours at a time gave me the opportunity to meet locals and other travelers. My experience was that the Poles are warm people that welcome foreign travelers with an open heart.
I briefly met a young married couple, both doctors from Krakow, while leaving the San Francisco airport at the outset of my journey to Poland. When they knew I was going to visit their city, they insisted that I contact them.
When I arrived in Krakow, we met for dinner in the flavorful Jewish District of Kazimierz. They chose the ambient Ester Restaurant, which plays a potpourri of music from flamenco guitar to Middle Eastern Klezmer. In a short time, we got to know each other. I enjoyed a crispy, delectable roasted duck and the Polish staple of pierogies, a stuffed dumpling made with cheese, meat, spinach, or fruit. They told me that Thursday is the best day to order fish because it comes in fresh to the restaurants.
Krakow is one of the few cities in Poland that has not been razed to the ground from WWII. The main market square is one of the largest in Europe—even larger than St. Mark’s Square in Venice. St. Mary’s Basilica, with two Gothic style towers and a Baroque interior, is the main focal point. On the hour, a man plays a bugle through four different windows. The tradition stems from the Middle Ages, when the Moguls attacked and killed a young bugle player with an arrow in his neck, which ended the playing. So, now the music never stops.
Here, I came across some other hidden finds—Wierzynek, the city’s oldest restaurant dating back to 1364, is built like a cave within a former distillery building. Hotel Amadeus, reasonably priced and only five minutes from the main town square, was a convenient home base to walk to the restaurants and cafes at night.
A bit further from my hotel, I dined on an authentic Polish dinner with cooked beets, cabbage, and pork at Pod Baranem Restaurant, close to the Wawel Royal Castle, the seat of the first Polish rulers and a main Krakow attraction.
Right in the center of the town square, with its array of colorful architecture from Gothic to Renaissance and Baroque, is a small glass pyramid covering the Rynek Underground permanent exhibition, a world of ancient relics that reflect 1,000 years of European history. In the 13th century Krakow was the center of trade, which is apparent from the found jewelry, tools, and clothing that were exhibited through this sophisticated, interactive labyrinth of tunnels and original transport routes.
Wondrous Warsaw is just a three-hour train ride from Krakow, and it’s like a phoenix that rose from the ashes. This magnificent town, and home to the great composer Chopin, was almost totally non-existent after the war. Since the buildings were rebuilt, their pastel colors of mustard, salmon, and blue are even more vibrant.
Acknowledgements of the horrors committed by the Nazis are most visible here. There are monuments that commemorate the innocent civilians killed in the streets and the 450,000 Jews entrapped in a horrific ghetto. Almost all were later sent to their deaths in concentration camps at Auschwitz and Treblinka.
My tour guide looked saddened, as she led me through the endless streets of the ghetto to the Warsaw Uprising Museum, then down to the Jewish Polish Museum and Jewish Uprising Monument of entangled bodies.
On a lighter note, I discovered both the visual and cultural beauty of the city on my second day in Warsaw. I traced Chopin’s life from the benches along the main promenade, with its cosmopolitan feel amid the 18th and 19th century style buildings. I continued my stroll to the university, discovering a palatial garden and nearby apartment where Chopin’s family lived. Not far away, at the interactive Chopin Museum housed in a Baroque-style building, I listened with headphones to several of the composer’s great works.
My day ended with a Saturday afternoon concert of Chopin’s “Nocturnes” in Lazienki Park. Not a word was uttered among hundreds of guests during the hour concert—true respect to the artist. Down further through the park was an unexpected concert at the Palace on the Water where peacocks with fanned feathers roamed onstage reaching some high notes along with the opera singers.
I took the tram back to the Sofitel Hotel, which had an infinity swimming pool to immerse my body after a hot summer day of sightseeing.
Though I needed to endure an extremely slow five-hour train ride from Krakow, the quaint city of Wroclaw was one of my favorites. Considered the Venice of Poland situated on the River Oder in Lower Silesia, Wroclaw oozes with fairytale charm. With a population of approximately 632,000, Wroclaw is spread out on 12 islands connected by over 100 bridges, not counting all the river, canal, and footbridges. Its new train station has a facade like a Tuscan palace.
The Hotel Tumski, where I stayed, has a bird’s-eye view of a picturesque greenery and the Tumski Bridge, which separates Cathedral Island (with seven churches) and municipal Sand Island. Twice a day, lamplighters come to light the street lamps, a place to really relish at night.
For a bit more drama, from 8 p.m.–10 p.m. on the hour is a phantasmagorical light and sound show next to Centennial Hall, with its giant sculpture and city’s tallest structure piercing into the sky.
I took a delightful side-trip to Lower Silesia for a visit to a hand-made porcelain factory, Manufaktura, and several castles-turned-resorts, such as Staniszow Palace. I had a reasonable three-course luxurious lunch at Kliczkow Castle—fit for a princess.
My final visit to one of Poland’s oldest and most colorful towns, Poznan, was filled with the unexpected. Close to the German border near Berlin, Poznan has a medieval marketplace and a Cathedral Island dating back to the 8th century, complete with an eye-catching three-nave Gothic basilica. This small enclave surprisingly houses 20 institutions of higher learning, as well as one of Europe’s most modern malls.
Poznan’s claim to fame is the 22-year-old Malta Festival, which happens every summer in late June. I happened to catch a night of Romani music where the entire riverbed was resonating with lively sounds and set aglow with flashing colored lights. It was in this tiny city that I also experienced a dark restaurant. I ate in total darkness with my sense of smell, touch, and taste heightened. The fun part was trying to guess what I ate afterward.
My visual senses were stimulated, at the Vine Bridge Restaurant, Poland’s smallest restaurant that can only serve 10 people. Each dish was a work of art with a tasty but unlikely blend of ingredients served creatively on a chalkboard and slab of metal.
Departing Poland by train the next morning, I pondered how Chopin’s love of Poland followed him to his grave. Though his body was buried outside the country for political reasons, he made sure his heart was placed in an urn in Warsaw’s Holy Cross Church. An inscription on his stone reads: “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”
In my case, I felt I had taken a piece of Poland with me in both my heart and mind.
For information on Poland, visit www.poland.travel/en-us.
For information on visiting by train, visit www.raileurope.com
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