Poland has always been high on my must-see list. As it’s a massive country with a completely different culture just hours from my beloved Berlin, it tickled my fancy quite early. And there’s this other thing that I don’t particularly like to reveal as a history nerd… I haven’t really known much about the place.
Four years ago, I decided to skip Poland from my travels due to the simple fact that it wasn’t covered by my Eurail pass. This year I’ve had no excuse. After finishing up my last day of work for the year (with me half cheering and half crying) in Prague, I decided to head eastwards with some fellow guides. And perhaps best of all, our guide, Ola, holds a Polish passport. Who better to show us around?
Nobody, actually. Ola had us in the palm of her hand, fascinating us with tales of her parents’ dangerous journey to Australia in the 1980s and her grandfather’s time in a concentration camp. It put us in the right frame of mind for our first stop in the country – the infamous Auschwitz Concentration Camp, about an hour from Krakow.
As a visitor with a decent understanding of the atrocities that occured at Auschwitz during the Holocaust, I was still absolutely left shattered and empty after visiting this place. It truly is eerie – from the fact that there is a town surrounding the camps, with modern houses overlooking barracks and barbed wire; to the railway tracks that just end in the middle of Birkenau; to the rooms filled with human hair, children’s shoes and most hauntingly to me, suitcases with people’s names and addresses on them, as their owners were determined not to lose their contents – it is a totally chilling experience. The ruins of Birkenau’s gas chambers, destroyed by the Nazis just before the Death Marches, seemed even more haunting to me than if it were still intact.
Trying to grasp the enormity of it all was almost impossible – 1.5 million people were murdered in this ‘camp’ – most of which occured immediately after one’s arrival – that’s roughly the population of Perth. Putting it all into perspective was actually made a little easier due to the presence of another visitor taking it all in that same day, always a few metres away from our group – Angelina Jolie. We hardly cared.
It must be incredibly hard for a country to market itself as a tourist destination when its number one attraction is such a terrible place, but thankfully Poland can. It is blessed with one of the most gorgeous, inviting cities in Europe; Krakow. The jewel in the cute little city’s crown is definitely its Market Square, often toted as the largest town square in Europe (it regularly fights for that title with Venice’s Piazza San Marco).
We kept drifting back here, charmed by its market stalls, picture-perfect St Mary’s Basilica and delicious hot chocolate. We cycled through to the castle, Jewish Quarter and Oskar Schindler’s famous factory, drank ourselves stupid with the help of countless types of vodka, admired the Tatra Mountains from the ski resort town of Zakopane and even learnt how to shoot AK47s and Uzis. Phew!
And I haven’t even mentioned the food.
I am a bit of a dumpling fan. I think this may stem from my lifelong obsession with dim sims, but give me gyoza in Japan, wontons or jiaozi in China, knedliky in the Czech Republic or pelmeni in Estonia – I will devour them all without the slightest hesitation. It is hard to imagine that I’d waited twenty-six years to try pierogi, Poland’s contribution to the world of the stuffed ball of dough. Ola marched us down to her favourite local joint, ordered us a serving big enough to cover a few tables, and watched our faces as we took our first bites. Magic. We may have graced this establishment a few times.
It didn’t just end with pierogi. We hoed down smoked sheep’s cheese, potato pancakes, various soups and a platter at a place called the Meat Palace which took up an entire table.
Yes, I am continuing to eat my way through Europe. Yet still we all still order entrees and mains, convinced we’ll all get food envy. Will we ever learn?