In early October 2015, I kicked off a three-month journey through Eastern Europe in Warsaw, Poland. Several people expressed surprise and curiosity as to why I was beginning in Poland. I had a few reasons!
- The airfare from LAX to Warsaw was cheap (thank you, Air Norwegian).
- Poland seemed like a geographically logical place to kick off a trip through Eastern Europe and Turkey.
- I realized I had really no idea what modern Poland was like. Poland was existed in my mind as a collage of grainy black-and-white photographs of the Second World War. I decided that it was a good idea to visit Poland, because it was horrifying to realize that was all I really knew about the country.
For the benefit of those who may not know that much about Poland, here’s a highly simplified version of Polish geopolitical history: In the modern era, Poland has been frequently partitioned and conquered by other larger European powers. There were several partitions during the 1700s, and independence movements in the 1800s from Russia. From the late 19th century to 1939, Poland stood as an independent country, before being occupied by the Germans in World War II. The country we know as Poland today became independent after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1990. It is a member of the European Union as of 2004.
First stop in Poland was Warsaw, the capital. Legend goes, according to Warsaw’s Tourist Information Office, is that the city was named after a fisherman and his wife who sheltered a prince. During the surge of development during the interwar years was known as the “Paris of the North.” Finally, the city is known for having a large Jewish Ghetto during the Second World War, whose inhabitants staged an uprising against the Germans. The rest of the city, as well, staged a prolonged general uprising against the occupying German forces in 1944. Today, there is a popular museum in Warsaw commemorating the city’s uprising.
What struck me most about Warsaw was the way the city’s history was reflected and written over repeatedly in the urban landscape of the city. The ultra-modern was jammed right up against a restored older building, which gave the impression that you were never walking in a uniform neighborhood.
It was jarring to suddenly realize that a part of my mind had preserved the image of Warsaw as it appeared in 1944. It was fascinating for me to see these physical places I had associated mentally with some of the most horrifying things to come out of the Second World War had been completely altered.
Let me be clear that I would not expect these places to be enshrined in the same way that the United States and much of Western Europe preserves and decorates its own historical artifacts and buildings. If anything, it was mostly jarring to realize that the imagery and history of the Holocaust had overwritten seventy years of Polish history after WWII, as well as thousands of years of Polish history before WWII, in my own mind.
Let me also clarify that Warsaw does a very good job of giving its recent history due recognition. Though awkwardly jutted between two apartment blocks, they had preserved and monumentalized a short section of the old Ghetto wall. On a simple walk around the city after an evening out, there were many memorials and monuments related to the Holocaust and WWII. I am not implying that Warsaw is developing while simultaneously erasing these parts of its history. What was most interesting for me about the city was how these places were situated in a modern and historically rich urban landscape that I had not realized existed.
For examples, the Royal Palace and the Old Town in Warsaw are beautifully and painstakingly restored. The more modern parts of the city as well, for example the city center and the areas just below the massive Palace of Culture and Science reflect a vibrant and modern city. In sum, Warsaw is a city that I felt I would have appreciated much more if I knew how to read landscapes more effectively, and had a better grasp of the city’s extended history.
After a few days in Warsaw, I took the super-convenient Polskibus South to Krakow.
A little historical background on Krakow: there are records referring to the city dating from the 900s CE, but it was inhabited earlier. After alternating periods of outside control and independence, Krakow sees great development as a cultural center after World War I. During the Second World War, Krakow housed a large and notorious Ghetto, and was also the location of Oskar Schindler’s factory.
On first glance, Krakow is the polar opposite of Warsaw in terms of its urban landscape. Much of Krakow’s old town is carefully preserved and maintained, and ringed with beautiful (and very Victorian-era) parks. I also might be slightly biased, because there was a delicate and atmospheric snowfall when I showed up in early October. I stayed for about six nights, because there are several day trips you can take out of Krakow.
And I did take a few day trips (to be discussed in a separate post). But most of that time was spent wandering around the city and absorbing life in central Krakow. I spent a day climbing the Krakus Mound and wandering through Podgorze, one wandering all over Wawel Castle and Hill complex, all over the Jewish Quarter (Kazimierz), and spent one memorable afternoon getting lost and tumbling into a farmer’s market. The city is very much walkable, and the neighborhoods surrounding the center are well worth a wander.
Nowadays, Krakow is famous throughout Eastern Europe as a nightlife hub, and this renown is entirely deserved. Notable are several bars specializing in very interesting Polish-brewed beers. But the frankly awesome quality and quantity of vodka is a blessing and well worth exploring during the evenings.
But Krakow taught me that you can learn much more about a place if you dedicate time and patience to finding what it has to offer. Just walking out the door each day and being open to what’s going on around you in the city or town or desert can introduce you to so many things that you would have never otherwise seen.
(links to the relevant sources are embedded in the body of the post, but here is a list of the sources referenced and access dates)
- European Union. “Poland” member page. (accessed 18 February 2016).
- Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Polish “History at a Glance” (accessed 18 February 2016)
- Warsaw Tourist Office. “History of the City.” (accessed 21 February 2016).
- US Holocaust Memorial Museum. “Warsaw” entry in the Holocaust Encyclopedia. (accessed 21 February 2016)
- US Holocaust Memorial Museum. “Warsaw Ghetto Uprising” entry in the Holocaust Encyclopedia. (accessed 21 February 2016).
- City of Krakow. “History of Krakow.” (accessed 23 February 2016).
- US Holocaust Memorial Museum. “Krakow (Cracow)” entry in the Holocaust Encyclopedia. (accessed 23 February 2016)