more to poland than pierogi

I have always been strangely drawn to Poland. I have no idea the reason, but I have always been fascinated by the country and have wanted to visit for as long as I can remember. I don’t quite know what I was expecting from Poland, but whatever it was, whatever I had hoped to find, whatever had drawn me there, it did not disappoint. From the bustling, strikingly modern city of Warsaw and the seductive culture and bewitching architecture of Krakow to the sobering barracks of Auschwitz and the dramatic innovation of the Wieliczka Salt Mine, Poland proved to be an unforgettable destination, and I cannot wait to return and explore even more.

After our immensely-pleasant, exceedingly-comfortable (sarcasm) 14-hour journey from Zwickau to Warsaw, Jess and I passed out the minute we got to our hotel room, but the next morning we were ready to hit the ground running (well, we don’t run unless we’re being chased, so we’ll say we hit the ground walking at a moderately fast speed). We wandered over to the Old Town of Warsaw, stopping along the way to marvel at some of this amazing city’s breathtaking baroque architecture and admire all of the poignant murals and vibrant paintings that decorate the walls of the city. An observation tower (where Jess and I nearly lost our lives climbing the million stairs to the top) gives sensational 360-degree views of both Old Town and the Castle of Warsaw.

Perhaps our visit was simply well timed, but every ten steps there seemed to be a festival or event happening in Warsaw. In one day, we saw (well, we aren’t exactly sure what they were all for, as everything was in Polish, but I will give my best reckonings) an arts and crafts fair geared toward senior citizens, a bread and cheese festival complete with a heavy-metal concert, an African clothing celebration event, and various protests about political prisoners and abortion legislation. Furthermore, around every corner there were street entertainers of every kind, from dancers and musicians to painters and bubble-makers.

From the smell of fresh sękacz [a sweet, traditionally-Eastern European dessert made by wrapping dough around a stick] wafting out of bakery windows and exquisite cathedrals of truly prodigious proportions to its plethora of live music and street performers and a thriving culture of powerful museums, such as the Warsaw Uprising Museum, Warsaw really is a treat for the senses.

In (a nearly comical) contrast, our welcome to Krakow was anything but inviting: the rain and wind seemed characteristic of a monsoon, the temperature had dropped to a bone-chilling 6°C/42°F, and to top it all off, I ripped the crotch out of my favorite pair of joggers! (RIP ole pal—you will be missed and never forgotten.)

But luckily our misfortune was short-lived.

After exploring Krakow’s charming market square, St. Andrew’s Cathedral, and the aesthetically peculiar Wawel Castle, Jess and I stumbled upon the most glorious of sites—a cat café! (Who knew that was even a thing?! Not me!) Quite simply, it is a café in which cat-lovers and crazy cat-ladies alike can snuggle up with one of our furry friends that calls the café home. I wish I could say we ordered a cat-puccini, but we both opted for vanilla meowshakes. Furthermore, if ever elected President of the United States, I will try to pass legislation requiring all cafes to be cat cafes—remember vote Lauderback 2032.

You know the old saying, “while in Poland, eat as the Polish do”: well, Jess and I did not disappoint. We devoured as much traditional polish cuisine as we could stomach, everything from cabbage and mushroom pierogi and barley soup at the milk bar to traditional Papal cream cake and Polish sweet cherry liqueur. The only thing we couldn’t bring ourselves to sample (though as the sole meat-eater, Jess definitely should have shouldered the responsibility) was steak tartare—a dish consisting of uncooked beef topped with a raw egg yolk.

We also unwittingly celebrated National Vodka Day (October 4th) at a traditional Vodka Bar–shots were only 4 zloty/1 euro! So we celebrated hard—probably a bit too hard.

Day 2 in Krakow: the pouring rain and bone-chilling temperatures continued to try and stop us, but (hangover and all) we braved the elements. After lunch at a Jewish restaurant, we decided to take a guided tour–mainly due to the tour-vehicles advertising their heated nature–of Kazimierz, Schindler’s Factory, and the old Jewish ghetto. Naturally, the heat in our golf kart was bloody broken, but the tour was so enlightening, that we forgot we were freezing our asses off (well not really, but it was better than a boring tour in the cold).

Our last full day in Poland, we visited Auschwitz Concentration Camp and the Wieliczka Salt Mines. The salt mines were absolutely stunning–a true testament to man’s innovation and creativity. Though I don’t advise anyone with a bad knee to make the treacherous decent down the nearly 400 steps into the mine; we were just glad there was an elevator to take you back to the surface at the end.

There really are no words to describe walking around a place like Auschwitz. With every new flood of emotion comes more questions. How could this have happened? How can mankind be so cruel? It truly is both overwhelming and numbing tracing the footsteps of millions people that where brutally tortured and murdered. It is simply unfathomable and indescribable.

When people would ask my travel destinations in Poland, I was occasionally met by surprise when I said Auschwitz. “Why would you want to go somewhere so sad?” some would wonder. But I think we have a responsibility to remember. There are now very few Holocaust survivors alive and able to share their personal stories; soon the responsibility of ensuring that nothing like this happens again will fall on all of us. I think Santayana said it best: “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

PS: Though for me, visiting Poland was an unforgettable, once-in-a-lifetime adventure, during our visit the reproductive rights of the woman of Poland came under attack. Poland already has some of the strictest abortion laws in Europe, but lawmakers and the far-right are attempting to pass legislation prohibiting abortion even in cases of rape and when the mother’s life is in danger. On Monday, thousands of Poles took to the streets to protest this archaic, backwards legislation. Thus, I feel compelled to say to the women of Poland: I stand with you. I feel your frustration, I feel your anger, I feel your disappointment, and I stand with you.

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