Christmas markets. Polish pottery. Pastel row houses. Medieval finery. Pierogies.
These are now the things that come to mind when I think about Poland.
It’s certainly a departure from my previous reference points – my grandmother’s vague heritage, sandwich cookies with spilling jam from the heart-shaped cutouts, last names that ended in -ski.
And the only reason I knew this much was from research for a fifth-grade school assignment when we were challenged to learn about our heritages by acting as immigrants attempting to pass through Ellis Island.
I guess I’ll be Polish
Completely unaware of Polish jokes (which I still don’t really understand), I reached around in my goodie bag of nationalities and fished out Poland.
As an 11-year-old, it sounded more exotic than German or French, and more defined than Belgian, but still not as far-removed from the central European fracas as Scandinavia. I love my Swedish, Norwegian and Danish roots, but at the time, I already knew about those cultures – boring – and I wasn’t sure my peers would forgive me for believing in gnomes, eating reindeer and basically Viking-ing the shit out of everyone else.
Ultimately, I would have gone for anything besides Irish – which is what most of the popular kids in the class had selected – because, you know, leprechauns, green beer, St. Patrick’s Day. I’m not Irish anyways, but in retrospect, I was a pretty smart fifth grader. I knew that picking Irish meant you were completely fucked when it came to Ellis Island.Potato famine. Duh. Think you’re getting through all those checkpoints with you and your giant Irish clan? No way. Do you know how many people had the same exact idea as you? Millions.
So I went with the more-obscure Poland, and learned to bake the cookies and fry up some potato pancakes (or panny-cakes, as my grandmother calls them).
And after that, I pretty much shoved thoughts about my heritage to the dustier corners of my mind. My grandparents weren’t huge on it. They never talked about it, and as far as I know, they don’t practice any distinctly Polish traditions.
Back to the ‘home’land
So it wasn’t until this Christmas that I was really coming head-to-head with it again. I voyaged to Poland with Chris to stay in Warsaw with his sister, Lindsey, and her husband, Danté. Because two out of the three Davis children are living in Europe, the rest of the clan hopped the pond for a good-old-fashioned family Christmas abroad.
Poland was the first stop, to be followed by a quick trip to Logroño to show them our digs, then back to Barcelona for New Years. And as the cherry on top, Chris and I booked a three-day trip to Budapest for the final days of our winter break.
Barcelona and Budapest are certainly more popular travel destinations than Poland. Barcelona has unexpected art at every turn and a sense of irreverence throughout. It’s the home-base of Picasso and Gaudi. Nothing makes sense, and it doesn’t have to. That’s Barcelona. Budapest, on the other hand, is like a regal powerhouse rising from the Danube that was once forgotten and destroyed, but since rebuilt by weaving together sprigs of charm, tradition and grunge.
Again, it would be easy to overlook Poland as the plain second-cousin. In the family photo of Europe, it’s always sandwiched between louder, more obviously pretty relatives. Even so, Poland didn’t pale in comparison. As I’ve had more time to sit back and ruminate about the entire 2.5 week marathon vacation, my visits to Warsaw and Krakow stand out more and more.
Nom nom nom.
One such example is the Polish food I tried. It was warm, balanced, traditional and delicious:
Don’t get me wrong. I AM digging the Spanish food. It’s high-quality and delicious. But, eating jamón and chorizo every day isn’t exactly a nutritious diet.
I can be kind of a health nut, so Polish food was pretty perfect. Everything had sauerkraut in it, which is cabbage. So it’s pretty much like eating cruciferous vegetables day in and day out. Total health win. Beets seem to be a staple, and so is wild mushroom soup. I love soup. It’s one of my top two favorite foods. The other is olives.
What I’m getting at is that I could eat to my tourist-heart’s desire, trying all the local fare, without feeling like I was digging myself a hole I would need to exercise my way out of.
On top of that, it’s pretty damn affordable.
We went out for a nice dinner in Krakow for Chris’ mom’s birthday, and the star entrees like the roasted leg of veal in wild mushroom sauce, the roe deer with amazon cherries, and delicate veal knuckle were between 40-60 Zloty, or $10-14. I have paid more for a plate of nachos in Boston – and not even awesome nachos.
What’s better is that the low price tag doesn’t come at the cost of a cool atmosphere. A bar located just underneath our hotel had a 1920s prohibition vibe – dimmed chandelier lighting, custom cocktails, bartenders in black suspenders. And though I never made it myself, I heard the Jewish district was the real place to check out.
Overall, my favorite experience in Poland was eating lunch in this one restaurant that felt like a grand hall. It had gold-framed oil paintings covering the walls, a wide open dining room filled with long tables and tall-backed wooden chairs. We stopped in to warm up, and reflect, after our morning tour of Auschwitz, and it was just the sort of reprise I needed.
This brings me to my next point. The food is just one reason why Poland should NOT be overlooked for the Germanys and Frances, Englands and Irelands. History is another.
A quiet pride
That’s how Danté described Poles, when we inquired about the culture. He said he’d observed that people have a “quiet pride,” and I would have to agree.
Poland may not make the top-10 list of European travel destinations every year. As far as I know, it wasn’t a must-see for my backpacking friends who favored Prague and Amsterdam. But to me, this speaks to that quiet pride.
Take Krakow, for example. It wasn’t the loudest or showiest place I’ve ever been, but it was definitely interesting and beautiful. Here are some of the things I learned about it when I was there:
1. It was a thriving Medieval city, integral to trade all across Eastern and Western Europe (it is famous for its amber, and had a salt mine). We toured an underground museum just below the existing town square that showcases the centuries-old stone walls of the original marketplace, Pilgrim-esque leather buckle shoes and what appeared to be a skeleton in its original grave.
2. It’s the royal seat of Poland with a large fortified castle.
3. It used to be the capital until around 1600 when it was moved to Warsaw so the reigning Swedish King could be closer to his native homeland. Go figure.
4. It has the largest market square in all of Europe.
And then there’s Warsaw. Admittedly, I didn’t do THE BEST job exploring Warsaw. I was dead set on on being a Christmas diva (i.e. kicking back on comfy couches, surrounded by legitimate Christmas decor … decor of any matter to be honest, drinking non-instant coffee, and taking showers that stayed hot the entire time. Hallelujah), which meant I missed the opportunity to take walking tours and learn about its history first-hand.
From third-party sources (aka Chris’ family), I learned a number of compelling tidbits about Warsaw, including:
- It’s the birthplace of Marie Curie, who went on to discover Radium and Polonium
- The Warsaw uprising was the single strongest military resistance effort against Nazi Germany
- It’s estimated that 2/3 of Poles were killed throughout the German and Soviet occupations
- 85% of Warsaw was destroyed during the war, but you’d never know that visiting the old town area that’s filled with beautiful replicas of the original antique buildings:
A little bit louder now
What I’m getting at is that it might be a result of that quiet pride that Poland isn’t a bigger dot on the European travel destination map.
And in the process of writing this post, it’s become obvious to me that there’s no reason for this country to only be a fuzzy spot in the middle. It’s huge – the size of France and Germany. It has a rich history, and it played a critical role in the world wars.
Although the culture might yet be undefined by familiar stereotypes (the French have their baguettes, the Italians their pasta, the Dutch their weed), it’s definitely there. The fact that my grandparents chose to use the word “dupa” for ‘butt’ my entire childhood should have told me this.
Arguably, I might have known all along if I had done better research for my Ellis Island profile when I was eleven. I said I was a young florist from Poland (probably some no-name town) coming to the United States to earn money to bring my family over … and not too much more than that.
But alas, I’m happy that I know now. I’m glad I had a reason to visit this beautiful country that (admittedly) was so much more of a gem than I expected.
And for the record, I totally recommend checking it out! Cheers!