I didn't really know what to expect from the last 4 days in Poland. Poland has always been the far-off land of ancestors in my mind, and the reality of hopping on a plane from London and being there in a few hours was a bit strange.
Fortunately, I was pretty impressed with Warsaw as I walked around. It was a beautiful Sunday afternoon and there was a festival in town so the main street had crowds milling about for miles. The city was surprisingly beautiful, with parks and monuments all around downtown, and it also seemed to be buzzing with new buildings going up everywhere. The festival was celebrating Warsaw's international community and there was an interesting diversity of foreigners about, I even found some Senegalese selling jus de bissap who were happy to chat in French. Not what I was expecting I guess, but Warsaw is a very modern city, partially as a result of being almost entirely destroyed in the war. We learned all about it at the Warsaw Uprising museum, which was fascinating. The perspective on the war is obviously quite different in Poland, it seemed from the way the story was told there remains a bitterness about Poland's fate and the lack of aid the "west" provided despite being allied with Poland. Visiting on the seventieth anniversary of the German anniversary, it seemed to be a constant backdrop for the trip, not just in the museums but in the graffiti on street corners which still mentions the uprising of '44. The Polish today seemed remarkably friendly, especially our couchsurfing host Agata, who gave us a great place to stay in Warsaw just outside downtown despite having exams this week (thanks Agata!).
The food was a mixed bag. There wasn't too much for vegetarians but I did get to try a few new things, like the dumplings here, a fried-cheese dish sold on the street, and of course a Pierogi.
The necklace of mini-bagels was a pretty bizarre item. I'm thinking it's a tourist thing, or at least only tourists were putting it around their neck.
Krakow had a quite different feel, with more of its historic buildings preserved. There was quite a lot to see at the main castle, including a few museums on Polish history, a few royal collections, and a bell bigger than I could have imagined. The Zygmunt bell here weighs 11 tons and takes 12 people to ring.
There's also a statue below the castle of a dragon which actually breathes fire. These are the reasons you travel. I just never would have thought of building such a statue, but it fit in quite well with the area.
We wrapped up the trip by going to the Auschwitz concentration camp outside Krakow. It seemed appropriate as the war and the Holocaust seemed to be a sad subtext to the trip. The experience of visiting a former extermination camp is quite different from reading about things or going to a museum. It was more raw but also more banal. The grounds of the camp are huge and minimally maintained, big sections are essentially ruins, and the tour seemed to focus on small details of the period in place of presenting any overall narrative of morals. To me this was much more powerful, as the site stands quietly in the woods as an eerie testimony to the past.
It was a great trip and wrapped up quite a nice year of traveling around Europe for me. I probably won't get much travel in until the spring due to work, the Christmas vacation, and the weather. But it was the best kind of trip in that it pushed me to a range of new experiences in just a few days.