Looking back it was an amazing journey through Polish history, culture and tradition. Our journey started on 18 September at Dulles International Airport where we boarded our Lufthansa flight to Frankfurt. After a short layover in Frankfurt we flew to Gdańsk arriving mid-morning on 19 September.
Our guide, Anna, met us at the airport and we boarded our luxury bus and headed to the local Carrefour to pick up supplies and just enjoy walking about after the long flight from DC. Money could easily be changed here at one of the ubiquitous kantors located throughout Poland. Once our shopping had been completed we visited the Solidarity Monument (Monument to the Fallen Shipyard Workers 1970). This monument was unveiled on 16 December 1980 near the entrance to what was then the Lenin Shipyard in Gdańsk. It commemorates the 42 or more people killed during the Coastal cities events in December 1970. Leaving the monument we traveled to our hotel.
We arrived at the Novatel Gdańsk Centrum and found out the hotel elevator was under repair. Fortunately the hotel had strong Polish lads to help anyone who needed assistance to their rooms. Such service was typical at every hotel we stayed at throughout our tour. An early buffet dinner and most of us hit the sheets early to get ready for sightseeing the next day.
After a scrumptious buffet breakfast we divided into two groups with local guides and toured the historic section of Gdańsk. Along the way we walked through The Long Market (Dlugi Targ) and saw the Lion Castle, Town Hall, Neptune's Fountain and Artus Court. We also stopped inside St. Mary's Church, the largest brick church in the world whose construction began in 1379 and was completed in 1502. Once our walking tour was over, many returned to the city center to explore some more or took a boat ride through the shipyard to the Baltic Sea. Inexpensive and delicious lunches could be purchased at the many restaurants located along the Motława river. Some hardy souls returned that evening to see the light show.
Our bus departed Gdańsk the morning of 21 September headed for Warsaw with our first stop at Malbork Castle or the Castle of the Teutonic Order in Malbork. It is the largest castle in the world by surface area and excellent commentary was provided on the tour by local guides. Our next stop was Toruń where we endured the heaviest rain of the entire week. Not to be deterred, we left the bus, saw the 13th century town hall, the “Leaning Tower” and the birthplace of Nicolaus Copernicus. The Church of St. John the Baptist and St. John the Evangelist where Copernicus was baptized were also seen by some.
A very wet group of Baltimore Ski Clubbers left Toruń and arrived in Warsaw early evening, checked into the Hotel Mercure Warszawa Centrum and after a late buffet dinner most everyone turned in for a good night's sleep.
On Monday, 22 September, we had an early buffet breakfast and then divided into two groups to tour the Wilanów Palace which was built for John III Sobieski in the last quarter of the 17th center and was enlarged by other owners. The gardens outside the palace were also visited and the Sundial with Chronos was of particular interest to many. After our visit to the Wilanów Palace we stopped at Łazienki Park which is the largest park in Warsaw occupying 0.3 square miles (76 hectares) in the center of the city. The park is also home to the Chopin Statue, a monument to Frédéric Chopin. Afterwards, local guides helped us visit the Old Town, Royal Castle Square and St. John's Cathedral.
We departed Warsaw on the morning of 23 September for Kraków with a stop at Częstochowa where the Pauline monastery of Jasna Góra is located. The monastery is the home of the famous Black Madonna icon and is a shrine to the Virgin Mary. We arrived in Kraców early evening, checked into the Hilton Garden Inn, enjoyed dinner and then called it a day!
After breakfast the next morning (Wednesday, 24 September) we again divided into two groups and toured the historic Old Town on foot. It is one of the most famous old districts in Poland today and was the center of Poland's political life from 1038 until King Sigismund III Vasa relocated his court to Warsaw in 1596. The huge main square is the largest medieval town square of any European city. Some of the historic landmarks in its vicinity are St. Mary's Basilica and the Town Hall Tower. Wawel Castle and the Cathedral were highlights of our visit to Kraców . Kraków In Your Pocket - Wawel Hill
During free time in Kraców many visited Oscar Schindler's Enamel Factory, toured the Old Jewish Quarter or just shopped in the many local stands or kiosks near the main square.
On Thursday morning we left the city center of Kraców for the Wieliczka Salt Mine. The mine, built in the 13th century, produced table salt continuously until 2007, as one of the world's oldest salt mines still in operation. The mine's attractions include dozens of statues, three chapels and an entire cathedral that has been carved out of the rock salt by the miners. The oldest sculptures are augmented by new carvings by contemporary artists. After the tour we returned to our hotel and were free to explore Kraców on our own.
On Friday, 26 September, we toured Auschwitz and Birkenau. For most, this was the most emotional part of our time in Poland. It is estimated that more than 1.1 million people were killed between May 1940 and January 1945 at these concentration camps. The reality of the events that happened here were seen in the exhibits and amplified by our experienced guides.
Our final day in Poland (Saturday, 27 September) was free of organized touring so we could explore on our own, shop, taste local food, etc.
We were up bright and early on Sunday, 28 September to catch our flight from Kraców to Frankfurt and from Frankfurt to Dulles International Airport. Fog delayed our first flight by about an hour but our Lufthansa flight in Frankfurt was held and we did not have to endure a long airport layover but were able to immediately board our flight to DC arriving only about 20 minutes later than originally scheduled.
The entire trip was amazing. Our principle guide, Anna, and our main bus driver were superb. The local guides were very knowledgeable and anxious to help us understand what we were seeing. The hotels and service could not have been better. The Polish people were friendly and the cities clean. While we were hounded by rain showers every day most of the heavy rains, except for our time in Toruń, occurred while we were in the bus headed for our next destination.
A special thanks to Christopher Pukalski whose hard work behind the scenes resulted in a wonderful experience for all who were able to experience “The Best of Poland.”