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Trip Report Poland and Lithuania...with a little London thrown in (July 2006)

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This was an independent solo trip, starting in NY JFK, going to London HR, back out of Luton to Krakow, Poland, through Warsaw, into Lithuania, and back to London again, June 29th to July 15th. (My thanks to Fodorites, TTG'rs, and the wonderful www.inyourpocket.com)

Krakow

'and the trumpeter just played the Hejnal right outside my window'

Krakow is encapsulated history in its old town, a lovely medieval stretch from the Barbican and Florian's gate to Wawel Hill with its palace (and very modern fire-breathing dragon, a favorite site for kids' pictures.)

I had flown into London on my bargain Virgin Atlantic flight and stayed one night in the (mediocre) Marriott Regents' Park, which is, actually, in Swiss Cottage. London was quite warm as I did my bit of shopping; I ended up at Covent Garden and had dinner at Salieri on the Strand. I'd been there 15 years ago and was happy to find it still just as swirly and twirly and fun for the senses. (Decent food for the price, too.) The Green Line bus from Finchley Road got to Luton Airport with no problems, and the EasyJet flight to Krakow was easy-peasy, except for the slight anxiety about finding one's gate; you've got to keep up with the monitors, and there are no announcements, which is kind of nice, but when your gate isn't posted by the 'last possible time' you're supposed to be there, you can get a bit anxious.

Krakow had a nattering rain when I arrived, but, as that's the only rain I encountered for two weeks, I can't complain. In fact, the weather was brilliantly sunny and warm throughout Poland and Lithuania during my time there, quite unlike the general projections. There's a little train going into town to which you walk from the airport; the setting is quite 'Far From the Home I Love' in Fiddler on the Roof, but the station and train are dissonantly but handily modern.

I walked from the train station to the Guesthouse Trecius, one block from the main square of Rynek Glowny. My room was comfortable and pristinely clean; I wanted to adopt the cleaning crew. I didn't have a whole lot of interaction with the staff, actually, but the setup is easy and the location unbeatable. (http://www.trecius.krakow.pl/) The building is ancient, but it's got all the mod cons and the rooms are quietly charming.

I roamed the old city that night in the mellow golden light of the summer evening, then went further afield into Kasmierz district the next morning. The synagogues that remain are a mute testimony to the large Jewish population that used to be in Krakow, and there is interesting architecture, especially industrial, as well. I also ventured up and around Wawel Hill; you need timed tickets to enter most buildings, so I stayed on the outside as the lines were enormous and the day was glorious. I had lunch at the interestingly sited Brasserie (an old tram station, I believe) and then found my way to the minibuses and paid my 2.50 zloty for a ticket to the salt mine.

The Wieleckza Salt Mines are well worth the journey; Nicolas Copernicus was the first tourist there, in 1493, so one is in good company. The tour takes in the rough, realistic parts (like the 13% survival rate of methane burners; prisoners condemned to death who survived this job one year were set free) to the sublime extent of the underground cathedral with salt sculpted bas reliefs, statues, and chandeliers. It's really quite interesting and awesome in the true sense of the word.

Each evening and throughout the day I find myself back in the glorious Rynek Glowny, or at least passing through. Always there is music, from dueling accordions to violinists, from synthesized xylophone to a Polish group called 'Revival' belting out gospel tunes in English. Throughout the trip, by the way, there were so many instances of Anglo pop music at its best and worst, some sung in translation, some in English; it's no wonder English has become the lingua franca.

Auschwitz I and II (Birkenau)

Auschwitz under a bright blue sky with little wildflowers growing and the sun shining down is still desolate and horrifying.
What it was like in the bitterly cold Polish winters of 1940-45 I cannot even imagine.

The first camp was originally for Polish POW's; in there are now the thousands of pounds of human hair that the Germans harvested, the suitcases in which the Jews packed their most precious things for "relocation", the shoes...all kinds of shoes, from Netherlandish wooden clogs to red high heeled city shoes, all in one monstrous pile as part of the Nazi efficiency. That efficiency spread to such things as preventing "hysteria"; a camp band played Viennese waltzes as they came out of the cattle cars--those who survived the trip--and were sent to the camps or to the showers of hydrogen chloride, from which they never returned. The incalculable evil that was done in such an organized way...Dehumanize first, the rest is easy. It's horrifying and sickening to think that this could go on, and still does go on albeit on a smaller scale. Auschwitz-Birkenau (named for the birch woods, which of course were cut down to make the barracks) is a place that doesn't exactly cheer you, but yet it's so necessary to see and to know. The second camp (the Birkenau part) is enormous; you can quickly leave behind the crowds of tourists and walk that same road that so many thousands walked to their death.

You arrive, if you come by mini-bus (about 1 ' hours from Oblawne (sp) Street) at the end of a driveway leading into Auschwitz I, and you wait there at the visitors' center for a tour to form. There are many, many visitors, but the atmosphere remains for the most part respectful and somber, as it should be. Our guide was impassioned and informative, allowing us times of silence to assimilate the haunting exhibits.

The first camp is the 'museum' area, and then you take a short bus ride to Auschwitz II-Birkenau; there the reality and the bleakness are palpable. At the end of the guided part, you have the option to stay longer to absorb the images of the railroad tracks and the barracks, the memorial stones by the crematory pile, the two diverging roads to death or to tortured life.

Auschwitz is physically and emotionally draining, but if you have the opportunity, go.

Krakow again

The Museum Czartoryski is a lovely little gem that is a peaceful reverse to the brutality of humankind; here the art of ancient Egypt, family porcelain, and Leonardo da Vinci's 'Lady with an Ermine' coexist in harmony. The building itself is enjoyable, and the eclectic private collection a happy record of civilization. It's just a couple of blocks off of the main square, near Florian's Gate.

Kebabs are the street food of Krakow: a pita with mystery meat, veg, and a sour cream sauce'quite tasty and filling for 11zl or so'but I didn't just picnic. The Restaurant Farina was my splurge (so, okay, only 110zl) and worth every grozny. Salad with baked goat's cheese, panga sole on a 'quilt' of tomatoes and thyme, crème brulee'all nicely done and served well in a restful atmosphere. (But don't order decaf; as in much of Eastern/Central Europe, it appears, it's instant.)
And here is where I admit that I ate lunch on July 4th at McDonalds; I like to have moments of irony, plus, let's face it, you can't get the deep fried apple pies in the US anymore.
I purchased my train ticket from Krakow to Warsaw the day before I needed it; it was 70zl or so for the three hour ride on a reserved seat train leaving at 8 AM. You pass acres and acres of farmland and birch trees on the train, but, as usual on trains, I slept through most of it, having spent the previous night wandering the banks of the river near Wawel.

Warsaw

Warsaw is vibrant and very 'big city' in feel; I was happily surprised at the parks and overall impression of vitality and color. Granted, this is July, and there are soviet blocks of apartments in some areas, but the incredible revival of this city from almost total destruction in WWII just makes me want to cheer!

I only stayed two nights; my home was an apartment that is part of the 'boutique b&b' www.bedandbreakfast.pl on Smolna Street, which is just off of the café-lined Nowy Swiat. It's a great location, midway between the Old Town (which is actually the Reproduced Old Town, but charming none the less) and Lazienski Park, a stunning green oasis with castles and lakes and peacocks, plus the Chopin monument.

Monuments are big in Warsaw; the Warsaw Uprising Monument and Monument to the Ghetto Uprising are two of the largest, but, big and small, they're everywhere. Along with the monument to the uprising there's the terrific museum www.1944.pl of the Warsaw Uprising; it's informative, interactive, and a must-see for anyone interested in history and humanity.
The Ghetto itself is more hidden, although an itinerant guide showed me upended train tracks near Umschlagplatz and warehouse and wall remnants of the time. Pawiak Prison is another sad and interesting site associated with
World War II; the dead tree outside still bears obituary notices for those who died in the prison.

Although I did much of my wandering by foot, there's a decent public transit system in Warsaw; the one problem for me was finding an open ticket kiosk when I needed it, but that can be avoided pretty easily by just buying the tickets in bulk instead of one at a time. (Yes, poor planning on my part; this happens.)

Another small museum that I visited was the Marie Curie birthplace; there's not a great deal there, but I was glad to be in the home'and Smolna Street, where I was staying, was where she visited her sister. Just beyond the museum there's a place selling 'artisan' ice cream: it's superb. (I want some of the lemon RIGHT NOW!)

I had a very good lunch at Café Zamek in the Old City: roast duck with apples accompanied by a cranberry compote in a tartlet and fried potatoes. Terrific, and, of course, the only meal I needed that day!

I bought my advance bus ticket into Lithuania from the corner office (which does not, as far as I know, say Eurolines) of the Western Station; there are long lines for other bus tickets there, but you need to go into the 'travel agent' in order to get the international ones. For 100 zloty I had my ticket, departing at 7:30 PM, on an air-conditioned bus. The bus was comfy enough, although the lady across from me felt that it was okay to put her feet across the aisle into the seat next to me, and it made sufficient rest stops and such. You do the passport inspection thingy at about 1 in the morning, so everybody was a little groggy to say the least.

Druskininkai, Lithuania

The bus dropped me in Druskininkai, Lithuania, at 3AM Lithuania time (earlier than scheduled) and, I have to say, there's not a whole lot there at the international bus stop in Druskininkai at three o'clock in the morning. What is there is the wonderful air from the pine trees and a big map; shouldering my bags and breathing in that pine perfumed cool air I walked into town, past fairly industrial looking sanataria, I suppose, and onto a comfortable bench on the main street which was improbably festooned with decorative white light scrolls across. I read until it started to get light, then I started to walk to see if I could find out any more information about getting to Grutas Park, my reason for stopping in Druskininkai in the first place. (Had I known then that it was the birthplace of Jacques Lipshutz and Ciurlionis, I may have stayed a bit longer, but time was limited.)

As I was walking around admiring the quality of the light and the reflections in the lake and trying not to think about the weight of my duffel (I'd been in London: Lush, BNever, Waterstone's'of course my luggage weighed more than when I so sensibly started out with my duffel and daypack) 'Let me start again. As I was wandering about, my fairy godfather came along: a little elfish gentleman with a bike who managed to put all my luggage onto his bike and walked me to a campsite where the manager could give me some info, and then to a cab where he explained that I needed to get to a bank and then to Grutas Park. He didn't speak English, and I don't speak Lithuanian, but we had a lovely time.

The cab got me to Grutas Park about a half hour before its opening time of 9AM, and I sat by the lake and watched the ducks and the very happy swimmers (and, okay, got mosquito bitten.) Grutas Park is the eclectic brainchild of the 'mushroom king' of the area, who has collected the Soviet sculptures which used to be in the main square of any town (red carnations and calla lilies laid on them) and has made a theme park of them. It's not at all pro-Soviet; quite anti-, in fact, but has been somewhat controversial. The statues are arranged in a lovely forested setting, and there's that soviet 'folk' music and the guard towers to give you the proper feel. There's also a museum and a playground with a little zoo of mostly poultry and guinea pigs. Somewhat surrealistic and, by the time I left at noon, very very crowded.

Vilnius

Through poor communication on my part (remember I hadn't been asleep except in a bus for quite a number of hours) I ended up getting a taxi all the way into Vilnius; it was easier, I must admit, but pricier than I wanted. On the other hand, I got into the Domus Maria at just about 2PM, checkin time, and was very grateful to be there. http://domusmaria.vilnensis.lt/ It's a converted convent, and very nice but still quite austere. My fourth floor room was pretty warm, as Vilnius was in a major heat wave, but the location is good, rooms clean, breakfast decent, and staff quite nice. There were often churchbells and music being rung and sung outside of my window, rather lovely. It's right at the 'Gates of Dawn' which are one end of the Old City.

The Old City of Vilnius has loads of onion-dome little churches and winding streets; there was construction going on around the Town Hall when I was there, but it was easy to get around. The huge cathedral is at the opposite end, with the square outside of it that marks the spot of the beginning and ending of the human chain through the Baltics, and then there's the cobblestone path up to Gediminas Tower (you can also take a funicular) for a 'view panoramique' after a trudge up the steps. It was a beautifully clear day, albeit quite hot, and the view was worth the climb.

My other small venture in Vilnius was to find the Frank Zappa square. It's a bit seedy, but rather cool: there's Frank's head, a la Soviet, up on a big pole, and then there's grafitti-style artwork on the walls behind. The walk took me past the university buildings, architecturally interesting but closed, of course. In fact, this was a very slow weekend for Vilnius as it was a four-day holiday weekend and sunny so most people had taken off for the beach!
Although I could have used more time in Vilnius itself, I went to Trakai for a short excursion. I went on a tour, though of course you can just bus out yourself. As my time was limited, the tour worked well. The castle out on the lake is stunning, and the vari-colored, three windowed houses of the ethnic group Karaites (a Crimean Old-Testament believing group who were invited there several centuries ago by the Grand Duke as bodyguards) are fascinating and photogenic. The castle itself doesn't have much inside, and is mostly reproduction, but Trakai on its five lakes is beautiful. (For the faint touch of the macabre, there's an interesting exhibit of various torture implements in a separate section of the castle.)

Kaunas/Ringaudai

My two nights in Vilnius being over, on Monday I was picked up for the last portion of my Lithuanian trip and taken to the big, homey Nemunas Tour guesthouse in Ringaudai outside of Kaunas. www.nemunastour.com It's really like coming home, even if one has never been there; the gardens and house are lovely and the Zabaliunas family who run it are very welcoming and helpful. The parents, former University professors and the son, Linas, who took me on the tours that I did, are all very enthusiastic on the topic of educating and enlightening visitors on the subject of Lithuania. (And the breakfast is absolutely marvelous: those cottage cheese pancakes, the organic produce from the garden, the cheeses'I could have stayed there a long, long time very happily. I regret that I missed Rumsiskes, the open-air museum that is close by, and one can also do outdoor adventure things that sounded very appealing.)

I spent my first day in Kaunas doing some exploring but mainly finding my way to the post office on the main pedestrian street (a very architecturally interesting building, by the way) and getting my 99 postcards mailed off'finally. They mostly arrived in about a week; not bad for 1.20 litas each. I had used the table in Neumanas Tour garden to finish writing them out; somehow it's a task I had managed to put off for far too long. Kaunas has a small but striking 'Old Town' and the pedestrian street Liasves is wide with trees and park benches down the middle; nice place to sit and rest a bit. Although Kaunas is known for its museums, I didn't get to any; by this point, I was pretty much just wandering in a hot but happy daze.

Curonian Spit

The next morning Linas drove past miles and miles of fields (remnants for the most part of Soviet collective farming) and birch and pine forests to get to Klaipeda, the third largest city, where we got on the ferry to go to the Curonian Spit. The Spit is bordered by the Curonian Lagoon and the Baltic Sea, and its shifting sand dunes are partially anchored by the planted pine forests that give such a wonderful perfume to the air. This was one of those perfect days of blue skies and sunshine and the Spit was the perfect spot to be, even considering it took two hours or so to get there. We climbed Witches' Hill with its fantastic and fun wood carvings, visited the heron and cormorant reserve (where the overpopulation of birds is, unfortunately, killing the trees), went to the picturesque fishing/resort village of Nida with its colorful houses, varied windvanes, and smoking fish, and climbed the sand dunes for views unparalled. And then I got to wade in the Baltic! (Now, that might not mean much to most people, but to geography people'that's a wonderful thing. Look! I'm here! IN the Baltic!! {It's not just the Baltic; you should have seen me with the Red Sea. But that's a digression.}) From the sundial monument (mostly knocked down in a bad storm, so a pretty good indicator of what can it can be like) you can see into the Russian part of the spit, another cool geographic feature.

Siauliai

Siauliai (or outside of it, actually) there is the Hill of Crosses. It's just'amazing. I've never seen anything like it. (Pedantic note here: that doesn't mean I've never seen anything more impressive, or lovelier, or whatever'just never anything LIKE it. It's very moving religiously, and even as a symbol of nationalism.) The back story is that the area was used to commemorate those who resisted tsarist Russia, and then the Soviets; the Soviets bulldozed it a few times, as religious symbolism of course didn't play too well, but each morning after a razing there'd already be more crosses up. The crosses start in the meadow on either side of the hill, and many are ornately carved and inscribed, whilst some are simple iron bars or wood stakes. Then there are the thousands and thousands of small crosses, inches deep, that are on the larger ones and on the ground. There is one star of David on the hill, as well, commemorating Lithuania's many Jews who were lost in the Holocaust. (Many were from the area, in fact.) Wildflowers grow in between the crosses and butterflies are all around; it's an amazing atmosphere even with the tour buses arriving and the souvenir sellers a fairly respectable distance away selling crosses for the new pilgrims. It's a brave and triumphant affirmation of the human spirit and its reaching toward God.
(okay, pomposity license has now been revoked. It's safe to read further.)

I left Kaunas the next day, but that simple statement covers a looooonnnngg
stretch of time. My Ryanair flight was due out at noon, so I got to the airport (about 20 minutes from the guesthouse) at 10:30. Everything was cool and froody and I got my little amber tree in the one airport giftshop to use up my litas and it got a little later and'well, at 2:30 the announcement was to 'come back at 7PM.' As I had nowhere to come back from at that point, I spent my day in walking about, napping in the mini park (pond, benches, wooden bridge), watching a thunderstorm roll in, and having a bit o' dinner at the one airport bar/restaurant. We went back through security about 7, and then, oh, about 10PM the plane finally lifted off. (It didn't help confidence any that the flight attendant had a striking resemblance to 'Johnny' in the movie Airplane'the origami guy.) The flight after that was just peachy, and I got into London Stansted at 1:30AM London time.

London

Since I then took the bus to the Thistle Marble Arch (and had a bit of a time finding the hotel'Bryanston runs parallel to Oxford, not across) it was 2:30 when I checked in. I will forever love Thistle Marble Arch and forgive Priceline for the mediocrity of the Marriott for the response of the sweetie who did checkin. He said that since I had such a rough flight, he'd make it up (note: not that Ryanair and Thistle have a connection that I know of) with the room'and he did! Lovely, lovely huge room with a king bed, huge desk, steam shower and big ol' bathtub'bliss. (And I had paid $97 a night for it. Double bliss.) I realize, of course, it was probably just what was empty, but hey, it made me one happy little pup.

London's 70 degrees and brilliant sunshine made the last day a superb one. As I hadn't been to London in about 10 years (until the beginning of the trip) I did the tourist thing and rode the Eye, taking all the iconic photos shooting through the wheel and such. It was pretty painless, actually; they've got the crowd thing down. From there I went to the Benjamin Franklin house on Craven Street; you go to the Arches and the box office of the New Players' Theatre to get tickets and a time, and then your group goes to the nearly empty house for an actor/audiovisual presentation, quite nicely done but it helps if you know your Franklin a bit already. As this is the only house in which he lived that is still standing, it's a treat for fans of Ben. The British Museum finished off my day (some galleries are opened until 8PM) along with a stop at Bnever on Carnaby Street (Lush closes earlier, alas!) and a stop at Marks and Spencer for some absolutely amazing profiteroles for my breakfast next day. (The Thistle cleverly doesn't fill your frig unless you ask for it, thus leaving a nice space for M&S food. I would love to have an M&S oh, about a block away from where I live. Highly recommended for those times you just don't want to look a restaurant in the face.)

Altogether this was a great trip; I'd highly recommend it to anyone with a love of history, nature, and potato pancakes. (And these are countries that serve whipped cream with fruit, not the other way round. That and dueling accordianists and perfume of the pine forests: what more do you need?)

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