Date of Trip: July 2009
Wednesday, July 1: Barcelona to Warsaw
Got on the plane to Warsaw. LOT had comfortable seats, a nice deli lunch, lots of bread and rolls. Buses wait at the airport to take passengers to the terminal. Several baggage claim areas.
My cousin Maria & her daughter Weronika met us and graciously showed us around. We rented a car for the time we were here- although Poland has good transportation- because I wanted to check out a couple of places my grandparents had lived. We went to Warsaw’s Old Town for dinner at POLKA Restaurant of Magda Gessler. Their website shows their menu. A very classy place with prices that are not astronomical. I had duck with red cabbage & mizeria (cucumber salad) for 39zl ($13). Old Town is a very beautiful area with statues & lovely buildings — all of it rebuilt to look exactly as it was before the Nazis systematically destroyed the area in WWII, razing it to the ground with not a stone left standing.
We stayed at Hotel Novotel in the center of Warsaw. A business type of hotel in the American style with few amenities. A queen bed & a queen futon. We got a good deal (comparatively) for the room. The parking, however, was outrageous, even with the special rate! Normally 120zl for 24 hours, hotel guests pay 85zl per day – over $28 — to park a car at a hotel! So we found, with some difficulty, street parking, although there is a daytime fee. We just parked at night & got up early to pay the meter by 8am (13zl). In Poland, cars park on the sidewalks, usually with 2 wheels on the walkway & 2 on the road. Traffic lights turn yellow before both red and green.
Thursday, July 2: Warsaw
Had breakfast next to the hotel at a bakery/sandwich shop. Got 3 eclairs, 2 coffees & a tea for 32zl + 5.80zl for 2 OJ. The water at the bakery was horrible (tap water? was served) so we bought 3 bottles of water (6zl) at the nearby sidewalk kiosk with 2 cold drink machines. When the purchase was made at the kiosk, the salesperson inside pushed a button and the drink machines outside dispensed the purchased items!
Bought a bag of cherries at a fruit stand for 5.20zl. Met our relatives/hosts and walked to Lazienki Royal Park, a beautiful area with a regal feel to it. Lots of trees & paths with spotless, manicured gardens, a lake, statues, peacocks and a palace — the summer palace of King Stanislaw August Poniatowski, 18th century. The park suffered damage during the war & was rebuilt soon after. The palace remained intact because the Nazis occupied it during the war, and although there were plans to destroy it and holes were drilled to place explosives, they never got around to detonating them. Our hosts treated us to coffees & milkshakes at Trou Madame Cafe in the park.
Went to a great Boleslawiec Polish pottery store not very far away where I purchased a few items, and a couple of small pieces of hand-cut crystal. Just to give you an idea: I bought 2 cup/saucer sets, a teapot, 2 eggcups, 2 tiny dishes — for teabag or salt – all for 105.80zl ($32.65), and a crystal shot glass & a crystal aperitif/communion glass for 24.85zl ($7.67). A lot cheaper than anywhere else I’ve seen, and very beautiful! I would have liked to buy more, except that I had a cruise to go on & everything had to travel with me. (Next time I go there, I’m bringing an empty suitcase!)
We returned to Old Town & visited the Gothic St. John’s Cathedral. I remember that there were no prayer candles as in other Catholic churches, but furniture that looks like desks where the people can pray. Stopped next door at the church store to purchase a few items. The WC nearby cost 2zl and had clean toilets with paper! Also soap & water, but no towels. We asked & got them from the attendant upon leaving.
We went to our relatives’ home, where we ate a delicious Polish dinner cooked perfectly by my young cousin, a theatre graduate & now working actress. They have no microwave, considered unhealthy by many Poles. Drank bottled water, as the people don’t usually drink the tap water here.
Friday, July 3: Warsaw to Torun
We left for the medieval town of Torun, where my oldest cousin Hanna lived, a popular tourist area and home to the astronomer Nicholas Copernicus & renowned chocolate-covered gingerbread. It took about 3 hours to get from Warsaw to Torun, and there was a lot of road construction. On the way to Torun we passed a wooded stretch of road where people were selling forest mushrooms and baskets of berries & cherries on the hoods of their parked cars or on a blanket next to their bicycles. They had large umbrellas attached to the cars to shelter them from sun or rain. My host said that some of them pick them in the forest to sell by the side of the road.
My elderly cousin had a lovely lunch prepared. The Poles are known as some of the most hospitable people in the world, and have a saying that “A guest in the house is God in the house.”
We then toured the old town area of Torun, very lovely and truly old, with some places dating from the 14th century. The castle was closed, unfortunately, but we took photos of the outside and through the slats on the gates.
We stopped for drinks at a nice outdoor cafe in the middle of Old Town Torun, and got 3 beers, 1 Coke & a tea for the amazing price of 20zl — under $7! Visited the Church of the Blessed Assumption, where a mass was going on.
Had dinner at Vinci Restaurant — and this was the only disaster of the trip to Poland. The restaurant seemed pleasant, with outdoor tables & nice place settings. We sat outside & asked for house wine, which they said they didn’t have, but brought us 3 glasses of a red wine. Smelled odd. Husband Jim had a swig & I took a sip, and it was awful! Daughter Cate said it smelled like nail polish remover, which was a surprisingly accurate analysis. We told the waitress about it and when she returned from inside, she said the chef said it was supposed to smell like that! Seriously! A nice-looking restaurant serving horribly rotten wine — and making excuses for it instead of quickly apologizing! We complained and got another glass of a real wine. When our meals arrived, 2 of us were served first, then 2 others, and the fifth, my youngest cousin, wasn’t served until much later. When the dish finally arrived, she started eating and was searching for the mussels (she had ordered seafood pasta.) We asked our waitress, who replied — matter-of-factly — that it was because someone else got the seafood pasta, so my cousin was served the other dish! (This was a cheaper pasta dish, & the person who ordered it got the better one, so didn’t say anything!) The seafood pasta had by this time been served and eaten. No effort was made to make amends. We demanded that we not be charged for this dish, so the restaurant complied and also gave us dessert free-of-charge. — BTW, Cate’s dessert plate was severely chipped and she cut her finger on it. What an experience! Avoid this place at all costs – unless it changes ownership and staff!
We headed off to our hotel in Bydgoszcz after dropping the ladies off at my eldest cousin’s place — she doesn’t get around much, and so skipped the touring. We had reservations at Kuznia Hotel, which Jim found on the Internet — reasonably priced and including breakfast. Finding it in the dark was another thing. After asking for directions at a convenience store & buying a map, we located it — and weren’t sure if we made a good choice. There was a sign at the street, but there was an old and narrow driveway leading through the buildings. As we approached it, the area opened up and we found it to be very nice, modern, with a restaurant area & nightclub. Jim asked for ice for his knee, but they didn’t have any…??
Saturday, July 4: Bydgoszcz, Torun
In the morning, we had our breakfast waiting for us (they asked us what time we wanted it). What a lovely arrangement and selection! A table in the restaurant area was set up for 3 with juice, yogurt, a basket of bread, jams & butters, flavored cream cheeses, individual plates with meats, cheeses, & sliced tomatoes, & a dish of creamy scrambled egg was then served warm. A coffee & tea table was nearby, but they initially filled our cups. We enjoyed it, but wondered how they made any money — there was almost no one at the hotel. If others had the same initial impression of the entrance that we did, it’s no wonder! A very nice place — needs a new front entrance/signage, lots of advertising, & a publicity manager! Apparently the night club is very popular, so this may be where much of the revenue comes from.
Our relatives said they would take the train from Torun and meet us in Bydgoszcz. Finding the station took well over an hour, which we did not plan, but our patient relatives were waiting there when we finally arrived. Could have easily driven to Torun and halfway back in the time it took us to find the station. Of course, we had lots of “help”. No fewer than seven people told us how to get there. We got a little closer each time. It turned out that the station was in the opposite direction from where we had been first directed, and only one and one-half miles from the hotel. We went on a family home tour, seeing several places where my father & my grandparents lived when they returned/escaped to Poland in the 1930’s. We visited a couple of cemeteries, but didn’t find my grandparents’ graves, as others had been buried over them when the annual fees could not be paid. The old chapel was gone or built over, so the photos of it from the funerals weren’t useful.
All old cities have an Old Town area, so we went to the old area in Bydgoszcz to look for somewhere to eat. Also did some shopping: Found a “Cepelia” shop — carries folk art and handmade Polish items. Great prices on amber, as well as baskets, needlework, and some pottery. I bought amber earrings for my daughters & granddaughter. For a basket, an apron, a small needlework mat, and 5 pair of amber/silver earrings, I paid 179.80zl ($55.49). The earrings were around 30zl a pair (varied from 22-40zl). We also stopped at Empik Bookstore, quite large, lots of fun items as well as books. Many Audrey Hepburn things, which another daughter would like, and they weren’t available in the US, but which weren’t “Polish” enough to warrant taking up valuable packing space.
Returned to Hanna’s home in Torun for tea, after a grocery stop for packages of Polish gingerbread — which were worth the packing space! Back to Bydgoszcz for the night; returning to Warsaw the next day.
Sunday, July 5: Torun to Warsaw
After another wonderful breakfast at the hotel, we drove to Torun, picked up the ladies, & headed toward Warsaw by another route. As we neared Warsaw, we looked for my aunt’s grave. We didn’t find it before it started raining heavily, so hard that it became difficult to see the road ahead. July is the rainy season in Poland, but we’d been fortunate to have lovely weather up until this day. We consequently gave up the search.
I enjoyed seeing the road signs & took quite a few photos of them. A silhouette of a town indicated we were entering a village and needed to lower our speed. As we left the town limits, the same silhouette with a red line through it meant we could resume highway speed.
We had lunch at one of the Sphinx restaurants, a Polish chain with 96 locations all over Poland, 17 of them in Warsaw. Modern, good food, reasonably priced, large portions, Oriental & international menu. A trio of dipping sauces accompanied our meat, and there were several accompanying salads, as well as an assortment of breads. Dinner for five, including tip, was 125zl – $38.
We dropped Maria & Weronika off at their home and returned to the hotel. We all changed clothes for the evening mass in Old Town, where my cousins attended.
I contacted my facebook friend Magda who said she & her husband attend the same church and were married there. We arranged to meet at a coffee house near the church at 8pm. I don’t remember the name, & although we took photos in the area, I do not know if any were photos of this church.
Needing a couple of items, I went to a couple of stores at Centrum Galleria — the larger ones were open until 8pm on Sundays. Bought some costume jewelry, went to Empik bookstore & found tote bags to carry my Polish pottery onto the plane back to Barcelona. One of the bags features the 754-foot Joseph Stalin Memorial Palace of Culture and Science as a giant gorilla — a bit of a joke. Many, if not most, Polish people in Warsaw loathe this structure. They call it the “Russian Gift” and say that the luckiest man in Warsaw is its caretaker who lives on the top floor — because he is the only one who cannot see it.
We picked up our tour hosts again & went to the cafe to meet my facebook friend and her husband. It was a nice visit. We had coffee, tea, cookies, & Polish cheesecake. The milk for the tea is always served warm. We took a few evening photos of the church and one another, then went to the 9:30pm mass. There were lots of folding chairs in addition to the pews — a lot of people attend this popular service, all in Polish, of course!
The next morning we had a flight to Barcelona, and my relatives wanted to send us off, so we arranged to meet at the hotel at 9:30am. As we were dropping them off, they invited us for tea, so we had another enjoyable visit. They own a Doberman, who cries when they leave him, likes people and hates other dogs. Although he went to obedience school as a puppy, it didn’t last, so he wears a spiked collar and muzzle when going out for a walk so that he can be controlled if another dog is nearby!
Monday, July 6: Warsaw to Barcelona
In the morning we met our relatives at the hotel. I went to Centrum again with my daughter to find a belt. It wasn’t cheap – $24 US — leather is not cheap in Poland, apparently.
We arrived at the airport, took photos and said our goodbyes to our wonderful hosts, then proceeded to the security checkpoint. There we found that we forgot to remove a bottle of water from my husband’s carryon bag.
Then it started: for some reason, the 2 security persons at this counter started going through all the items — did we look suspicious? We were two older Americans and a teenage girl!? The guy pulled out item after item, examining each one as if he was expecting to find contraband! In the bag we carried our electronic items — things pertaining to the cell phone & camera, as well as a tiny book light — hmm what is it? — a luggage scale — ooh, looks suspicious. The guy & woman behaved as though they had never seen these kinds of things — they were expecting a weapon? Or a detonating device?
Finally I said a prayer under my breath (you never know what can happen here) and the two finally let us go. A far cry from security in other airports — Barcelona, Switzerland — those were even friendly! But these two were nasty — I hope it’s not representative of Polish security everywhere — they acted like communist holdovers from the cold war era. Glad to be through the gate and on our way — hope we don’t have to deal with this next time we come. A disappointing end to an otherwise wonderful trip!
We had beautiful weather (except the final rainstorm), lots of great memories (other than the security check), and met some wonderful people. Can’t wait to return!
We were the last ones on the plane back to Barcelona. Husband & daughter used the restroom, which was not close to our gate. When she came back alone, I knew he would still be waiting for her. So I sent her back to get her father & thus we were the last ones on the plane. Oops! Glad they waited!
This plane was smaller than our plane to Warsaw, with one aisle and two seats instead of three on each side. Some other people were in our seats — there were 2 adults & 2 small children and the last seats left were not together. Since the children could not sit alone, we let them have our seats.
The airline food was nice — a Prince Polo Polish chocolate bar, meats, cheese, bread, ketchup (no mayo), and more bread. Among the beverage choices is Spanish wine, served in small individual bottles.
Back to Barcelona to Begin Cruise.
Monday, July 6, was embarkation & Day 1 of the cruise. Day 2 Tuesday, July 7, was a day in Barcelona, but since we’d seen what we wanted to the week before, we stayed on the ship, except for a run to the port shops where we gave our Metro ticket, with 6-8 rides left, to a grateful worker who commuted to work.