Not Your Parents' Communist Poland

Poland … most people have no idea what to think.  So, let’s start with a little Q and A. 

- It’s in Europe?

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- Yep 

- They’re Christian? 

- Sure are, Catholic mostly.  And they treasure Pope John Paul II who was born in southern Poland and educated in Krakow.

- They’re definitely Communists! 

- Not a chance – the Poles ran ‘em out and started a wave of anti-Communism that swept across Europe in the late 80’s and early 90’s.  The Poles have been shirking foreign invaders and occupiers for centuries, including their late would-be Communist overlords.

- It’s really gray and dark and nobody has a job and they wait in line for bread. 

- Couldn’t be further from the truth:  Poland is booming and brimming with color, beauty, life, and energy.  Krakow is a cultural gem, rich in history with a vibrant restaurant and arts scene.  Zakopane, at the foot of the Tatra Mountains, is defining mountain and outdoor culture for the region, catering to guests while attempting to establish a “leave no trace” ethos, something we can get behind!   


And now that we’ve cleared that up, our trip to Krakow and Zakopane picks up.

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After smooth flights and a couple layovers, we landed in Krakow and made our way to our accommodations in the historic Jewish district of Kazimierz, just minutes from the Stary Rynek (Old Market Square), to get settled and cleaned up for dinner at a place befitting the city’s rich history: Dawno temu na Kazimierzu, which translates to “long ago in Kazimierz.”  Celebrating the centuries of Jewish culture that once defined that section of the city, Dawno temu offered a traditional selection of entrees enjoyed over candlelight with a distinct 19th century feel.  Over duck breast, lamb, pierogi, and assorted other traditional Jewish dishes, we chatted about the week’s activities then walked back to our hotel to rest up for the full day ahead of us.

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Ready to take in Krakow, we headed to the gates of the old city at the Barbican to meet up with our tour.  Our guide was fantastic, seamlessly leading us through narrow, cobblestone streets while detailing in fluent English the numerous invasions, partitions, occupations, uprisings, independence movements, not to mention, soldiers, leaders, thinkers, and kings and queens that shaped Krakow’s culture.  We heard about Karol Józef Wojtyła who secretly studied to be a priest in Nazi occupied Krakow, defying the ruling authorities and risking death; he would rise to become Cardinal of Krakow and eventually Pope John Paul II, the leader of the Roman Catholic Church.


Contemporary Poland cannot be understood without a look at the traumatic and tragic events that began in September 1939 and ran until January 1945 in Krakow.  With heavy hearts and inquiring minds, we traveled with our guide to the former factory of the once-celebrated Oskar Schindler which has been turned into a museum of the Nazi Occupation of Krakow.  The museum lays out in striking detail the horrors that defined life, and often death, for the Jewish and non-Jewish residents of Krakow during that horrendous time.  Visiting the museum made clear that some of what was lost will never be regained, but seeing Krakow today, you’d have no idea what unspeakable tragedies once transpired.


After a day and a half getting to know the cultural and historical sides of the city, we took to the streets in the Fifth Annual Krakow Half Marathon to stretch our legs and develop a more personal relationship with a city that has its roots in the Stone Age.  The air was cool with a light fog as we arrived to the starting point, an arena just outside the city.  We were greeted by an excited group of mostly Polish runners, booming music, and a festive atmosphere.  Luckily, we were able to stay inside the arena until just before the start, allowing us to embrace the crisp morning air but not get chilled waiting at the starting line.  As the thick caterpillar-like gaggle of runners set off and began to fan out, we bobbed and weaved through the crowd, slapping high-fives to children cheering in Polish, rocking out to the live band at the two-mile mark, and feeling the pavement-turned-cobblestone-turned-pavement beneath our feet.  The changing cityscape captivated our attention as we pushed along, over the trolley tracks, along the Wisła (Viswa) River, and passed piled up lines of surprised motorists.  We wound through Old Town Square, past the intentionally-uneven steeples of St. Mary’s Basilica, around Wawel (Vavel) Castle, and then, thankfully, downhill a bit and back along the river to the arena.  Each of us finished with a time we could be proud of and we reveled in the post-race high while guzzling as much non-carbonated water (it’s a long story!) as we could find. 


With the race behind us and ready for a lighter side of Polish history and culture, we embarked on an evening vodka and culture tour lead by an equally talented and Aussie accented med student cum alcoholic beverage connoisseur.  He led us on a four-stop multiple shot journey part Polish culture, part distilling 101, and the rest food and laughter.  We learned that Polish vodka is triple distilled, allowing it to retain some flavor, whereas tetra distilled Russian vodka is best served ice cold.  We were duly cautioned on making vodka at home lest we blind ourselves and prompted to eat a bit between drinks to prolong our evening.  The night ended at a speakeasy tucked in the WC of a building just off of Platz Novy in Kazimierz and some street food and ice cream at the same platz.  Shoot me a note if you’re ever in Krakow and I may provide another clue on the location of the speakeasy!

After two and a half days in Krakow, we were ready for the clean mountain air and change of scenery Zakopane promised.  Just two hours south of Krakow, Zakopane is Poland’s mountain oasis, blending mountain outdoor culture and highlander living.  Sitting at the foot of the Tatra Mountains, which contain the highest peaks in Central Europe’s Carpathian range, Zakopane is home to Poland’s Tatra Volunteer Search and Rescue Team and its winter Olympics training center. 

Once we arrived and checked into our boutique hotel, Biała Owca (Biawa Ovtsa), a modern twist on classic Zakopane wooden style architecture, we decided to visit the Olympic training center and ski jump to get a bird’s eye view of the small mountain town.  We then headed to a bacówka (batsoovka) where the famous salted sheep’s milk cheese, oscypek, is made to taste the legendary cheese in a classic setting over a fire.  And some of us may have purchased a few pounds to take home!  Still a little sore from the race, we opted to take it easy that evening and visit a spa to relax our muscles.


Refreshed from a much needed night’s sleep and full from the made-to-order breakfast at Biała Owca, we set out on our bikes up the Dunajec River Gorge,  which separates a section of the Polish and Slovakian border.  The mostly flat ride offered us a chance to stretch our legs and take in the stunning views offered by Trzy Korony (Three Crowns) and other peaks within Pieniny National Park.  We enjoyed lunch at a riverside café before rafting back down the river.  The route back was fairly calm with some minor rapids, allowing us to breathe the fresh air and hear our rafting guide’s stories of flooding and efforts to preserve the local ecology.  The calm afternoon flowed nicely into a rustic Polish dinner at a traditional wooden Zakopane style Karczma (type of restaurant where highlander fare is served).  We made it an early night as we knew the next day’s activities would be challenging.


We awoke to a chilly morning as we packed our hiking rucks and made our way to the main ranger station at Tatrzański Park Narodowy (TNP - Tatra National Park).  There we met with Darek, head of the TNP Ranger’s volunteer service, to discuss the park’s efforts to preserve the natural ecosystem while catering to tourists and mountain adventurers.  We discussed the main volunteer program run by the park service wherein students are provided lodging for up to several weeks in return for work to help keep the park clean.  Darek lamented the lack of a “leave-no trace” ethos, but emphasized TNP’s effort to bring this idea to Poland, citing the pack-in pack-out system the park service has implemented.  He seemed hopeful the idea was catching on, but was nevertheless grateful at the cleanup assistance we were providing.


After a little more discussion on the bears, wolves, and chamois that inhabit the park, Darek eagerly outfitted us with trash bags and gloves to help us on our mission to leave a positive impact by picking up trash along our hiking route.  With that, we took the Gondola up to Kasprowy Wierch (6,519’), before hiking the ridgeline and down to a mountain hut in Dolina Kondratowa (4,373’) where we enjoyed cool beverages and a pierogi lunch, before pushing back up to Giewont (6,220’).  By the time we had gotten to the top of Giewont, we had one full trash bag and one quickly on its way to filling up, as we tried not to get too crazy with the growing competitiveness of our trash-collecting game – by crazy I mean, no single piece of trash is worth your life and there were pieces a little too precariously positioned next to steep cliffs. 

We arrived back to Zakopane (~3,000’) as dusk was settling over the mountains.  We deposited our collected litter at a TNP Ranger station and headed to town for a hearty meal.  Over a hot bowl of kwaśnica (kwashnitsa), żurek (joorek), mulled wine, and other highlander cuisine, we discussed the day’s conquest and rehashed some of our favorite moments of the trip.  While this meal would be the last of our Krakow and Zakopane adventure for this year, we’re already looking forward to returning to this rich and beautiful region!


Andrew Riedy