Rick Steves Travel Blog: Blog Gone Europe
I'm sharing my travel experiences, candid opinions and what's on my mind. If you think it's inappropriate for a travel writer to stir up discussion on his blog with political observations and insights gained from traveling abroad, you may not want to read any further. — Rick
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Warsaw is Poland’s capital and biggest city. It’s huge, famous, and important…but not particularly romantic. (If you’re looking for Old World quaintness, head for Kraków.) But Warsaw is an inspiration to visit. To think it was literally bombed flat and rebuilt since 1945 is amazing.
Walking through Warsaw’s parks, enjoying a little Chopin in the composer’s hometown, marveling at its fast-growing skyline, and just connecting with big-city people who are as warm and charming as small-town folk — that’s the fun of Warsaw.
Poles love America — they think of us as their big brother from across the Atlantic. And when the communist government gave the people a small opening for representative government in 1989, the “get out the vote” poster was Gary Cooper holding not a gun, but a voting card. The result of that election: Anticommunist parties won every single seat the communist party offered up for a vote.
I spent my first evening in Warsaw at the Chopin Salon, an intimate evening of beautiful music, wine, and cheese hosted by Jarek Cholodecki, who runs the recommended Boutique B&B. Each evening, a small group of locals and travelers gather around Jarek’s big, shiny Steinway grand to hear great music performed by talented young artists in a great city. It felt “very Warsaw.”
Warsaw’s massive Palace of Culture and Science skyscraper, dating from the early 1950s, is the tallest building between Frankfurt and Moscow (760 feet with the spire). It was a “gift” from Stalin that the people of Warsaw couldn’t refuse. Varsovians call it “Stalin’s Penis.” (There are seven such “Stalin Gothic” erections in Moscow.) If it feels like an Art Deco Chicago skyscraper, that’s because the architect was inspired by his years he spent studying and working in Chicago in the 1930s. Because it was to be “Soviet in substance, Polish in style,” Soviet architects toured Poland to absorb local culture before starting the project. Since the end of communism, the younger generation doesn’t mind the structure so much — and some even admit to liking it for the way it enlivens the new, predictable, glass-and-steel skyline springing up around it.
Nowa Huta’s Lord’s Ark Church comes with an interesting story of a man who would later become a saint, courageously standing up to the communist regime.
Back when he was archbishop of Kraków, Karol Wojtyła fought for years to build a church in Nowa Huta, the most communist of communist towns. When the regime refused, he insisted on conducting open-air Masses before crowds in fields — until the communists finally capitulated in 1977 and allowed this church to be built. And, of course, that archbishop went on to become St. John Paul II.
The afternoon I dropped by, there were two wedding parties at the church. You’ll see the bride and groom scrambling to pick up coins. It’s Polish tradition for kids to throw coins rather than rice at the newly married couple — and whoever gathers the most will be destined to “wear the pants” in their family.
A fascinating corner of Kraków is Nowa Huta, an enormous planned workers’ town that offers a glimpse into the stark, grand-scale aesthetics of the communists. It’s a company town, purpose-built from scratch to house the 38,000 workers of the Lenin Steelworks. Today the steelworks is mostly closed, and it’s a bedroom community for Kraków. I find wandering its numbered sectors very evocative.
Anywhere in Poland, you can find milk bars. These are leftovers from communist times, when the government would subsidize a cafeteria so workers could have an affordable place to eat out. Despite the misleading name, they don’t sell just milk — they have a long menu of mostly traditional, stick-to-your-ribs Polish dishes.
The idea of a cheap and hearty meal survived communism, and 25 years later, you’ll still find a wide variety of these budget cafeterias — ranging from slick and modern places with excellent food and slightly higher prices, to holdovers from the old days (with a certain Soviet je ne sais quoi) where you can snare a fast and forgettable meal for about $2. If this clip doesn’t get you salivating…anything will.
One of Europe’s best museums about the Nazi occupation fills the factory building where Oskar Schindler and his Jewish employees worked, in the Kazimierz district of Kraków, Poland.
While the museum tells the story of Schindler and his workers, it also broadens its perspective to take in the full experience of all of Kraków during the painful era of Nazi rule. It’s loaded with in-depth information (all in English), and touchscreens throughout invite you to learn more and watch eyewitness interviews. Scattered randomly between the exhibits are replicas of everyday places from the age — a photographer’s shop, a tram car, a hairdresser’s salon — designed to give you a taste of 1940s Kraków.
When Steven Spielberg made his film Schindler’s List, Kraków’s Jewish Quarter of Kazimierz was an overlooked slum — having become ramshackle under communism. Spielberg chose to film his movie right here, in the place where the real events actually happened, and helped revive a vibrant Jewish culture that had gone dormant. While several other synagogues, cemeteries, cultural centers, and other sights reward those coming to Kazimierz, the Schindler’s Factory Museum is the best.
The days of changing money are a distant memory for many travelers — thanks both to ATMs, and to the common euro country shared by much of the Continent. And, while ATMs are every bit as abundant in Eastern Europe as in the West, most of these countries have still retained their traditional currencies. If you wind up with a few Czech koruna or Hungarian forints when you cross into Poland, you may need to track down an exchange booth to turn them into Polish zlotys.
Anytime you need to use an exchange booth, comparison-shop by looking carefully at the various rates. Look for places that do not charge a commission and that show both the buying and selling rate. And confirm that the buying and selling rate are within a few percentage points of each other.
There are about 3 zlotys to a dollar. These two photos (taken on the same day and on the same street) show two different exchange bureaus. One has a decent mark-up (as indicated by the spread in the buying and selling rate — buying and selling for 3.10 or 3.15), while the other is a terrible rip-off (with a huge spread — buying and selling at 2.33 or 3.20).
Dropping by the farmers’ market in Kraków with my guide, Marta, was like a cultural scavenger hunt — complete with the lovely image of watching TV snuggled up with a big pod of sunflower seeds. Here’s a two-and-a-half-minute slice of Polish life, and a video reminder not to miss the markets wherever you travel.
The brand-new Sanctuary of St. John Paul II — built on the outskirts of Kraków, where he served as archbishop — is an impressive place to visit.
When you travel around Europe, you rarely see new churches. And the old churches you see often feel more dead than alive…more for tourists than for worshippers. But in Poland, churches are alive with the faithful.
In small Polish towns, there’s a strong tradition of building huge, architecturally daring churches as a sign of both civic pride and deep respect for their Catholic faith. Particularly during communism (when atheism was the official state religion), building a bold new church was a statement. The architecture of these modern houses of worship sometimes feels more slapdash and on the cheap than the great churches of an earlier age (which were often built over centuries). But the spirit that fills them is powerful.
If you can’t see the video below, watch it on YouTube.
The man who would become St. John Paul II grew up, studied, and served as a priest and archbishop in Kraków, Poland. And today, on the heels of his sainthood, the city is ramping up celebrations of the person many consider to be the greatest Pole in history.
Imagine you’re Polish in the 1970s. Your country was devastated by World War II, and has struggled under an oppressive regime ever since. Food shortages are epidemic. Lines stretch around the block even to buy a measly scrap of bread. Life is bleak, oppressive, and seems hopeless. Then someone who speaks your language — someone you’ve admired your entire life, and one of the only people you’ve seen successfully stand up to the regime — becomes one of the world’s most influential people. A Pole like you is the leader of a billion Catholics. He makes you believe that the impossible can happen. He says to you again and again: “Have no fear.” And you begin to believe it.
Many people (including Mikhail Gorbachev) credit Pope John Paul II for the collapse of Eastern European communism. His compatriots — even the relatively few atheists and agnostics — saw John Paul II both as the greatest hero of their people…and as a member of the family, like a kindly grandfather.
A speedy nine years after his death, Karol Wojtyła was made a saint. And today, when you travel in Poland, you’ll find St. John Paul II wherever you go.
St. John Paul II seems to have a chapel dedicated to him in every Polish church. Seeing a man we all grew up with actually up on the wall, glorified with the apostles and other saints, you feel we all experienced the charismatic presence of an historic figure who will be honored for ages to come.
Kraków’s excellent Rynek Underground Museum — situated directly below the Main Market Square — offers an intimate look at the city 500 years ago. In this clip, I stroll with my local guide, Anna, down a medieval street, past the remains of a series of shops.
If you can’t see the video below, watch it on YouTube.