Category Archives: Poland

Beauty of abandoned places

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Kolmanskop, Namibia (Image: National Geographic)

Kolmanskop, Namibia (Image: National Geographic)

Today I found a fascinating post on BuzzFeed featuring photos of the 33 most beautiful abandoned places in the world. It’s hard to pick favorites but I have to say the one of the sand-filled house in Kolmanskop, a ghost town in the Namib Desert, is the most striking to me. The blues, yellows, and oranges are striking. And the multiple door frames captured in this shot make the image self-referential, reminiscent of the hall of mirrors.

It made me look through my own photo collection to find beautiful abandoned places I’ve come across. Here are my top five. How about you? Have you taken any photos of desolate yet striking locations that you’d have to share? If so blog about it and link back – which I guess would officially make this my first-ever travel theme post! Read the rest of this entry

Kraków’s holiday tradition

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szopkaChristmas season in Kraków is unforgettable for many reasons. Festive Old Town churches, sausage sizzling in cosy street booths, colorful street decorations, and that special holiday spirit in the air. But there is one thing in particular about the holidays that’s uniquely special to Kraków: szopki, or nativity scenes (singular: “szopka”). What makes them unique? Szopki are not just classic displays of the creche with Baby Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. Rather, they are elaborate structures that include a mix of Kraków’s architectural hallmarks, with a cast of colorful figurines giving homage to the Newborn – or simply going about their business.

While nativity scenes are common in many countries and date back to St. Francis of Assisi’s 13th century re-enactments of the Christmas story, Kraków szopki are a peculiar twist on that tradition. In their current form they date back to the 19th century when local craftsmen – trying to make a living in a winter season when construction work stopped – started to earn extra income by making the Christmas story come to live in a new way. To preserve the craft, Kraków created an annual competition in 1937 for the most beautiful szkopki. The competition still takes place every year in December at the Main Square and the winners are then displayed in the nearby Krzysztofory Palace. Read the rest of this entry

Let Sopot surprise you

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Krzywy Domek in Sopot

This article about buildings that wheeze, squeeze and dance made me think of a picturesque Polish seaside resort Sopot and especially about one of its unique and unusual sights:

“Imagine wandering along Monte Cassino Street in Sopot, Poland (I know, I know, you imagine this all the time), and you bump into this: the Krzywy Domek, a local shopping center built in 2004 that looks like a child’s drawing that got squished. (Or, as some Poles have said, it seems to be melting.) Bugs Bunny could move in here with Elmer Fudd and live happily ever after.”

Indeed, I imagine wandering along Sopot’s Heros of Monte Cassino Street all the time ever since I was there about a year ago. Affectionately called “Monciak” by the locals, it’s the city’s main pedestrian drag buzzing with tourists, diners, and shoppers. Read the rest of this entry

Euro 2012 capitals: Warsaw

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(Image: worldcupblog.org)

Let me start by saying that I’m really not a soccer fan. But Euro 2012 is as much about the game itself as about the location: it is the first time since the fall of communism that this prestigious European Championship is held in Eastern Europe, jointly hosted by Poland and Ukraine. Incidentally, UEFA Euro 1976 took place in Yugoslavia – a state that is no more – and the final game featured two countries that no longer exist: Czechoslovakia and West Germany. Sadly, by now both current host countries are out of the game, with Germany and Portugal qualified for the semi-finals against yet unknown rivals. But as I said this tournament has been about much more then sports. For Poland and Ukraine, it’s also about gaining a new space in the consciousness of fellow Europeans and soccer fans around the world as real places – places worth visiting, learning more about, and exploring. Read the rest of this entry

Sandomierz – the gem of Lesser (known) Poland

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Old Sandomierz

There is a region in southeastern Poland – the one I come from – called Małopolska. The name somewhat awkwardly translates into English as Lesser Poland but let me assure you there is nothing “lesser” about it as far as things to do and places to see. For one, the region’s capital is beautiful Kraków on my top 10 list of cities anywhere (ok, I may be somewhat biased =) Sandomierz, although not as well known to tourists, is equally beautiful, historic, and worth a visit.

Back in the Middle Ages, it was one of the largest and most prosperous cities in Poland, a residence of princes and kings. In the 1200s the city was seriously damaged by Tatar invasions. The most infamous raid took place in 1259-60 when the Tatars massacred 49 dominican monks in St. Jacob’s church after successfully laying siege to the city. That event has become foundational for many legends such as that of Salve Regina hill (the monks were singing Salve Regina hymn as they were preparing to meet their maker). The legend says that a giant bull raised by the monks ran after the Tatars in the direction of Kraków to avenge its keepers but could not catch up with the horde. Enraged, the bull dug a large mound with its hoofs and carved “Salve Regina” on the hillside with its horns. A great introduction to that early Sandomierz, shrouded in legends, is the Underground Route touring 470 metres of clandestine passages and multi-story cellars once used by cityfolk and merchants. Read the rest of this entry

Warsaw in old photos

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Continuing with the theme of historic photographs, I found some fascinating images of Warsaw from the 1860s – the oldest surviving images of the city. They were taken by Karol Beyer, the father of Polish photography, who in 1845 became the first professional photographer in Warsaw. Over the years he took a series of photographs of Warsaw and other Polish cities that today are priceless documents of those times. He also captured hundreds of portraits immortalizing the locals (and himself in several self-portraits like this one here).

A little history background: in Beyer’s time there was no such thing as Poland, politically speaking, since the partition of 1795 between Russia, Prussia, and Austria-Hungary erased it from the map of Europe for the next 123 years. Warsaw became a part of the Russian Empire. In early 1860s, the unrest was brewing throughout the Polish territories. After a series of demonstrations in different cities, Tsar Alexander II declared martial law on October 14, 1861.

In this photo, taken shortly thereafter, Russian soldiers are camping on the square in front of the Royal Castle. If you’ve been to Warsaw, you surely recognize Zygmunt’s Column in the upper right hand corner. Read the rest of this entry

Foodie’s guide to Kraków

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Kleparz market in Kraków

Most visitors come to Kraków for sights – the imposing Wawel Royal Castle, St. Mary’s Church on the grand, medieval Main Square, or bustling Sukiennice Cloth Market to name just a few. But especially for those new to Poland, Kraków also provides a great introduction to that key aspect of exploring all foreign lands: food. The Main Square, where most people start their city adventure, has plenty of restaurants and cafes to choose from but you can do much better in terms of originality and selection, not to mention price-to-performance ratio, by venturing out a bit. Here a foodie’s guide to some of the best restaurants and places to eat in Kraków, Poland. Read the rest of this entry

Magical Kraków

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Kraków's Main Square with St. Mary's Church

Having lived in Kraków, I find it hard to blog about it: there is just so much to say. It’s such a great place, special in so many ways, and returning there always feels like recharging batteries. The Main Square especially, even though it is probably the most touristy part of town, has this special energy. First, there is the scale: with sides about 200 meters long it is one of the largest medieval squares in Europe. Then there is history: over the ages the square has been its witness. From the spot now marked by a church where St. Adalbert (Wojciech) preached back in the 10th century, through the place of homage by Prince Albert Hohenzollern of Prussia to Polish King Zygmunt I in 1525, the location where Tadeusz Kościuszko took an oath to defend the country against foreign partitions in 1794, to the commemorative plaque placed there upon Poland’s entry into the EU in 2004. Finally, there is the atmosphere: old churches next to hip cafes, high-end restaurants competing with obwarzanki stands (Polish version of a bagel), kids chasing pigeons around the local landmark of poet Adam Mickiewicz’s statue affectionately known as “Adaś”… Life here flows to the rhythm of Hejnał Mariacki, traditional tune played by a trumpeter each hour from the tower of the stunning St. Mary’s Church. Read the rest of this entry

…and amber

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Bursztyn. Bur-sztyn. I’ve always liked saying this word. It rolls roundly in my mouth. It rustles with the sound of waves polishing the solid blood of ancient pines. Jantar. Jan-tar. Sounds bright, shimmering with honey-hued reflections of the sun. Bernstein. Янтарь. Electron. ηλεκτρον. Whatever you call it (ok maybe with an exception of what the Romans used to call it – lyncurium – or lynx’s urine), amber is among the few of my favorite things.

I guess my sentiment comes from thinking of amber as something very familiar – and very Polish. When I was a kid, one of my favorite events of the year was an annual exhibition of minerals and precious stones in my home town Kielce. I would always be drawn to glowing orange and brown pebbles, rough or made into jewelry. Some translucent like drops of honey. Some almost milky-white with streaks of gold. I always gravitated to the stalls with amber and inspected each for insects frozen in time. Anybody who’s walked down Gdańsk’s Długi Targ or shopped in Kraków’s Sukiennice can relate.

For centuries, amber powered the economic bloodstream linking Europe and Asia. The Amber Road – an ancient trade route – led from the Baltic Sea to the Mediterranean. If I were more of a biker, I’d try EuroVelo 9 that roughly re-traces this path… For now I’ll just keep buying more amber pieces to fuel the modern Amber Road on the Baltic.

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