Tuesday, September 22, 2009

9/21 and 9/22: Viva la Poland!

9/21: Warsaw continued

The breakfast buffet at the Jan III Sobieski hotel is quite extraordinary, every food a traveler from the US or Europe could desire. BTW while we're on the subject of hotel breakfasts, which continent is "continental" breakfast supposed to cater to? Perhaps one where the indiginous peoples are vegetarian, eating mostly wheat-based products and the occasional hard boiled egg.

After a marathon blogging session, we headed out to explore daytime Warsaw. The first stop, of course, was E. Wedel's famous chocolateria for their signature hot chocolate - it's literally just melted chocolate in a cup. Not too dissimilar from Mexican hot chocolate -- I wonder which came first :)

The Old Town was beckoning, and we heeded the call. It is a bit odd that, after WWII, the Polish and Soviets recreated the old town as it was in medievel times, peeling paint and all. It's a bit like the movie Batteries Not Included, minus the flying alien widgets. It's very nice if you have never been to Brussels or Koln or probably even Krakow, which is just 3 hours away from Warsaw. On the positive side, if they hadn't recreated the "Old Town", we'd be stuck with a grid of Soviet-style boxed apartment and office buildings, so it could be worse!

Along the way, we passed a store called Kangaroo Klub that sells all Kangaroo-themed items: Kangol hats and Kangaroo-brand sneakers, (another) Kangaroo-brand wallets, things like that. It's super cute!

The former Nazi-enforced Jewish Ghetto seems fairly sizable, encompassing a relatively large area of the city, until you realize that 1 million jews from around Poland were forced to live there in tenements. Then ghetto (and the people living in it) was systematically burned down block by block. There is one remaining block of the original ghetto, one exterior ghetto wall, and one surviving synagogue -- all of which we visited. It's difficult to describe the experience, you have to see it for yourself.

After an aborted attempt to scale the Palace of Science and Culture (even the tallest building in Warsaw is subject to earlier closing times brought on by the change from summer to autumn), we had an authentic Polish dinner consisting of stuffed cabbage (cabbage, rice, meat, and gravy), 4 kinds of soups (beet borscht, cream borscht, sour borscht, and Zurak Polish sour soup), and 3 different types of pierogies (spinach, mushroom w/ buckwheat, meat). What a feast!
After dinner, we met up with our new friends Agata and Arthur to sample more Polish beers: this time, we sampled the slightly darker and richer Heban. Although they both understand English perfectly, Arthur prefers to speak in Polish to Agata and she translates. It was through this process that I heard Arthur use the word "Polak". I asked what that means, and he said "Polish people, obviously." I explained that in English, this is a derogatory word for Polish people. He was surprised and confused by this. I wonder how this came to be -- and where the American stereotype of Polish people came from too.

9/22 Leaving Warsaw, entering Krakow.

We are adjusting to European time, slowly. We haven't had much trouble staying awake or falling asleep, but sleeping in past 6am is another thing entirely. This morning we were awake before breakfast opened, so after catching up on emails, we headed down to the fitness center (Olga worked out, I jacuzzi'd and sauna'd). Then another breakfast that couldn't be beat followed by some minor running around: first to the Uprising Museum, only to discover it is closed on Tuesdays -- then to the Warszawa Centralna train station, through its maze of stalls looking for tickets, lunch-to-go, and to stock up on personal items. My only complaint is that this station is laid out very confusingly: you need to know the peron (platform) number, tor (track) number, and sektor (section) number for your train (and not confuse or reverse them with disasterous consequences).  This is not printed anywhere on the ticket, nor on timetables, nor on overhead train update signage, and the ticketbooth operators give incorrect information (we double-checked). Only a few minutes before our train left did we figure out we were on the wrong section of the wrong track in the wrong platform. A mad rush ensued, and we (barely) prevailed over Warszawa Centralna station.

Riding the rails from Warsaw to Krakow, it's impossible to not think about the people who were transported across these rail lines to concentration camps in Auschwitz and Treblinka. Of course, who can think about something like this when they serve free scooby doo juice boxes and scooby snacks for all travelers!?

We walked around Krakow most of the evening, passing through the ancient scenic Main Market Square. There is a bugler here (firemen take a break for bugling every hour) who plays a warning announcement to the inhabitants of Krakow that marauders are coming.

Legend has it that an eagle-eye bugler noticed an invading army and played a warning tune to the inhabitants of Krakow. But apparently this one time, an invading archer shot an arrow into the throat of the bugler, which cut off the tune in the middle. So now, every hour on the hour, the beginning of this tune is played by a live bugler (part-time fireman). What I noticed is that they play the beginning of it 3 times in a row on the hour, 30 seconds later, and 0 seconds after that -- each playing in different directions out of the tower. These marauders must've been very well organized to hit 3 separate buglers in the tower from 3 different angles -- perhaps it was the infamous magic arrow theory.

After tasting various vodkas and liqueurs being made in a little shop called Szambelan -- including one that is 140 proof -- and walking through a bit of Kazimierz (old Jewish district), eventually we stopped for an authentic Polish dinner in a mom and pop one-room restaurant. This was perhaps our best value on the trip so far. Many things we have seen are similar to US prices: Train tickets, concert tickets, CDs, most restaurant food. But some things are much, much less: street food, small batch vodka/liqueur, bus tickets, cafeteria food. More on this as it develops.

Please see Olga's unique take on today's events:  http://plotkills.blogspot.com/2009/09/warsaw-krakow.html


theresa_hart said...

You've got to love those buglers. Try to get to the bottom of the 3 aborted songs. I'm very curious.

Dave said...

Here's a bit of an explanation. They must go through a lot of buglers if they get shot in the throat 4 times an hour!