This holiday season, the opportunity to see dear friends brought us out of Vienna and into Poland. Our friends Anna and Loren, along with Loren's mother Joy and her boyfriend Bruce, were visiting Anna's family in Gdansk, and we jumped at the opportunity to see them. Before heading to the beautiful city of Gdansk, though, our trip took us to vibrant Krakow, as well as Auschwitz-Birkenau for a sobering dose of history.
We started off by picking up our friends Michael and Tiff at the airport in Vienna and renting a car. No time to see Vienna, guys - sorry! We were off on our 5-hour ride to Krakow!
We made our dinner pitstop at a gas station in Poland where we had some truly delicious meat pierogi with crispy onions. I'm not kidding. We've found this all over continental Europe - gas station food is actually great. (The one exception turned out to be a McDonald's we stopped at on our drive back at the end of this journey. The food was fine, but the place was a total, non-functioning chaos).
It was either really foggy or dark for our entire drive, so there was nothing to see, but fortunately it went by quickly. Our driving companions made good car company throughout the trip! By and large, the highways were remarkably nice, and you can drive up to 140 km/h! Loren pointed out there's really no enforcement of this, so you can basically drive as fast as you want - but we stuck to around 140 (86 mph).
Only issue - people drive wildly varying speeds and there are just 2 lanes; so you'll be cruising along at 135, and suddenly come up behind someone going 100. You look behind you to try to pass, and there's someone else coming up in the left lane at like 160! This happened a lot.
But enough about the driving itself.
We arrived in Krakow, got checked into our Airbnb apartment (its own adventure), and met up with Loren, Anna, Joy, and Bruce in the central square. Krakow has the classic set up of a dense, central old town with a public square in the middle. Though Vienna had already started to close down its Christmas markets, Krakow's was still in full-swing there in the square, offering the classic sausages and mulled wine, with some Polish specialties like roasted pork knuckle.
Photo credit for the above, and several of the below photos, as well, goes to Tiff. Thanks, Tiff!
What Poland also does uniquely regarding Christmas foods and beverages is that they don't just mull their wine - they also offer mulled beer, vodka, and tea. I was highly skeptical about mulled beer at first, but I have to say that some of it was quite good! They typically add a sweet syrup - like raspberry or honey - as well as wedges of lemon and some spices. That first night we checked out a very cool underground bar located in a series of connected cellar-like rooms. The bartender made every drink like Mr. Bean wrapping the gift in Love, Actually. He literally lit individual cloves on fire over your drink.
On day 2, we visited Auschwitz-Birkenau.
It was an overwhelming and powerful experience to be there, on the spot. I had been to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC, on more than one occasion, so most of the information in the exhibits regarding the Holocaust itself was known to me. The museum in DC really does an excellent job of making it real, but it was quite a different thing to walk the same tracks as the prisoners and pass through one of the gas chambers where they died.
What the exhibits at Auschwitz also offered was the perspective of the Polish people and their own suffering, split between the Nazi and Soviet occupying forces from the beginning of the war. They were, like so much of Eastern Europe, basically screwed. It shed a lot of light on a side of the war I had not heard much about previously.
We first saw Auschwitz, which primarily served as a forced labor camp, where the Nazis only began to experiment with the idea of mass extermination. We then drove the short distance away to Birkenau. The Nazis built this camp with the intention of housing even more Soviet prisoners of war, but when nearly all of the first contingent died in the building of the camp itself, the plan shifted and the camp was refitted as an extermination camp for Europe's Jews, etc.
The size of the place is staggering. Row upon row of barracks. No more solid brick buildings like in Auschwitz, but rapidly-constructed, wooden shacks. This aerial shot shows the relative size of the two camps.
On this day, it had turned bitterly cold, and it remained that way through our departure. We're talking a low of -18 Celsius - that's 0 degrees Fahrenheit. So we took in as much as we could, and then, frozen and overwhelmed, we grabbed a meal at a restaurant in a mall in town.
The town of Oświęcim, Poland, the site of the concentration and extermination camps, is about a 30 minute drive from Krakow. It's difficult to imagine living there now, with these camps in your backyard, but many people still do. It struck me as a run-down, sad town.
After this experience, we were all happy to have each other's company and to spend some time exploring Krakow further.
We had some great Polish meals, eating twice at one restaurant that Anna approved of, visited Krakow's castle, popped into various churches, wandered the markets, etc.
Here are the sights around the main square, including its odd, semi-indoor market:
And here are my shots from the castle:
And from our great meals together:
The remainder of our trip was spent in Gdansk. This city surprised me in how beautiful its old town is and how different it feels from Krakow. Not having been to other Baltic cities before, I can't say this for sure, but I imagine that it had more similarity to cities like Riga and Vilnius than Krakow, which feels really Central European. Though Gdansk's old town is not right on the Baltic Sea, it is surrounded by water and run through with canals. Many buildings are painted in pretty pastels with ornate facades and gold accents.
It is also wildly affordable - even more so than Krakow. It really surprised me it does not fall on more people's European tour lists - but perhaps that is because of its relative inaccessibility (there is an airport, but you likely have to connect through Warsaw, so good luck making that less than a 3-leg journey from the US).
We spent the day on the 31st exploring the old town, as well as seeing some new development popping up on its edges, before heading out for New Year's Eve celebrations.
We had elected to do a NYE party package at a nice restaurant that included 5 courses, champagne at midnight, a live band/DJ music till morning, etc. The crowd was a mix of young and old, and they were a fun bunch - we were definitely not the only ones on the dance floor.
The band consisted of 3 people, with a female vocalist covering American pop music. She did an impressive Adam Levine. One classic moment was when she invited a guy up on stage to sing - the only black person there (and perhaps in Poland) - and he decided to sing "Superstitious," even though he apparently only knew three lines from the song. He made it count, though, by continuing on for 10 minutes, repeating those three lines in different combos.
As a side note, you, like we, are probably not all that familiar with metric measurements. So when you hear that your NYE package comes with a half liter of vodka per couple, that won't mean much. But I can tell you - it's far more than enough! At the end of the night, our table of 4 couples ended up with 1 1/2 of these half-liter bottles left.
At midnight we popped out to watch the fireworks, which was quite an experience. Unlike in the USA, there seems to be less concern about safety, and in addition to the official fireworks, people set off their own fireworks feet away from the crowd. The added element of danger, and being so close to it all, made it pretty thrilling!
We pushed through to 2:00 am before heading for home and bed.
New Year's Day we got to meet Anna's family. First, we headed for the beach to watch Gdansk's version of the Polar Bear Plunge. They had quite a turnout for it, with many of the swimmers in fun costumes. It was seriously frigid that day and it felt like the frozen sand was just sucking the heat and life out of your feet. I can't imagine how none of the swimmers went into shock!
Afterward, we headed to Anna's parents' apartment, where she grew up, just a few minutes outside of the old town. They live in a large apartment complex where the simple buildings surround grassy courtyards. The apartments are small, but I could imagine sending the children out to play with others in the courtyard and it being quite pleasant. Anna's brother and his wife, along with their two adorable children, joined us there for a mid-afternoon dinner of traditional Polish foods. We had soup, pork schnitzel, and potatoes, plus lots of chocolates for dessert. One of Brendan and my favorites was the pickled plums. Sour and sweet all at once - so good!
On our last day, we went to Gdansk's amber museum (amber is a big deal in this area), then spent some more time just having fun and enjoying being with friends and family. We went ice skating with some of Anna's family, then got crepes for dinner with them.
It was nice to be with her family even though our ability to communicate with them was somewhat limited. It's just within our generation that the schools in Gdansk made the switch from teaching kids Russian as their second language to English, so the older generation generally does not speak any English at all. More rural areas also do not tend to learn English. We picked up just a few important Polish words, and other than Anna's brother, they tended to know approximately the equivalent amount of English. With Anna's help as a translator, though, and by doing activities and games together, we were still able to feel connected.
In the evening we, along with with Michael, Tiff, Loren, and Anna, headed for the Funrena - a stadium they converted into a place for all things awesome: laser tag, trampolines, go-carts, and escape rooms. We opted for 3 of the 4, leaving off go-carts only because we didn't have time for everything. We really had a blast, and it was fun just to be with friends doing things we might do in any city with them - not being tourists for a change.
Also, I'd like to record here for posterity that I won at laser tag (especially notable considering my miserable performance in past laser tag attempts).
On the 3rd, we made the long drive back to Vienna and left Poland behind, but we took with us many good memories. I'm happy that Anna gave us the excuse to come explore, as I doubt that we otherwise would have made the trip. Loren tells us you can skip Warsaw, and I can say the countryside outside the cities is not much to write home about -- but if you are looking for a classic Old-Europe feel at budget prices, I would highly recommend Krakow and Gdansk!