Tips for Visiting Poland
In Search of Family
This blog with tips for visiting Poland is dedicated to my father, who invited me to join him on an emotional journey to explore his heritage and find his family. This was definitely one of the most emotional of my wanders.
- Malbork Castle + Torun
- Zamek Castle
- Kłyżów and Rzeszow
- Ujazd + Sandomierz
When my father mentioned the possibility of a trip to the regions of Poland where his mother and father’s families once lived, I forwent the hints and made it clear I was all in if he was up for having me join him.
I had been starved for years for hands on family heritage and Polish history to fill in some very big gaps in both knowledge and experience. I was the poster child for how quickly precious relationships and traditions can be lost. I was ecstatic to embark on this wander in September 2006, along with my big brother, my stepmother and, of course, my father. The goal was to dig up documentation on the birth of our ancestors…the hope was to connect with a living relative. No matter if either of these were realized, we would definitely get a literal and figurative taste of the culture my great-grandparents left behind when they stepped off the ship on Ellis Island. Of course, I also share LOTS of tips for visiting Poland!
DAYS 1 & 2—Los Angeles to Gdansk
As I observed the faces around me in the Lufthansa check-in line at LAX, there was no denying my family’s Eastern European heritage. I was surrounded by features that I had seen all my life — prominent cheekbones, light colored eyes, and darkened skin around the eyes.
My first conversation with a native Pole took place on the last leg of the flight to Gdansk. A lanky teenager temporarily unplugged himself from his iPod and seemed a bit too eager to advise me of all the dangers I was about to encounter.
“This is not California,” he warned me, “You must be very, very careful. And, watch out for bald men in jogging suits. They are part of an underground cult who steals from people. It even happened to me once. Do you speak Polish? No? Wow, you know, almost no one speaks English here, so it will be quite interesting for you.”
Was he just messing with me or should I be officially nervous?
It was sheer luck that we found our pensionat so easily after pulling away from the Gdansk airport in our overloaded Ford Focus. The renovated Pensjonat Stara Karczma is located on a main street in Oliwa (pronounced “Oleeva”…stand by for more on the language challenges), a charming district in the city of Gdansk. Although our room was small, it was updated and had a maneuverable shower, which is never guaranteed in Europe.
Just up the street is the picturesque Adam Mickiewicz Park, which it situated on the grounds of a former Cistercian monastery and filled with mature trees, giant hedges, geometric flower gardens, and gravel paths that meander along ponds filled with geese and ducks. We had our first Polish meal at Restauracja w Pałacu Opatόw in the Abbot’s Palace inside the park. Thankfully, the menu was in English because our waiter knew approximately three English words and was reluctant to use any of them.
After dinner, we quickly checked out the gothic brick cathedral next door with a history dating back to 1178. Ahhh, to be in Europe again, where old is truly old…
Usually when I travel to a foreign country, I make an effort to learn basic words or phrases in the native language. However, this is no easy feat with Polish. Unless you take some time to study the nuances of the language, one’s attempts at pronunciation are met with a blank stare or stifled laugh. For example…
A ‘b’ is pronounced either “bee” or “pee,” a ‘w’ sounds like “vee” or “eff,” and a ‘g’ is either “gee” or “kay.” To add to the confusion, there are letters most of us have never seen before – like ‘ł’ (pronounced like a ‘w’), ‘ś’ (pronounced “sh”), or ‘ć’ (pronounced “ch”) — or never-before-seen combinations of letters like ‘cz’ (pronounced “ch”), ‘rz’ (pronounced either “zh” or “sh”), or ‘sz’ (pronounced “sh”). The fabulous news is that about half of the people we encountered spoke varying levels of English…and, I’ve been deeply grateful for every single one of them. Most of the other half apologizes for not knowing our language. (I do believe the aforementioned Polish teenager was having a bit of fun with me.)
On our first full day in Poland, we explored Old Gdansk. Formerly known as Danzig by the Germans, Gdansk is located on the northern coast of Poland on the Baltic Sea, and is infamous for being the spot where World War II commenced.
The stunning beauty of the old town took me completely by surprise. My expectations were due to the country’s tumultuous, often tragic, history, which lasted until around 1980. We entered Old Gdansk on the pedestrian only Długi Targ Street, considered the most picturesque street in the city. Lined with 84 pastel-colored tenement buildings dating back to the medieval era, this is where the city’s most wealthy residents once lived. Now, it entices tourists with its boutique shops, quaint restaurants, and sidewalk cafés. Meticulous renovations include detailed recreations of friezes and bas reliefs on the building fronts. In the center is a fountain of Neptune, the symbol of the city.
The town cathedral, St. Mary’s, is the largest church in Poland – and the largest brick church in Europe. It houses an enormous astronomical clock built in the 1460’s by Hans Dǖringer. The king who commissioned the clock purportedly put Dǖringer’s eyes out upon completion of the clock so he could never create another masterpiece to rival this work of art. When World War II began, residents disassembled the clock and hid the pieces to save it from destruction. It was not reassembled until 1990. (This is where my ABCs were born.)
After lunch, we managed to navigate our way to the Solidarity Monument, a statue honoring Lech Walesa and the shipyard workers who went on strike and were killed in December 1970, for protesting Soviet communism. Here we saw the first evidence of Poland’s deep love of Pope John Paul, who visited here in 1987, including life size photos, flowers, candles and casts of his foot prints.
Getting out of Gdansk was quite comical as rampant road construction and miniature or missing road signs had us driving in circles. After making it safely back to Oliwa, we drove the short distance to the town of Sopot and had a traditional Polish dinner at Karczma Polska Zagroda. Food prices in Poland are incredible. For about $10, you get a traditional multi-dish dinner with huge portions. These deals will end in 2007, when Poland joins the European Union and the currency converts to the Euro.
DAY 3—Malbork Castle & Torun
On the way to Torun, we stopped to explore Malbork Castle, a massive structure constructed by the Teutonic Knights in the 13th Century and rebuilt after it was bombed by the Russians in World War II.
The knights originated in Prussia [present-day Germany] and were initially sent east to convert pagans in this region (then known as Eastern Pomerania). Typically overzealous, they eventually just confiscated the land for themselves, created their own independent state, and began building numerous Gothic brick castles. The castles served as military forts, monasteries, and administrative and economic centers. Malbork Castle is striking, constructed completely out of red bricks in a Gothic design.
You could easily spend an entire day here (and I recommend doing just that) exploring the oft claustrophobic circular stairwells leading to hidden rooms, some housing mini-museums. For a sweeping view of the castle and surrounding countryside, be sure and pay the extra ‘zlotys’ to climb 217 steps to the top of the tower.
Our hotel in Torun—Hotel Filmar—confirmed my long-standing opinion of travel agents. They’re either lazy, uninformed, or choose perks over the best interest of their clients. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a blander hotel in a less appealing area. (And, don’t get me started on European architects!)
Within minutes of arriving, we started the long trek to Old Torun.
We found a perfect traditional Polish restaurant—Karczma Spichrz—where we ended up eating dinner twice over the next two days. I’ll forever remember them for achieving what I thought was the impossible…changing my mind about ‘kluski,’ a traditional Polish dish cooked by my grandmother that I had dubbed “bleached barf.” Their version was quite different than my grandmother’s. No white vomit here! Just tiny, slightly salty, potato dumplings mixed with bits of crunchy bacon sans sauce, topped with a rectangle of the Polish version of cottage cheese, all sitting on top of a bed of slightly sweet sauerkraut. While we ate, we were swept back in time by the rustic décor and trio of Polish musicians – an accordionist, a bass player and a fiddler — who sang us songs from Eastern Europe (and a few from American lounges).
Today we accomplished great investigative feats in the face of a massive language barrier making for an especially exciting day. We were in Chelmno (pronounced “Heum-no”), the village where my father’s paternal family once lived and his father was supposedly born. We set out early in the day, hoping to find his birth records in the haystack of records in a Polish church or civic office. Starting out in the town square, we were directed to what looked like an administrative building in the center. As we struggled to explain—using our hands, written notes, and single English words—exactly what we were attempting to find to the two different clerks, a helpful stranger who spoke broken English pointed in the direction of the new city hall somewhere up the street.
We walked in the direction of her finger and entered the first building we approached, walked through the first door, and approached the first person. Once again, my dad pulled out his notes and pointed to the names and birthdates. The clerk beckoned to a co-worker and they both mulled over the notes…and, there it was. Recognition. On their faces. They proceeded to walk over to a cabinet and pull out several old ledgers. There was a lot of breath holding going on. After several minutes of searching, they turned it around so we all could see…scrawled in faded brown cursive was the name and birth date of my grandfather — Alek Wozniewski, #44, 1905. (By the way, that’s pronounced “Vozh-nee-EV-skee”).
The bad news was that the #44 referred to the actual location of his birth documents…at the administrative office in Torun. So close, yet so far…but, still a gratifying moment for my father.
Chelmno is a charming walled Gothic town that was the first official town founded by the Teutonic Knights in 1233 (and mentioned in historical documents as far back as 1065). The city is known as the “City of Lovers” due to the storage of many St. Valentine relics in local churches for centuries. The city’s walls and one dozen red brick churches are among the best preserved in the region, so the tour busses pour through the gates. The Assumption of Mary cathedral is the town’s main church and one of the oldest in the region. It’s also very likely the place my grandfather and great-grandparents were baptized.
Thanks to my very limited French, we got a terrific recommendation for lunch from a local French shop owner. We all ordered potato pancakes (with sour cream and salt or sugar) and appreciated the rustic Polish decor and friendly (haltingly) English speaking staff at Karczma Chełminska.
Although already the location of an 11th century Slav settlement along the Vistula River, Torun really began to prosper when the Teutonic Knights made it a primary outpost (known as Thorn) in 1233. The town fell under Prussian rule in 1793, and wasn’t returned to Poland until after World War I. Fortunately, the city didn’t sustain significant damage in World War II, so much of its historical architecture has been preserved.
Old Torun was as beautiful as Old Gdansk, surrounded by crumbling red brick walls and filled with multi-colored tenement buildings with intricate facades, a huge statue of Nicolas Copernicus (born here in 1473 as Mikołaja Kopernika), an astronomical clock tower, a Teutonic castle, and a medieval leaning tower (thanks to previously unstable soils). The main square, known as Synek Staromiejski, and surrounding streets are lacking only in cars and abundant in upscale shops and wandering people.
We stopped for a quick lunch at the first restaurant we could find. My bloodhound instincts kicked in and I smelled a chain at Sphinx Restaurant. The laminated tri-fold menu was a dead giveaway. The proud statement on the front cover was confirmation. “You can find a Sphinx Restaurant all throughout Poland!” If I had anything to say about it, we would not be eating at any of them.
Our next challenge was to get ourselves to Warsaw.
Like many Europeans, Poles drive at race car speeds and are willing to risk passing any car that is not maximizing its RPMs. An abundance of obstacles test your reflexes… road detours that force you to re-navigate in mere seconds, slow moving semi-trucks that cause a sudden slowdown, and confusing [or invisible] road signs that are gone before comprehension sets in. I’m certain that all the numerous “Mary and Jesus pit stops” along the side of the roads were for mourning those players who lost the game.
We all let our breath out, grateful to be physically intact, in front of our next hotel—The Grand Hotel Orbis. The travel agent strikes again. Undergoing renovations, and hopefully an addition of some character, this place is smack in the middle of Warsaw’s business district.
Warsaw (pronounced “Vah-shah-va”) is the current capitol of Poland, but the largest and one of the youngest and most modern. It dates back to the early 14th century with the construction of a stronghold at the site of the Royal Castle by the Dukes of Mazovia. It became the capitol in 1596.
The darkest time in its turbulent history was during the Nazi occupation of World War II. An estimated two-thirds of Varsovians [about 800,000 Jews and Poles] were massacred and approximately 90% of the city’s buildings were destroyed on Hitler’s order. Rather than give up on the city after the end of the war, the Poles rebuilt it, painstakingly recreating every cobblestone street and historical building accurately using salvaged paintings and photographs for reference.
My initial disappointment with the business district dissipated the moment we arrived in Old Town for dinner. Ahhhh, antiquity and royalty pervade the air. [Okay, it’s recreated…but, they did a fabulous job of it.] Stately buildings in a variety of pastel colors stand like royal sentries guarding the large market square, horse drawn carriages wander through the cobbled streets filling the air with a pleasant clip clopping while people shop, eat, converse, and marvel. I can’t wait to return tomorrow…
Without a doubt, Old Warsaw is one of my favorite wanders to date. Today we arrived during a street fair with vendors selling Polish specialities (cheeses and sauerkraut and meats, oh my!) and a five-man brass band played traditional tunes. I just about lost it when a royal carriage manned by six liveries and drawn by four prancing white horses loudly announced their arrival in the market square with shouts and bugle calls. Sure it’s reconstructed, but old spirits remain.
Today is the anniversary of 9/11, and President Bush seems to be speaking of Warsaw as his message is repeated throughout the world…“They can destroy our buildings, but they cannot destroy our spirit.” The buoyancy of the Poles is most evident in Warsaw.
One of the biggest challenges is choosing a restaurant without knowing which ones are divine and which are mediocre (or worse). Last night, we dined on divine gourmet fare tucked inside a secret courtyard off of the market square at Fukiera Restaurant. Today, my lunch on the square at Restauracja Senator was far below average. Weary of Polish cuisine, we chose an Italian spot for dinner. Rusticoni was delicioso.
The dominant local souvenir is amber. This fossilized sap from ancient pine trees comes in a variety of hues…most commonly golden yellow, but also olive green, reddish brown, or opaque pale yellow. If you search hard enough, you can find unique handcrafted pieces and even some with an ancient bug suspended forever in time.
I’ll admit it—I’m “anti-tour.” I abhor schedules and resist being a follower. However, I sincerely enjoyed the city tour we took with five random Americans (three of whom happened to live 20 minutes from my home back in San Diego) and our English-speaking Warsaw native guide. Our bus buzzed by many of the city’s sights (another reason I’m “anti”), but we did explore Łazienki Park (pronounced “Wa-jhen-kee”), home to the Palace on the Water (the lavish summer residence of the last king of Poland, Stanislaw August Poniatowski), the memorial to the heroes of the Jewish Ghetto, and a portion of Old Town on foot. The park is immense and confirms that Poles are passionate about natural places to escape within their cities. They are also passionate about culture. In Łazienki Park alone, there are about 1,000 concerts each year, some encircling the massive statue of Chopin, another talented Pole.
I wallowed in chocolate decadence this afternoon. After 150 years, E. Wedel’s have mastered the art of drinking chocolate and present it to visitors amongst rich dark woods and deep red and gold upholstery.
Eating three Polish meals a day had caught up with all of us. We felt weighed down and in a state of constant digestion. The feeling of hunger had become a distant memory. For dinner we opted for a light eclectic meal consisting of salads or starters at Flik, a small restaurant off the beaten path.
After seven full days in Poland, I have learned a single Polish word…”toaleta.” Can you guess what it means? The language escapes me.
DAY 10—Zamek Castle
If I hadn’t known better, today I would think we were on a road trip through the American Midwest in the early part of the last century. Hectares of flatland planted with a variety of crops and only occasional patches of low level trees. Women in skirts and shirtless men working side by side in the fields or sitting atop horse-drawn wagons. A smattering of lone cows, tethered and grazing. Mounds of hay, piles of burning chaff, and small unadorned farmhouses. As we traveled south from Warsaw, it was clear why so many Polish immigrants [including our own] felt so at home in our country’s “flyover zone.”
We have my father to thank that our base for the next three nights is far more exotic than the last two lackluster hotels. Zamek Castle was built at the turn of the 16th century on the edge of a now tired little village with a giant name — Baranov Sandomierski. More renovations underway courtesy of the European union…a good sign for the future of tourism in Poland. As you wander down the castle hallways, you encounter never ending rows of antiquated wooden doors to guest rooms. Just imagine who has walked through them! As I slowly opened the creaky wood door into our room, I fully expected to see a ghost.
DAY 11—The Climax
If this journey was a novel, today was the climax. We left the castle after breakfast with the goal of locating the birth records of my father’s maternal grandparents in the bustling city of Rzeszow (pronounced “Zheh-shoof”) and the nearly silent village of Kłyżów (pronounced “kwĭ-joov”).
Fortunately, we encountered more willing assistance from various residents of Rzeszow, who were eager to point us in the right direction. After lots of directions and wandering, we ended up in the back room of a church rectory where a priest began to search through dusty ledgers. Luck was not on our side this time. We might have incorrect information…or maybe we are actually Jewish and the records were in the synagogue up the street! Feeling deflated, we almost turned tourist for the remainder of the afternoon, but my father’s infamous determination kicked in.
We drove several kilometers to Kłyżów to make one last attempt at finding his maternal grandmother’s birth records. As soon as we arrived, it was clear that finding an English speaker in this tiny one street village was not likely. The church was locked. We happened upon a living Babushka doll…about four feet tall, few teeth remaining, dressed in a kerchief, a colorful smock, saggy black stockings and, strangely, lacking shoes. She waved her arms wildly while hurtling Polish at us. To this day, I don’t know how…but, my father somehow got her to focus and understand one word. “Maslach.” [His grandmother’s last name.] She pointed frantically toward the church, where we quickly returned. A woman living in the house next door tentatively came to us, bearing a gift. A few words of English and directions toward the Maslach home just up the street. Which one we did not know.
We meandered through the back yard of the first house we came upon…past a small barn surrounded by foraging chickens, a pig pen, a few waddling geese, a picturesque pond. Out of the garden comes another kerchiefed woman, baffled at this small group of foreigners trespassing in her yard. My father proffered the family papers once again. She looked at us with widened eyes…and, the Polish began to flow. She suddenly turned and ran inside her house. We stood there, not sure what to think. Had we offended her? Scared her? What should we do now? Before we could speak, she burst out her door and ran toward us with a piece of paper in her hands. It was a picture of my grandmother.
She looked behind us and lit up. Our heads turned in the direction of her stare to see a young woman approaching. It was another gift. This time a Magda, the woman’s English speaking grand-niece. Magda had me believing in a Higher Power as she started translating. While Magda explained her great aunt’s explanation, the woman once again disappeared into her home. Several minutes later, she walked slowly, hand in hand with an old woman.
A twinkly version of the Babushka woman we’d encountered earlier. This was Stefania Maslach, the family matriarch, who confirmed that we were indeed with family. Stefania was my father’s mother’s cousin, or my dad’s second cousin, although “Ciotka” (“Aunt”) was her title of choice. We were invited in to munch on plate after plate of Polish snacks and peruse more family photos.
“So, how do you like your Auntie???.” Stefania asked my father with a twinkle in her eye.
Her gratitude for our visit spilled out of every other translated sentence and she insisted that we be sure and come again while she was still around to welcome us. I was drawn to her. I saw myself in her eyes. We had the same wry sense of humor, the same mischievousness. I only hoped to have her razor sharp mind when I was 90. I was overwhelmed by sadness because the miles between us, coupled with our life circumstances, didn’t give me the benefit of ever really truly knowing her.
DAY 12—Ujazd & Sandomierz
Today is my father’s 75th birthday and we couldn’t be in a much better place to celebrate.
Today’s destination today was a desolate and tragic place—the ruins of Krzyżtopór Castle in Ujazd (pronounced “oo-yahst”). A local governor began construction of this eccentric castle in 1631, and continued for over a decade. Most of us assume that the most current generation is the most enlightened. I’m not so sure about that any more.
One could not deny the depth of spirit and engineering knowledge that was necessary to conceive and construct this monumental castle. Built to embody the calendar, every detail had a purpose…four towers to represent the four seasons, 12 halls symbolizing the months in a year, 52 rooms, and 365 windows [with an extra “leap year” window only opened on that day]. One year after its completion, the governor died and within 10 years, the Swedes had almost completely destroyed it. After several failed plans at restoration, the castle ruins are all that is left for present day tourists to visit.
We continued onto Sandomierz, a quaint town overlooking the Vistula River with a history dating back to the 11th century, and beautiful historical architecture that survived World War II. The sloping central square is lined with tiny old shops and houses, but thankfully does not yet have a commercial feel.
We had one of our best meals of the trip at Restauracja “30-TKA,” washed down by a refreshing Polish drink called “klument” (apple juice infused with mint). With its bright blue and gold ceilings, the cathedral contained 12 huge macabre paintings – one for each month of the year. Known as the Martyrologium Romanum, the paintings depicted all imaginable methods of torture and savage death. The legend states that if you locate your birthday on a painting, you can find out how you will die. I didn’t even look.
Today we visited Auschwitz, or Oświęcim (pronounced “osh-fyen-cheem”) in Polish—as it should be known. The evil that once reigned here is still palpable. If this were a required field trip for every human, I’m certain the world would be changed. It was an emotionally draining day and I still cannot find the words to describe this place.
We had one foot in America at the Sheraton hotel just outside of Old Krakow. While I’m thankful for the various simple luxuries—the English menus, the “Sweet Sleeper” beds, and the Americanized bathrooms—it’s just not my cup of tea. I prefer ghosts.
The very first traces of Krakow date back to the 7th century and the city reached its peak in the 16th century when it was Poland’s educational, cultural, and economic center. Although it remained the location of coronations and burials, the capital was moved to Warsaw in 1596. Over the next two centuries, Krakow declined because of numerous invasions, finally coming under Austrian rule in the 18th century where it thrived somewhat and maintained its cultural and intellectual status. The city sustained relatively little physical damage in World War II and is almost the only large Polish city that remains architecturally intact.
Old Krakow is much grander than I envisioned, with a central square rivaling those I’ve seen in Italy and Paris. Carriages pulled by pairs of prancing horses and moderate crowds are all that you must maneuver around through the cobblestone streets. Retail is much more sophisticated here as evidenced by the Sephora store, countless jewelry establishments, and lines of chic restaurants. About every 20 feet, you encounter some form of entertainer…musicians, living statues, mimes, break dancers…attempting to capture your attention (and your spare zlotys). When you get tired, you can just sit down in one of the sidewalk cafes, drink coffee, and watch it all.
Every hour a bugle call is played from the tower of St. Mary’s Church and can be heard throughout the square. Centuries ago, this call was played to warn city residents of an impending invasion…today it is cut off in mid-play in honor of the bugler who was impaled in the throat by an arrow shot by an invading Tatar. It’s easy to escape the 21st century in this magical place, although the prices here are more in line with the current century (no more three-course dinners for $10…but, it’s still a deal at $200).
Our last day in Poland was spent exploring Wawel Castle and the adjacent cathedral. In order to truly benefit from a visit here, you need a very detailed guidebook coupled with lots of time or take a guided English tour. There are tombs all throughout (and underneath) the cathedral that would too easily be missed if you didn’t have guidance.
All of us—and every other Brit or American we’ve chatted with—agree that Poland far exceeds expectations. The old towns and their market squares have all been stunningly beautiful and immaculately clean. The numerous ongoing renovations promise an even better future. From the north to the south, the locals have bent over backward and seem legitimately grateful for the opportunity to do so, probably because they are in that perfect state of mind that exists before a destination becomes overrun by tourists. Even the occasional challenge by a language barrier only caused a small blip that we were always able to creatively work our way around. If we can find birth records buried deep in civic and religious buildings, there’s no excuse for not finding a hotel or tourist attraction.
I’ve never felt safer while traveling. I hope to bring my children here some day before the masses discover it—and I hope my tips for visiting Poland ensure your trip is every bit as wonderful as mine (family or not)!
Found this video that PERFECTLY captures our attempts at pronouncing all things Polish: