Reflections on Poland

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As we sit at the airport waiting for our flight back to Holland I am struck by two things. Firstly, how mean is it for the snow to fall today instead of the for the past two days. And, secondly, that Poland has been an amazing country to travel.

When we first told people we were traveling to Poland in the winter, we received two common responses: “Are you crazy? It’ll be too cold!” and “Why would you want to go to Poland?”. To the first response, I simply responded with “We have good quality layers for warmth” and to the second I responded with “Why not?”.

Having now been to Poland in the winter I can tell you that it is cold but that with good layers and a more relaxed pace of travel you can thoroughly enjoy this country and all it has to offer. To help others planning a trip to Poland in the winter, here is what I wore most days:

  • Fleece lined beanie
  • Fleece neck warmer
  • O’Neil ski jacket shell
  • Kathmandu Altica 100 fleece pull over
  • T-shirt
  • Mountain Designs mid-weight merino¬†long-sleeved thermal top
  • Fleece gloves
  • Regular underwear
  • Quechua winter trousers (cost about $AU30)
  • Quechua Forclaz 100 socks (1 pair only – I don’t layer my socks)
  • Quechua Forclaz 600 winter hiking boot (Paul used the Quechua Arpenaz 500 boot, which worked¬†well too)

We also carried merino thermal long johns and a 700 weight goose down jacket but it didn’t get cold enough to use them. We were fortunate that the coldest it got while we were outside was -14’C and the average hovered around -2’C during the day and -7’C at night. What I’ve learned from the experience in relation to weather is that I don’t need to avoid winter because it has it’s own beauty … one to which we’re both quite hooked now and we’re already talking about a return to Eastern Europe in January-February 2017.

But what about Poland as a travel destination? I think my blog tells the story of that. It’s wonderful. Poland has embraced tourism in a positive way. It’s easy to rent a car and drive around the country independently. And I highly recommend renting apartments, rather than staying in hotels. Our one experience in a hotel was in Warsaw where we stayed in the Mercure. Seriously, Poles do not understand hotels – our sheets were dirty and then we were expected to make our own bed when the staff brought us clean sheets. But they have wonderful apartments and the landlords of the apartments know how to make them feel like home, right down to apartments often having fresh flowers in vases and better quality linens than even the Mercure (a four star hotel).

I was sad to leave Poland because I enjoyed the pace of travel there. Late morning starts and late night finishes felt good. My blog fell behind because we were having too much fun to take time out for writing. The food is excellent unless you are a vegetarian, in which case I’m sure you’ll find something to eat but sorry it won’t come close to roast pork knuckle or Polish sausages.

The past two weeks in Poland had everything from the gut wrenching stories we heard at Auschwitz, Schindler’s Factory and the Warsaw Uprising Museum to the now lighthearted fun of Wroclaw’s dwarfs and playing in the snow. It made us ponder the role of religion in society and rejoice at the joy of skiing. As far as travel goes, Poland has definitely entered the top three places I’ve been along with South Korea and Hungary. Perhaps I just like the dark horses.

Dwarfs of Wroclaw (Poland)

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We wake on our final full day in Poland to a glorious blue sky and cold air. We’re both disappointed that it hasn’t snowed overnight but hey, who can complain about picture postcard moments like these.
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Our first task for the day is to walk back over to the islands because yesterday we found a cute shop filled to the brim with artsy handicrafts. The lady who was working there was so enthusiastic about Australia that we decided to bring her one of the little stuffed koalas we’ve been carrying around with us. So that meant we had the pleasure of walking back past all the churches and through the pretty parks.
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We probably spent an hour at the handicraft shop. Paul loves two things: cute shops and buying gifts. So it wasn’t difficult to spend an hour and some of our last Polish zloty here. I quite like going to the shops too but I’m a bit more tight with my money.
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But don’t think that walking around is a point-to-point exercise for us. We tend to get easily distracted. Especially when there are animals to be ridden.

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But today’s big goal is to find as many of Wroclaw’s famous dwarfs as possible. There are over 300 dwarfs hiding all over the city (not just the center but also in suburban areas). The dwarfs started appearing in Wroclaw in 2001 to commemorate the Orange Alternative. The Orange Alternative were an anti-communist movement. To avoid arrest for anti-communist speech the movement used ridiculous methods, such as painting dwarfs as graffiti. The city of Wroclaw decided to embrace this part of Poland’s history by commissioning and displaying the first five dwarfs. Since that time, the dwarfs have multiplied both on account of the city and also private businesses who now use them as status symbols.

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We bought the now out of date Dwarf map (published in 2012 and some of the dwarfs are not where it says they are) for 8PLN ($AU3.50). Despite the map being out of date, it gave us a good idea of where to look for the dwarfs and before long we’d found 66 of them (not all pictured).

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We also found a double bass for me to play while we were at it.

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And hung out in the pretty city for one final night.

Indoor climbing and more indoor climbing (Wroclaw, Poland)

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Paul has caught the rock climbing bug. He’s keen as mustard to join me at the indoor wall in Wroclaw, a short 10 minute drive from the city center. The wall is pretty cool with it’s high walls and creative overhangs. Most of the routes are set up for sport climbing but there are a few top ropes for those of us who don’t yet lead.

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Unlike in Lodz where routes were marked with coloured post-it notes stuck under the holds, here the climbs are clearly colour coded using different coloured holds. It makes it possible to identify the colour of the holds, even when you are already above them. After a few “any colour” warm up climbs I start to focus methodically on working my way as far up the grades on each rope I climb as possible. It’s busy so it’s not so easy to just change ropes but that’s okay because each rope has at least three routes. Paul takes a couple of turns up the wall too, climbing higher each time.

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There’s a very cool bouldering area upstairs in the gym. It includes some straight up the wall climbs, a massive overhand, corners and a range of styles of hold. There’s a few coaches working with their charges setting routes and encouraging improvement. I take a few turns on the wall where there is space. By the way, do not be fooled by the photo above. I just jumped on the wall to pose because there was no one using it. But here’s the thing, even just jumping up and holding onto an upside down hold every time I hit the gym will improve my head space, balance and strength for overhangs. And it does make for cool pics. Haha.

We went back to the gym the next night too for another couple of hours climbing and bouldering. Backing up was tough on my body and I definitely felt the effects of fatigue. What that did do though was force me to focus more on technique and using the big muscles in my legs, rather than the small ones in my hands and forearms. I’ll definitely have to do some more back-to-back climbing sessions when I am home.

Wroclaw Old Town (Poland)

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Wroclaw has a pretty old town centered around some in the river on the city’s north. The Poland travel app recommends spending some time walking there so that’s what we decide to do today. Like many Polish cities, the old town was largely destroyed during WW2 and photos at key points show before shots for us to compare. The difference is stark. As an Australian, war is something that happens in movies not to real cities. I wonder whether people who are opposed to our country taking in Syrian refugees would feel the same way if they came to places like Poland and stood in the places where photos showed the destruction of war.

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For example, this street was totally razed to the ground during the war. Photos show the street as a pile of rubble with metal rods protruding from h the concrete like broken bones. Today the street is gorgeous.

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There are many churches and cathedrals on the islands. They are pretty with their red bricks and steep spires. We wander in and out of them admiring the architecture, stain glass windows and pondering about some other things.
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There’s a seminary near one of the cathedrals and we watch as young men in black flowing priest dresses (I’m not sure what they call them) walk out of one building and into another. The men are still young. I wonder how many have entered the church out of obligation and how many due to a calling. I had an uncle who wrote a book about his experiences entering the church out of obligation. He subsequently left, married and lived a secular life. Is this what he looked like as a young man? Intelligent, dressed in his uniform and scurrying from class to class.

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We cross a bridge with love locks along its sides. Most are relatively new, dating back to 2014 and 2015. There’s one from 2016 and some that look quite old. What happens when people’s relationships end? Do they come cut the lock from the bridge? Do they avoid the bridge to avoid the memories? Do they return later to pause and reflect fondly on the relationship that was? I’d be too scared to put a lock in a place like this in case it is like getting your partner’s name tattooed onto your skin.

Nearby there is a church that looks run down and ominous from the outside. But inside is this lovingly created toy display. It’s so fantastic. It is housed in the Chapel for the Deaf. Some of the toys are very old. It’s like taking a step back in time.

European Center for Culture 2016 (Wroclaw, Poland)

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The drive to Wroclaw is notable only for three reasons. Firstly, there are no petrol stations along the highway. You have to follow signs to petrol stations in the villages along the highway. Secondly, the highway is in super condition. And finally, the further we got from Lodz the less snow we saw until the world was once again awash with green near Wroclaw (pronounced Vrots-waf).
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We found our apartment with relatively few difficulties and went out to buy some groceries for breakfast over the coming days. There was a big shopping center across the road from our apartment that made finding food to buy easy. But the food wasn’t that interesting … I was far more interested in the fencing competition taking place. I’ve never seen living fencing before so it was fascinating even though the competitors were only teenagers. I guess to some of these kids fencing is as normal as surfing is for some Aussie kids. It was fun to watch for a while.
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But the best was yet to come. After dropping our groceries home we decided to go out for dinner as this was our final Polish destination. What we didn’t know was that Wroclaw was being opened as one of two European Capitals of Culture for 2016 (the other being San Sebastian in Spain). We innocently walked out towards the main town square only to discover marshals, barriers and vendors selling light sticks. There were drummers beating drums and video footage of four parades that would converge on the city centre. Unfortunately, we didn’t know where to go for the parades and ended up being just 100m from a display that looked spectacular when we saw it replayed on the television later that night.

But we did see some pretty cool drumming and acrobatics.

It was particularly cool to see this with such a beautiful square as the backdrop.
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We didn’t wait around for the parades to reach the square because it was obvious that (a) we weren’t going to understand the story that they were telling and this was a very theatrical parade and (b) we weren’t going to see much because we were already being pushed further and further to the back of the now swelling crowd. Instead, we went out to dinner at a pub that served good honest polish food and then caught the new Star Wars movie at a nearby cinema. The cinema usually shows art house films so there were lots of art house types around playing board games.

The movie itself was actually quite good. I haven’t enjoyed any of the previous Star Wars movies (including the original trilogy) but decided to give it a go because the franchise is now being produced by Disney and I tend to like the Disney focus on character development. I was not disappointed. The cinema that we went to was more of an old university lecture theater in style than traditional cinema but that just added to our international movie-going experiences.

Indoor climbing and city shenanigans (Lodz, Poland)

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Lodz has an indoor climbing gym in the Manufaktura complex. It’s only about 2km from our hotel and in the same area a most of the town’s entertainment. Paul doesn’t need to be asked twice: before I know it he’s harnesed up to belay me and I’m on the wall climbing to my heart’s content. It’s much tougher climbing alone than taking turns and, before long, my forearm are pumped and I’m sweating. This gym is nowhere near as good as Krakow and the routes are poorly set (or set by someone who assumes all climbers are over six foot tall). But I still have a great time and the challenge does me good. I have to think about the next move and how on earth I’m going to stretch my body far enough to have one foot on a hold, one hand and foot smeared on the wall and the other hand groping high with fingertips outstretched to grasp the next hold. I work out for about 1.5 hours before my arms and fingers are too sore to continue. Besides, there’s still things to see here in Lodz and we only have one night.
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As I mentioned, Manufaktura is the main entertainment precinct in Lodz. It houses a cinema (we didn’t go because it was far too busy), glitzy shopping center (as are all Poland’s shopping centers), restaurants and what looked like a nightclub. This used to be a textile factory during the days of Soviet occupation but with the fall of communism the factory also failed. According to my Poland travel app, Lodz struggled after the demise of the factory but is now working to become a tourist destination in its own right. After-all, this city was once the Hollywood of Poland, complete with star walk.

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We enjoy some time playing with the statues that line the main street. Well, let’s be honest, I play with the statues while Paul plays photographer.

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I’m not alone. While we were walking towards the meeting in this photo a group of young guys also approached to do exactly what I did. And when we passed the piano player later in the night there was a whole group of people hanging around taking photos with him. Interactive art at its best.

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As you can see, we had a bit of silly fun during our night in Lodz. The Tiger shop was still open and Paul has been wanting to see what’s inside since we first saw one in Krakow. So tonight was the night. Tiger is cool. It’s essentially a discount shop like the Japanese Daiso chain. They sell a bit of everything and it’s all quite cheap but adds up when you buy lots of things (haha). After I played with the hats, Mr Security Guard followed us around the shop like we were trouble makers or thieves (or both). The irony of his concerns is that we were almost the only people in the shop who actually purchased anything and we purchased more than any of the other people at the check out when we were up there. But hey, he’s just doing his job. And he actually added to our sense of fun because hiding our naughtiness from him became part of the game.

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We ended our day at the only desert bar that we still found open (it was after 10pm though). Despite all the chocolatey options available, I went with this fruit and ice cream treat. It was so good. It’s funny how after a while my body just craves fresh fruit and vegetables. And given that vegetables a dessert do not make, the fruit had to do the trick.

A wonderful winter drive (Warsaw to Lodz, Poland)

Today we have only one goal: to drive to Lodz (pronounced Wootch). It’s about two hours to Lodz (we take three hour because I manage to take a wrong turn and also to take lots of photos). This is definitely one of those posts where the less words I use the better so here’s the photos to describe one of the nicest days driving I’ve ever had.
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(This was the wrong turn … we drove like this for about 5km but we made it out the other side)
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