The 3 S’s in Poland – A Road Trip (2013)

1.3 Million FB Likes

Doha, Qatar / 28 June 2013

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery…thus this travel blog. You know who you are O Flattered One of unpretentious writing style!

Having had a wonderful experience on Emirates (1.7 million FB likes), I thought I’d try the other airlines that’s giving SQ (< 300,000 FB likes) a run for its money – Qatar (1.3 million FB likes).

The trip to Changi was a breeze. Qatar has its own limo service in Singapore – in the form of Brian Lee and his BMW (“diesel, so very economical”).

I’m writing this in Doha, another 2 hours before the flight to Warsaw. It was a warm welcome and a surprisingly gentle landing; the outside temperature was 38°C at 4.30AM! It was a good flight, with service and food on par with Emirates and SQ. The seafood bisque with huge chunks of crab was particularly yummy at 3AM Singapore time.

Caught one movie – The Trance (Danny Boyle’s latest – a wonderfully weird ‘mind’ film) and 2 episodes of Modern Family, which always makes me laugh. Slept (very well) for just under 4 hours of the 7-hour flight, which was nice, and was about the same amount of sleep I’ve been having at home in the past week (blame it on ICC then Wimbledon).

No sign of Halle Berry, so on the celebrity -spotting front, Emirates is still in the lead. Or maybe I just need to travel with Sunil for that to happen!

Next stop Warsaw.

Ł is W, W is V

Doha-Warsaw-Białystok

The three hour transit at Doha went by quite quickly, helped no doubt by a very chatty German man who had lived in Warsaw and now worked in Pakistan and Qatar. He provided me with much useful information…[Białystok is pronounced Bee-ah-we-stook; when in Poland don’t worry about calories (he obviously didn’t wherever he was); a shot of vodka with a cup of tea (separately) is common practice]…and many stories of his ageing mother and his sister’s 9 children, and then some stories of Polish-German rivalry [a Pole would say “Chopin is Polish, his mother is a Pole”, the German would reply, “And his father could be anyone”. Sigh.]

More conversation was had on the flight – this time with a lovely Polish girl, Anna, who works in Kuwait. From her I learnt which taxis not to take, getting Złoty from the ATMs was probably best, the Rising Museum in Warsaw is a must-see and Empik is the bookshop to go to; in Warsaw, the largest Empik is on a road called Nowy (No-vee) Swiat which means New Word – good road for a book shop. She also had interesting bits of trivia – the wine on Qatar is excellent (which I can vouch for) but all unfinished wine on board is discarded when returning to Qatar, which is dry!

All hopes of having a drink or 2 at Fredrik Chopin airport while waiting for the other 2 S’s were dashed as there was a claustrophobic queue at immigration, and so instead of having a one and a half hour wait, I barely had to wait 10 minutes for our big reunion. Note re Celebrity Spotting – there was a sign welcoming Posh and Becks but in the time that we were there we didn’t see them.

After the business of getting the car (a BMW 1 series), getting calorific supplies for the road, trying to fit all the bags in the boot (it didn’t happen – we needed Sherman’s skills for that), we were off…into Friday evening Warsaw traffic.

We finally got to our Nowy Swiat Apartment in Białystok at almost 9pm after a slight detour (aka ‘getting lost’) and some drama at a shopping mall where Siân set off the alarm going in.

Dinner was in the apartment – bread and scrambled eggs, sausage and cheese, courtesy Siân and with supplies we’d got at aforementioned mall. It was an early-ish night. I, for one, fell asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow.

Next stop Białowieża National Park.

Of Forests, Storks & The Belarus Border

Białystok, Poland

There were 3 KPIs for today –
1. Get to the Białowieża National Park to see bison.
2. Get pictures of storks in nest on telegraph pole.
3. Look across to Belarus over the Poland-Belarus border.

Storks!
Storks!

On our drive from Warsaw to Białystok yesterday, we realised that Siân has a thing for storks. We saw a few on the way, each sighting resulted in Much Excitement (on the part of Siân i.e.) and much annoyance that we weren’t whipping our cameras out to get a photo. We were told in no uncertain terms that we Had to get some pictures today. We struck stork gold not long into our drive out to the National Park and got more than a few photos of storks in their nests on telegraph poles. With that KPI met, we could now relax and enjoy the drive.

 

 

1.1372464000.plastic-flowersWhich was not hard to do…as we drove through some beautiful countryside. We also saw several cemeteries – all the graves had bright fresh flowers. We thought that there might be an All Souls’ Day sort of thing going on. Or it could be that the Poles are good to their dead all year round. A quick check of the guide book (Festivals of Poland section) told us that it was the Corpus Christi festival which may have explained the flowers – which, at our next stop, we found out weren’t fresh after all.Bielsk Podalski was our next stop. A little town with a blue church, a shop selling the plastic flowers and a little mini mart – where we stopped to get supplies (not really knowing what to expect at the national park).

It was then on to the Białowieża National Park, driving through narrow roads with the birch forest on either side. The trees took on a ethereal glow when the sunlight made its way through the forest canopy; many a forest photo was taken. While it all looked peaceful now, Siân said she was sure it wasn’t so during the war(s). Much like the killing fields of Cambodia… A railway track running through the forest, and which once probably transported the Jews, eerily reiterated the point.

 

We did The National Park ‘sampler’ which had ‘samples’ of the National Park animals on display (read captivity). So we saw a lynx, a moose-like thing (which looked quite sad, wallowing in the mud), a cow cross-bred with a bison, wild boar, deer and of course bison (Vinodh, you’d be interested to know that there was a guy filming/photographing the bison using a Go-Pro). KPI #2 – check, though we were expecting to see bison between the trees and not so much behind a fence. Maybe we would have if we’d had more time to get a guide and trek through the forest.

After a lunch of ‘traditional Polish soup’ (pork, vegetables) and bread, it was time to head east to work on the Belarus border KPI. We drove through narrow, and very picturesque, country roads and villages whose names I can neither remember nor pronounce. We followed the signs to “Bondary” convinced it would lead us to the border, especially as the road steadily got more potholed – alas, all it led us to was a little village called Bondary.

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Queue to the Belarus Border

We eventually found the right road, and found ourselves in the middle of a long queue of container lorries, which wasn’t moving. The drivers were getting out of their lorries for a stretch and a smoke, and we realised that we were in a 6km queue to get across the border to Belarus. We decided that that was close enough, got out of the queue and headed back to Białystok.
Had a super yummy dinner at the Hotel Cristal – I had these delicious wild boar and venison dumplings, and veal escalopes…no place for dessert unfortunately. We were quite stuffed.

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The Dumplings!

Tomorrow – Białystok on foot.

Białystok on Foot

Białystok, Poland / Sunday 30 June 2013

Today was a day for walking after all the driving of the previous day. We wandered down to the town square which was quite bustling, it being a Sunday, and a sunny one.

Photographing people in Poland is a surreptitious affair and does not have the same easy joy it had in Bhutan. Here, it is more like how it was in Laos, where the smiles come less readily and the older folk have a slightly tired air about them. The long lasting ravages of war?

We chanced upon the War Museum which was perhaps the best find of the day – in no small part due to the docent, a lovely old-ish gentleman who spoke barely any English but tried his best to explain things to us. He let us try out a rifle from WW1 (I have no idea how any targets were hit with those heavy things and their cumbersome bolt action after each shot) and one of those infantry helmets, which would’ve been quite headache inducing. Siân was right about the forests we saw yesterday. At the museum there were old black and whites of the same area during the war taken in winter, and where many were massacred…didn’t look so ethereal or peaceful then.

Many Polish towns were owned (or ‘possessed by” as the tourist blurbs said) by a particular family – the Branicki family owned Białystok, and the Branicki Palace is the town’s centrepiece. It’s now a medical school with a medical museum, and a very enthusiastic young guide who dashed between rooms, switching between English (for us) and Polish (for the other group). It was slightly disconcerting that some of the ‘old medical equipment’ on display were what I used during medical school…didn’t seem that long ago!

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Arnica at the Medical Museum

The palace grounds are designed after Versailles, so 25 years after Shobs and I visited Versailles and didn’t have enough money to get in, we saw what we might’ve seen if we had got in.

We had a fabulous lunch at the #1 restaurant in Bialystok according to TripAdvisor – Multibrowar. We had the ubiquitous Polish soup and bread, a shared golonka (pork knuckle and pretty much the national dish) and toffee cake. And beer – I tried the toffee and chocolate beer, Shobs had the honey beer and our purist Siân stuck to plain wheat beer.

While on alcohol, the liquor shops here are called Alkohole. When we saw the first Alkohole we thought it was such a great name for a liquor shop…before we saw an Alkohole around every corner (yes, the Poles like their alcohol) and realised it was a generic term. We also tried the famous Żubròwka – bison grass vodka, where the rye is flavoured with a hint of bison grass grown in the Białowieża forest (a token blade of grass is in the bottle). It tasted of herbs and vanilla – quite delicious.
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It was a rainy afternoon, so it was a long lunch before we set out on the wooden architecture trail – streets lined with some of the oldest wooden houses, many looking like they might fall over but which are still lived in.

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Białystok was a good way to start the trip, slightly off the tourist track; and as of today, the last Asian I saw was at Warsaw airport.

Next stop – possibly Lublin.

Staying Off The Tourist Track

Lublin & Zamość, Poland / 1 – 2 July 2013

Monday morning, and time to leave our very comfortable Nowy Swiat apartment for our westward journey. We decided to head towards Lublin, about 250km from Białystok.

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Lublin

Once again we drove through some beautiful countryside, with our first pit stop at Seidłce where we stopped for coffee and a bio break. On the toilet front, I’m pleased to report that all the toilets we’ve visited so far have been Very Clean.

We stopped for lunch at a little town called Radzyń Podlaski…and unbelievably couldn’t find a single restaurant in this town! The guide book did say that in the smaller towns, Poles don’t eat out much, but this complete dearth of restaurants was still quite unusual. So, starving, we drove on to a Hotel Imperium just out of town for a soup lunch which was, as always, very satisfying.

Then came the trek to find the Hotel Jedlina in Motycz, just outside Lublin. It was a lovely drive again through some narrow country roads; the neighbourhood appeared more affluent, and there was another first for Siân (and I suppose for Shobs and me) – we saw 2 hares bounding across the dirt road…excitement levels were probably higher for Siân…I thought they were rabbits.

We went in circles (literally) before we chanced upon the elusive Hotel Jedlina, and with Siân’s expert bargaining in German, we got a triple room with breakfast for Zł 200 (less than SGD100), down from Zł210 – a savings of 10 whole Złotys (SGD4).

That evening we drove into Lublin, which is a really charming old town – with no other (obvious) tourists. We found a little outdoor/indoor place for dinner…more pork, which needless to say was delicious.

Tuesday too was a day of driving. We drove about 90km east to Zamość, a ‘Renaissance city’ and UNESCO World Heritage Site – simply beautiful. The chief architect was an Italian, Bernardo Morando, who in consultation with the town’s founder, Jan Zamoyski, pretty much built the town. The best part was…still no other obvious tourists, Asian or otherwise!

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Zamość
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Us!

From Zamość was the long drive to Krakow, the roads went from motorways to single lane roads and back to motorways within minutes, and the journey took about 5 hours, which got a bit tedious towards the end. A 11pm dinner (yummy pork cutlets…one would think we’d be porked out by now, but no, not yet anyway) and a Zubry (beer) at a little place next to our apartment improved moods all round, and in no time, all was well with the world again.

Tomorrow – we’re taking a break from driving and seeing Krakow on foot.

Back On The Tourist Trail

Krakow, Poland / 3 July 2013

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Lunch – bread and artery clogging lard

After our ‘off the beaten track’ start, it was back on the tourist trail at Krakòw. It was a bit of a shock to the system, to once again be in the midst of DSLR-touting Asian faces, complete with flag-bearing group leaders. That aside, the Stare Miasto or Old Town is quite pretty, with its cobblestoned alleys and numerous little sidewalk cafes.

 

 

The town square was ablaze with activity – and very very hot…the ‘can fry egg on head’ kind of hot. Horse drawn carriages (which Siân didn’t approve of as the horses had ‘plumes and look like funeral horses’, and I didn’t approve of as they left a wake of stench), street artists, musicians, people dancing, couples arguing, children playing, pigeons galore (being fed by two women, who looked slightly odd)…visions in my overheated head.

 

We saw an Indian restaurant and I developed a sudden (well, not quite) craving for mutton biryani…but it wasn’t on the menu!!! What self-respecting Indian restaurant doesn’t have biryani on its menu??!

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At the Jewish quarter

We walked through some back streets to the Jewish Quarter, and to a quaint little square with (Jewish?) girls inviting us to join them for food and klezmer (Hava Nagila type music); the only restaurant with no girls touting its fare was Bombay…given my recent (and constant) craving for biryani, this is where we had dinner. The lamb and chicken biryani was different but nice and spicy – a good change from all the pork and Polish soup.

Impressions of Krakòw – pretty but does not quite have the charm of the East. After Białystok, Zamość and Lublin, I think I’m now partial to the off-the-beaten-track kind of travel.

Tomorrow – Auschwitz.

 

 

Auschwitz – Have We Truly Changed?

Krakow, Poland / 4 July 2013

A sobering morning today, visiting the Auschwitz and Birkenau concentration (or more accurately, extermination) camps – and another blazing hot day. We should’ve had hats or umbrellas, and we should’ve topped up on the sunblock – but didn’t, so I for one, had another egg-fried-on-head day. Siân’s last visit to Auschwitz was in the winter of 2004, with knee-deep snow and sub-zero temperatures, so it was a new experience for her too.

We had an excellent guide, a Pole called David Kennedy, who at points of his narration looked like he might burst into tears himself. There were many groups of Jewish visitors, with their Star of David flags and all looking quite grim; a company of Israeli soldiers was also visiting, and perhaps reminding themselves why they’re in the army. The were just a tad obnoxious, with their cameraman muscling his way to the front without even a vague hint of ‘excuse me’ or ‘thank you’.

1.1372896000.belongingsThere was an exhibit of a pile of shoes, some of which must have been quite fancy in their heyday. The collection of children’s shoes and clothes was particularly poignant. Then there was was the hair…almost 2,000 kilos, some still in plaits. Given that on average, each person has 50g of hair (ok, less in my case), that’s an awful lot of shaved heads. The other startling statistic had to do with gold fillings from prisoners’ teeth – the target was to collect 50kg of gold (for the Reich’s use) from the corpses at Auschwitz – a target that was reached in just three months.

Just when you thought it couldn’t get worse, there was the corridor of photos – mugshots of prisoners, each with date of birth, date of incarceration in Auschwitz and date of death. Some had a half smile (our guide said, the photographer had probably said, “Smile” and reflexly, the prisoners smiled). Some had bruises and black eyes. The Jews had their stars on their striped tunics, the gays had pink stars (some were not known to be homosexual but were labelled with the pink star anyway just to humiliate them). Then there were the Jehovah’s Witnesses, persecuted simply because they were. I couldn’t help thinking – how much have we really changed?

 

Rudoph Höss’ (the first commandant at Auschwitz) family home was right next to the gallows and the gas chamber (which had scratch marks on its inner walls). We later learnt that the children living at the Höss home were quite oblivious to what was happening just over the wall.

We also visited the nearby Birkenau camp, with its imploded gas chambers (so as not to leave evidence of the atrocities); and the sheds which might have been more suited to house horses and cattle in the past, but actually housed 800 prisoners each.

After the depression of the morning, we decided we needed country roads to improve the mood. The Country House Inn in Göra with its delicious hot buns, and yummy pork (and some Polish beer to wash it down) did just that. As did stopping to take photographs of the expanse of green in various shades, and an eagle which Siân spotted.

We took the scenic route back to Krakòw – spending about half an hour driving through Slovakia (big thrill) with its fantastically bright Deepavali-coloured houses, before re-entering Poland, driving through Chochołow (beautiful wooden houses), and driving through forest-lined roads up to Zakopane, a mountain resort and the winter capital of Poland which lies in a valley at the foot of the Tatra Mountains.

Back at our apartment in Krakòw, on Siân’s recommendation, and in keeping with the concentration camp theme, we watched a documentary called Hitler’s Children on YouTube, which was about the descendants of various SS men – Höss, Franck, Himmler and Göring; how they discovered who their fathers and grandfathers were and how they cope. Would we still love our parents if we knew they were responsible for one of the worst genocides in history? Siân said yes, Shobs and I are not so sure.

Next stop – Warsaw.

 

A City Rebuilt, and a Delightful Artist

Warsaw, Poland / 6 July 2013

Practically Fluent in Polish

Warsaw, Poland / Sunday 7 July 2013

Last day of a wonderful holiday and road trip.

What might be the enduring memories?

Driving through narrow country roads, the different shades of green, sun-dappled birch forests, the wildlife (storks, hares, eagles…and a small pink newborn thing which we may have literally scared to death) – all best viewed through Siân’s binoculars.

Żubròwka, Zubry and Tyskie (the latter two being Polish beers), golonka and other porcine delights; Old Towns where Shobs’ and mine were the only obviously foreign faces; the piles of hair at Auschwitz and the video testimony of an old Polish professor who survived Auschwitz (amazingly peppered with delightful humour and irony).

Wooden houses, a border crossing, navigation that went slightly wrong but still was right, RadioZet (FM17.13) which played English songs we knew and some Polish ones that began to sound familiar by the end of the week, …Siân’s and Shob’s personal mission to get me singing along by the end of the trip (sigh),

Speaking Polish almost fluently – Siân says in her most upper class British accent, “How about a Golonka, girls?”, I say in my best Indian accent with shake of the head, “Zaprazsamy” (which is the best word I’ve heard anywhere for ‘welcome’), Shobs sings in a non sequitur sort of way, “Dzień dobry, Jenny” (good morning/afternoon Jenny…a song that stuck in our heads) and we all say in unison, “Dziękuję” (thank you).

Older people who don’t smile back, younger people who sometimes do and Jerzy Stepniak, the artist who, on our last day, made up for all his countrymen and women who didn’t smile.

But, of course, the best part was being with two of my best friends. At times, it felt like nothing has changed – especially when we were being silly and in hysterics, and listening to songs from 1984 (Chicago, Lady Hawke!), and when Siân stopped at real estate agents’ windows with pictures of properties, and declared, “I could really live here.”

But of course much has changed since we were 17 (when I met Shobs) and 23 (when I met Siân). We are broader in the behind (or arms, in the case of some…er, one), there are laughter lines (aka wrinkles), there are bleak demons lurking not far from the surface and there are memories from the 70s and 80s (when our parents worried about us more than we worried about them) that we still don’t tire of talking and laughing about. Life is good.

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Tomorrow – home.

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