Living in the shadow of an 800 year old church, dining at a 400 year old restaurant! Who do we think we are!?

October 11th – 16th, 2013

Those were the highlights of our trip to Poland! Many friends asked us why we traveled to Poland instead of other countries in Europe. Our dear friend Zbig, who is our neighbor in Seattle, has been inviting us to his home in Warsaw for a couple of years now. We had to begin the international chapter of our trip with him!

Zbig, Nika and family are some of the most intellectual, generous folks that Raj and I know and the most gracious hosts! We spent our time with them in Warsaw and a little town by the name Bukwald near Olsztyn in the Varmia region. In Bukwald, we spent most of our time hanging out by the lake, eating like we hadn’t seen food in a week and drinking yummy wines! We also went mushroom hunting and explored the woods around the lake. Zbig had been urging us to visit in the summer so we could swim in the lake – we’ll have to go back in the next couple of years! However, fall had its own appeal with beautiful colored leaves, mushrooms aplenty and an excuse to hang out and chat by the fireplace.

We spent just one day in Warsaw but only now, as I write this post, I realize how much Zbig made us do in that one day :). We started off with a nice walk in the Royal Lazienki museum (wikipedia) where Polish royalty lived over the centuries. We got to tour the bath house (note – not a bath ’room’ but a bath ‘house’!), a painting room where every wall was adorned with multiple paintings from floor to ceiling, and admire the skillfully carved marble structures across the many rooms in the mansion.

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We then took off to a fairly new museum dedicated to the Warsaw Uprising towards the end of World War II, in which the brave Polish people of Warsaw led an uprising against the Nazi occupation. The Polish failed miserably since they had no support from any of the Allies – most of the city was destroyed and 180,000 civilians including doctors, lawyers, intellectuals and philosophers lost their lives. Many were sent to concentration camps. There still exists a debate today on whether the Warsaw Uprsing was a good idea given the probability of success and the extensive tragedy. Fascinating, albeit sad, piece of history!

On hearing these stories, I couldn’t help but draw parallels with the India-Pakistan war. One of the major differences, of course, is that Poland and Germany have excellent relationships today. On pondering and brainstorming about why that is, I came to the conclusion that it’s because the Germans apologized profusely aghast at the damage caused by their own kin, and the Polish forgave and moved on to build a strong economy.

From the museum, we headed over to old town. It’s pretty amazing how the buildings and forts have been restored to their glory before the destruction in World War II. This is something I really appreciated about Poland – the people’s pride in their country and their effort to restore the city. Zbig took us to the oldest restaurant in Warsaw, just 400 years old! (Note my sarcasm? That’s older than the United States of America!) While the main floor of the building was restored to resemble what it looked like before the destruction, an original narrow circular stairwell took you down to the basement which had more tables, bathrooms and wine cellars. The authentic Polish meal at this exclusive restaurant was an experience we won’t forget for a long time! Thank you Zbig!

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We spent our last three days in Poland in the northern city of Gdansk, by the Baltic Sea. World War II started because of a dispute over the control of this port town – the place where the first shots were fired is now a memorial. The Solidarity movement, that brought democracy to communist Poland, also began here. Now, a beautiful, lazy old town with churches galore, cobblestone streets, window shopping for amber jewelry, and a bunch of people watching, Gdansk was just what we needed to get over jetlag and the hustle of traveling (refer to the previous blog post ;)).

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Watching people walk around in Poland was like sitting on the side of a runway – people seemed to be dressed in some of their best clothes, most women in skinny pants, ankle boots and fitted leather jackets. Raj and I were probably the most under dressed tourists, not to mention seemingly the only non-white ones. The lack of diversity really stood out to me! We saw just one other brown man and one Asian woman over the course of three days.

We were lucky to find an apartment on the famous St. Mary’s street named after the spectacular St. Mary’s church, supposedly the largest brick building church in the world that can accommodate 25000 people! Its construction began in the 12th century and was completed in the 15th century! The street allowed just pedestrians and was lined with shops that sold amber jewelry – what a tease! We stayed on the 3rd floor of the building in the picture.

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We climbed the 400+ steps of the St. Mary’s church to get to the roof of the 78m tower for some pretty awesome views of the city and surrounding area! Raj was huffing and puffing on his way up 😛

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We were also lucky to catch an organ performance at the beautiful Oliwa (pronounced Oli-fa) cathedral. The gigantic organ was built right over the tall entrance over the church so that you had to look behind you to view it if you were facing the altar. Interestingly enough, you couldn’t view the nuns who were playing the organ almost like they were no name artists and the only reason there was any music was to focus on your prayers. The acoustics in this church were fantastic.

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We really wanted to visit Krakow in the south and pay our respects at the Auschwitz concentration camp memorial, but it would have involved a lot of driving. We’ll definitely visit that area the next time we are in Poland!

Nazdrovia! (Cheers in Polish)

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Planes, Trains and Automobiles…and Ferries and Buses (Honolulu to Warsaw)

October 8th – 10th, 2013

Have you ever realized after doing something that you’re a complete idiot? I mean just downright stupid and you hate yourself for doing it but feel that because you’ve displayed such lack of intelligence that you probably deserve the suffering that you’re experiencing? I felt like a monumental idiot after planning our commute from Honolulu to Warsaw. While Anjli won’t confirm my feelings, I know in her heart, she concurs 😉 Let me explain.

Our commute from Honolulu to Warsaw included 4 flights, averaging 6 hours each, an 8 hour bus ride, a 2 hour ferry ride and finally an 8 hour drive in a rental car. Not to mention a night’s stay in the Polish version of the hotel from Jack Nicholson’s The Shining.

We left Oahu on a flight headed for LAX on the night of Oct 8th, arriving in LAX on the morning of the 9th (my birthday). We spent much of my birthday on the flight from LAX to JFK and the Delta lounge at JFK Terminal 4. Took a luxurious shower at the lounge, followed by Vueve Cliquot and gelato! #balleronabudget

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Our next leg was from JFK – LHR, The plane was completely empty and Anjli and I grabbed a middle row each and slept most of the way to LHR. How in the world was the leg between the two busiest airports in the world so empty is something we didn’t understand but didn’t complain about either! The sweet flight attendant brought us some chocolate cake for my birthday! 🙂

While the stop over at LHR was fairly long, there was a lot going on! We had to make sure Anjli could check-in for the flight to CPH without much hassle. She’s still a FOB, you see 🙂 What I mean is she has the Indian passport and needed a UK visa to easily go to landside to check-in for our flight which was on a different itinerary. Long story short – we checked into the new terminal only to discover that the lounge we had access to was at the previous terminal. Worst airport ever!

In all the hustle bustle, I booked us on a bus to Berlin from Copenhagen for the wrong date! There was some weird rental car rules in the area about which city you could rent a car from which dictated which borders you could cross, so we planned to rent a car from Berlin to drive into Poland. So there we were, 7 hours later, walking through a dark alley in downtown Copenhagen at 6am trying to find the bus leaving on that morning, hoping we could convince the bus driver to let us on the bus. We were fortunate and 2 seats opened up. Here’s Anjli giving the thumbs up celebrating after the bus started moving.

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The bus drove for 3 hours from Copenhagen to a town on the south coast of Denmark called Gedser, from where we hopped a ferry to Rostock, Germany. Running on fumes of sleep, Anjli and I Indulged in the breakfast buffet on the ferry. The food was delicious and we even pocketed a couple of sandwiches for our drive to Warsaw.

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Anjli promptly proceeded to pass out after the meal.

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After two hours on the ferry, we arrived in Rostock, Germany, a small port town on the north coast of Germany.

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Just a beautiful European city.

Surprisingly, we did not have to go through immigration as Germany and Denmark are both a part of the Schengen area. We hopped back on the bus and went straight to Berlin.

After 3 hours of hassling with the different car companies at the Berlin airport, we finally had a car and were on our way to Warsaw. After we crossed the border in to Poland and had driven about 300 KM, I really started to feel the jetlag, Anjli forced me to pull in to a truck stop and we checked in to a shady looking hotel that had all the lights turned off and was just down right creepy. While walking to our room, I seriously thought Jack Nicholson would be waiting for us with an axe around every corner.

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But for 30 Euro, we got a clean bed and breakfast in the morning.  We drove the remaining 230 KM to Warsaw to meet our friend Zbig and were greeted by his cats Kobuz, Lenka and Dominic. Here’s a picture of Anjli and Kobuz

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Moral of the story, keep your travel schedule as simple as possible. sometimes it’s worth the extra few hundred dollars to reduce total travel time. Still, I feel like we had some interesting adventures along the way. Anjli may disagree though.

Til next time.

Cheers,

-Rajat