We recognize that the huge moving sand dune on the Baltic coast of Poland is not what one would expect to find at the top of a posting about that country, but we are a little tired of headline photos of cityscapes, and decided to begin with what is one of the most interesting and curious natural features of Poland.
The sand dune is part of the Slowinski National Park, to the west of Gdansk, and has been on the move for about five thousand years, slowly growing inland at a rate of two to ten meters a year and swallowing all in its path.
At its tallest point it is about 135 feet high and stretches over miles along the coast. But it has some interesting history as well. After Poland was conquered by the Nazi armies in 1939, it was here that Rommel trained his Afrika Corps in preparation for the deserts of North Africa. And it was here as well that Hitler did much of his rocket testing from 1942 until the end of the war, firing the missiles from here out into the Baltic. It was so strange to think that the V2 rockets that so devastated London were developed and tested here. Remnants of that era are still visible along what are now the bike paths that crisscross the National Park.
This also brought to mind the strange and convoluted history of this land now called Poland. It is an area rich in both agricultural lands and minerals, and has been long fought over by a number of nations including even Lithuania, Denmark and Sweden and more recently by, of course, Germany and the Russian power to the east. In addition to the Poles, the country has also had significant German and Jewish populations. In fact, until Poland was reestablished as a nation with the Treaty of Versailles ending World War One, it had been a significant part of Prussia.
And then Hitler invaded on September 1, 1939 and thus commenced World War Two. With the movement of the Nazi forces towards the Soviet Union to the east, the center of German occupied territory shifted as well, and contrary to popular belief, Hitler did not spend most of the war in Berlin. Instead he was in Poland, at his secret hideaway called Wolf’s Lair, in a remote area well away from cities that might be bombed. When completed it consisted of over eighty structures, many with walls over twenty-five feet thick.
One of the strongest impressions we had of all of the cities we visited in Poland was the destruction the bombing of WW II caused. Certainly this is clear in the photos of Gdansk taken in 1945 at the end of the war, particularly of this one of its Royal Way and City Hall clock tower on the left and the more general rubble of the city on the right.
Gdansk has a long history as a trading and cultural magnet and port city, and for centuries was known as Danzig, and for a period was even an independent city-state allied with no larger nation. And the wonder of Gdansk today is how it has been so beautifully restored, almost exactly as it was at the end of the 18th century. Here is how the Royal Way, the old city’s main street, looks today after being restored with exactitude.
Most of the architecture seemed to have something of the flavor of Amsterdam and Holland to us, and sure enough, when the central area of Gdansk was built in the 16th and 17th centuries, the leading architects of Europe were Dutch. In fact most of the narrow, tall structures that line the streets and were homes at that time have that characteristic small ‘window’ close to the peak of the structure from which a pulley and rope could hoist furniture and artifacts into any of the floors below.
An industrial application of the same hoisting principle is found in the Zuraw, the huge dark building that dominates the far side of the river in the photo below. It could lift as much as 4000 pounds at a time onto and off of ships, and was powered by giant rotary treadmills moved by walking men who provided the necessary power.
The Royal Way is also gated at several points, the one emerging at its end on the river being particularly beautiful and inviting.
Many of the buildings in the city center are also covered with frescoes,
and the centerpiece of the entire street is the Neptune fountain, cast in 1613 and thought to be the oldest secular monument in Poland.
It is said that historically it spouted Goldwasser, the famous Gdansk liquor, yet nowadays squirts only water, but does serve as a gathering place for tourists. The truly young also enjoy the water spouting out of a square a block or two away.
And there is always lots of music on the Royal Way, often from young musicians drawing an even younger audience.
Gdansk is perhaps most famous for the Solidarity Movement which arose out of the huge shipyards, then called the Lenin Shipyards, which dominate the river on its way to the Baltic Sea. In 1970, discontent with the communist rulers led to riots, rebellion and strikes in the yards, but these were quickly and brutally suppressed by the armed forces. Ten years later Solidarity arose, led by an electrician named Lech Walesa, and through strikes and protests, managed to finally overthrow the communist government and inspire similar movements all over Eastern Europe at the end of the 1980’s.
While the shipyards are still in operation, though at a much diminished rate, much of their focus is now given over to the European Solidarity Centre and the celebration of the long struggle from the protests of 1970 to the negotiated settlements in the late 1980’s. The museum was built adjacent to the tall Monument to the Fallen Shipyard Workers, erected in 1980 a decade after the original protests, and which has remained a symbol of resistance to oppression ever since.
The museum itself has received mixed architectural reviews since its creation, but perhaps out of our love of corten steel and its wonderful skin of vibrant rust, we loved it. Inside, there are seven halls around a magnificent atrium, each centered on one aspect of the struggle from its inception in 1970 to the fall of the communist regime. All are filled with multimedia exhibits and the actual artifacts from the eras themselves.
One of the last exhibits one passes through is a wall with the word “Solidarity” spelled out in red on a white background.
But each little square is actually a stack of notecards upon which you are invited to write comments and messages, not just about the exhibits you have moved through, but on the state of the world in general, particularly as related to political freedom and human rights. The comments now cover the wall many notecards thick, and must be in a hundred different languages.
From Gdansk, let us take you to the far south, to the beautiful city of Krakow. Astride several converging rivers, it is centered on Wawel Hill and its Royal Castle and Cathedral where for five hundred years it was the Polish capital and was where the Polish rulers were crowned, ruled, and are buried in the Cathedral.
Adjacent to Wawel Hill is the Old Town, still resplendent in its medieval grandeur and stretching out from the Rynek Geowny or Main Square, the largest in all of Europe.
Visible here in the background is the Cloth Hall, actually in the middle of the square, and which for centuries housed Krakow’s famous clothing trade, the most vibrant in all of Europe. First built in the 14th century, the current building dates from 1555 when it was rebuilt after a devastating fire. It is surrounded by beautiful arcades holding restaurants and fine shops which were added to the existing structure in the 19th century.
It is almost impossible to comment fully on the wonders of Krakow, which even include an underground beneath the Main Square leading one through passages and market chambers dating from medieval times. It is also filled with a number of grand churches with long histories. Most significant and largest is St. Mary’s Basilica, and absolutely ablaze with color inside. First built in the 1220’s, most of what you enter dates from the 1400’s. But what astonishes are the magnificent stained glass windows, the blue starred vault overhead, and the high altar which is considered one of the great masterpieces of Gothic art in Poland.
Krakow is absolutely enchanting and held us for days beyond our original intentions.
From Krakow we took a couple of trips outside the city to visit significant sites. We first went to the Wieliczka Salt Mine, an underground museum consisting of almost 200 miles of tunnels, some of them deeper than 1000 feet. Here is a typical passageway.
But what is truly amazing are some of the huge rooms dug from the solid salt rock, many with statues, altarpieces and monuments. The largest accessible to people touring the mine is the Chapel of St. Kinga, which is about 160 feet long, 50 feet wide and with a ceiling that is almost 40 feet high.
Everything you see here is made of salt, even the chandeliers, the grand staircase, the altarpiece visible at the far end. And all was done by one man and then his brother over a thirty year period, and included the removal of about 20,000 tons of rock salt!
Our other outing from Krakow was not somewhere we had looked forward to but felt compelled to visit: Auschwitz-Birkenau, long identified as the ultimate Nazi death camp. We are sure you have all seen lots of photos of it, particularly in films about the Holocaust, so we give you only three.
Most of the victims were brought into the camp in railroad boxcars like this one and each held at least 100 people at a time.
Below are the tracks leading up to the gate of Birkenau, constructed in 1941 and 1942. It is home to the four gas chambers, each of which could ‘process’ 2000 people at a time. It was here, beside these tracks, that those deemed healthy and strong enough to work as slaves were separated from those who were judged useless, and so were soon sent to the gas chambers.
In Auschwitz itself, there were brick barracks which had been Polish army barracks before the war but were easily converted to house, first Polish political prisoners, but soon began filling, and then emptying, with Jews and other ‘undesirables’. Many of the buildings at Auschwitz were not destroyed by the Nazis as they retreated, and are still standing today. Here are a couple of barracks with an electrified fence between them.
Birkenau, the actual site of most of the exterminations, had over 300 barracks originally built as horse stables but easily converted to house prisoners, 300 to a barracks. Do the math and you see that it could hold 90,000 victims at any one time. Most of the barracks were of wood and were destroyed, but the remnants of the gas chambers and crematoriums are still visible.
To witness this darkest of places, one has to have some sense of the immensity of what happened here. And the statistics tell the story as effectively as anything can:
A total of 1,100,000 humans were murdered here, and in addition to the Jews, 140,000 Poles, 23,000 Roma (Gypsies), 15,000 Soviet POWs and 25,000 others of various ethnicities were gassed or shot to death. There is no way to describe the life of deprivation suffered by those who were initially healthy enough to escape the gas chambers and work until they died as slaves. Those pictures we all have seen of the survivors when Auschwitz was liberated by Soviet troops certainly tell the story, without question the saddest and most grotesque in modern history.
So let’s move to a happier place! We left Krakow and went to Warsaw for a couple of days, to return at the end of our time in Poland. From Warsaw we headed to northeastern Poland close to the border with Russia’s enclave to the west called Kaliningrad which stands separated from the rest of the Russian nation. The area we visited is called the Great Masurian Lake district and is Poland’s answer to Northern Michigan and Minnesota—forested, hilly, and dribbled with beautiful lakes. It is a quiet, wooded area where we saw people gathering mushrooms at the roadside and in general there were only the smallest of towns and, we might add as motorhome people, the narrowest of roads.
In the end we found ourselves in a lovely campground outside the town of Mikolajki on the largest of the lakes, Lake Sniardwy. The town is a center for sailboats and other vessels, and one can take a ferry for a trip around the lake on a warm afternoon as we did
Since most of the moorings for boats are up the river one can see beyond the bridge above, all the sailboats have a system for lowering their masts to clear under the pedestrian and traffic bridges which front the lake. And since all the lakes in the region are connected with rivers and canals, it is also a favorite area for canoeists and kayakers. But then, one sees almost every kind of craft out on the lake on a still and quiet day.
And there are lovely shady spots on the shoreline to pull in for a cold beer as well.
Finally we returned to Warsaw, and spent several days visiting its main square and royal palace,
and the museum to the Warsaw Rising. That rebellion, when all of the city rose up against the Nazi occupiers in August of 1944, followed upon the uprising in the Jewish ghetto in April of 1943. Both were brutally crushed by the Nazi oppressors. Here is a small part of the memorial to those who died in the Warsaw Rising.
And of at least equal significance is the fabulous Museum of the History of Polish Jews, which does not focus on the Holocaust but rather on the long and important part that the Jewish people played in Polish history.
But most importantly, our return to Warsaw was about our newfound friends Konrad and Marzenka Olszaniecki. They have long been close friends with our beloved Judie and the late Ken Kesson, who met Konrad and Marzenka in the ‘80s in Utrecht, Netherlands. So when we even began to aim for anywhere close to Poland, Judie proceeded to make sure we connected with Konrad and Marzenka.
Here is the full Olszaniecki crew, with Konrad and Marzenka seated to the left and brother Kaz and wife Ania standing, with their son Tomek seated at the corner, now a college student in the United Kingdom.
You may have noticed that Marzenka frequently poses as the identical twin of Meryl Streep.
When we visit friends in Europe in Romy we inevitably park close by, often in front of their houses or in their driveways, but we always sleep in the motorhome. It is, after all, our home. Not so with Konrad and Marzenka! They insisted that we move into one of their wonderfully comfortable spare bedrooms, and would not hear of our usual procedure! They were just such wonderful hosts, and we loved their company, their home, and their garden so much that it was difficult to bring ourselves to go into Warsaw to see the sights at all.
We are not sure when we will be through Poland again, but when we do we look forward to and relish the time we will have with the Olszanieckis. They are just such wonderful hosts, companions, people!