Tag Archives: Poland

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 cottageoutside 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 readCover 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 imageFriendship 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.

Four Days in Amsterdam, Fourteen Days in Central Europe and Three Books

John Betjeman statue (St. Pancras International)We’d already decided on another central European railway jaunt this year then Eurostar announced its new London to Amsterdam service. The idea of arriving in a city dear to both of us without setting foot on a plane was irresistible so we decided to extend our holiday to include a few days there. John Betjeman was kind enough to see us off from St Pancras International.

Gorgeous weather meant we spent most of the time outside, in contrast to our Christmas visit a few years ago. I’ve been to Amsterdam many times during most seasons but never in June when the gardens are at their best. Amsterdammers manage to get cottage garden flowers to grow in the tiniest of cracks in the cobbles outside their home. There was an abundance of climbing Hollyhock (Amsterdam)roses, wisteria and greenery everywhere but my favourite was the good old-fashioned hollyhock.

Sunday was spent wandering around Hortus Botanicus and on Monday morning we took ourselves off to the Vondelpark, a haven for bird life with its many lakes and wild areas including a couple of storks busy feeding their four young. The afternoon’s treat was tea at the Tassen museum taken in one of their elegantly decorated rooms overlooking the Herengracht canal. Our only other bit of culture was Our Lord in the Attic, a remarkable hidden Catholic church built within a merchant’s canal house at a time when Amsterdam proclaimed its religious tolerance but could not be relied upon to practice it.

Art Nouveau frontage (Leipzig)On to Leipzig the following day, a stone’s throw away from Dresden which we visited on our last railway holiday. Lots of Arts Nouveau and Deco to ogle here, run through with arcades full of ritzy shops, and some lovely green spaces to explore around the city. Leipzig’s slice of culture was the Grassi, a complex of three museums. We only managed to see the applied arts section – so extensive, beautifully organised and rich in treasures that it could give the V & A a run for its money but, mystifyingly, we had it almost to ourselves.

Next stop Görlitz on the Polish/German border where Wes Anderson shot much of The Grand Budapest Hotel using the interior of the vast Görlitzer Warenhaus department store as a stand-in for Gorlitzthe Grandhotel Pupp in Karlovy Vary. Unlike Leipzig, Görlitz escaped the devastation of WW2 bombing. It’s a little gem of a town much beloved by film-makers, from Quentin Tarantino to Jackie Chan. Inevitably it’s been dubbed Görliwood, I suspect by the local tourist board.

Our first Polish city was WrocƗaw whose name Botanical gardens (Wroclaw)sounds nothing like it looks to an English-speaker’s eyes. WrocƗaw is one of many central European cities razed to the ground in WW2 but, like Dresden, it’s been meticulously and beautifully restored with jaw-dropping architectural delights at every turn. It’s also home to botanical gardens that put Amsterdam’s in the shade plus an exquisite Japanese garden on the edge of town.

We lost around 14°C between WrocƗaw and Poznań which was something of a Craftsmen's cottages, Rtnek (Poznan)relief. Poznań’s grand square is a little smaller than WrocƗaw’s but its row of colourfully decorated craftsmen’s cottages marks it out. Every day at noon two mechanical goats emerge from beneath the town hall clock next to the cottages and butt horns twelve times to mark the hour. A chilly wind blew a light drizzle in our faces at the appointed hour but being British we’re used to that kind of thing and we were determined not to miss the show.

House of Nicolaus Copernicus (Torun)Our penultimate stop was Toruń which, like Görlitz, emerged from WW2 miraculously unscathed. It’s a small medieval walled city stuffed with Gothic and Gothic Revival red-brick architectural gems including the supposed birthplace of Copernicus (or Copper Knickers as we used to call him, sniggeringly, at school). H and I were both somewhat taken aback to find that it’s twinned with Swindon. Apologies to any Swindon-based readers but if you look to the left you’ll understand.

Our last two days were spent in Warsaw. The first thing we sawPalace of Culture and Science (Warsaw) when we walked out of the station was Stalin’s Palace of Culture and Science looking oddly anachronistic and slightly menacing next to the many gleaming skyscrapers but still the tallest building in the city. As the museums close on Tuesdays and we’d arrived on Monday, we chose the Museum of the History of Polish Jews over the Warsaw Rising Museum and wished we hadn’t. Overwhelming multimedia and short quotes displayed without context resulted in an exhibition which lacked any coherence. Not a patch on the Jewish Museum in Berlin. I learnt nothing from it I didn’t already know.

We spent Tuesday ambling around the old town, beautifully restored after its WW2 bashing, and loafing in the stylish Café Bristol. After nearly three weeks away we were both ready for home and wondering if Mischief would still recognise us, let alone be pleased to see us. Then I remembered that we’d be arriving almost precisely at feeding time.

 And the books? Three of the six I took hit the spot:

Anna Quindlen’s Miller’s Valley, a perceptive, small town novel about a bright young woman whose future is clouded by family complications.Cover image

Megan Bradbury’s Everyone is Watching tells four very personal stories of New York from the points-of-view of Robert Mapplethorpe, Edmund White, Walt Whitman and Robert Moses the urban planner who shaped the modern metropolis.

Karl Geary’s Montpelier Parade, a heart wrenching, beautifully written story of a young boy’s love for an older woman.

Thanks to those of you who’ve stuck with me through this very long post, and to H who planned the whole adventure and who’s already thinking about another. Back to books and brevity on Friday…