Highlights: Poland

Warszawa Warszawa Uprising Museum: An overwhelming amount of information with impeccable and interactive presentation throughout including the listening wall - a wall that is meant to look like it has been littered with bullet holes, each one embedded with a speak playing sounds of the time such as war noises, radio broadcasts and songs. There's also a room where they do live printing press demonstrations of fliers and newspapers from the time. The story of the Uprising, when Warszawa went to war against Germany while Russia and the allies stood by in August and Septemer of 1944, is a huge point of pride for the city and we were lucky to be there right during the first week of the 67th anniversary.

Warszawa University Library Green Roof: An amazing green roof that is extremely well maintained both by a small team as well as naturally. Winding paths snake through the entire thing with 360° views around the city and over the Wisła river, a water runoff system carries it beautifully down the side, and you can see down through the skylights into the library...which you can't actually get to otherwise without a card.

Use-It Map: We found this off of a hot tip from our Couchsurfing host. It's actually a network of maps around Europe created by locals, but we found this one particularly helpful. Downloadable or printable. And free!

Sen Pszczoły: Awesome bar in Praga district hiding down an alley behind a photography gallery, complete with great outdoor barbecue, nice beer selection, weird video projection, and butterflies painted all over the inside.

Critical Mass: For those not familiar, Critical Mass is a bike ride that happens in a lot of cities. Usually once a month, tens, hundreds or, in the case of the one in Warszawa during the Uprising anniversary, thousands, of people turn out and take over a specific route through the city in the effort of raising bicycle awareness. In Warszawa, the organization effort behind the ride, including police escort, was incredible, as well as the feeling surrounding it. At the front of the pack was a truck with loudspeakers telling the story of the Uprising throughout the ride.

Grycan Ice Cream: Think Haagen Dazs but Polish and, depending who you ask, better.

Toan Pho: Warszawa has a large Vietnamese population which means excellent Pho noodle soup.

Białowieza (The strictly protected area of) The Białowieza Forest: We already posted about this, but it was certainly a highlight. Just don't get fooled by the sad "bison reserve" which is little more than a game park. It's worth the trek to see the forest, though.

Ostoja guesthouse: A great little family run guesthouse with more amenities than the hostel in town, at the same price. Their restaurant also featured some more-than-delicious blackberry pierogi with creme fresh.

Storks: We weren't expecting to find these in Białowieza but they were everywhere; huge and beautiful, perched with their nests on the corners of buildings. Apparently, one in every four storks comes from Poland and they serve as a sort of national symbol. In the winters, they migrate to Africa.

Kraków Nowa Huta: A former soviet planned community started in 1949, it's now a place to see the communist building style - grey apartment blocks all built with inner courtyards for safety - laid out in the shape of a star radiating from the central square. It was never completed so there is only the streets on the top half of the star reveal the intentions. Also home to a hole-in-the-wall waffle shop that is just ridiculously good.

Massolit Books: An amazing English language bookshop that snakes through the rooms of a house. The selection is curated perfectly with a little of everything, they buy books back, and there's a built in cafe. The perfect atmosphere for camping out and reading for a bit.

Cafe Culca: A cafe built for children but with a menu catering to the adults that take them there. We went on the recommendation of our Couchsurfing hosts for a smoothie and it was one of the best: cherry, banana, vanilla ice cream, honey and mint.

Alma: Simply put, Alma is one of, if not the best grocery store we've seen on this trip yet. Well organized and well kept.

Wódka Cafe-Bar: A wee vodka bar just a couple blocks off the main square in Kraków. It just wouldn't be a visit to Poland without sampling one of the many flavored vodkas they have. We found the wormwood vodka and the quince vodka to be particularly stellar. The wormwood was disgestive-like and herbal while the quince had just enough sweet and herbal, not too syrupy like some other traditional options.

Herbaciana: An amazing (and completely hidden) tea shop tucked in a back courtyard basement right on one of the main tourist streets. Once again, our Couchsurfing host brought this to light or we would've never found it, or the perfect oolong they had there.

Kazimierz: Nothing specific, this is just a cool area to explore. It's historically the Jewish quarter of Kraków so there is a lot to see connected with that, but there also seem to be a ton of nooks and crannies, many filled with interesting looking cafes, shops, etc. There's also a flea market in the square, as well as the undisputed best place to get the most delicious Zapiekanka:

Location:Černovice, Czech Republic

Talking Our Way To Adventures

As part of catching up to the present moment, I'll pick up where we left off and post a series of entries through the weekend: Participating in couchsurfing has been an indispensable part of this trip. Yes, the cost-free place to stay is a definite bonus - but that is minimally important compared to the time we get to spend with people who live each day in the cities or towns we visit, as well as the irreplaceable conversations share with them. We have talked global politics, local food, parenthood, rent prices, accents and dialects, discrimination, travel styles, photography, beer, cultural animation, literature, languages...the list goes on. Each exchange is absolutely individual, always new and eye opening in some way - be it through the differences, the similarities or just the meandering exploration of ideas and ways of choosing to live ones life.

Warszawa and Krakow would not have been the same without this - the conversations, late nights, sharing of living space and/or friends, and the generosity of strangers who have willingly brought us into their home.

Particularly memorable is the day of the critical mass ride that we were able to participate in with, and because of, our stellar hosts. The entire day surrounding the mass was absolutely beautiful; sun shining to the point of being just barely too hot. We were invited to brunch with a group of friends and two adorable little ones. Everyone was incredibly, casually welcoming and warm and we spent the afternoon on a lazy park walk, eating gelato and taking pictures. In the hours before the mass, our hosts worked some serious magic and located three bikes we, as a group, could borrow for the ride. The tetris game of bike acquisition ensued, a fourth was rented and we were off just before the meeting time of 5pm at the Warsaw Uprising Museum.

As we gathered for the ride - which coincided with the 67th celebration of the Uprising and was amazingly attended - the skies darkened ominously with black clouds. Thunder sounded in the distance. We all got out our weapons of choice - raincoats. All two thousand plus people took off on time and at the same exact moment the rain was liberated from the sky. It absolutely poured torrential rain almost the entire first half of the ride, spitting at us for the second half. And everyone laughed, pedaled on, listened to the story of the uprising from the speakers at the front, waded their bikes through the pond sized puddles and continued on with the mass, smiles on their faces.

This was one of the more memorable experiences we will have on this trip and it was made possible by the direct, deep exchange and connection that something like couch surfing can provide. Otherwise, we may or may not have seen the posters...but we certainly wouldn't have been able to read them. And of it weren't for our hosts being as inviting as they were, we may have skipped returning to Warszawa altogether. But instead, we were able to ride to our temporary home, dry off, share a wonderful meal and wine, and reflect on the day like true friends do. This is why we are traveling.

Location:Warsaw, Poland


It is inevitable to get swept up in the ease, curiosity, familiarity of arriving in a city and instantly compiling a list of the local attractions, historical markers, museums, and such. It seems to give a filmy bubble of a border to this vast new landscape that you've stepped into. It is one way of reorienting - sometimes extremely good, stabilizing, comforting. Sometimes leaving you feeling like a real Tourist (neon capital T), trapped in the stream of other visitors, destined to be moving to and from one ticketed place to another should you allow yourself to simply float there for a moment.

Finding a (preferably free) map and cobbling together a sense of space with (and sometimes in direct opposition to) these landmarks and the patchwork of suggestions, stories, guidebook clips, view from the train, intuition, bits of history or art or whatever might be buried in your brain and making it's way to the surface....and devising a general wandering route, that may or may not be adhered to, is our general m.o. lately. This has been a good way to settle a little bit and zoom in or out depending on the day and the mood. It also helps us to practice letting go of the notion that we might be missing something - so many of our adventures come far less with visiting or observing, and more from our exchanges/interactions with the landscape and the people that live there.

As such, we greeted Warszawa with this in the front of our minds and were rewarded greatly. Of course, the first thing we did, truly, upon arriving, was cross the street improperly and get scolded by a police officer. Well behaved pedestrians are a given in Poland and we spent the rest of our time earning our gold stars by waiting patiently for each signal at a clearly marked crosswalk. We had been properly trained by that stern (and exhausted-with-morons) glare and a bit of kindness, considering we could have been fined 100 złoty or so. Phew.

A heap of more general impressions and memories I am left with are: the small market stands on corners, sunflower seeds being sold still in the flower, a rather serious social etiquette in the general population, the better bars/cafes tucked into back alleys, a strong sense of resilience and pride, memorable street art, ice cream (lody) sold everywhere, old vs. new, confusing (!) train tickets, delicious shared meals and so many good conversations with incredibly friendly people.

More specific experiences include our walk around a seriously green roof, spending a half day at the Warszawa Uprising Museum, and riding in Critical Mass with Eliza and Artur (hosts/friends extraordinaire).

The University Library is home to what is essentially a rooftop park, complete with a rain water filtration/drainage system and almost full circle view of the city and nearby Wisła River. The interior of the library is restricted to students and members only but, from what we could tell from peering inside, the roof was cooler to investigate. Metal walkways arch over just barely manicured grounds (which likely take a wee army to maintain), flowers that resemble Thing 1 and Thing 2 dance in the breeze, and you wonder if people on the second floor inside get a lot of up-skirt views of those passing overhead, what with all of the glass:

That is the Wisła and the Praga district in the background. After many takes while squinting into the sun, we managed a decent self portrait. Additionally, the exterior of the Library maintains the green status in a different way:

Th Warsaw Uprising Museum pulled us in on a mellow afternoon and spit us out three hours later. We entered knowing a minimal amount of the history of Poland and Warsaw in particular. We emerged feeling incredibly moved by the new found details and knowledge - and by the perseverance and commitment of the people of Warsaw during the time at their city was being invaded once more. Children of twelve were fighting, part of a team that led others through the sewers and delivered mail via the same system. Ghettos were formed, and 1944 Poland, and particularly Warsaw, was being swallowed alive by the powers involved in WWII. The museum houses a staggering amount of information but manages to alter the way it is delivered enough to maintain your attention and curiosity for an entire day's visit. There is visual, audio (listening wall pictured below), loads of take home literature, a 3D creation of destroyed Warsaw on film, documentary footage and even a live printing press demonstrating anti-propaganda printing techniques:

The spirit of the uprising lives on clearly in the streets of the city - via street art, on t-shirts, in the music, and through markers throughout the city. This is the true spirit of revolt but also of patriotism. Our description and photos can do no justice to either the events or the memorials or the cultural institutions, but we can say that they all had an incredible and unforgettable impact on us both.

What makes more of an impact is the response and transformation - the Old Town has been rebuilt according to original plans and with meticulous detail, artists share a neighborhood with born and bred Praga families, a critical mass honoring the 65th Uprising Anniversary draws 2000+ participants, and life moves onward. This is something to take with us while we do the same.

Location:Olomouc, Czech Republic

Puszcza Białowieza

So there's this forest, right?

It's ~14,149 strictly protected acres in a 146,397 acre national park called Puszcza Białowieska. There's a wall that goes through the middle of it marking the border between Poland and Belarus, it is home to wild European Bison, and it is the largest (as well as one of the only) remaining forest in Europe with primeval qualities. It's where Casey and I spent the past week, crossing off one of the first places on our must-see list when we started talking about this trip two and a half years ago.

I read about the forest in a book that is essentially a thought experiment; exploring the idea of human impact on the natural world, and how the planet has a tendency to want to right itself. The Białowieza forest (roughly pronounced: be-ah-woh-vee-ay-zsha) was used briefly in the book as an example of a place that has been protected and/or lucky enough over the years, to remain essentially without human impact, despite the aforementioned wall being built through it, multiple wars, and a changing of managerial hands as borders shifted.

The only way to get into the aptly named Strictly Protected Area, is with a tour guide, which we did on Tuesday. It's hard to explain exactly how it's different from any other forest (birds, trees, mosquitoes, etc.), save to say that it just kind of feels different - lush and alive and green. What's easier for me to put into words are some of the things we took from our guide. Things like the fact that we asked a few questions that he said just weren't answerable yet, as a place like this is so rare there hasn't been enough time to observe and study it. Or things like how the bison herds, which are wild here, were hunted nearly to extinction in the early 1900's, reintroduced from 12 specimens in the 1920's and now, with no major natural predator, have taken off again. (This on top of the fact that what was once one heard is now two, thanks to the wall dividing Poland and Belarus - an irony not lost on us coming almost directly from Berlin.) Or finally, how even with a guide, you can only trek a 4km path through the southwest corner of it, knowing that the rest is only visited by scientists.

We spent the rest of the week exploring the rest of the national park: - Some walking around the Palace Park, where until 1944, there was a palace built for Russian Czar hunting parties. - An accidental mountain biking trip that will remain a source of pride in having completed it on Monday, the day after a flash flood style downpour resulting in a "trail" that was more mud than forest, and what might be a personal best 41 mosquito bites on my ankles. - Another bike ride to through the park, to the nearby village of Narewka...a roundtrip of 38km on rented bikes that went forward, but only mostly.

We're headed now back to Warszawa, another city rich with history (not to mention the most amazing green roof either of us has seen on the University of Warszawa library) that we got to know with the help of some Couchsurfing hosts (and now friends) last week, where we'll touch down again briefly before heading towards Krakow. There'll certainly be more to talk about concerning both of these cities, but we felt it appropriate to start the Polish portion of our program with the forest that got us going in the first place.

Location:Białowieza, Poland