Poland, Lithuania, Estonia: New Take on Old World

Trip Start Oct 20, 2005
Trip End Nov 04, 2006

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Thursday, August 31, 2006

We took the night train from Czech to Krakow, Poland. We had heard many horror stories (thefts) about the night train, but made it to Krakow at 5:30am with all of our marbles and packs intact. At 5:30am, on a Sunday morning in drizzling rain, we fell in love with Krakow as we walked to our hotel.

Even in the early, rainy grayness, the images we had of communist Poland didn't seem to fit with the city we saw. Unlike the fairy tale-esque features of Prague, Krakow feels real and lived in.

Justin booked us into a lovely room in Kazimierz, the 600-year old Jewish Quarter. Before WW II, around 70,000 Jews could be found in this district (a full quarter of Krakow's population), making it the second largest population of Jews in the world. Now only 100 Jews make it their home. More on Polish Jews in a bit...

After a nice hot water shower (yes, we are still in awe of having that luxury everywhere in Europe), we headed to the "Old Town" about a 15 minute walk away. When Krakow was once the capital of Poland, the old town was surrounded by the city walls, with the Barbican and the Florian Gate on one end and the Wawel Castle (a symbol of independence and royalty to the Poles) perched regally at the other end. Luckily for Krakovians, Krakow was left physically untouched by WWII (unlike Warsaw, which was razed). As a result, much of its original beauty still remains for tourists to ogle.

In contrast to the small handful of synagogues, there are at least 32 churches in the small Old Town quarters; this is not surprising since perhaps the most famous, and recognizable figure to ever come out of Poland was Karol Wojtyla, aka, Pope John Paul II.

Whether you are a devout Catholic, practitioner of another religion, or a "practicing" atheist, one can not help but be in awe of these glorious churches that symbolize the religiosity of the Polish people. One of our favorite churches was St. Francis' Basilica which is decorated in the Art Nouveau style of flowery painted walls and bright colors. We have to admit that the meaning of the Biblical parables that adorn church walls was a bit lost on us. What was more impressive to us was to see how each church (we lost count of how many we popped into) differs and has a unique style. We also had fun latching onto tour groups and picking up tid-bits of information. Jamie also pretended that she understood Italian and joined an Italian group for a nave or two.

Interestingly, for us, this was the first European city we have been in where there one can see groups of nuns in their habits amongst the throngs of tourists in town. We also witnessed the piousness of Poles: at every church on every day of the week, we saw people at prayer, moving their lips and counting prayer beads. [This would probably not be the case in other, more secular, parts of Europe.]

A note or two on Judaism through our eyes. Spending our nights and many afternoons strolling through the Jewish Quarter, made it clear that the history of the Jews and their impact on Polish society did not die in the Holocaust. Judaism took hold in Poland, specifically in Krakow, because of the tolerance of Kazimierz the Great, a Polish king of the 1300's. While other European rulers were persecuting Jews (and worse), Kazimierez invited Jews to make their home in Poland, thus making the country a safe haven. Indeed, they came and immeasurably enriched Polish culture and history.

We read that many international (mostly American and Israeli) donors have given loads of money to restore synagogues and buildings important to Judaism - places that had fallen into neglect after 60 years, or were destroyed.

The Jewish Quarter is more of a museum than a living community of Jews, but at least it exists - perhaps to serve as a reminder of Judaism's past glory in Poland. We visited several synagogues, many of which are now museums which educate the visitor on Jewish history of the area before and after WW II. Interestingly, Krakow's Jewish Quarter is now the hottest spot in the city for bars and night clubs. We enjoyed a few - Justin drinking local beer (which he felt was sorely lacking in comparison to Portland brews) and Jamie enjoying Polish vodka.

In this year abroad, we have been to places of great empires, celebrations and human atrocities. Auschwitz-Birkenau is obviously the last one. About 60-miles outside of Krakow, in the town of Oswiecim, we visited the camps where 1.5 million people - mostly Jews, but also Roma and Russian POW's - were exterminated by the Nazis.

For Jamie, who in Sunday school meet survivors and learned about the Holocaust, actually seeing it in person was quite emotional. The camp and interior of the buildings were just as austere as those in pictures she had seen. The many buildings on the grounds had been turned into a museum which gave a good historical overview. Horrific pictures were noticeably absent. Buildings cannot speak, but people's stories do, and we felt that they were missing from the experience; however, it allowed you to remove yourself emotionally from some places like the gas chambers and crematorium. The displays did a good job of conveying the atrocities of the place without making it gruesome.

For Justin, the room after room of shoes (of all sizes) was more indicative of the cruelty and enormity of the destruction than the graphic pictures he had seen at other genocide memorials (namely the Cambodian genocide museum he saw in Phnom Penh). At a Holocaust memorial at Isaac Synagogue, he saw what he thought was the most poignant reminder regarding the whole horrendous matter. A placard read, in essence, that as one was going through the exhibit, one should keep in mind that the same forces of passionate hate that took a hold 50 years ago are still being played out around the world today.

To celebrate life, that evening we had a wonderful Polish meal of a sourdough-based soup, stuffed cabbage leaves and pirogies with various fillings. After that we had some vodka and discovered a truly disgusting snack - except when you are looking for some "soakage" for all that vodka - Zapiekank. Many road side stands sell "Zapiekanka" a pizza-like thing on a French roll with ketchup and garlic sauce on top. Not all foods can be winners in our book... but it served its purpose!

Perhaps in the spirit of Poland's post-communist exuberance, we spent a morning looking around Nowa Huta or "New Steel Works." The Soviets planned this city - to house workers of the local steel mill - with the intention that it be a showcase "workers paradise." They wanted to inject heavy duty industry into artistic and intellectual Krakow. If one wanted to see Marx, Lenin, or Stalin's vision of communist utopia, Nowa Huta is it. Planned to the exact details such as where the local beauty parlor would be, these gray block-building structures were erected in the late 50's and 60's to house 100,000 people. In fact, in the years right after WWII, many Poles were enthusiastic about the Soviet idea: many farmers and craftsmen who had never had indoor plumbing (and who were still recovering from WWII) flocked to the city to start a new, modern life.

Ironically, Nowa Huta helped nurture the anti-communist Solidarity movement which was instrumental in bringing down communism in the late 80's. We learned that Poland had the first free elections and voted out communism a few months before the Berlin wall fell. Since the Berlin wall was a tangible item (that made for good a photo-op), it became the symbol of the downfall of communism. Ask any Pole and they will tell you that Poland was first!

We visited Nowa Huta because we hired a guide to give us a "communism tour." No kidding! For a few bucks, a group of young Poles will take you around Nova Huta in a rickety old East German Trabant car - a vehicle that's synonymous with communism. [Indeed, the car broke down and Justin had to help push-start it, and that wasn't part of the price of the tour]

Essentially, these guys give you personal insight into their families' lives under the USSR. In the 90's, Western media often ran stories about how forlorn and distraught people in this part of the world were without the communist State to care for them. But our 22 year-old guide (who was, appropriately, an economics major) went on and on about how his relatives, seized the opportunity and began new businesses and bought property in those heady years....a capitalistic tour of communism is the perfect way to stick a finger in Lenin's eye!

One thing that struck us about Nowa Huta was the lack of emotion or character. Despite the fact that we were 5 km outside of Krakow's old town, it felt like we were a world away. That is probably how the Soviets wanted it to be. Today the steel mill only employs a fraction of the number it did under communism, but the town is still home to Krakovians who commute elsewhere for work.
[Ironically, the mill was purchased by Indian steel conglomerate, Mittel Industries...and the main square was renamed "Ronald Reagan Platz"]

After Krakow, we headed up to Poland's capital, Warsaw. Warsaw was completely destroyed by the Nazi's after the Warsaw Uprising in 1944. The Uprising was a combination of Poland's resistance to Nazi occupation, as well as its fears (which came true) of impending Soviet occupation. Basically, it was their struggle to be an independent nation. For that they would have to wait 45 years. In retaliation, the Nazis squelched the uprising, killed off 2/3 of the population, reduced beautiful Warsaw to rubble and then left. When the dust settled, the Soviets marched in and took over Warsaw.

Today, the old town stands as a replica of what once was. Varsovians rebuilt the old town in the 1950's as a show to the world that they could pick up and reclaim what once was. Although picturesque, to us it lacked the authentic feel of Krakow.

To us, the best part of being in Warsaw was meeting our friend's nephew (Matt) and his new Polish bride (Monika) who until the end of August, have made Poland their home. They met us for dinner and graciously showed us around the city. They also took us to their friend's party, which was the highlight of our time in Warsaw. We got to meet many Poles (and people of other nationalities..including the first Maltese we've met!) who are our age. Learning about how Poles of our generation sought to make sense of their post-communist world helped make what we have learned on the news and in history books more real. People seemed optimistic about the possibilities before them in the New Poland. We learned that the Poles are incredibly creative and have an amazing ability to forgive. In discussions with them about what the Nazis did to their country, this group of Poles seemed to have no animosity towards Germany. [However, the same can not be said for the USSR] In one evening, we felt like we had made new friends. The evening was also special because it allowed us to experience Poland for what it truly is: a people's' home and culture, not just a bunch of touristic sites for us to view.

Leaving Poland on a high note, we moved further north to the Baltics to Vilnius, Lithuania. After experiencing the vomiting abilities of one of our youth hostel dorm-mates, we decided that, yes, we are too old for that scene. So, for just a bit more per night, we rented a one-bedroom apartment right in the heart of Vilnius' Old Town. Having a kitchen allowed Justin to enjoy Jamie's cooking after a long hiatus.

You know a country is going to be interesting when the word for "thank you" is pronounced "Achoo." Vilnius, the capital city is fiercely independent, eclectic and looks a bit patchy. For instance, walking down one street (which seemingly changes names every block) you can see dilapidated buildings, mere shadows of their original grandeur, right next door to a repaired, colorful home decorated with a statue or an interesting facade. Most of the city is under scaffolding, testimony to ongoing physical improvements. [This effort is only possible because of the millions of Euros Lithuania received upon joining the EU]

From a public health policy prospective, we saw that this entry into the EU has a triggered another remarkable change: a shift to making public spaces non-smoking. On our first night, we walked into a restaurant specializing in traditional Lithuanian food and found it completely empty: all the other diners were outside eating and smoking, while we were the only folks inside eating under the new "No Smoking" signs. Yet the "stages of change" for Lithuania aren't quite complete: on the menu, right after the desserts, were listed a wide range of cigarettes for sale. [Does that mean that if you're sitting in non-smoking that you have to get them "to go"?]

Lithuania's history has been speckled with occupation. Germany, France and Russia have all had the pleasure of setting up camp in Lithuania. Lithuania was also the last European Country to accept Christianity in the 13th century; perhaps their pagan past adds to the quirkiness.

Today, the energy in Vilnius is relaxed even at the the height of tourist season; visitors mingle with locals coming in and out of the numerous churches. Given the beauty of the city, we doubt this tranquility will last for long; it's only a matter of time before Vilnius becomes Prague - overrun with tourists and invasions of TGI Friday's. McDonalds is already there.

Vilnius' independence and quirkiness is apparent in several ways: it has the world's only Frank Zappa statue; apparently, the American rock musician's anti-authority lyrics struck a chord in Lithuanians' struggling under Soviet dominance. Also, Uzupis, a neighborhood of Vilnius has declared itself an independent republic - April 1st is their Independence Day. Of course, it is in jest (we think), but here is a sampling of their constitution, posted in the neighborhood:
- People have the right to live near the Vilnele (the local river) and the Vilnele has the right to flow near the people.
- People have the right to die, but it is not a duty.
- People have the right to love.
-People have the right to be lazy and do nothing at all.
- A dog has the right to be a dog.
- A cat does not have to love its owner, but in times of difficulty it is required to help its owner.
- People have a right to be happy.
-People have a right to believe.
-People have the right to comprehend both their own worthlessness and significance.
- People are required to remember their names.
-People have the right not to be afraid.
- Do not defeat
- Do not defend.
- Do not surrender

and many more items... Also, check out the roadside sign in this neighborhood (see photos).

In Vilnius, we started tangling with the Russian embassy by applying for tourist visa to visit St. Petersburg African countries have nothing on the Russians for ridiculous visa paperwork. Not only did they want to know if Justin had been trained in the use of explosives, they also required that he list every foreign country and city he had been to in the last ten years. Nonetheless, we duly dropped off our passports to gain visas and headed to the coastal resort of Palanga to holiday Lithuanian-style.

Ensconced in the northwestern corner of Lithuania, Palanga seemed a bit like a Slavic Coney Island. Palanga consists of long board walk that runs right into the - very cold- Baltic Sea. August being the vacation month throughout Europe, it was enjoyable to see so many Eastern/Central European tourists.

Clearly, this a tourist town with all manner of entertainment from carnival rides for the kiddies to many pubs for the adults (they even have a big keg dispensing beer on the street as well as kegs on the beach).

For us, some entertainment was unexpected: the Native American band singing on the sidewalk (with their CDs for sale) was a bit out of context. We had a hard time figuring their exact origin: buckskins and feathered war bonnet didn't quite go with the Incan flute music they were playing. But we figured that, before the Iron Curtain fell, groups like this never came to Lithuania. To us, the crowd certainly seemed mesmerized.

Jamie also discovered Lithuanian music and although one of the youngest in the crowd, she made Justin sit through Vitalija's show at one of the pubs. A round of mini-golf also filled up an hour of one of our afternoons there.

After a few days in Palanga, we returned to Vilnius. Thankfully, we were successful in gaining our Russian visas and with that, we took the bus up to Estonia, going through tiny Latvia on the way.

The ten-hour bus ride through all three countries was an incredible way to see the Baltic countryside. If you look at a map, Vilnius is in the south of Lithuania and Tallinn is in the north of Estonia. Even though we only stopped for a toilet break in Latvia, we saw the country. Much of the Baltic country side reminded us of the drive from Portland to Tillamook in Oregon.

Our botanical ineptitude prevents us from providing you with names of greenery that we saw, but imagine beautiful clusters of pines and other trees broken up by farm land and small villages. As we moved through the three countries it was interesting to note that the homes in Estonia seemed to be in the best state of repair. [Estonia has always been wealthier than the other two]

The Baltic countryside has a charming old-world feel. Here, small wooden houses and barns are filled with healthy looking cattle and sheep. Wooden sculptures pop up in random places, bee keepers are out doing their bee-keeping thing and beautifully landscaped cemeteries give respect to the dead. One had a sense of the slower, more relaxed pace of life as we passed by these villages on the two-laned highway that connected the countries.

Late afternoon, with flat bums and stiff legs, we arrived in Tallinn, the capital city of Estonia, perched on the Baltic Sea (and about 50 miles south of Helsinki,Finland). Tallinn has one of the best-preserved medieval town centers in Europe. The medieval theme is carried through the city not only by the buildings, but also in the stores, restaurants and costumed people who capitalize on this fact.

In that spirit, we had a wonderful medievalesque meal of wild boar at Olde Hansa where the decor was so thoughtfully planned that even the modern toilet was created to look like an old outhouse.

We were not sure how many of tourists we saw in the city were there to enjoy the architecture. Tallinn, connected to many British cities by very cheap airlines (like Ryan Air), is a popular place for "stag" or bachelor parties i.e. large groups of 20-somethings on drunken pub crawls. In fact, we saw several of these groups wearing team costumes roaming around town. As we were heading to catch a bus at 6:30am Sunday morning, we passed by a few pubs where the parties were still going strong!

Though all these big, capital cities are interesting, we also wanted to see what small town life was like in the Baltics, so we ventured out to one of Estonia's many islands in the Baltic Sea. Besides relaxing surroundings, we figured (correctly as it turned out) that we would have a greater chance of meeting and interacting with Estonians.

We were impressed by the fact that one can take a comfortable bus from Tallinn directly to the main towns on these islands. Our bus boarded the ferry and after a 1.5 hour cruise on the Baltic, we drove off the boat and arrived in Kardla on Hiiumaa Island.

Kardla, established in the 1500's by Swedes is now home to 4,000 people. Despite the fact that Hiiumaa was a WWII battleground between Soviet and German troops (and then "hosted" the Soviets for 40 years), much of the forests remained intact and is still preserved today. This fact is what drew us to the island as well as the fact that we could finally get out and bike. Hiimuaa derives only 3% of its annual income from tourism, which is quite a contrast to the bustling party scene of Tallinn.

It is hard to capture the essence of this island in words. If we could bottle it up, we would try. There is tranquility, and a easy-going existence here. [As crime is practically non-existant, nobody locks their doors.] The forests that populate most of the island and the marshy sea shore lend to the beauty here. We rented bikes and set out to explore 25 miles of the forests, beaches, and old military installations. Botanical enlightenment did not strike us over the head, but a natural habitat brochure informed us that the forests are varied - pine, deciduous, birch, common alder and spruce can be found.

We headed out to Tahkuna lighthouse which is situated on the northern most tip of Hiiumaa. Built in 1875, this cast iron lighthouse overlooks an empty coastline alive with sea birds. After some time on the coast, we headed back through the forest for several miles. During our journey, we did not run into any other people.

The people here are (as we'd hoped) really friendly. A waiter at the Noordtooder restaurant gave us a complementary glass of a thick yogurt drink flavored with some sort of honeyesque grain (English term unknown) that the locals drink all the time. (One thing we did not try is whatever frightening brew they drink at meetings of "The Hiiumaa Royal Association of Temperate Beer-Lovers)

We also talked quite a bit with the owner of our guest house, Kalle Magi. In a discussion about computers, he reminded us that Skype (the free Internet-based telephone service) was founded and is run by a couple of young Estonians.

It may seem mundane, but we're always interested to find out the basis of a local economy, beyond tourism. We learned that in addition to timber (logical for such a heavily forested place), Hiiumaa nurtures an unexpected, but growing industry: plastics manufacturing. We learned that many islanders, like Kalle (guest house owner), run tourism-related businesses in the summer and fall, but then work on the mainland during the spring and winter.

All in all, we found people in Hiiumaa to be quite friendly. This was not really the case, we found, in Tallin and Lithuania. Hiiumaa was the perfect way to relax. Now we are off to St. Petersburg, Russia see where communist machine behind the iron curtain was built...
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