Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, the Russians invaded 16 days later, thus beginning the European theatre of World War II. By October 6th the Germans and Russians occupied all of Poland. The war lasted for five years and eight months in Europe, and during that time Poland was home to some of the most notorious prison camps known to man; Auschwitz, Gross-Rosen, Stutthof. Overall there were roughly 250 camps in occupied Poland, both concentration and extermination. Over 3 million people were killed in those camps.

As a non-Jewish person I will never fully understand the magnitude of the holocaust. I can be, and am, horrified by the events that took place during World War II. I can read books and watch documentaries. I can visit museums. I can travel to Poland and see the remains of Auschwitz. I can do all of those things, but I will never truly understand what it was like to live during World War II, to be Jewish, to be persecuted and executed.

I’m not alone in my need to understand the war and the horrific things that happened. Many travellers who visit Poland go in search of answers, their itineraries focused on visiting the Uprising Museum in Warsaw, and touring what is left of Auschwitz. And there is nothing wrong with doing those things, it’s important for us to learn from the past so we don’t make the same mistakes in the future, but if that is your only reason for visiting Poland, you’re missing out.

Poland is more than a war memorial.

Warsaw

It’s dusk and I’ve been in Warsaw for a couple hours, I’m hungry and curious about what might be happening outside my hotel room so I grab my day bag, walk outside, and descend a set of stone stairs into the tunnels. I’m not sure which side of the street I want to end up on. Inside the tunnels are tiny shops, closed for the evening, shoes, clothing, electronics, and cigarettes adorn the windows. I decide to go to the left and follow a group of young Polish girls into a square which is located just across from my hotel.

In the fading sunlight I spot a couple of older women selling fresh cut flowers, another woman sells underwear and shoe laces from a cart, and Polish teenagers stand around and smoke. On the far right side of the square is the entrance to the metro, and a steady stream of office workers and teenagers stream through the doors and into the tunnels. From where I stand I can see the theatre and wonder which plays are taking place as I continue walking towards a very modern glass shopping mall. This is my first glimpse of old and new Poland, and I like the contrast.

My time in Warsaw, and Poland in general, is brief, and one of the highlights of my time in the city is visiting the old city. As a history-lover I am drawn to the historic districts of a city, if a historic district exists, I can guarantee I will find out how to get there and spend at least a day exploring. While I enjoy solo exploration, this time around we have a guide who takes us from the church where Chopin’s heart is buried, to the heart of the old city. Along the way we learn about the revolution which took place a little over twenty five years ago, as well as life before the revolution. The tour is about an hour or two in length, and by the time we arrive in the main square of the old city the sky is dark and the buildings around the square are lit with yellow lights. It’s by far one of the best city tours I have ever taken, and the next time I’m in Warsaw I’ll be contacting our guide to arrange a private tour.

As I am in Poland one of my main priorities is to eat pierogies. I absolutely love them, and make my own version at home, but jump at the chance to try other traditional Polish foods. Dishes with sausages and fried onions, beets, soups that taste far too fatty and salty, breaded chicken. Naturally I ask locals for where to find the best pierogies, and in doing so I discover that it’s a dish that is not meant for everyday, but for special occasions. The tourists are the only ones who eats peirogies all year round, and why wouldn’t they?! Pierogies are way too delicious to save for special occasions.

Poland is going through a food revolution, at the moment the trend is gourmet burgers and on the suggestion of a few locals I hired a driver to take me to a burger joint in an obscure neighbourhood. There is no way I would have found it on my own. The shop is quite small, and I smile as I walk in the door and hear songs by Snoop Dogg bouncing off the white cement walls. The counter is small, and the menu is in both Polish and English. I order a burger with bacon and cheese, and sit by the window with my driver. I have no idea what to expect, but when I bite into my burger I am completely satisfied. Definitely worth the drive, and soon after eating I am back at Hotel Rialto, contemplating an evening walk in the city.

Poznan

During the day I’m exploring a food expo in Poznan, a big event every year that focuses on everything from equipment to ingredients, cooking techniques and competitions. It’s an interesting look at what’s happening in Poland, the welcoming of western ideas in an effort to build a stronger Poland. In other words, Poland is fighting like hell to stand on their own two feet and make it known that they have a bright future. And they do.

Our tour of Poznan is not nearly as fascinating as the one in Warsaw, but thankfully during the day I took time to explore the old city on my own. Self exploration is by far one of my favourite activities, and my morning and early afternoon is spent wandering down alleys and cobbled streets with Raymond of Man on the Lam. When we come across a croissant museum I stop in my tracks. A croissant museum? In POLAND?! Never in my wildest dreams…

Sadly we discover that we should have made an appointment, as the cooking demonstration is not available, however they take pity on us and offer to show us their museum, a room equipped with a wooden prep table, views of the main square of old Poznan, and filled with the smell of freshly baked Saint Martin croissants which are more sweet and doughy than flakey and buttery.

As we wander outside the old city I forget I’m in a city. The city feels cozy, I love the closeness of the buildings, the small streets, modern sculptures and fountains, and trolley cars – some of which are clearly from the communist era. Poznan is full of surprises. I will never forget our night of drinking in a one euro vodka bar, followed by a few hours of karaoke, then a Cuban bar, arriving back at our hotel around 5am the following day. It’s rare for me to party all night long, but damn, Poznan was just as fabulous during the day as it was at night.

Thoughts Upon Leaving Poland

My time in Poland was brief, but I feel as though I got a fairly good taste of the country. Well, enough of a taste that I want to go back for more.  Taking time to visit the Uprising Museum in Warsaw and possibly an old concentration camp is important, but on this trip I discovered so many wonderful aspects of Poland. I loved talking with the locals and getting their views on the future, some of whom are still very nervous (and opinionated) about the western cultures and traditions that are creeping into the country, cursing the weakening of Polish tradition. Others are excited for the change, and perhaps more of Poland’s younger generations will consider staying in Poland, rather than leaving and never returning.

Will Poland become the next hot destination in Eastern Europe? I sure hope so!