My final days in Poland have been a bit trying, but alas well worth it in what is now hindsight. Alas, travel is not about being comfortable and everything going as you would expect or finding your new travel companions to be just like you. No, travel is about learning and understanding perspectives. It is, to my mind, really about how different people and cultures make you a better, more informed, and hopefully nicer, person.
Having witnessed prejudice, a bit of whitewashing of history, sincere efforts to revive struggling cities, disturbing effects of the Soviet occupation, a bit of Polish humor/sarcasm and Polish cuisine bringing back some childhood memories, I was ready for something of a more modern Polish cultural experience. While there were touches of it, I have to say that most of what impacted me was Poland’s focus on its past rather than its future.
So with that…
Soviet Built Palace of Culture & Science looms over
The last city I visited was Warsaw, Poland. Arriving after a stressful bus ride in the rain from Lodz, Poland and about two hours late Warsaw shocked me as being far more cosmopolitan than I had naively expected. And, to be sure, after spending two frustrating days in Lodz, it was, well and truly, a relief.
Because we were so late we all feared we were going to miss the Chopin Concert I had been so looking forward to. But when we were met at the Intercontinental Warsaw Hotel by the local tourist board representative she immediately put everyone at ease that the information we were given was not accurate and we had time to comfortably drop our bags in our room and still timely arrive at our concert. Whew!
I was given my room key (It’s great when you are the guest of the tourist board so you never actually check-in) and I was off to the 33rd floor and my slice of hotel heaven: Normalcy. And, of course, I wondered why we had just spent two days in Lodz and would effectively have one night and one day in Warsaw, which has so much more to offer.
After a quick change of clothes, it was off to the Fryderyk Concert Hall for a one hour piano recital of Fryderyk Chopin music. It was a private concert for our group performed by a very talented pianist. A truly lovely hour and a great way to re-center oneself after the last few days. (I would have loved to have posted a short video or even photographs of the concert, but its not permitted…though I did see one travel agent doing it anyway. Ugh.)
Feeling much better…and a bit inspired…it was off to the Warsaw Marriott for a brief site inspection followed by a cocktail party with heavy hors d’oeuvres held in the VIP area of its Panoramic Sky Bar; a truly upscale venue which had a line of some of Warsaw’s upscale youth waiting to party on a Friday night.
Afterward, I had a bit of a wander around the city, but alas it was then time for a good night’s sleep while anticipating a very full and interesting day to come.
My morning started with a quick site inspection of the Intercontinental Warsaw. During it, the sales director asked me where we had been. When I mentioned Lodz for the past two days she was shocked stating, “Two day? You should have spent only two hours!” As you know, I obviously agreed.
She then asked me about my impression of Lodz. I asked her if she had ever been to Newark, New Jersey as she had previously mentioned she had been to the United States with Intercontinental. When she said yes, I said, “Lodz, Poland is like Newark, New Jersey: At one point it was vital, then it fell into ruin and now money is being pumped into it trying to revitalize the city, but in the end, it is still Newark.” She laughed in agreement.
It was then, finally, time for a four-hour walking tour of Warsaw. We had an excellent guide that gave us very candid and informative information and perspective about Poland and its troubled relationships with the Soviet Union and Germany, its prejudices against Jews (which pre-dated the Nazi occupation) and explained with much pride the failed Polish uprising against the Nazis in World War II.
It was difficult, but also refreshing, to hear our guide’s explanation of the Jewish ghetto and the incomprehensible conditions and eventually the number of human beings that were murdered. We walked through Warsaw’s main park (there are many in this very green city) and were carefully eased into the traumas that this city and its people have endured.
The easiest part of the day was the explanation of the large building that, to me, is a cross between the Empire State Building and the building in Ghostbusters: The Palace of Culture & Science. (See photo at the beginning of this article.) It looms over the city, just as the Soviets that had it built intended. You can neither miss it nor ignore its message of power. However, the building is controversial because many want it destroyed because of the same, but others want it preserved and continue to be utilized as throughout its history many positive cultural and entertainment have been hosted there.
|A monument recognizing the 6,000,000 Poles that died in World World II; 800,000 of them being from Warsaw.|
Our guide then focused on the fact that 6,000,000 Poles died in World War II and that 800,000 of them were from Warsaw…and that half of those were Jews. He then noted that well over 90% of Warsaw was destroyed, so what we see and will see is, with very limited exception, new or “new-made to look like original”. One thing I did appreciate is that unlike what I have seen in Germany, the Poles have tried to salvage any parts of buildings they could and if there were bullet holes they remain untouched…because remembering the past matters.
|There are plaques throughout Warsaw pointing out
where streets used to be. This plaque says, “There was Mansion Street”
|The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in located centrally in Warsaw’s main park|
|There are plaques around Warsaw noting where the Nazi’s gunned down people en masse.
This sign reads:
“A place sanctified by the blood of Poles who died for the freedom of their homeland.
Here on January 24, 1944 in a street, the Nazi’s shot 50 Poles”
And then the tour became more difficult for me because it became far more personal. At one point the Nazis forced 400,000 Jews to live in the Warsaw ghetto of only 1.3 square miles. To put that into perspective, that was an average of 9.2 people living in every available room…not apartment. During and after the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising that slowed (but did not stop) the Nazi extermination it is estimated that 92,000 Jews died from starvation or related diseases and over 300,000 were murdered; at least 250,000 sent to the Treblinka extermination camp (under the guise of them being “resettled”) and over 50,000 by bullets, etc. Take a moment and do the math. This was again a time to Breathe…and Never Forget.
It was then time to lighten things up a bit with a walk through the “Old Town”. As I mentioned the Old Town, with very little exception is rebuilt from the rubble.
I do have to note that there was more to see on our tour, but there were some travel agents that needed a bathroom break that they turned into a coffee break that they turned into a snack break. I found their conduct to be disrespectful to those of us in the group that wanted to take in as much as possible, the guide and, of course, our hosts including the Polish Tourism Board. Oh, and they weren’t done!
Anyway, it was then time to change gears entirely and enjoy a modern Polish Culinary Experience. But before our bus took as there we had one last stop…and one where some of the travel agents said they were just too tired to get out of the bus for. Huh?
It was a truly spectacular Lazienki Palace (also known as the Palace on the Water or Isle). It was one of the few buildings that were totally untouched by the ravages of the War.
After a walk around this beautiful park with a bit of a New York Central Park feel, as well as the exterior of the palace, it was time for lunch at Brasserie Warszawska; an upscale restaurant with lovely decor.
A fantastic mushroom soup followed by gourmet pierogis.
After lunch our next adventure was waiting outside: Adventure Warsaw! which gives city tours in old Nysa, Polish mini-vans. They make my WV Westphalia Vanagon seem like a Rolls Royce!
We headed out bumping around in the tiny seats along the sides of each van and I was thinking, “Well this will be interesting!” only for five minutes later the three vans parked in front of a large shopping mall; where we were advised that some of the travel agents wanted to go shopping so our tour was being cut off. What?! I said to myself, “So again we aren’t doing what we were supposed to do so that some marginal travel agents can buy souvenirs from Warsaw which they have done everything they could to NOT see Warsaw?”
Well, that is when my Jersey came out and one guide said, “Hop in. Let me show you some things!” And off just a few of us went…and I am glad we did because we saw areas of Warsaw and got some perspectives we probably never would have.
|Vistula River, Warsaw, Poland|
Eventually, we wound up down by the Vistula River where the beautiful and creative Biblioteca (Library) for the public and University of Warsaw was located…which, as he explained…began a rebirth of the area with trendy housing and a real upscale residential vibe.
He also explained how the area on the other side of the river was where they had relocated all the problems of Warsaw (criminals, drug addicts, etc.) in a failed attempt to rehabilitate them; making it the most dangerous area of Warsaw. However, it is now becoming a very trendy area where artists and artisans are moving to…and after we picked up our shoppers (ironically upset because they had to wait for us to return)…our next destination: Museum of Life Under Communism.
It was a curious small museum just above a KFC restaurant. My first thought was “both of those will kill you!” I understand its purpose, but for the most part it was a place where you can see cheaply built Soviet household items and such along with some brief discussions of communism in wall posters.
Then it was time for something I had been waiting for all week: The Museum of Polish Vodka!
It was a very interesting experience; especially because it is located inside a former Polish Vodka distillery which went bankrupt a few years ago after cheap Ukranian and Russian vodka flooded the Polish market.
After the tour we partook in a vodka tasting: Wheat, Rye and Potato vodkas. Apparently, the potato vodka is supposed to be the best. However, I had just come down with a cold and, honestly, they all tasted the same to me. So with the aggravating travel agents and my cold, I was just happy to have three shots of vodka!
I did notice in the tasting room, a poster for Slivovitz; a plum brandy that I remember being given a taste of at Grandma’s apartment. She was the prototypical Austrian Jewish grandmother who made fantastic Jewish culinary adventures that probably was the start to my eating everything “weird” from flaken (cheap meat akin to short ribs cut the long way with tendon and fat and where you sucked the marrow out of the bone) to beef tongue.
My time in Poland was coming to an end, but there was one last stop: Another hotel site inspection and a delicious duck dinner before having to get up early for my flights home.
Before I give my final thoughts, and surprising as it may seem, my flights went without a hitch and my luggage arrived with me. I do have to note, however, that my flight on a Lufthansa A380 (the double-decker aircraft) was a bit disappointing. I had a great seat on the upper deck behind the business class where just a few rows of economy seating exist, so you have a sort of private (and quiet) cabin, but the seat was uncomfortable and the tv monitor was an old low-resolution sort which only occasionally reacted to the touchscreen. I never would have thought that a Lufthansa 747 would be a far superior experience, but it was.
|Tons of legroom, only one person next to me…and a lousy seat and monitor
on this Lufthansa A380
Clearly this was not the most enjoyable trip for me for a number of reasons, but I am glad I took it. Would I do it if I had to pay for it myself? Nope. Would I visit the same cities? Nope. (Warsaw, yes.)
Poland is a country that is trying to live in the present and look towards the future, but is seriously impacted by the past and is struggling with how to deal with that. From centuries of prejudice towards Jews, to the Nazi destruction of much of the country and its people, to the Soviet occupation there is a whole lot going on. Thus, I truly wish I had more time really seeing Poland so that I could better understand it all.
Poland is trying to develop its tourism industry. It is going to take time and it needs to be honest. It took until the last day in Poland for an open and honest discussion of its past to be had. It drew me in and made things personal – as you want – for the first time in the entire trip. In hindsight, it significantly impacted my impressions up until that time because I was offended and, as a Jew, felt disrespected.
That said, they need to be honest about what Poland has to offer and realize that if you present something well in 2 hours it has a far better impact than dragging it out over four hours…or even two days. Alas, it is a process and I hope they get the right balance because imperfections and all, there is enough to see and learn in Poland to make it a desirable destination. But, as with Prague and Vienna, their respective countries focus tourism on the highlight cities, Poland needs to focus on that first. That will, in time, cause tourists to venture out into the secondary cities and countryside.
I must note that it was trying to be with a group of travel agents that I had little to nothing in common with or what I do on the luxury end of the business. Thankfully I did meet one person I really got along with (and I am sure we will remain in contact) and another that it was enjoyable hanging with a bit. Not every one of the agents was difficult, but there just wasn’t much for me to connect with…while a few of them really drove me nuts and, in fact, angered me with their arrogance and selfishness. (I sure hope they enjoyed their coffees, souvenirs, and long bathroom breaks because they all came at a cost to others…not that they considered same.)
Those agents reminded me why I am a successful travel agent (advisor, consultant, professional) but I am always trying to improve. I love to travel because I love to learn, connect, engage and reflect. It is never a matter of simply wanting to go “somewhere”, but of heading on a journey. What kind of journey is personal to each and every client…and making that happen is what makes my job so rewarding.
Where is your next journey going to take you?
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