Poland/London/Paris: 4, 3, 2, 1... Polska!

May 29th, 2009: Traveler's Math

London - Victoria & Albert Museum
London - Victoria & Albert Museum
(full photo gallery below)

While I generally enjoy leaving my brain behind on vacation (usually with my toothbrush and anything Stephanie has told me is absolutely crucial not to forget), sometimes numbers and math have a way of barging through and making themselves noticed. With a trip that consisted of 10 days, 3 countries, 4 cities, 7 beds and 8 airports, that didn't look like it would add up to a relaxing time, but we were crossing our fingers that the numbers would work out nicely.

This trip would take us into London and out of Paris, with six days in the middle at our main destination: exotic Poland. The chief inspiration for our trip to Poland was my membership on Victoria's Polish soccer team for the past three seasons, this despite the fact that I have about as much Polish heritage as Danny de Vito. I was hoping that the language skills I picked up over the three years with the team would serve me well - as long as somebody needed me to swear or say, "kick it out wide," we'd be fine.

We began our vacation with three nights in London and promptly proceeded to enjoy what is truly one of the world's most exciting cities by sleeping for 16 of the next 20 hours. We managed to pick up a little steam after that and had a great time with friends, visiting museums, eating mushy peas and joining some compatriots at a gay club night called "Gutterslut", which was slightly seedier than the name suggested.

June 1st, 2009: Oh, Shchit

Wroclaw - Rynek (Market Square)
Wrocław - Rynek (Market Square)
(full photo gallery below)

On Day Four, after recovering from the emotional trauma of the nightclub, we hopped on a plane and headed to the Polish town of Wrocław. And regardless of what you're thinking, no, that's not how it's pronounced. We picked Wrocław (pronounced vrots-wahf) due to its status as a highly-recommended but little seen town, and because it was a good connecting point for our main destination of Kraków. We ruled out visiting the city of Szczecin due to our likely inability to ever say the town's name.

In the off-chance that nobody in Poland needed anything kicked out wide, I had actually bought a Polish phrasebook in the hopes of picking up a little of the language. When the absolute first word in the book, "Hi", was spelled "Cseść" and pronounced "cheshch", I knew it didn't look good. When, on the very same page, I saw the word "six" was pronounced "sheshch", I automatically reverted to the little Polish I knew I knew: swearing.

The phrasebook has some fun, culturally appropriate phrases in it, many to do with drinking vodka. It made me wonder what some phrases in the Canada book might be, if there was such a thing. Perhaps:

"I don't really understand why you're apologizing. Again.", or;
"No, I definitely do not want any clam and tomato juice in that."

June 2nd, 2009: One Night in Wrocław

Wroclaw - Rynek Architecture
Wrocław - Rynek Architecture
(full photo gallery below)

We arrived in Wrocław late and in the rain, and the first three hotels we went to were booked solid. It was a little miserable out, so using our superior language skills, we kicked it out wide and found a slightly higher end hotel that had a room available. Or, more accurately, had four rooms available, and all in the same suite. The hotel rented us a monstrous, medieval apartment, featuring authentic gothic decorations, a four-poster bed, two staircases and four rooms, one of which we could accurately call "The Antechamber." As the most beautiful hotel room we have ever stayed in, it was hard to get up and leave it in the morning, but we forced ourselves to hit the town.

Wrocław (pop. 640,000) turned out to be a supremely pretty town - there was a massive and stunning central square, gorgeous cathedrals at every turn, cool gothic architecture everywhere, and a picturesque river bisecting it all. With a small town centre, nothing was more than a 15-minute walk away; it was a traveller's dream.

Finishing a day of walking and sightseeing with a pint at a dark and ominous bar inside an old prison compound, we discussed a few things we'd learned about Poland in our first day there:

  1. Pork is a vegetable. Every meal we ate had pork on offer. Our breakfast buffet had five different types of pork: sausages, bacon and ham salad - a wide variety of pork flavourings to start your day. Pubs would offer a snack of pork fat sandwiches. And our vegetarian perogies? Covered in pork scratchings, naturally.
  2. The women drink beer. Daintily. Wrocław is the first place we'd ever been that we saw women drinking beer with straws. Dainty, but with street cred.
  3. As Canadians, we're not very clever. At least not according to the Lonely Planet, anyway. Canadians are used to leaving tips on the table after a meal. According to LP, "never leave the money on the table (in Poland), which they consider to be both rude and stupid." Also, smiling at strangers - a common Canadian trait - "...is seen as a sign of stupidity." Basically, according to the guide, anything we did made us look "stupid," which made me wonder if Poles tell a wide variety of "How many Canadians does it take to screw in a lightbulb?" jokes.

June 3rd, 2009: That Old Slavic Love

The next day, we huge out in the town square, enjoyed the sunshine, wandered past the river and wrote some postcards. In the afternoon, we headed to the Racławice Panorama, a 15m x 114m cylindrical painting depicting a famous historical battle scene. The ticket gate was packed when we arrived at 1:30pm.

"There is not another tour until 4pm," we were told by the surly woman behind the counter.
"It's Tuesday. Don't you close at 4pm?" we asked.
There was a pause.
"Yes," she replied and returned to her work.

Clearly, she must have seen us smiling at a stranger earlier on.

Instead, we went to the art museum, ate a pork fat sandwich and looked at the beautiful local buildings. It was a pretty perfect little town and felt all the more fun for having picked it pretty randomly.

June 4th, 2009: This Train Has Sailed

Krakow - Church of SS Peter & Paul
Kraków - Church of SS Peter & Paul
(full photo gallery below)

The next morning we boarded a train and headed to Kraków, sharing our four-hour journey with an elderly Polish couple that had last bathed in 1956. We were joined in Kraków by a couple of friends from London, Scott and Marc, that we had bullied into meeting us for a weekend break in Poland.

I had read that Kraków is currently sort of a less-discovered Prague, and while I haven't yet been to the Czech Republic, one description I'd heard of Prague - that it's like a postcard on every corner - seemed incredibly appropriate for Kraków as well.

It's hard to overstate how impressive all the architecture was, from the eclectic castle on the hill to the churches springing up on every corner to the overwhelming central square that would take half an hour simply to walk around the perimeter. And linking all of these sites were pretty cobblestone streets and horse-drawn carriages clip-clopping gently between them. Each time we turned our heads we would find something new and beautiful, or get a different and somehow better vantage point of the incredible thing we'd seen earlier in the day. Even with the rave reviews I'd seen of the place beforehand, I wasn't sure what to expect from Kraków; regardless of that, it surpassed all expectations.

After a day of walking around, we decided to grab a bite of authentic Polish food. This included perogies and a dish I ordered that the menu had translated only as "shin uncle," which tasted about as good as you might expect. While almost all the food we had in Poland was pretty tasty, shin uncle was a boiled, grey knuckle of - what else? - pork that reminded me of haggis but with a giant bone in it. It might not have been good, but at least the portion was large.

June 6th, 2009: Party Time in the Postcard City

After dinner, we went to wash down the day with a nice beer. We entered another dark, underground pub - everything in Poland seemed so cool and moody - and asked the waitress for a beer. She came back with this response from the heavens:

"Would you like three litres or five?"

We loved that three litres was the smallest size. She brought a giant plastic cylinder to our table that had its own tap and was filled with delicious golden lager - "The MaxiTube", we dubbed it.

Krakow - Having a beer at Singer Bar
Kraków - Having a beer at Singer Bar
(full photo gallery below)

After a quick quaff of the MaxiTube (5 litre size, natch), we returned to the neighbourhood where we'd rented an apartment: the very cool, very trendy area of Kraków known as Kazimierz. Kazimierz is the old Jewish area of Kraków , and while the city currently has less than 200 Jews remaining in the city, numerous signs of their history remain, with numerous synagogues flecked throughout the neighbourhood. And where there aren't synagogues, there are bars. Lots and lots of bars.

Pubs, restaurants and watering holes are everywhere in Kazimierz, and each is cooler than the next. One was filled with old Polish movie posters and film projectors hanging from the ceiling, another was filled with communist artifacts taking up every inch of wall space. A third, Aloha Bar, had their entire floor covered three inches deep in sand.

And then there was Singer Bar.

It's hard to describe Singer Bar, which was our local drinking establishment, in any way that does it any justice. In a small corner in the middle of the Jewish Quarter, Singer featured cheap drinks, moody lighting and sewing machines attached to every table (Singer referred to the sewing machine brand, rather than anything musical). The bar consisted of two rooms, one of which was nearly pitch black while the other was bright and raucous. At volume 11, the speakers blared klezmer, a frenetic style of Jewish folk music characterized by wild undulations of tempo (at least the tracks they played at Singer went as such). Combine cheap drinks with a summer weekend with music that we figured was best described as "gypsy rave" and the party atmosphere went through the roof. Nobody truly knew how to dance to the music, so they kicked and flailed and jumped and hugged with manic grins on their faces for hours on end. At 6 a.m., people were still partying full steam, drinking vodka and dancing on the tabletops, even though they had the sewing machines to contend with. Likely the most fun bar I've ever been to anywhere, and the craziest.

It should be noted that my friends had maintained that drinking vodka instead of beer ensures that you won't have to endure a hangover of any sort the next day. It should be noted that my friends are dirty, dirty liars.

We had a blast in amazing, beautiful, trendy, fun Kraków before spending a whirlwind 16 hours in Paris on the way out, wandering the boulevards and finding another ridiculously attractive landmark to gawk at on each corner. Finally, after a 22-hour day of traveling, we are about to hit bed #8: our own. I think this is the one that will make the equation just perfect.

Polska Photo Gallery