Friday, August 26, 2011

Poland, Day 2: Warsaw

I liked Warsaw. I formed my first impression of it while walking around the center of the city, looking for my hostel (I had written the address down incorrectly). An hour and a half later, I arrived, tanned from so much sun, and itching to get started with some real sight-seeing. An hour later I had showered, changed, and found a castle open on a Monday. Off I went.

One neat feature of the city I had to get used to was the underground pedestrian passages. Instead of having to cross large streets and deal with the traffic, pedestrians go down some stairs, along a hallway, and up again to re-emerge on the next corner. Some of the tram stops are accessed this way. Meanwhile, the passages are lined with shops for computer parts, books, baked goods, etc.

I figured Warsaw was too big and cheap to resign myself to walking everywhere--not mention the blisters from legging it around Poznan--so my first day I rode a streetcar and a bus to the Old City and took the subway home at night. The public transit system seems pretty extensive, and the website comes in English. But there are few ticket automats, so I ended up riding schwarz (black, i.e. illegally) on the first leg of my journey, because I couldn't figure out where to buy a ticket. (It turns out most of the sidewalk newspaper and cigarette kiosks sell them.) There are no maps or schedules or signs or announcements in the buses or streetcars, so I nearly missed my stop once. And riding on a weekday at rush hour meant squeezing into a bus with a LOT of Poles. But I got where I was going:

I took a tour of the castle in the Old City. After the Warsaw Uprising of 1944 (not to be confused with the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943), the Nazis leveled what was left of the city and blew up the castle in retribution. It has since been rebuilt in its original style and grandeur. I marveled as I always do at the money and effort that went into the artwork and decorations--like the beautiful ceiling painting above--that only a small percentage of the population ever got to enjoy. All of the signage here also came in English, as it is a popular tourist spot.

I wandered around the Old City, looked at the Vistula River, and treated myself to a traditional Polish meal of summer soup and compott (water in which prunes and other dried fruits have been steeped). I drank my compott cold, but it also makes a tasty warm drink for cold days. For some reason it reminded me of apple butter.

Warsaw is a big, busy, international metropolis. From the viewing platform on the 30th floor of the Palace of Culture and Science the next morning, I could see signs on buildings for Coca-Cola, Siemens, Peugeot, and other foreign companies.

Stalin gifted this enormous building (first photo above) to the Polish people in 1955, and it is still the tallest building in the country (42 stories). Its several wings house a cinema, a museum, a conference hall, and even a university. The techno mermaid to the right wields her sword outside the Museum of Science and Technology. I was really looking forward to seeing their Glass Woman, but the ticket lady in her limited English didn't offer an explanation for why I couldn't buy a ticket for that. Instead, I looked at a charming set of sometimes witty model train vignettes; at some mining equipment; and at their collections of phones, computers, cars and motorcycles, washing machines. Maybe half of the labels were also available in English, so I had an even more extreme reaction of glassy-eyed wonder/stupor to these context-less objets d'science. They did translate a couple of paragraphs about the Enigma machine the Poles used to break the Nazi's code during WWII, which was cool. And I got to bid farewell to the United States' space-travel program at the museum's display on the Apollo missions. In one room, an elderly gentleman explained hands-on physics experiments to me (in Polish).

My last stop was to the Frederic Chopin house and museum. It opened at noon that day, but it was free, so I figured it was worth trying to spend an hour or so there before picking up my luggage from the train station and heading to the airport. Unfortunately, they only had spots left from 4pm (my plane took off at 4:30!). Thankfully, the girl working the ticket counter took pity on me and gave me a pass anyway. Like the Museum of Science and Technology, the Chopin Museum stakes its claim to fame on its collection of objects and memorabilia. Unlike the MST, however, the Chopin institution recently reopened with a glitzy, new, high-tech exhibition. You can see a draft manuscript of an etude and then touch your pass to the nearby computer screen for a video about Warsaw or Paris when the composer lived there (with subtitles in your language, too). It was pretty neat. Dear Husband would have loved the room in the basement on Chopin as a composer. Soon it was time to go.

A woman from Barcelona and I snapped each other's photograph on the observation deck of the Palace of Science and Culture.

I'll spare you the details, but suffice it to say I had frustrating and sweaty experiences traveling from Berlin to Poznan, from Poznan to Warsaw, and then to the airport for my return journey. The two days I spent in the capital of Poland were warmer than I had expected, and my luggage really was quite heavy. So more than once I found myself in a bathroom, taking a sponge bath so as not to offend my fellow travelers. Good thing I remembered to pack my towel!

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Poland, Day 1: Poznan

When my visa was up in Germany, I took a little detour through Poland on the way home to the States. I figured I should take advantage of my time-limited proximity to this country to experience something new and different. My two-day trip was neither as wet nor as cold as I had expected. I brought the rain with me from Berlin, as if the train were towing the rain clouds behind it. Two and a half hours later, I got out at Poznan, "the historical capital of the Wielkopolska Region, where the Polish State was born 1000 years ago," according to the city's website. "Posen" was also once the capital of a Prussian province, after Poland was divided between Germany and Russia in 1815. Unfortunately, a wet Sunday afternoon was probably not the best time to try to get a feel for Poland's fifth largest city (pop. 550,000). 

I had not planned an extensive itinerary for this trip, hoping rather to have good weather to wander about and take photographs. On account of the rain, however, I decided a museum visit would be a better/drier way to learn about the city, so I paid 5 zloty (no Euros!) to see the Museum of the History of Poznan. Alas, it turned out to be a stereotypical small-town museum of objects arranged more or less chronologically by theme (guilds, portraits, books and artisanal products, "19th century"). Maybe 1/2-3/4 of the little printed labels had been translated into English. Although the paragraphs about each room explained the groupings of the pieces, there was no real narrative. So I finished early at the museum. Little more educated than when I went in, and with several hours of somewhat drier daylight and visiting hours at other attractions ahead of me (until 6pm, according to what I could find online), I decided to go ahead and walk around. I usually have a pretty good sense of direction, but between the rain and a hodgepodge of streets, my mental compass utterly failed me, and I got lost twice in three hours. On the upside, I saw a little bit more of the city, which is on a river and which has an impressive amount of green space.

From the train station to the emperor's castle to various dilapidated buildings, much of Poznan is under construction. Because the city is known for its architecture, this state of being half-finished is probably a common one in its 1000+-year history. For instance, the Rathaus (left) was first constructed in the 1500s in a northern Italian Renaissance style; the main hall with its creative ceiling is original, but other parts were renovated just before WWI or after WWII. The emperor's castle has a medieval exterior and a New Objectivity interior dating to the 1930s. Across a wide meridian stands the building for the Prussian Academy of Arts and Sciences with a stepped facade (think Amsterdam). On the meridian stands a monument to the "Poznan Uprising" of 1956 (first image above); what is remarkable is that the monument was privately funded and opened already in 1981, at a time when Poles were pushing back against the one-party system, but well before the official end of socialism. It combines two important national symbols, the cross and the eagle. Eagles also appeared in a memorial to those who died defending Poznan during WWII (bottom image). 

Despite the fact that I had developed blisters already (my German sneakers rubbed right on my pinky toes), I figured I had enough time to walk 2km across the city center and over the river to the Cathedral Island. That was actually worth the visit. The main attraction, the cathedral (right), was first built in 698 and since revised, destroyed, and updated. In its current incarnation, some new artwork tempers the very old art and architecture. Outside stands a life-sized statue of the late Pope John Paul II. Then it was home to the hostel, where I took a hot shower, ate the leftovers I had brought for dinner, and enjoyed the free wireless internet.

Poznan was nice. It felt like a small city. I only wish that I could have had some company while I was tramping around it (the student who invited me out to visit her family there was actually on vacation at the same time I was). Next day: Warsaw.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Monkey Rock

When I went back to Dresden in July to finish up some archival work and to celebrate my birthday, I stayed with German friends. One of them grew up just outside Dresden during the DDR and has fond memories of hiking with her family in the "Saxon Switzerland" (Sächsische Schweiz), so after a leisurely breakfast on Saturday we caught the train out to Bad Schandau, a famous spa town on the Elbe River. We took the ferry across the river and then rode on the only Strassenbahn in a German national park, the Kirnitzschtalbahn, to Beuthenfall. At exactly 1pm we set out into the woods and up.

Our first goal was the Affenstein: Monkey Rock. In the 1960s Rudolf Hänztschel cobbled together a(n unauthorized) climbing route that quickly grew in popularity. The government tried to shut it down in 1998, but after local hiking groups complained--Germans take hiking very seriously--the park district relented and agreed to repair the "Häntzschelstiege" (link has video). Among those attempting the 160m (525ft) ascent that afternoon, we were the only ones without helmets, harnesses, or gloves. My friend had made this climb so many times that she finds such accouterments unnecessary: the key was to hold on tightly and to only move one hand or foot at a time.

I won't lie: the climb was heart-pounding. It was, as my mother's family says, "truly dangerous." The edited, eight-and-a-half-minute video in the link above gives you an idea of the climb up the cliffs and crevices to the plateau above. Once on top, however, the paths were more or less level and the views were gorgeous. We took some photographs to celebrate our achievement and then hiked to a popular lookout point to eat lunch (left). It's hard to believe that whole area used to be under water.

Next on the agenda was the Idagrotte, a cave carved out of the sandstone first by water and then by wind. Eventually we came to the "never-ending" wooden staircase dooown off the plateau. We hiked across the valley and then up to the second largest arch in the park, known as the Kuhstall (Cowpen). After stopping for ice cream we clambered up the Himmelsleiter (Heaven's Ladder) to one more vista point, where a medieval castle once stood. (They apparently kept their cows in the formation below, hence the name.) I found the sight of so much green beautiful. Then it was time to walk down the windy slope back to the Kirnitzschtalbahn stop from which we had set out 4 hours earlier. It was 5pm, and we were spent, but what a wonderful afternoon it had been!

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Connect the Dots!

View European Travels 2010-2011 in a larger map

Travel is still on my mind, so while I sort photographs and write up posts about my various summer adventures, I thought for my first entry since returning to the United States, I would share this map of my European peregrinations. If you click on the link, you can see the entire map and also descriptions of what I was doing in each place. First stop: Copenhagen (September 2010). Last stop: Warsaw (August 2011).