Friday, May 13, 2016
Sunday, November 20, 2011
Just as advertised, traffic out of Warsaw was very congested. We began to get to know each other as he made his way through town, pointing out interesting landmarks and describing the history as we went. Wojtek took a call after some time while weaving in and out of traffic, and soon decided to take an alternate route.
A couple of the most notable things we saw were a very large road building project and the crossing of the largest river in Poland. The purpose of this and other road projects in Poland is to provide much needed road expansions between key cities in Poland. The major highway between Warsaw and Białystok is largely the same as it was when built by the Soviet Union post WWII, and after our drive that Friday afternoon I can confirm that this expansion has been a long time coming. Białystok is the key transportation hub for the northeastern part of Poland (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transport_in_Podlaskie_Voivodeship), so the economic benefits of this project should be seen for some time. The project is largely being funded by the EU. Details on this national project for those interested can be found here: http://www.drokonsult.com.pl/en/Technical-supervision.
Soon after the road project we were crossing the Vistula River, the longest and most important river in Poland. The river runs clear across the country and into the Baltic Sea in Gdańsk. The bridge was long and gave a great view of both Warsaw and some of the surrounding rural areas. The Vistula is famous for being the place at which the Bolshevik advance was stopped in 1920. While in Poland, a movie called “1920” was released that goes into detail about the conflict and the battle, which I will get into much later.
Once we were out of the city, the scenery reminded me a lot of Wisconsin. The drive was long even though Wojtek was driving very fast. The numbered signs on the road I thought to be the speed limit were actually just the upcoming route junction number, which Wojtek got a good laugh out of. Driving on the rural roads is an adventure; Polish drivers drive aggressively as a necessity since the roads are too small for the amount of traffic they carry. As we were driving, I noticed the large number of bus stops in the middle of nowhere. They were not as nice as the ones in the city, but good enough for the limited riders that used them.
At about the 2/3 point we pulled into a gas station to get some coffee and to make use of the bathroom. The gas station looked like any typical KwikTrip or SuperAmerica in the states. We were soon back on the road and heading towards Białystok once again.
As we came close to Białystok, Wojtek turned off onto a side road and took the long way around, as he had a surprise for Kasia in mind. After about 20 minutes or so of driving through very small, sleepy Polish towns we arrived in Białystok. She was very surprised at the sight that awaited her: the intersections that were near her apartment were completely redone. Gone were the small intersections of the past, and in their place were a series of large intersections with new bus lanes and bus shelters, and large green areas fully stocked with young saplings everywhere and various shrubs. I can imagine what a sight this will be in 10 years or so once the saplings and shrubs have some time to grow and mature. The U.S. could learn a lesson or two about building a road from what I have seen here.
We pulled up at Kasia's apartment and began trudging up the stairs fully loaded with baggage. Thankfully for us Wojtek lent us his back to help with the bags. J A knock at the door and we were greeted by Kasia’s mom, Zena. After the introductions were made we were quickly escorted to the kitchen where she had a large dinner prepared for all of us. Shortly after sitting down to eat, Kasia’s sister soon joined us for a bit to eat and for desert while we all talked and learned about each other and caught up on life.
Upon eating ourselves into food comas, I was given the tour of the apartment and we were shown where to sleep. The apartment was pretty spacious. The living room had a wall of windows and a door that lead to a decent sized porch. The bathroom was very spacious and modern in design. There was a general closet of sorts in the center of the apartment, and to the left of it was the den. The den was long and narrow, and had bookshelves that ran the length of the room on the right, from floor to ceiling. The bedroom was just big enough, and the kitchen was nice.
As the day drew to a close, the whirlwind that had been the past 72 hours was catching up to us. Kasia and I took the liberty to freshen up a bit, climbed into bed and feel asleep as soon as our heads hit the pillows.
Saturday, October 29, 2011
The toll of travel and the night out led to us sleeping until almost noon the next day. Once we had a chance to freshen up a bit and clear the cobwebs, it was time to partake in a great spread that Marcin had prepared for us. Coffee of course followed by various cheeses, meats, breads, and some sausage were our brunch for this day. Pretty much everything was eaten by the three of us, and all was delicious. After some quick cleanup of the remaining food and dishes, we were off to do more exploring before Kasia’s brother-in-law Wojtek came to pick us up around 4:30.
Today we were going to drive. When we reached Marcin’s car, we found that a sticker had been put on the driver side window. The sticker was to, in not so many words, “thank” him for such a creative parking spot in a manner that is easily noticeable. I will leave it at that.
After driving around town for a bit Marcin found a parking spot near New Town, and after a short walk was right in the middle of Castle Square looking at the Royal Castle itself (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Royal_Castle,_Warsaw). Although in the same place as the night before, the sunlight and the large number of people increased the energy felt here. There were school groups, tourists, those on their way to or from business meetings, street musicians of many kinds, vendors, horse drawn carriages, and one young man showing off his bubble making skills. The colors of the buildings illuminated the area almost as much as the sunlight did. The energy here is positive, powerful, but not overwhelming. Of all of the major cities I have visited, I felt a much more positive energy here than anywhere else. I wonder perhaps if it is because this is a land of ancestry for my family and I that I am was feeling this here.
We walked away from the castle along what remained of the castle walls to the right of us. There were many cases of modern meeting history here; behind the lower part of the castle walls one could see apartments with cars parked near them and satellite dishes pointing towards the sky. We came across a monument that showed a child dressed as a soldier and holding a submachine gun, aka “The Little Insurgent”. The statue was inspired by the story of a 13 year old boy named Antek who was killed near where this statue stands on Aug 8th, 1944. The monument is meant to honor the children that fought against the Nazis in the Warsaw Uprising (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Warsaw_Uprising).
While on our walk we came across an outdoor market filled with the aroma of baked and grilled cheese, meats, and bakery items. We sampled some wedding cake while there, which was delicious…it just melted in your mouth the moment it hit your tongue. The grilled cheese on the grill looked like grilled cheese curds for you Wisconsin folks.
As we twisted down the street, which looked exactly like it was taken out of a movie, we went into a handful of churches. All of the churches were of course Catholic and all had breathtaking ceilings and stained glass windows. Anytime we entered a church there was a gypsy panhandler sitting on the floor just inside of the church entrance panhandling. It turns out that as poor and destitute as they portray themselves to be is not fully accurate. Most of these gypsy types are making quite a good living at what they do, though I must admit they had the part down. They fit perfectly within the living movie set that we were investigating on this afternoon. While walking down an alley on the side of one church we encountered a young lady dressed as if she were a princess while a violinist played nearby, case open, and the change beginning to accumulate. It was hard for me to tell how well she was doing, as all denominations under $10 are in coin form ($5, $2, $1, $.50, $.20, $.10, $.05, and $.01).
While on the topic of money, there was a 3.28:1 Zwolty to dollar rate when we were there. Shopkeepers and cashiers always were asking for as close to exact change as you could get; it was as if they got a bonus for giving out as little change as possible. This was a big change for me, as I am a give ‘em a $20 and move on sort of person.
At this point we were beginning to run out of time, as Wojtek was due to pick us up shortly and Marcin had an appointment he needed to get, so we began to walk back to the car. A short time later we were speeding back to Marcin’s apartment. Once we got there, we thanked Marcin for his hospitality and he was off to his appointment. We made a final check of our baggage, took some goofy pictures of each other, and before long the apartment buzzer sounds. Wojtek had arrived.
We struggled our way downstairs via an elevator that could barely hold the two of us let alone our luggage. Without major injury we made it down to Wojtek’s car who greeted us warmly. We put the bags into the back of his car and were soon off to Bialystok for the next stop of the journey.
Saturday, October 22, 2011
The beginning of the trip went very smoothly. Kasia and I were able to catch our bus on time, and despite traveling to Chicago in rush hour traffic, made very good time to O’Hare airport. During the trip, we found out that the bus driver had been in Poland for business before the fall of the iron curtain and had a few interesting stories to tell us. Airport security at O’Hare was interesting to say the least; everyone in front of us seemed to be in a wheelchair, walker, or stroller and had no clue as to what was allowed/not allowed to bring through. Once we cleared that hurdle, we were on our way.
Both the flight to Copenhagen and the connecting flight to Warsaw took off and landed on time. SAS did a great job of service on both flights. The in-flight entertainment included movies, music, games, flight cameras, and flight maps which were all excellent. Dinner and breakfast were both good and filling. I only wish there was a little more leg room; I was not able to get comfortable the entire flight and got very little sleep.
We landed in Copenhagen while most everyone in Wisconsin was just waking up. The Copenhagen airport was very nice compared to most US airports; hardwood floors lined all the corridors, and most people were very friendly. The security line went very fast, and customs took all of 30 seconds. There was a wide variety of kiosks near the terminals themselves, and there was a very large mall area in the middle of the airport...it felt that we were walking through Mayfair Mall to catch a plane.
The flight to Warsaw was on a smaller jet and took just over an hour. We had to board and deplane by climbing steps on the tarmac. On landing in Warsaw a bus met us on the tarmac and took us to the terminal building. It was somewhat confusing to find where to get our luggage but we found it eventually (of course it was the last of the baggage claims areas). Customs was basically non-existent.
The first thing I noticed was how clean the air smelled. We met Kasia’s friend Marcin and were soon on our way to his flat to drop off our luggage and to head out for a night on the town. The drive to his flat took about 20 minutes through heavy traffic. Polish roads are not equipped to handle the volume of cars that are present today; most roads were built pre-WWII or during the Communist era. To complicate things, there are bus lanes on the right as well as train lanes on the right or left that both merge into the traffic lanes.
We started off in a restaurant that was famous for its old style, authentic, Polish menu. An order of fish, potato pancakes, and assorted varieties of stuffed perogies washed down by un-pasteurized beer was what was on the menu. The building that housed the restaurant was full of old world charm, and the staff was in traditional dress in accordance with their job role.
After supper we headed out to walk around town. I noticed the older architecture of the buildings, some of the creative ways people parked in Warsaw, as well as the high number of shops and restaurants that had English names. We soon stopped for coffee before heading towards the New Town area. We walked by a number of famous buildings, including an old residence of Copernicus (with monument in front), the Polish Presidential Palace, and the church in which Pope John Paul II prayed during his time in Warsaw.
An interesting side note in regards to the Presidential Palace was the small Catholic service that was being given in Latin just outside the gates of the palace. The service was in remembrance of the death of the last Polish president (Lech Kaczynski) and other government officials that occurred on April 10, 2010 (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/8612825.stm).
One other notable sight was Chopin’s benches. There are 15 of these, each playing one of his most famous scores and offering information about the composer (http://chopin2010.um.warszawa.pl/en/multimedia/walking-around-chopin-s-warsaw-chopins-benches).
We stopped in at a Vodka bar for, of course, Vodka. As the name indicates it only served Vodka and a limited number of appetizer choices. There is no seating for anyone, which did not seem to hamper the mood of the elbow to elbow crowd that we encountered there.
After a little more walking, we came across what appeared to be a very old part of the city, called New Town (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Warsaw_New_Town). This part of the city was destroyed during WWII by the Nazi’s and rebuilt to its present form after the war. It was getting late so there were not many people around. In the squares located within New Town, there were various restaurant and beer gardens that were still humming with activity. One business that seemed extremely out of place here was the Subway restaurant, which was one of the very few establishments still open in the area.
Towards the end of our walk that first night we came across a photo taken of the area on which we were standing that showed the after effects of WWII (some of which can be found here: http://architecture.org.nz/2011/03/05/rebuilding-warsaw/).
The threat of rain looming, we began to head back towards home for the evening. We found and purchased train tickets and were soon on our way back to Marcin’s flat. Once we arrived, Kasia and I began to freshen up while Marcin headed into the night in search of piwo (beer). Upon his return, we enjoyed a couple of beers before turning in for the first sleep in over 30 hours.