This post is a continuation of the previous post: Europe 2023: Helsinki, Tallinn, Riga and Vilnius.
From Vilnius, Lithuania, we boarded a train toward Warsaw, knowing we would have to switch trains before crossing the border between Lithuania and Poland. The Lithuanian train was clean and comfortable; the Polish train, not so much. Whenever the Polish train stopped on the way to Warsaw, the air conditioning shut down – and it was a hot day. The announcements, besides being in Polish, were garbled and full of static. Not sure Polish speakers could understand them.
Warsaw (17-22 Sept)
It was raining as we approached Warsaw, but had stopped by the time we made it outside, so we walked about 20 minutes to the Chopin Boutique Hotel. This is a very nice, 34-room hotel, recommended by Rick Steves. Every night, there is a piano concert in their salon. There is also a very good restaurant in the basement, which we took advantage of the first night (stuffed cabbage), since we arrived at the hotel about 9:30pm (got there just before they closed for the night).
Our friend, Vickie, from Salt Lake City, was flying in two days after we arrived by train. She was with us the rest of our time in Warsaw, and then we all went to Krakow.
Polish Army Outdoor Exhibition (also, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Museum_of_Polish_Military_Technology) – On second day in Warsaw, we wanted to see what the 2 building were that were on either side of the main road near our hotel. After viewing these, we noticed planes behind an open gate, so we entered to discover a large collection of planes and tanks, and other military items around a building that was formerly the indoor part of the Polish Army Museum.
Palace of Culture and Science – This was the impressive building that is hard to miss when you come out of the train station, heading east as we did. We returned a couple of days later, while we were waiting for Vickie to arrive in Warsaw. It was built in only 3 years during the Soviet occupation and is the tallest building in Poland. There are multiple venues in the building, including a movie theater, a science and technology museum, an art gallery, and other things. We chose to visit the science and technology museum.
Warsaw Uprising Monument – On our way to see this monument, we encountered a large crowd of young people, dressed in military uniforms. At first glance, we weren’t sure if the groups on either side of the street, dressed in what appeared to be different colored uniforms, were getting ready for a fight. We then discovered they were members of military youth groups from local schools, assembling to attend a ceremony, later, at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Once we discovered this, we took a bus to the Tomb.
Tomb of the Unknown Soldier – We went here to see the ceremony we had learned about at the Uprising Monument. We were there early enough to watch a couple of changing of the guards, before a large group of dignitaries and military people began to assemble. Eventually, a military band joined and a formal ceremony began. We asked several people to explain what was happening, but could find no one who spoke enough English.
Jewish Cemetery – This was a fascinating place, with a memorial to the thousands lost during the wars, some areas being refurbished, and some areas that had been overgrown. [GC7T2CY – Cmentarz żydowski]
Museum of Frydryk Chopin – This was a fun museum – we could have spent all afternoon listening to recordings of Chopin music. In addition to seeing some of his compositions in his own hand, we enjoyed watching a school group of 5-6 year olds enjoying Chopin’s piano.
Holy Cross Church – The reason we stopped at this church was to see the memorial to Chopin. After his death, his sister smuggled his heart to Poland, where it was placed in one of the interior pillars.
Nicholas Coperncus Monument – We passed this monument every day as we headed to the Old Town. We waited until Vickie joined us, before we stopped. In the plaza at the base of the statue, are depictions of the planets of the known universe at Copernicus’ time, spaced with the sun nearest the front of the statue. There was also a geocache nearby, which we found together (GC8B53J – Nicolao Copernico Grata Patria).
Maria Sklodowska-Curie Museum – This museum was at the top of Vickie’s list of places she wanted to visit. Curie was raised in the building that now contains the museum. Although she spent much of her life outside of Poland, see often returned with her family. Most of the exhibits included English descriptions, which made the visit worthwhile.
Old Town Market Square – When we were there, the square could barely be seen because of all the tests for restaurant seating. One of the only things we decided to do here, was to take photos of the various doors around the square. There are several statues and signs depicting mermaids around the city. The legend of the Warsaw Mermaid is that she was freed from a rich merchant, who imprisoned her. Ever since, she pledged to those fishermen that she would guard them and their village, hence the sword.
Castle Square – This square is located at one end of the Old Town. The Royal Castle is at the east end of the square. The castle was completely destroyed by the Nazis, during the war, but the Polish government finally decided to reconstruct it.
Ceprownia – After quite a bit of walking, having seen the Warsaw Uprising Monument and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, we stopped at this restaurant for lunch. Pat had potato pancakes, Vickie had pork knuckle, and Ray had perrogies.
Krakow (22-26 Sept)
We arrive by comfortable train from Warsaw. The train station was part of a large mall and our hotel, PURO Kraków Stare Miasto, was just across the street. The hotel was also close to the Old Town.
On Sunday, we split – Pat and Vickie went to the Wieliczka Salt Mine and Ray visited Auschwitz.
Vickie and Pat visited the Wieliczka (Vyeh-leech-kah) Salt Mine on September 24th. The salt mine became an UNESCO Heritage site in 2010. After meeting up with their tour guide (there were about 20 people in their group) they began walking down into the mine – around 400 steps!
At the first stop they were told the following legend:
The name of the chapel refers to St. Kinga, associated with the Wieliczka Salt Mine. There is a legend that when Kinga, a Hungarian princess was about to be married to Boleslaw V the Chaste, the Prince of Krakow, she asked her father to be taken to one of the Hungarian salt mines for a lump of salt, prize-worthy in Poland. There, she threw her engagement ring in one of the shafts. Upon arriving in Poland, Kinga asked the miners to dig a deep pit until they come upon a rock. They found a lump of salt that, when split in two, revealed the hidden princess’s ring. Kinga later became a saint patron of Polish salt miners. https://krakow.wiki/wieliczka-salt-mine/
The tour, lasting about 2 hours, twisted and turned up and down the corridors. Many salt rock carvings decorated the halls. Horses used to transport the salt lived their whole lives down under. The tour only covered 1% – 2% of the mine. Commercial mining was stopped in 1996 but salt is still produced via water seepage through the mines and is used for table salt and various products.
The last stop was in St. Kinga’s chapel (story above). It is the largest underground place of worship in Europe and still used for weddings, which are booked almost three years out, as well as regular Sunday Mass. And there is a shorter way for those people to get to the chapel! Fortunately they did not have to walk back out – but the elevators were rickety and open-sided which made for a dramatic ending.
Few facts about the mine: 7 centuries in operation – in 1289 locals took salt treatments and saline baths in the surrounding surface ponds – 245 km (152 miles) of corridors – 327 meters (1072 feet) deep – underground lake has higher salinity than the Dead Sea and the Great Salt Lake.
Auschwitz I – Auschwitz was the largest camp the Germans built and consisted of concentration, extermination and forced-labor camps. First built in 1940, Auschwitz I was the main camp and included an SS garrison. This is where my tour group started. This tour included about 20 people and we were allotted a 3 hour window for our visit. We explored a number of building, including a crematorium. The exhibits in various buildings included collections of shoes, luggage, pots and pans, eye glasses, and coats taken from the prisoners. The overall experience was depressing, although I knew what to expect. (Only Ray went on this tour, while Pat and Vickie went to the Wieliczka Salt Mine.)
Auschwitz II-Birkenau – After the visit to Auschwitz I, we were driven a few miles to this second site. The size was unimaginable. This was the main extermination camp. The crematoriums had all been destroyed in 1944, when the Germans knew the Russian Army was closing in. At the last building we visited, a women’s building, where women were sent before being killed, one woman in our group started crying – said she remembered being here with her mother when she was a child. Although she had been with us the whole time, she finally broke down at this last stop. Unbelievable.
Oskar Schindler’s Enamel Factory – For people who have seen the movie, Schindler’s List, this is a site they should visit. However, this is now a museum covering much war history, and very little about what actually happened in the factory. Schindler’s actual office is one of the few places having anything to do with what was done here.
Rynek Underground Museum – Although this wasn’t high on our list of places to visit, it was raining when we went to the Market Square. We saw sign for this museum and decided it would be worth seeing. It was worth the visit as it was primarily an archeological museum showing many items found under the Market Square. The museum is actually located beneath the Market Square.
Wawel Royal Castle and Cathedral –
Gościnna Chata Restaurant – This was where we went for dinner, the first night in Krakow. Besides having a “cute” interior, the food was very good.
Old Kleparz – “Krakow’s oldest continuously operating marketplace, with local produce, clothing & Polish souvenirs.” (Google Maps). We didn’t know about this market until the last full day we were in Krakow, as we like to visit markets where ever we go. Unfortunately, it was near closing time, but we certainly enjoyed the short visit. We went back the next day to get fruit to eat on the train ride to Bratislava.
Bratislava (26-29 Sept)
Pat and I took a train from Krakow to Bratislava, while Vickie returned to Warsaw (she was leaving the next day for Salt Lake City). The train to Bratislava took 8 hours. When we arrived, we walked to the Virgo Hotel, about 1 mile from the station, but mostly downhill.
Michael’s Gate – This is the last standing gate in the medieval city walls.
Statues/Sculptures (Hans Christian Anderson, Čumil [GS12ZCW – Cumil :: Man at work] Schöne Náci, Napoleon army soldier
The Blue Church – Church of St. Elizabeth
Bratislava Castle – According to several websites and guide books, this castle is the #1 tourist attraction in Bratislava. Of the two castles we visited, this was our second choice – Devin Castle is much more to our preferences for castles.
Hrad Devín – This castle sits on a bluff above the Danube and Morava rivers. It was much more to our liking than the rebuilt Bratislava Castle. It was reachable by bus, using our transport pass, even though it was several miles outside of the city. It was a beautiful day. An added bonus, was getting a nearby geocache [GC8Z5F4 – Vystrč rožky].
We left Bratislava on a bus to Vienna Airport. We stayed one night and flew to Amsterdam and on to Salt Lake City. This has been an interesting month in Europe.