We were enjoying the Baltics so much, that we decided to return there after our week with Mark and Nicole in Sweden and Denmark. We flew from CPH to Kraków and upon arriving at the old town main square, we noticed huge crowds of people. Huge. Crowds of teens. It did not take long to figure out that World Youth Day, a huge Catholic celebration, was in progress. Between two and three million pilgrims were expected, and the Pope.
So that pretty much put an end to any touristing plans we had. Everything was closed, or open only to the WYD kids, or insanely crowded. So we mainly spent a day walking around the Old City, scoping out empty bars and nice restaurants, and we sat and watched the crowds. We ate a delicious dinner of Polish and Georgian dishes at Gruzinskie Chaczapuri, and another one at Pod Wawelem Komoania Kuflowa. We saw the imposing castle Wawelem (our hotel apartment was in fact right next to it), the beautiful church in the main square, and we went by Schindlers factory in the Jewish quarter. We found a small art museum that was open, full of antiquities including a Rembrandt. The city walking tours, the salt mines, and tours to Auschwitz were all unavailable.
The highlight of our stay in Kraków was discovering a website called “eataway.com” which matches up travelers with a local host who makes a traditional dinner at their house. We joined ten other visitors at Marta’s house for the best dinner ever. Everything was homemade and accompanied by stories about growing up in Poland. We started with some plums in vinegar, olives with rosemary, cucumber salad, smoked sheep’s cheese with onion seeds (czarnuska), and bread. Then, a young beetroot soup with quail egg and coconut milk. Then we had mashed potatoes (kept warm in another room under a feather duvet: an old grandmither’s trick), with veal goulash (plenty of paprika). We drank elderflower water with mint, red wine, homemade quince vodka, and had cake with jam and custard with raspberries for dessert. It was such a fun evening and I’d really recommend “Eataway.com” or “Withlocals.com”.
But enough of Kraków, we had to get away from the crowds, so we got a train to Warsaw. We splurged on a Radisson Blu hotel and upgraded to a business room
with a/c and their breakfast buffet, which went on for miles and included a Bloody Mary Bar. Besides our morning meal, we had pierogies of every kind in Warsaw: with cabbage and meat, meat and nuts, fruit and cream, spinach and garlic, mushroom and onion, potatoes and cheese, strawberries and creamSo good. The Old Town, meticulously reconstructed after World War II, is full of delicious places to eat. You could stay there a month and just dine.
We went on the Warsaw at War free walking tour, and learned all about the Warsaw Uprising and the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising- feats of courage in an impossible situation. In fact, this week is the 72nd anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising and the city is staging a big event for on August 1. We followed that tour up with a Communist Warsaw tour, which pointed out the few remaining relics of Communist times in Poland, such as a few art pieces, some architecture, some statues and mosaics, and an old Milk Bar. All in all it was a very interesting look at Poland’s history and I’d like to find a good historical fiction or YA about the Poland, especially as I’ve just finished reading about the siege of Leningrad and am starting a YA book about the children who were sent out of London for safekeeping during World War II.
We took an evening train to Berlin- the old European style with a compartment for six (promoting repeated “Scusi! Scusi!” quotes from Eurotrip) and stayed near the Hauptbonhauf. To get oriented we took a walking tour from the Brandenberg Gates, through the memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe, to the site of Hitle
underground bunker (and site of his partial cremation). An odd feeling to be standing on that site, which is now a grassy strip in front of a high rise apartment. We saw pieces of the Berlin Wall, the “Checkpoint Charlie” area (reconstructed), and the square where the Nazis had their book burnings. Our guide was very knowledgable about past and present Germany.
In the following days, we visited inside the Reichstag- Germany’s Parliament building, which has a dome made of glass and is an excellent viewing platform to see the various sites of the city. They include an audio guide that can sense where you are in the building and gives you commentary on what you’re seeing outside or about the building itself, which is state of the art and very green. I really enjoyed it, even though we had to wait quite a while to get in. We also visited the Topography of Terror museum at the site of the former Gestapo headquarters, an exhibit on successful and unsuccessful Wall escape attempts, and we visited the East Side Gallery, which is the longest stretch of the wall and is covered with murals.
For our final day in Berlin, we took a train out to Potsdam, the summer home for Frederick II of Prussia. It feels like a different world from Berlin, with acres and acres of sculpted gardens, fountains, and three large palaces. The weather was a slightly drizzly 70 degrees, and it was really nice to just meander through the UNESCO park and enjoy the landscape and the rococo and gothic style castles.
And now, done with Europe for the time being, we fly to Iceland for a three day stopover, then home!