May 2004

Some people have asked for more information about our Poland trip, before we depart on our next adventure.

We recently spent ten days in Poland. Not quite as last minute as the cruise – this time we reserved a month and a half in advance. We learned about the tour in passing from friends who had previously traveled with the same organizer, the Theater Development Fund, who operate TKTS, New York's discount ticket booths. Although the tour description is no longer on their web site, you can see it at Poland Itinerary.

Fortunately, the outward-bound trip was trouble free, because the return more than made up for it. Austrian Airlines overbooked the flight from Warsaw to Vienna, so they bumped our group. Their compensation was to put us up in a fleabag hotel near the airport, too late for us to go into town for a decent meal. The hotel had no restaurant, although their fully stocked bar did offer anything anyone could ever wish in the way of liquor or beer, in fact, for 24 hours a day. Our connecting flight from New York to Washington had to be rebooked, for an additional $100 fee, and after leaving the gate, we sat on the ground for an hour and a half waiting for thunderstorms over Dulles to clear – United obviously knew about the problem before we boarded, but it improved their "departure time" statistics.

We began in Cracow, for three days, and ended in Warsaw, for three days. In between, we visited cities with historic or picturesque castles, palaces, churches, and Old Towns. One day we took a horse cart ride through a national park, and the weather cooperated. (In general, the weather was typically European – rain could appear at any time, although rarely intense or for long, and the sun could be out half an hour later. The temperature was normally in the upper 60s, although one day it dropped into the 50s. Since that was a day we heard it was 93 in Washington, we didn't complain.)

Our route was "mainly in the plains," in the central part; to the south there are the Tatra Mountains, as that portion of the Carpathians is called in Poland and Slovakia, and to the north, there are thousands of lakes left by glaciers.

The People

The Poles are a strong-willed people. Our guide said the Mafias haven't been able to establish a foothold in Poland; for example, he particularly mentioned the protection rackets which Warsaw shopkeepers rebuffed. The Lonely Planet guide notes that when Hitler took over he wanted to set up a puppet government but couldn't find a credible collaborator – there was no such problem in other countries. And that Winston Churchill wrote that Poland was the only country that never collaborated with the Nazis in any form and no Polish units fought alongside the German Army.

And even though the Soviets ruled for 45 years, they only managed to collectivize 20% of the farms. Unfortunately, in the country things are still quite old-fashioned. Farms are generally small, and the average farmer can't afford machinery, so the labor is done using horses, or by hand.

English isn't widely spoken, except at the major hotels, restaurants, and tourist attractions, and by younger Poles, particularly in the university cities. Those we asked for advice were very friendly. Of the several taxis we took, the only common language we found was with one driver who spoke German. And in a major department store in Lublin it was fortunate that our dictionary had the word for Birthday to buy a card for a friend, because nobody we queried knew any of our languages.

Cities and Towns

Although the older, original, parts of the cities suffered neglect during the Soviet rule, and of course the more recent Soviet construction is uninspiring, in the areas where tourists normally go one could be in any European country. They've even, unfortunately, all got McDonalds. That's not to say that the people are as well off – the per capita income is 1/8 that of ours, so many of the shops, restaurants, and hotels are only for the tourists, and the many new entrepreneurs who are doing quite well. We saw plenty of BMWs and Mercedeses.

Cracow itself is a gem, physically untouched by the Second World War. With a population of about 800,000, it is a center of culture, arts, and, with 13 institutions of higher learning, education. One night, in the Filharmonia hall, we attended a performance of Beethoven's 9th Symphony, with a chorus of eighty, and four soloists. Jan, our guide throughout Poland, told us that there is a Polish saying that "people go to Warsaw to work, they go to Cracow to live."

Wawel Castle overlooks the Vistula River and the Old Town, which contains anything one might wish, including over 400 eating places and one of the largest market squares in Europe. From a tower of the Church of St. Mary an unfinished hourly trumpet call sounds, in memory of a medieval trumpeter who was impaled with an arrow while sounding an alarm.

The Jewish quarter, where much of "Schindler's List" was filmed, looks much the same as before the Second World War; even its seven synagogues survive. However, with currently only a few hundred Jewish residents (before the war, there were 65,000), only one still holds services. The area also has some traditional restaurants and cafés, some with klezmer music, and the family home of cosmetics' founder Helena Rubenstein.

While in Cracow, we visited the salt mine at nearby Wieliczka. During the 700 years when it was a source of wealth, miners dug nearly 200 miles of tunnels and in their spare time carved amazing sculptures out of salt. Including chapels – it was a dangerous occupation – but also statues of Copernicus, Polish statesmen and royalty, scenes from the mining life, including horses(!), even a whimsical tableau incorporating mining gnomes. The most amazing construction is a huge cathedral, with a life-size sculpture of Pope John Paul II, chandeliers of salt crystal, and bas-relief representations of paintings carved in the walls, including The Last Supper.

Although the several-year old article we found on The Washington Post website claimed the only access was by many flights of stairs, there actually was an unusual set of elevators, one suspended below another, several high. A dozen or so people squeezed aboard until each was full, then it was raised, bringing another into position. As the walls were slats with ample gaps, those in the earlier groups had a dizzying view as they were hoisted higher and higher. When all were filled, they descended into the darkness at a furious pace. Maybe it's just as well there were no previous warnings for those who might suffer acrophobia or claustrophobia.

Later we visited Oswiecim, better known by its German name, Auschwitz, the most notorious of the extermination camps. Originally a Polish army barracks, it soon proved too small for ambitious Nazi death plans, and the much larger Birkenau camp, known as Auschwitz II, was built nearby. This is the one you see the trains entering in the films. The Germans destroyed most of it before retreating, the facilities being constructed of wood. As the barracks in the original Auschwitz were masonry, most of that original camp remains. All you've seen in the movies or on TV can't adequately portray the horror evoked by the mounds of children's, even babies', shoes and of prostheses of all kinds which hadn't yet been shipped to Germany, or the bolts of cloth made from human hair shorn from the dead.

Zamość (pronounced ZAH-mo-sh-ch – try it), was designed in the 16th century in its entirety as a perfect Renaissance town. Although our local "English-speaking" guide's commentary was nearly unintelligible, it was entertaining hearing her bring this very unusual sounding, to our ears, word into nearly every sentence. From our trip to the Soviet Union in the 70s, I recalled that Russian has a separate Cyrillic character for "sh-ch." Written Polish, however, uses the Latin alphabet, and since each letter is always pronounced the same way, nine separate variations of various alphabetical characters are distinguished with diacritical marks to provide for the necessary variations, as ś and ć above. Another, pronounced as w, is ł, so the złoty, the unit of currency is actually pronounced ZWO-tee. As another example, we toured the vast art-filled castle residence and adjacent carriage museum in Łancut, pronounced WINE-tsoot – the accent is normally on the next to the last syllable.

Much of the town of Zamość has suffered from neglect during the decades of Communist rule. Buildings in the handsome main square are being gradually restored, but it will take vast amounts of money to complete the job, not only there but also in other parts of the town. We found the same to be true in the Old Town in Lublin and in many parts of other cities.

I mentioned the renovated 17th century palace where we stayed one night. The Nazis were glad to take over such luxurious quarters for their own use, including the Nazi Governor General of Poland who lived, with his family, in Cracow's Wawel castle. Given the Communists' different ideology, they generally turned such estates into public facilities, for example hospitals, schools, or museums. This has created much controversy for those legitimate heirs who today wish to reclaim their property.

Most of Warsaw was destroyed during World War II, but not because of battles between the warring powers. In August 1944, the Warsaw underground launched an uprising intended to liberate the capital before the arrival of the Red Army, which was approaching the Vistula River from the east. Stalin ordered his troops to stop there, while the fighting raged for 63 days, as well as for the next three months while the Nazis systematically razed the city, destroying 90% of the buildings and killing over 700,000 people.

Perhaps surprisingly, after "liberating" the city, the Soviets supported the reconstruction of many of the city's original cultural treasures, including the Old Town, the adjacent "New Town" (begun in the 15th century), and many churches, palaces, theaters, museums, and parks.

Of course, a large part of the new city and suburbs was of the unimaginative Soviet style, of which much still remains. However, modern and imaginative buildings of all kinds have sprouted in the last decade.


Since the tour was arranged by the Theater Development Fund, we also were able to visit some historic theaters.

In Cracow, after a behind-the-scenes tour of the Slowacki Theater, we talked with an actor and director, from whom we learned that their repertoire includes Shakespeare's plays, translated into modern Polish. That is, Cracovians may more easily understand the Bard than we do. (We later heard that other translations have been made into historically correct archaic Polish.)

In Warsaw, we toured the Warsaw Theater Academy, which confers degrees in acting, directing, theory, and puppetry (unfortunately, at a different location). We also viewed a performance by eight third-year actors. Although we couldn't understand the dialogue, the presentation being in Polish, the talent was undeniable; not only acting ability, but also singing and dancing. One reason is that, at each grade level, students who don't meet standards do not advance. We heard that there had been one grade with only one student! Acting programs, in various Polish cities, are free to those that qualify, and graduates who find a job with an acting troupe, as at the Slowacki Theater, basically have a salaried job from then on. Those interested in TV and film work go to Warsaw.


Poland was the first country attacked by the Nazis, in 1939, and was later controlled by the Communists until 1990, so it still has quite a distance to move completely into the modern world. Particularly noticeable examples are the heavily-polluting state-run heavy industries. A less obvious example is that when McDonalds opened their first restaurant in Warsaw, they had to teach the employees how to smile!

You've probably heard that Poland is one of the latest entries into the European Union. Our guide told us much of Poland's recent progress and what still remains, but this site provides a good summary.

"Poland has steadfastly pursued a policy of economic liberalization throughout the 1990s and today stands out as a success story among transition economies. Even so, much remains to be done. The privatization of small and medium state-owned companies and a liberal law on establishing new firms has encouraged the development of the private business sector, but legal and bureaucratic obstacles alongside persistent corruption are hampering its further development. Poland's agricultural sector remains handicapped by structural problems, surplus labor, inefficient small farms, and lack of investment. Restructuring and privatization of "sensitive sectors" (e.g., coal, steel, railroads, and energy), while recently initiated, have stalled due to a lack of political will on the part of the government. Structural reforms in health care, education, the pension system, and state administration have resulted in larger than expected fiscal pressures. Further progress in public finance depends mainly on privatization of Poland's remaining state sector, the reduction of state employment, and an overhaul of the tax code to incorporate the growing gray economy and farmers most of whom pay no tax.

"The government's determination to enter the EU has shaped most aspects of its economic policy and new legislation; in June 2003, 77% of the voters approved membership, now scheduled for May 2004. Improving Poland's export competitiveness and containing the internal budget deficit are top priorities. Due to political uncertainty, the złoty has recently depreciated in relation to the euro and the dollar while currencies of the other euro-zone aspirants have been appreciating. GDP per capita equals that of the 3 Baltic states."

One part of the economy that we enjoyed testing, since not all of our meals were included, was the restaurants. We had the opportunity to try several in Cracow, Lublin, and Warsaw. In Warsaw, dinner at La Boheme, a fine restaurant, cost about the same as at an equivalent restaurant here. By contrast, at a traditional Polish restaurant in Lublin, steak tartar, "beetroot soup with ravioli filled with mutton," tongue in horseradish sauce, pork ribs, two salads, two beers and one shared "hot spiced beer in clay pot" totaled $15. The taxi ride cost $2.50. Perhaps I shouldn't have said just traditional – the Chata Swojska Strawa was modeled after a Polish farmhouse, although we were welcomed by a fiddler and accordionist. (This is the rustic restaurant mentioned for other reasons in International Symbols?).

In Cracow, dinner for two in a vaulted basement restaurant cost $20, exclusive of wine. Since there is no domestic wine (the frigid winter weather that can sweep in from the Siberian steppes precludes viniculture) it is all imported, although no more expensive than here. They do make beer, attested to by the many fields of hops we saw being cultivated along the way. Entry to a jazz cellar in Cracow was $2.50, and although there was no minimum, 2 expressos and a Polish slivovitz totaled $3.

It was a fascinating trip; we agreed that we could particularly spend more time in Cracow.

© Copyright 2003 Jack Ludwick - All Rights Reserved