Happy New Year!
Welcome to 2008! Here we are.
We spent our New Year's in freezing Poland, and despite the harsh weather, the strange accomodations, the packed and dirty trains, and my increasingly drying skin, it was a lovely time. We left a few days before the New Year, very early in the morning, and headed to the fairly large city Poznan, in the region of Wielkopolska in western Poland. I don't have much to say about Poznan - we left about 3 hours earlier than expected and were pretty excited to get out of there. Don't get me wrong; it wasn't the worst city of all time. It just wasn't really charming. There were some decently attractive shopping promenades, and the main market square was quaint and lovely, but other than that, it was a very Soviet cross-hatch of grimy trams, icy and muddy streets, fake fur and more camouflage clothes than I'm usually happy about, and a generally unpleasant train station. The aforementioned main square, however, was, by all definitions, very pretty.
Right? There's nothing unpleasant about that, not in the slightest. It was just that when one left the very small confines of the Old Town, there was nothing to see except American fast food joints and discount clothiers. Though both of us hedged around saying so, we just didn't really care for it at all.
On the other hand, though I'd heard many negative things about Warsaw, from the moment we stepped out of the train station it was pretty much perfect. Adjacent to the station is the Palace of Culture and Science, a museum that towers above the city with the weird glory one would find in one of Moscow's Seven Sisters buildings.
Here, the streets were wide, the shop windows were adorned with pictures of Pierce Brosnan (whom they seem to love all over Eastern Europe - I'm watching a dubbed episode of Remington Steele right now!) and our hostel was in a neighborhood that straddled both the Old Town and the former Warsaw Ghetto, which allowed us to see pretty much everything we wanted to see without having to figure out the tram system. As a sidebar - knowing Russian doesn't help in Poland, despite their common linguistic family. Okay, carrying on.
The Old Town in Warsaw was so much more picturesque than I'd expected. It suffered an incredible amount of damage during WWII, much of it completely irreparable, but there is a lot of reconstruction going on, and they've obviously done an unbelievable amount of work since working their way out of the Soviet Bloc and into the European Union. Aside from the tourist trap of the Old Town, the financial and shopping districts, along with the theater quarter, have really pulled themselves up by their bootstraps.
See? That's the theater of a world-class city. We took a large handful of very pretty pictures of Warsaw, and I won't post them all here; just click one of the pictures to look at the rest of them.
The Old Town, though, isn't the only noteworthy part of Warsaw. It may be the place most frequented by tourists, but we walked a few kilometers outside it to visit the former Warsaw Ghetto. There is basically nothing left of it, as it was bombed to pieces by Germany in the closing days of the War, but what's left is pretty stark and chilling. We visited the Pawiak Prison Museum, where some of the original cells and lots of documents and artifacts are open to the public. Without going into any of the extremely awful details of the prison, it was either the final stop or a waystation to the final stop for thousands and thousands of Warsaw's Jews. Outside of the museum, along with a small section of the original front gate, stands a tree; it's not a real tree; rather, it's a bronze copy of the original tree that stood there in the front yard. The original tree became too diseased to continue standing, but it was, famously, the only survivor of the prison, and it was cut down just a few years ago.
A couple kilometers from the prison, there is but one synagogue that survived the war; it survived it with many wounds, and now a greatly renovated version stands in its place, but at least it's still there. And just across a small park from the synagogue, there's an apartment-lined street, the last street of the Ghetto left standing. It's a small block on Ul Prozna, and I didn't take a picture of the remnants of the red-brick homes. Instead, I took a picture of this completely insane little corner of a building. I'm afraid I'm having one of those moments that people have when they see Jesus on piece of toast or the Virgin Mary on the side of Camaro, but I swear there's a little pudgy image of Hitler on this bit of surviving building.
Maybe that was a bad comparison. Jesus and the Virgin Mary are generally positive characters, while Hitler is, well, Hitler, but I still see his likeness on these smudges. Anyone who sees it too, please leave me a little comment, so that I can feel a little less delusional.
We were genuinely sad to be leaving Warsaw. People that I know who've travelled there haven't said many good things to me about it, perhaps because it's too Eastern or too torn up (as I said, the reconstruction is everywhere), but I really loved it. I recommend it to anyone that's not afraid of the Polish language.
From Warsaw, we took a train to Krakow, where we spent about 10 minutes wandering down a dark and deserted street, trying to locate the hostel we'd made a reservation at, before a woman drove up and escorted us into the not-yet-open hostel, which was so not-yet-open that the power had gone out. We waited with her in the dark until someone came to fix it, and then she wandered off, leaving us alone. The only other guests at the hostel were a couple of Japanese men, and when the power went out again the next night, I learned that there are Never Power Outages in Japan.
Krakow, aside from the infant hostel, was a generally appealing town, but not as much to my liking as Warsaw. Krakow has the requisite castles and cathedrals to really scoop up all the tourists, us among them, but it seemed much more like a small wonderland ushering in visitors than a real town with regular people living in it. Of course, we didn't venture out into the suburbs, we didn't see the blue-collar workers in the pollution-factories on the edge of town; we ate at the cute little restaurants and cut through the crowds to see Krakow's extremely famous and apparently extremely holy Wawel Cathedral.
This castle complex sits on a hill, and medieval Krakow culture centered around it. The Old Town of Krakow was down the hill to the north, while the newer (and relatively untouched) Jewish quarter was down the hill to the south. Several synagogues were left standing in Krakow, though they're now surrounded by Turkish fast-food restaurants and, again, cheap clothiers with fake fur hanging in their front windows.
Krakow's Old Town was, to me, pretty basic, replete with cobblestoned streets and a central square full of pedestrians and those people that are covered in metallic paint and stand really still in order to be given money by tourists. When we were there, they were preparing for the New Year's Eve celebration, so the stage and the hundreds of waiting partiers were taking up quite a lot of space, but we still got this picture of the Town Hall tower with a strange, enormous metal head in front of it.
The city was full, of course, of fireworks and M80s, like any sizable city probably was on New Year's. We stayed away from the central square for midnight, as I'm not too keen on being in a crush of tall, drunk Poles, and the next morning we got on the train to Wroclaw.
Wroclaw is a university town, but I saw more churches than university buildings or students. It was the smallest of the towns we visited, but it had the most beautiful market square of all of them.
Just outside the frame of this picture was a commemorative whipping post. What?!
Wroclaw was beautiful and cut by a river, and one of the small islands was so full of churches that I don't know how they filled them all! Of course, it's Poland. They're devoutly Catholic, and though there were plenty of statues of Pope John Paul II around, I was expecting more. Even in Krakow there weren't a large number of them; surprising, since he was a local boy.
Wroclaw was charming, but the most interesting sight in the city was located just a few blocks from the train station, and on our way out, Brad snapped a shot of it.
Especially take note of the baby carriage in the background, falling into the crumbling sidewalk. For the life of me, I couldn't figure out if this was a monument of hope or commemorating something awful. I still don't know.
And now, we're back in Berlin, where I feel like my German must be getting better because I was so relieved to see German on the signs and hear it in the trains. Polish is so difficult. It has a completely phonetic alphabet and yet I still can't pronounce anything correctly. If the attendant at the Wroclaw train station hadn't spoken Russian, we may still have been sitting in Wroclaw right now.
So, welcome back to my blog in Berlin and to the New Year! Hope the holidays treated everyone well, and that anyone living in sub-zero temperatures has a nice warm house to go back to. Happy New Year.