Thirteen Days in Poland, Half a Day in Slovakia, Two Books and the Ghost of Another 

H and I enjoyed our time in Poland last year so much that we decided to go back, this time combining a bit of gentle urban exploration with a few walks in the mountains. We started off in Gdansk whose beautiful old town reminded me of the Baltic States. All meticulously rebuilt, of course: like so many cities in Central Europe, Gdansk was flattened during the Second World War.

Given this summer’s dismal start in the UK, we were hoping for sunshine and we were in luck, spending much of the first few days lolling about on our riverside apartment’s balcony, wandering around the market buying things for supper with the odd outing including one to Oliwa Park, a particularly lovely stretch of green space. Sadly, the botanical gardens seem to have turned into a building site but there were gorgeous wild flowers flourishing in little patches of scrub all over the city, the kind of display that British gardeners spend years patiently coaxing into existence.

Towards the end of the week we took ourselves off to the small seaside town of Sopot, a short train ride away. It was sweltering by the time we arrived. Trudging to the end of the pier and back was distinctly unappealing so we turned off down a leafy path instead, ending up in the next small town by way of a delightful, ever so slightly rundown café for lunch.

We didn’t get up to much in the way of culture in Gdansk although we did visit the Polish Post Office, defended by its staff against the invading German Army who attacked it on September 1st 1939 in one of the first acts of the Second World War. It still operates as a post office – we bought some stamps there – and there’s a tiny museum attached which tells the story with no fuss or frills.

On Saturday morning we caught the super-fast, comfy train to Kraków for a night, spotting storks along the way. Despite its reputation as one of Poland’s finest sights, we preferred both Wroclaw and Poznan’s squares to the Rynek much of which we’d last seen under wraps for restoration. Sunday morning was spent ambling around Planty, the elegant tree-lined circular park which encircles the city, after dawdling over a particularly delicious breakfast at a pretty café before setting off for Zakopane in the foothills of the Tatras where we planned to spend a week walking although the heatwave put the kybosh on much of that.

Zakopane turned out to be delightful away from the main drag which is stuffed full of stalls aiming to flog tat to tourists. The town became popular as a resort in the nineteenth century and is full of quaint timber houses sporting a plethora of steeply gabled attic windows in the Zakopane Style developed by Stanislau Witkiewicz. The Jaszczurówka Chapel, gorgeously carved both Zakopane Style cottage outside and in, is a particularly lovely example but it was the cottage hidden away in the woods across the road from our hotel that charmed me.

Far too hot for hiking crowded trails on our last day by which time we’d walked almost every square inch of Zakopane so we slipped over the border into Slovakia, driving to Levoča, a small UNESCO-listed town, beautifully restored. We’d spent a couple of uninspiring days in Bratislava three years ago but Levoča and the lovely countryside surrounding it made us both wonder if Slovakia might be worth another look some time. One last breakfast buffet and it was time to come home, bringing the dirty washing mountain with us.

And the books? I’d been planning to read Cover image something by John Boyne for some time and A Ladder to the Sky looked as if it would fit the holiday reading bill nicely. Boyne’s literary anti-hero, Maurice Swift is an opportunist, a beautiful young man, obsessed with writing but lacking in the storytelling department, who will do anything to succeed. Stuffed full of literary allusions, Boyne’s novel is a witty, intelligent read which pokes satisfying fun at the book world.

Cover image Friendship is the theme of Kayla Rae Whitaker’s The Animators which reminded me a little of Rachel B. Glaser’s Paulina and Fran with its story of Sharon and Mel who meet at art college and go on to make a name for themselves as edgy cartoonists. Childhood secrets, thwarted love and the ravages of fame run through Whitaker’s debut which, although a little patchy at times, earned its place in my holiday luggage.

I had been expecting to include Anna Quindlen’s Every Last One here but when I opened it I found my copy had been misbound. Inside was a different book from the one promised by its cover, and not one that particularly appealed, leaving me in a fit of fretfulness about whether I had enough to read for the rest of the holiday.

30 thoughts on “Thirteen Days in Poland, Half a Day in Slovakia, Two Books and the Ghost of Another ”

  1. There was a Polish band in my youth who had a hit with a song called Zakopane and I sang it all the time during our trip to Poland, much to my parents’ ‘delight’.

  2. You had a much better time in Poland than I did.
    Admittedly my trip was in winter and no city looks good under grey skies. Food was awful unfortunately. But you’ve shown me there is a side to this country that would be well worth exploring.

    1. Ah, how long ago did you visit? I suspect food has impreoved a great deal over the last few years. I imagine winter is a wee bit challenging although our first visit to Kraków was in November when the castle looked nicely Gothic in the mist.

        1. Ah, our November visit was around seven years ago and it did feel like a very different city this time although I had a similar experience in Vienna: undewhelmed by it in winter but loved it in the summer.

          1. I did a winter trip to Vienna – also for work so I had no choice about the timing. We had to do a team building event at night , searching for clues in the city centre and picking up items. Would have been fun in the summer but in bitterly cold conditions we couldnt wait to get back on the bus

  3. We did a day trip to Bratislava from Vienna a few summers ago. It was punishingly hot — much like it’s been this whole week in Milan! I’m sorry the heat kept you from doing all the walking you wanted to. Zakopane does sound very nice, though. I saw on Twitter that you ran into an issue taking your rental car over the border — did you get that sorted out? I’m glad you enjoyed the Boyne and Whitaker. Both were memorable reads for me.

    1. Italy looked scorching on the weaether map last week. I hope you’ve been managing OK. It was partly the heat and partly that Poles seem to like walking in large groups that put us off. Car parks were full to bursting around trail heads on Sunday but those just over the boarder in Slovakia were empty. The car hire firm fobbed us off with some nonsense which has far more to do with the way they run their franchised business than the rules of the single market so we’ve had to pay up but will be writing to our MEP. I was relieved that both the Boyne and the Whitaker were not only excellent but long which helped me over the Quindlen shock!

  4. We almost could have met on the Planty, as I was enjoying the heatwave in Kraków last week too, partly in the relative coolness of its many great museums or partly in its many wonderful green spaces. I really enjoyed Kraków, just as I’ve enjoyed every town and bit of countryside I’ve been to so far in Poland. How strange and unfortunate about your third book!

    1. How funny! We were there in the afternoon through to just after lunch on Sunday. I’m glad you enjoyed your visit. Planty is so lovely, isn’t it. We visited the city some years back one November when the castle loomed up out of the mist in a pleasingly Gothic fashion! I couldn’t quite believe what I saw when I opened the Quindlen. Fortunately, I made it through to the end of the holiday without running out of reading matter.

  5. I’m used to such temperatures from growing up in America … but not used to having to survive them completely without air-conditioning. We’ve been just about okay in our 6th-floor Airbnb apartment, having acclimatised a bit and learned how to be clever about when to open and close windows and shutters. I’ll be relieved to get back to England, though!

    1. Travelling in Central Europe over the last few years has taught us a little about dealing with heat but I’m not a fan. Looks like a pleasant low 20s here after today to welcome you back! Hope you’ve managed to enjoy your holiday despite the weather.

  6. Loved reading about your Polish adventure! I haven’t been there but hope to one day.

    And your reading… I have the Boyne in my reading stack. I’ve read The Animators and from memory didn’t like it much. And a misbound book? That’s a nightmare!

    1. After reading about your European adventures, Kate, I think you’d like it. I didn’t think I’d get on with the Boyne at first but ended up loving it. I think The Animators could have done with a few cuts although after the misbound book disaster I was grateful for something lengthy!

  7. I do enjoy your travel posts, Susan – they’re virtual tours in their own right. A cousin of mine spent a few months in Krakow some thirty years ago, but I suspect a lot has changed since then!

    1. That’s lovely to hear, Jacqui. Thank you. Your friend must have been in Poland close to the time the Wall came down, then. I’m sure it must have changed a great deal.

  8. Sounds like you had a great time in Poland. I went there in 1998. No one spoke English and the food was terrible, but I loved Krakow, admired the concrete buildings (all that communist might) in Warsaw, marvelled at the underground sculptures (and ball room) in the salt mines at Wieliczka, braved the crowds to see the Black Madonna at Częstochowa, and cried at Auschwitz. It was August and I remember wherever we went it was scorching hot.

    Isn’t Ladder of Years fabulous? Probably my favourite book of the year so far!

    1. I’m Krakow’s changed considerably since 1998, Kim. I went around seven years ago and quite a bit has changed since then. I remember coming out of the station in Warsaw last year where I was faced with Stalin’s Palace of Culture and completely discombobulated! It was so familiar from images of Moscow but I hadn’t realised he’d given the Poles an exact replica.

      The Boyne is such a clever, funny book. Perfect holiday reading. I did wonder if he was getting a few things out of his system.

  9. I always love hearing about your travels. I would gladly stay in that “cottage” in the woods! I am already imagining who might live there and what goes on…
    A Ladder the the Sky sounds wonderful – I didn’t realize it was so bookish.
    Now I’m curious to know what you were sent instead of Quindlen. Did you try it?

    1. Thank you, Naomi. They’re lovely posts to write and fix the holiday in my memory. It’s every inch the story book cottage isn’t it.

      The faux Quindlen was a memoir about the discovery of the author’s mother’s arranged marriage when she was a girl. I can’t remember what it was called, I’m afraid. It felt a bit clichéd. Fortunately, I just about made it to the end of the holiday without running out of books.

  10. Always enjoy your travel post Susan. Great for ideas! I’ve been to Krakow and fancy Gdansk at some point. I love John Boyne’s writing so will add this one to my tbr list. I know what you mean about needing enough books when you’re away. I panic too and have occasionally resorted to paying inflated prices to make sure I’ve got a book to read on the plane home.

    1. Gdanks is lovely, Helen, and almost unvisited by British tourists as far as I could tell. That panicky feeling’s not pleasant, is it. I did take comfort in the knowledge of a bookshop I’d come across in Krackow the last time we’d been there where I knew I could find some English language books.

    1. I’ve never come across this before despite years as a bookseller and reviews editor, and it happened at the worst time, too. I did, but have received no reply.

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