There is, of course, no particular reason that the way a trip starts is an omen of any significance for how the trip will go. Nonetheless, it should be mentioned that this trip began with our flight being delayed for bad weather in Michigan, our flight being delayed again because of a sick pilot, and then our flight being rerouted through different cities entirely. So, our "trip" began with a 5-hour stay in the Austin airport. Juliet was very patient with this.
The plan was to meet up with a friend of mine, Michaela, and spend part of a day buying things that were too bulky or otherwise a pain to bring through airports, and generally fighting off jeg-lag until night time. Arriving about six hours later than we expected in Berlin, we had a note from Michaela saying her husband had just had a bad fall and twisted his knee, and had to be taken to the hospital, so she wouldn't be able to meet up with us after all. Uh, ok. I repeated to myself that I did not, repeat did not, have any bad impressions or forebodings about this trip. We went shopping, mostly unsuccessfully (Juliet loved the fact that Karstadt stores have a lot of escalators), and then took Juliet to her first Christmas market. We had not yet realized that she needed three, not two, pairs of socks on to be comfortable in the cold, so she began crying. This is a picture of her a couple minutes prior to that point, when she is already clearly having to force a smile for the camera.
We went back to the hotel. Pretty soon, I told myself, something fun was going to happen on this trip.
We got up early and made it to the train station on time, then found that trains were NOT leaving on time. We spent quite a bit of time waiting for our train to show up, and eventually realized that we had no chance of making our Poznan, Poland connection. We went downstairs to get our ticket changed, rushed back up in case our first train had arrived, waited some more, then Juliet started asking me for lessons on how to make a snowball. I told her it would be a lot easier with snow that wasn't old and dirty. Finally our train showed up and we got on. So much for German trains always running on time.
When we got to Poznan, we found that the most important Polish word I had learned in my limited Polish studies was "opoznienie" (delayed). So, we ended up in Poznan, and found that our train had been canceled (it took a long time for us to figure this out). So, we had to wait for the first train the next morning, which did happen really early in the morning, but we still faced the hours between about 8 pm and 2 am in the Poznan train station.
Oddly enough, this was the time Juliet had enjoyed most of the trip thus far. She and I ran back and forth in the train station, she got a Kinder Egg (thin shell of chocolate around a tiny toy, in this case a little red four-eyed alien), she got a book with two paper princess dolls that had about 50 accessories each, and mostly she got our attention whenever she wanted it.
However, the bathroom attendant lady, who apparently took her job VERY seriously, gave Cassandra a hard time when she tried to take Juliet to the bathroom without paying for two people. Cassandra is still annoyed about this lady, almost two weeks later.
Finally arriving in Gdansk, we found it to be a quite pleasant surprise. Our hotel was very nice and staffed by pleasant people, and there was snow floating softly down as picturesque as you could hope for. The city gates and walls of the old town were neat to look at, as was the old town square. They had a little Christmas market, where we searched for a pancake restaurant that had changed its name and menu to something we didn't want. We crossed the river, drawn by a big flashing sign saying "Pizza", that led us to a restaurant that said they were out of pizza. They did have vegetarian pierogis, served in a warm and candle-lit old dining room, though, so we made do with that. It turns out that pierogis made in the Polish winter are quite good.
When we left the restaurant, the snow had become quite thick, making it hard to see but also giving a glow to the entire town. We made it back to our hotel to recharge, and on our way back a woman towing her son in a small sled told Juliet to hop on, then pulled them together several blocks. She was not the only parent we saw there using a sled rather than a stroller to take small children around. We had to hurry to keep up, and Juliet was giggling with delight (the boy didn't register much of an opinion, perhaps he was annoyed at having to share his seat).
We went out again to a Turkish restaurant. They did not, as promised, have falafel, but the waiter instructed the cook to make us some vegetarian dishes that were not on the menu, and it was all delicious, with a window seat looking out on the frozen river.
When we left, we found the Kopernik Gingerbread company building, in the cellar of the oldest house on its block, where we bought some gingerbread (first of many such purchases) in cute little tins that were replicas of the older houses in the city. When we got back to our hotel, Juliet and I discussed more about how to make snowballs, and we had a miniature snowball fight outside the front door. I had forgotten how hard it is to learn how to make a proper snowball; much like whistling, it is easy once you know but hard to learn.
Woke up late, having had a communications problem concerning setting the alarm, and so were late getting to the train station, and immediately after getting there Cassandra realized she did not have her purse. She went back while I stayed with Juliet at the train station; we spent an awkward 45 minutes or so watching the clock, wondering if Cassandra would make it back in time for us to catch our train. Also, all of our passports were in Cassandra's purse.
It turns out the purse had broken and fallen in the lobby of the hotel, and the hotel staff had found it and were able to return it to Cassandra with all its contents. She made it back to the train station on time, and we got on the train to Malbork.
This is a town with really only one thing to see that I know of, but it's a doozy: a big honkin' castle. We had not dressed Juliet warmly enough, and had to stop partway there and put more socks on her. Even so she was crying, and I had to carry her for about a mile down the main (only?) street in town. By the time we reached our hotel, she was crying uncontrollably and unable to stop. We began to wonder if she was getting sick.
Our hotel name translates to English as "Hotel Castle", and was a Teutonic Knights hospital. Juliet took a hot shower and felt much better, and we heaved a sigh of relief, then switched to a policy of Three Pairs of Socks for Juliet for the rest of the trip, which led to much better results.
By this time we had about an hour before the castle closed, so we hurried over to find the ticket office closed. We went straight to the gate, where I and the old man in attendance struggled with my Polish-English dictionary. Eventually a young Polish man came up and translated that the ticket office attendant was on break, but would be back soon, so we wandered around the outer wall for a few minutes.
Note to self: when wandering on a mix of ice and snow, look where you're stepping, rather than looking at the castle at the same time you're fiddling with the camera. I stepped in a hole in the ice and felt my ankle fold under me in a way it's not supposed to do. After a few minutes I could hobble along, and we got our ticket and went in.
It turns out that castles which have all the doors locked up (because the last tour has left and it all closes soon), can get kind of atmospheric and creepy. We went through and saw as much as we could, then went back to eat in the hotel restaurant, which had Teutonic Knight crosses on the floor, old dark brown beams in the walls and roof, and excellent pierogis and white wine. We went back to our rooms, and admired the view.
While showering that night, I tried (successfully) to keep Cassandra from seeing how much my right foot had swollen. We asked the desk clerk (a nice young lady who spoke essentially no English) if we could have a taxi called for us the next morning, and she suggested that they could give us our breakfast to go. Which all sounded fine, except when I went back to bed, laying there in the dark I began to wonder if she understood that SHE was calling the taxi, or if she thought the only thing I was asking about was how to get breakfast? But the way my ankle felt, there was no way I was going down those steps again.
It turns out, the taxi (and breakfast) were ready and waiting when we got down there. I had forgotten to tell them about us being vegetarian, so there were a few pieces of sausage that Cassandra gave to the train station cat, who then decided we were her best friends.
We had gotten there early so that we could have time in case we had problems, which we didn't, so we were huddling outside in the dark and cold and wind for about half and hour (the train station being under reconstruction). It arrived and departed on time, however, and we got to Torun when we expected to. Having arrived late in Berlin, Gdansk, and Malbork, this was a nice change.
Torun was a cute little town, and our hotel was basically just an apartment, directly on the old town square. The landlord wasn't there yet, but the cleaning lady (who spoke very little English) let us in and called him for us. When he arrived, we found our rooms to be quite nice, with a canopy bed, a chandelier, a full kitchen, and a wireless router in our room. It did unfortunately have a big TV in the room, but Cassandra and Juliet seemed to be ok with that.
We went out into Torun's old town, and Cassandra took us on a walking tour, oblivious to how slow/in pain I was (mostly because I had tried to hide it from her so she wouldn't be upset). Juliet and I walked at more or less the same pace, and we went from one beautiful old cobbled street to another with Cassandra half a block ahead of us.
We stopped at a restaurant which had an old carriage as the table in the window, with a view out onto the snow coming down. Juliet discovered that real tomato soup is yummy, and we had more pierogies and other warm Polish food while we watched the snow float softly down. There were not one but two Christmas trees, and we stayed until the Christmas music soundtrack started to repeat itself.
Walking back, there were a lot of holiday decorations, and a lot of peopling tromping through the fresh snow. We stopped at an Empik bookstore, which had some books for Juliet (in British English, not available in America). We bought more gingerbread, and as it turns out Torun has gingerbread stores on every other block. Somewhere in there we took a picture of Copernicus' house (Torun is his home town).
Cassandra eventually got tired of Juliet and I whining about walking more, and we went back to our hotel room, where she cooked us dinner and we watched Polish fashion shows on TV. Then I showed Cassandra what my right foot looked like, and she kind of freaked out.
(note: this picture was actually taken on the 19th, three days later, after the swelling had gone down a bit)
We made it to the train station on time, despite the fact that we were walking much slower than Cassandra had counted on. We did almost accidentally board a train to Bygdgosz; actually Cassandra had already stepped on board and I was getting ready to follow when I decided to doublecheck with a local if this train was really going to Warsaw. I wonder what Bygdgosz would have been like. We found the correct train to Warsaw, which was basically on time, and took us past lots of snowy Polish countryside, farm and forest. We saw deer at least half a dozen times. Poland is a lot more rural than Germany, which we have taken trains through on five different trips and never seen any deer that I can recall.
Warsaw, however, is much like Berlin or Amsterdam (all capital cities): crowded, busy, and confusing. Our hotel was quite nice though, with a gingerbread house (as large as Juliet) in the lobby, next to the towering Christmas tree.
We found Warsaw to be difficult to maneuver in, and spent about an hour fighting a losing battle to navigate successfully. After arguing a bit and finally giving up on finding the restaurant we were looking for, we then immediately stumbled upon it. The Green Bar is a Polish chain of vegetarian restaurants. That's right, Poland has a commercially successful chain of eco-friendly all-vegetarian restaurants. We had goulash over barley and a soy-cutlet, both excellent, and we all had fresh fruit juice. We left in a much better mood, and set off for the Old Town. Half an hour later, utterly defeated by Warsaw's transit system, we give up and decide that Warsaw would be a Day Of Rest, and we decided to just buy better socks for Juliet at the nearest department store and go back to our hotel. Going back to our hotel was a buzzing rush of masses of people, stampeding in every direction, and us befuddled and bewildered trying to figure out where we were. Once we got back to our room, we collapsed.
Well, we did emerge later to redeem our coupons for free drinks in the hotel bar. They were playing Rat Pack jazz, a repeating theme in Poland for some reason.
One thing about our Warsaw hotel, the morning breakfast had vodka shots available. We filled up on cooked eggs and breakfast cereal instead, and made it back to the train station. After some confusion (apparently shared by the locals), we found the right train track and crowded on.
In addition to the deer, which we saw another half a dozen times, we also saw foxes on a couple of occasions, and rabbits, and Cassandra eventually saw fox hunters with rifles and dogs. The Polish people all seemed very nice, and several of them who spoke English went out of their way to explain to us what was happening with the questions about delays. Also, travelling in a train feels like rest, whereas travelling in a plane or car feels like work.
We got to Krakow, where we stayed in a hostel. We took a quite roundabout route there, and the young lady who checked us in gave us a map with several vegetarian restaurants circled on it. Our room had a view out onto the Barbican, thank you very much. We went out into Krakow, with fresh snow over everything, and found it to, indeed, be All That. There were animated lights and decorations everywhere, the buildings were gorgeous, and the former moat has been filled in as a green space in the middle of town (the "Planty"). There are centuries-old buildings all over. There was fresh-fallen snow. There was, if my memory does not deceive me, music audible over much of the place. It was almost ridiculous how picturesque it was.
We ate in a 24-hour pierogi place, where we had some of every vegetarian option they had, and three fruit juices (and it was all really cheap). We went out to their Town Square, including the old Cloth Hall, now a big market. We bought a wooden toy car for Juliet and a cane for me, which improved my speed and mood tremendously.
Cheesy live music, hot drinks, lots of Christmas market booths. We enjoyed the holiday scenes on the way back home. Cassandra said that with my cane and bowler I now looked like a Victorian stereotype, especially standing under the streetlamps in the snow-covered Planty.
On the sidewalk in front of our hostel was a basket filled with rocks of some sort, lit by a fire (presumably from a natural gas vent) until they glowed red. It looked like there was a coal fire on the sidewalk, surrounded by several huddled Dickens novel characters.
One of the obligatory sights of Krakow is Wawel Castle (pronounced something like "vah-vell"). It was basically on the other side of the Old Town from where we were saying, but we braved the ice and snow and my lameness and went anyway. I found the cane to be a great help, so long as there was ice and/or snow to stick it into.
On the way, Cassandra learned the Polish word for hot spiced wine, and Juliet had a cup of hot cocoa that was basically a very runny pudding. Apparently this is a standard Polish drink, and apparently it works if you're either a 5-year old, or Polish.
Wawel Castle looks like what we think of a castle as being. It is also, quite oddly, one of the 7 World Chakra Points, although the tourist signs don't talk about this much. You'll just have to look that one up on your own, I guess, to know more about that story.
There is a story in Krakow about a dragon which had been terrorizing the region, until being defeated by a local clever cobbler's apprentice who fed him meat stuffed with sulfur, causing him to drink so much water he exploded. The spot where the dragon supposedly lived is beneath Wawel Castle, and there is a dragon sculpture outside of it which breathes real fire (from a natural gas nozzle). Juliet, and frankly also her parents, were inordinately impressed by this. We would have been even more impressed if we had know that you can also send an SMS with the text "SMOK" to a local number to get him to breath fire before the 5 minute delay is up.
Juliet and I had been talking about making a snowman for some time, and we found a spot on the river next to Wawel Castle to do it. The end result was more of a snowchild, which at first Juliet thought was a snowgirl but later decided had been a snowboy. I asked her much later how she came to that conclusion, and she said it was because we hadn't given it any hair, therefore it couldn't be a girl.
We had some leftover bread which we had bought a few days before, and when travelling in Europe there is no reason to put up with stale bread since there is always a good bakery nearby. So, Cassandra and Juliet fed it to the birds in the river. Our hostel host had recommended the spot to us for that, and also warned us that the swans might be a bit aggressive. He was correct in both regards.
On the way back, we went again to the big Christmas market. They had a quite intriguing sculpture (by Igor Mitoraj) of a man's head, lying on the side, and hollow, so that children could easily climb inside and look out the eye. It was an even more arresting sight when half-covered with snow.
I convinced Cassandra to buy a big fuzzy hat, which she wore that day and the next and never again, which is too bad because I thought it looked cute on her. We also bought some wool socks for Juliet. If you need to buy warm clothes, Poland is not a bad place to do it.
The train ride to Wroclaw was our most crowded, with three other people and a little dog named Moni sharing our compartment. It turned out to be fine, though, with Juliet standing up to do an improvised song about our train ride that got a round of applause from our Polish fellow travellers. It helped that Moni was very friendly.
Wroclaw was, to be honest, only on our itinerary because we didn't want to make the entire train trip from Krakow to Dresden in one shot. Having thought that we could get an overnight train trip from Wroclaw to Dresden, we were intending to take a short train trip from Krakow to Wroclaw, spend the day there, then take a night train to Dresden. Well, as it turned out the night train wasn't in the new schedule that came out in early December (after we'd already booked the rest of our trip), so we ended up having to book a hotel for the night in Wroclaw. So, we really didn't have much of an expectation for Wroclaw. We did read that it had the second largest town square in Poland (Krakow being the largest), with a big Christmas market in it.
Well, of all the Christmas markets we saw on the trip, the Wroclaw Christmas market was hands down Juliet's favorite. It had little wooden huts with animatronic scenes inside them: Little Red Riding Hood, Hansel and Gretel (shown shoving the witch into the stove), the Snow Queen, and a few others. I'm not sure how long she would have been willing to stare at those things, but it was way longer than her parents, anyway.
It had a little train ride which she was able to ride on, in the engine! It went around the track a few times, and on the last one there was a whistle (presumably to tell the kids it was almost over). Juliet, on her way past us, was shouting out a question "How do I stop it, Papa?!" Apparently she thought the whistle was an instruction to the person in the engine (her) to stop. I'm picturing what would happen if it really was controlled by the kid in the engine car.
There were Santa's Helper statues, and also people in costume, wandering about giving kids postcards. There was a sleigh "pulled" by several realistic looking reindeer. There was a giant Christmas tree with ornaments larger than Juliet. There was a lot going on.
We also ate at a nearby vegetarian restaurant, serving traditional Polish food without meat. This sounds like a contradiction in terms, but apparently it isn't, and it was quite filling. Our hotel room, although small, had a great view onto a pretty church which, this being Poland, wasn't even impressive enough to the locals to get a mention, because there's so many other beautiful old buildings (including churches) that it's nothing special by their standards. It impressed us, though.
When we stay in Dresden, we stay at a hostel called Lolli's. We dropped our stuff in the common room, had a locally brewed beer from the fridge, and waited for our room to be ready. When it was, we found it to be the one with the "Choose Life" speech from the movie Trainspotting painted on the wall.
We went to eat at a yuppie veggie place called "Ah-ha". Juliet was ok with the food, but mostly wanted to play with the blocks and other kids toys that they had up on the second floor. Then, we went to the bookstore formerly known as Das Haus Des Buches, now owned by a chain named Thalia but it's still pretty cool. Since we were getting close to the end of our trip, I allowed myself to buy two big hardback books by Cornelia Funke, my current favorite German author.
We went to a Christmas market. Since Wroclaw, Juliet's attitude towards Christmas markets had improved substantially. We bought her an "ich liebe dich" gingerbread heart, which in the traditional fashion came with a string on it so you can hang it around your neck. Apparently this is a thing for young women to receive from their beaus, and they wear it around the market the rest of the evening. Juliet doesn't have any beaus yet, but she does have parents. She also discovered that it was probably the only mediocre tasting gingerbread we had during the whole trip (and we tasted quite a bit).
They also had a little train ride, which Juliet wanted to go on. This time she was in the caboose. Every time it went past the giant with a big club, she made some kicking and punching motions towards it. When we asked her about that afterwards, she said she was "using her wind superpowers" on it. Um, ok.
We went to another Christmas market (this time in Neustadt, or "new town", which means it's the second oldest part of Dresden). Dresden has apparently a Christmas market in any space in the city large enough to put a dozen booths next to each other. It's kind of like how every space in Austin big enough to hold a band gets taken over for South by Southwest. There was a merry-go-round ride that she went on. There were two pink and white horses, and she and the other little girl who were riding it each chose one of them. Some little girl obsessions appear to transcend the cultural differences between America and Germany.
Then we went to a big enclosed market called the Markthalle, which among many other things had Russian stacking dolls which both Juliet and Cassandra were fascinated with. Perhaps more importantly, it had a big space to run in, so I had Juliet run back and forth across it while I timed her. We kept it up until she started to get slower and a bit winded. Five minutes allowing a youngster to run like crazy can make the next several hours spent with them much more pleasant for all involved.
Then it was off to one more Christmas Market (this time in Altstadt, the "old town", the only part of Dresden older than Neustadt), and then Brennnessell, which is one of my favorite restaurants in the world. It did not disappoint. Mushroom sauerkraut casserole sounds awful, and beet, potato, and pumpkin casserole also sounds awful, but they were both yummy when made by German hippies. We also had shots of schnapps and an herbal liquor that they made themselves. Just the thing to get you ready to face the cold again.
That night, we went to an event that was a combination of Rennaissance Faire and Christmas Market. We had been there once years before, which was when we first learned that German Ren Fair people have the same weird accent that American ones do, even though they're speaking a different language. It's kind of like the Comic Book Store guy in the Simpsons.
It also had a sleigh that kids could clamber in and out of. It also had CD's for sale, but, like, they're medieval CD's (we bought four). A unicorn (that is to say, a man dressed up as a unicorn, or maybe as a man riding a unicorn) came up and told Juliet something, then told Cassandra she was "verdammt" (damned, or perhaps cursed) with blue hair. It was really packed, which eventually caused me to want to leave, but Cassandra could have stayed even longer.
Dresden is beautiful, especially at night, especially during the winter, and it gets more so every time we go there.
At the hostel, had a conversation with a couple Scottish fellows and an Israeli about architecture. This is the sort of thing you don't get by staying at home on the couch; hostels are a good thing.
We went for a walk on the Bruehlischer Terrace (sp?), the part of the Altstadt near the Elbe River. We went inside the Frauenkirche, which is the centerpiece of the Dresden skyline. I had never seen the inside before; it is a pink baroque explosion. Cassandra and Juliet lit a candle for Troy, our friend who was recently in a serious car wreck. None of us knew enough about religion to say if you're supposed to light candles in the church for people who are still alive. We left shortly before Mass was to begin.
Next, we went to the Zwinger, a big baroque forest of stone ornaments. The center is a quite large open area, and we had Juliet run some laps.
Then we went to the art museum, which has the Sistine Madonna (that Rafael painting with the two bored cherubs at the bottom). It also had Duerer, Rembrandt, Vermeer, a cool picture called the Vogelkonzert by someone I'd never heard of. We soaked up as much of it as our 5-year old contingent could take, which was really pretty good considering. Just as we left, there was a mob (as in large group) of Russians who showed up, so I guess we had good timing in order to see it without too much of a crowd.
We went for lunch to an Italian restaurant, where we had a table next to a window that looked out on the Elbe river. After lunch we crossed that river and Cassandra and Juliet fed the geese, which was quite popular with the geese. The goose feces was ever-present and of a size easily mistaken for dog feces, a fact which Cassandra insists I share with you.
Back at the Thalia bookstore, Cassandra was going to walk around on her own while I stayed at the cafe with Juliet, but then she got tired and decided to stay with us instead. It was day 13 of our trip, and we were clearly running out of energy. After some coffee, we headed to the Altmarkt Christmas Market.
Since it was 3 deg. C, i.e. balmy, so the market was packed. We left and went back to the hostel, stopping on the way at an eco-grocery store to buy food for the morning. At the hostel, we got laundry done and talked with the folks in the kitchen. We accidentally included Kate's scarf, which was cashmere and shrunk. Oops.
We left early enough, but took the wrong bus (or the right one the wrong way) a total of three times, evidence I think that we were getting mentally exhausted. We made it to the Hauptbahnhof on time regardless, and got on the train to Berlin.
Our hotel was fine, but the neighborhood it was in was as soulless and American as any we saw the whole trip. We walked to a Turkish neighborhood, realized that of course the open-air market is closed in the winter, and therefore started looking for a place to eat. Juliet really wanted someplace warm, I really wanted to sit down, and Cassandra really wanted falafel, and it took us some time to find a restaurant with all three (most of the falafel places were takeout only). The place we found had borek (spinach cheese baked into flat bread with sesame seeds) as well as falafel pitas, good beer and many kinds of fruit juices, all really cheap. Next time we may just get a hotel in the Turkish neighborhood.
The Christmas Market near our hotel was the only one to charge money to enter that we had gone to the whole trip, and it was also unquestionably the lamest. No kid rides. Lots of yuppies sitting in heated tents sipping expensive drinks. We left early. Christmas markets are much better when they are in neighborhoods that have, well, neighbors going there. However, on our way back to the hotel, we stumbled on a bakery and got chocolate croissants. Yay for Germany, where on Christmas Eve after the sun has gone down, when almost all else has closed, there is still a bakery open (you know, the necessities).
The flight back was stressful, crowded, tiring, and vaguely dehumanizing, as all airplane flights seem to be nowadays. However, given the horrible delays that other people were having this year, we got off pretty easy, since we got back close to on time. Mary and Josh picked us up at the airport, and we limped home (in my case, literally).
Looking back on it, the impression I have of Poland and Germany in winter is that it is beautiful, harsh, unpredictable, exhausting, fascinating, and intense. It has been said that travel abroad is just like the rest of life, except more so. Travel abroad in winter is just like travel abroad any other time, except even more so. As for Poland, Cassandra and I have decided, we will go back someday.