We made our final country visit of the year this past weekend, visiting a land that’s as much a part of our heritage as Germany. It was a fitting time to visit, given the Thanksgiving weekend. We were unable to be with family, but between living in Germany, a Thursday trip to Salzburg’s Christmas Market and the weekend trip to Poland, we were able to think of family as we traveled the same roads as our ancestors.
We chose Wroclaw for our trip to Poland because 1) the flight was affordable (we didn’t want to drive nine hours nor sit on a train for 14 hours, hence the flight) and 2) their annual Christmas Market began that Friday.
Katie and I had little expectations for Poland. We assumed it would be somewhat of a mixture of the German and Russian cultures, which it most definitely is, and we figured it would look and feel a little like the Czech Republic or Hungary, two nearby countries that we had been to. As for Wroclaw, we had absolutely no expectations. We didn’t even know it existed until searching for Christmas markets in the country. It’s actually the fourth-largest city in Poland and home to over 600,000 people. We learned that the name isn’t pronounced at all like it’s spelled, which is a common trait of the Polish language, actually. Phonetically spelled out it’s “va-roat-swaf” (or something like that). Even more interesting is the fact that it used to be a German city — just one of a handful of other countries or kingdoms that have claimed the city as their own at some point since its inception in the 10th century. Germans still refer to it by its German name — Breslau.
As for our trip, we left on Friday morning and had a quick flight directly to Wroclaw that took about 75 minutes. We flew on one of LOT Air’s smaller planes — so small that the baggage was stored in the front and the passengers entered from the back. Both wings had exposed and incredibly loud propellers that we were fortunate enough to sit right next to (both ways). And the seats had ashtrays. Awesome. But the thing still took off and landed like any other plane and before we knew it we were riding the bus into the city center. The 40-minute bus ride cost us 3 Polish zlotys each — or $1. Countries with their own currency can be either very expensive or very cheap. Poland proved to be the latter. (They were slated to adopt the Euro in 2014 but I think they’re going to wait even longer given the mess that the Euro currency is in right now.)
We had a 30-minute walk from the bus station to our hotel, a walk that took us right through the Christkindlmarkt (that’s the term for the Christmas Market’s out here — it literally means “Christ Child Market”). Katie kept averting her eyes because she didn’t want to see any of the market until we dropped off our bags. But I couldn’t resist sniffing out a kielbasa stand for a quick lunch. I’m a huge fan of Polish sausage and had previously said the offerings in Munich’s Marienplatz were the best I had ever had in my entire life. That’s no longer true. Meet the new title holder:
No mustard or ketchup needed.
It looks like your average Polish sausage, but the flavors told a different story. And the consistency of the sausage was unlike anything I had ever experienced, either. The casing wasn’t that tough and the meat itself was chewier. Delicious. (Katie’s very proud of my in-depth food review of the Polish sausage.)
After scarfing that down and checking into the Art Hotel, located just off the Market Square (where the Christmas Market was taking place), we set out to explore our second Christkindlmarkt in as many days and countries (we were at the market in Salzburg, Austria on Thanksgiving). Knowing that we’d be back the following days, we decided to just take the entire spectacle in as we walked from stand to stand. There were plenty of ornaments and other Christmas decorations to be found, as well as delicious treats like olsypek (bread-bites filled with smoked-cheese — very much like Wisconsin cheese curds) and roasted nuts. Of course, we had a couple of mugs of gluhwein, too. Our favorite was the original recipe with a touch of rum added to it.
The market itself spans the eastern and southern sides of Wroclaw’s iconic and massive Market Square (the only European city with a bigger central plaza is Krakow). It then continues along the eastern side beyond Market Square for a couple of blocks. It’s about as big as Salzburg’s was, but more spread out and arguably better decorated.
A very patient man spent five minutes taking this picture for us.
That night we ate at jaDka (yes, I typed that right) and feasted on an appetizer of authentic pierogi — Polish dumpings filled with meat and cheese — and entrees of wild boar with cranberry sauce and halibut with an orange-saffron risotto. The only thing missing was a nice, big horn of mead. (I settled for wine.) After dinner we visited a couple of bars to sample the local Polish beer (nothing too great — but we’re spoiled in Germany) and the chilled vodka (we did it just to do it — neither one of us much enjoys sipping vodka). We continued to enjoy the low prices in Wroclaw, paying about $1.50 per beer.
The following day we set out for the Raclawice Panorama — a famous panoramic painting of Poland’s legendary Battle of Raclawice. The massive painting is 15 meters high by 114 meters long and sits in a specially-designed room to give visitors a full panoramic view of the artists’ work. What’s more impressive is how the artists incorporated real objects at the base of the painting to give the entire work a 3D feel to it.
Can you see where the painting and floor meet?
Tours take place every half hour for the nominal price of $8 (or $6 if you’re a student). We loved it and would recommend it to anyone passing through Wroclaw.
From there we wandered into Wroclaw’s “Cathedral Isle,” one of several islands just north of the city center that sit in the Oder river. It’s the oldest part of the city and features several churches, including the impressive St. John’s Cathedral. The streets in this part of the city are all cobblestone and are lit only by old-fashioned oil lamps. It supposedly makes for quite a romantic setting in the evening, though we were passing through it during the daytime. On the western side of the island we crossed the popular Tumski bridge — which features hundreds of pad locks chained to the bridge by couples from past and present (and the keys to each lock are sitting at the bottom of the river) — before circling our way back into town.
Wroclaw’s Cathedral Isle.
We spent the rest of the afternoon walking where we could and enjoying a not-too-cold Saturday. But with a Christkindlmarkt so close to us, it was only a matter of time before we were sucked back in and we spent a few pre-dinner hours wandering Market Square once again. During the daytime we could see the colorful buildings that line all sides of the square, the same buildings featured on many Wroclaw postcards. They reminded us of several German cities we’ve been to and even the Nyhavn boardwalk in Copenhagen.
Look at all the pretty colors.
We also stopped for a pre-dinner dessert (naturally) and grabbed a sekacz pyramid cake. Katie had read about these and really wanted to try them. So we waited in line for 30 minutes at the Christkindlmarkt (they’re a popular item) to get one. The entire thing is a hollow cylinder of dough that’s wrapped in a spiral to make it easy to eat. You can get all sorts of toppings. We went with chocolate and peanuts. It was very good. Katie — ever the entrepreneur — wanted to go back and buy more of them and turn around and sell them to people at the back of the line for a dollar more. (That’s why I love her.) (No, we did not end up doing that.)
Dinner the second night was at a casual place called Kurna Chata, one of the best-reviewed restaurants in the city. The decor was very rustic and the menu featured old-fashioned, authentic Polish fare that’s still making my stomach growl. We both jumped at the chance to try the restaurant’s goulash (which we’ve both become obsessed with this year — particularly during the winter months). Katie’s came complete with baked cheese on top and a burning ring of sugar around the bowl. Mine had more of a Hungarian spin to it with crispy potato pancakes underneath. We enjoyed every bite. We stopped in a place next door for a couple of after-dinner drinks before calling it a night.
We spent our final morning in Wroclaw by attending Mass at St. Elizabeth’s church, located just steps from our hotel. Hearing a Mass in Polish was even more foreign-sounding that hearing a Mass in German. To the right of the altar was a large plaque dedicated to Pope John Paul II whom, as you might imagine, the Polish are just a wee bit proud of. We also had a rather bizarre experience just after the homily ended. The old woman sitting to Katie’s left had apparently dozed off. A younger woman (we assume the old woman’s daughter) sitting to her left was slapping her hands, trying to wake her up. The slapping became more intense and the young woman’s urges grew louder, and soon Katie and I realized that this older woman wasn’t waking up. She even started to drop her head. Her glasses fell off and the color was draining from her face. The younger woman called Poland’s equivalent of 9-1-1 and Katie and I were convinced this woman was dying. A man sitting on the other side of the two women leaned in to offer assistance. Together, he and I positioned the old woman so that she was laying down on the pew. It was rather awkward because I spoke no Polish and no one in this crowd of people spoke any English (mind you, the Mass was still going on). So it took a while for the man to communicate to me that he wanted me to help him carry the woman out. I didn’t have time (or the language skills) to question that decision, so I obliged. And just as we were lifting her up off the pew, she woke up. She then sat up, looked around and then left with the younger woman. When we left church after Mass we saw the younger woman talking to the driver of an ambulance.
We have no idea what happened. Either she fainted (very gradually), fell asleep (very soundly), took too many pills of some kind or, perhaps, she actually started dying and then decided she wanted to live. Who knows. It was all very strange. I’m just glad that she ended up walking out on her own power.
All of that life-saving work made me hungry. So we went straight from Mass back to the Christkindlmarkt so I could have one more kielbasa before packing up and heading home. While I stuffed my face with the most delicious sausage of all time, Katie chowed down on a shish kabob-like spear of chicken, bacon, onions and green peppers. We burned off the calories with one final walk around the market where we made a few purchases for people back home. Then we went back to the hotel, packed and walked to the bus for our $1 ride to the airport.
So there you have it. Poland. Our 16th and final country of the year. More pictures are on our Flickr page. We both thought a lot about our Polish relatives while in Wroclaw. It seemed to be a fitting end to our travels. Now we’re back in Munich and winding down life as Germans. We fly back to the States next Monday.
Look for some fun recap-type blogs in the days ahead! In the meantime, we hope you’re all enjoy the Christmas and holiday season!