Kristine wanders

The musings of a wanderer......

Month: November 2016

Warsaw Poland

Way back in June I took a solo trip to Warsaw Poland. I honestly don’t know where the time has gone?! How is it already November? How am I currently 5 months behind blogging about this trip? Well…..better late than never I guess…. Poland honestly wasn’t a country I knew much about before visiting. Originally, I had planned to split my time between Warsaw and Krakow but seeing as I only had 6 nights and I did want some down time I decided to just visit Warsaw and save Krakow for another time.

My initial impression of Warsaw was that it was so green. There was recreational space all around the city which reminded me a lot of large cities in Canada. Coming from Saudi Arabia where one never really sees much green I’m sure I noticed it that much more, but still it gave the city a clean and open feel to it. The older I get the more I like to stay somewhere comfortable. Especially if I’m traveling solo, I want to stay somewhere were I feel safe going out at night and where things are walking distance from my hotel. I’m happy to pay a little extra to be in the center of the action and not have to waste time commuting into the city. I opted to stay on the border of the Old City- it was an easy 10-15min walk to get to most city sites, and there are tons of cafes, bars and restaurants in that area.

I spent most of my time in Warsaw exploring the Old Town, the castle, the square and drinking glasses upon glasses of wine paired with delicious food. Warsaw has several different free walking tours with different themes that meet in the Old Town area. They are a great way to get oriented to a city and to learn the history. Technically, they are not “free” as you tip the guide, but I think they are fantastic and would highly recommend joining onto one of them. The ones I did were thru the Orange Umbrella company, but there are other free tours operating in the Old Town. Warsaw is an interesting city because 85% of its buildings were destroyed in the second World War. Much of the Old City was rebuilt to maintain the look from that time period, but it’s weird touring the castle and the Old Town knowing that much of it isn’t actually old at all.

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I spend part of a morning visiting the Neon Museum which houses neon signs from the cold war era. It’s really quite cool, but a little out of the way and it’s a very small venue. Nonetheless I was happy to have seen it. I also spent some time visiting the Block 10 museum which is within the Citadel and housed political prisoners. I got dropped off at this museum by a taxi driver and there was literally not another person in sight,  and the driver let me out and then drove away. As I walked towards the building I thought to myself how creepy it was and figured that it was closed. I ended up being wrong, but I was the only person in the museum. As I’ve described before I have a way over active imagination. Like I can get myself worked up pretty easily, so touring an old prison solo was not the best idea I’ve ever had. At one point I was walking down a dimly lit corridor with cells lining both sides and there was a gust of wind that blew in and ended up slamming one of the metal doors behind me shut. My heart quite nearly stopped, and then restarted at double its normal rate. It’s funny looking back at it the way nearly having a heart attack always is!! Also all the signs in this museum were in Polish which is less than helpful if you can’t read Polish, but there is a really well done art exhibit which is worth seeing and the museum itself is free. Just watch your back for door slamming ghosts. Another museum I would recommend is the Warsaw Uprising museum. I ended up going on a Sunday and it was free but also super super busy. There is a TON of information in this museum- it’s very well done but completely overwhelming at the amount of information displayed. It’s pretty easy to get information overloaded there.

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One morning I attempted to visit Lazienki Palace which is housed within the largest park in Warsaw. It’s built on a lake, and the views are stunning. Unfortunately, on the day I visited the Palace was closed for some type of government function with security and media. I was still able to get some spectacular shots of the Palace and the park, so all was not lost. Coincidentally, one of the reasons for my visiting the park and the Palace was that it was about a 6km stroll back to my hotel (these were my early days of Camino training). On my way back I stumbled upon a huge overpass with some very talented graffiti work. I’m a sucker for urban art- I’m not talking about the simple “tagging” of graffiti, but the stuff that’s urban and industrial and colourful, and was created at the hands of someone with a great deal of artistic talent. The graffiti covered every possible inch of reachable concrete and I was mesmerized and took at least a hundred pictures. Much to my great pleasure that walk back looped through part of an industrial area, again every surface was covered in urban art!

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My last day I took a taxi 20min south of the city to visit Wilanow Palace which was left largely unscathed from WW2. The Palace was built in the early 1800s and it’s really a marvel to visit. The Palace is white with bright yellow accents and statues lining the roof. The inside of the Palace is decorated with artwork and furniture from that time. One section had tin pieces painted with portraits from the 17th century. The portraits were painted prior to someone dying for the grieving to see the dead and often they were painted in the persons traveling clothes as they believed that death was the ultimate journey to a new life. I quite like this custom. The Palace is surrounded by well manicured grounds that make a lovely stroll.

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Poland has a very significant Jewish history and in fact  parts of Warsaw are quite literally built on the ruins of the Jewish ghetto. If you visit I would highly recommend that you do some sort of tour that speaks to this history. As previously mentioned I did a couple free walking tours with the Orange Umbrella company and they had one specifically about Jewish Warsaw. Reportedly, back in the 10th century the Kings from this area offered Jewish people the freedom of religion and protection at a time when they were being persecuted in Western Europe. In the early 16th century Warsaw became Christian and the Jewish residents moved outside the city walls. Aristocrats set up private towns and many Jewish residents lived there. In the 18th century Poland ceased to exist and it was split between Russia, Prussia (pre Germany) and Austria. It was then recreated after WW1. Prior to WW2 half the residents of Warsaw were Jewish. 6 million Poles died in WW2 and half of them were Jewish. In 1940 all Warsaw Jewish residents were moved into the Jewish Ghetto and 100,000 people were moved out of that area to make space. Eventually 500,000 people would reside there. Conditions were deplorable as one can image. There was massive over crowding and people were living off an estimated intake of 460 calories/day. 91,000 died that first year. In 1941 1 million Poles were killed by death squads. In 1942 the deportations to death camps started. International communities were petitioned to bomb the railways which likely would’ve ended the Holocaust but they didn’t. By 1942 there were just 300,000 people left in the Warsaw ghetto- mostly strong men used for labour. These men would go on to plot and take part in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943. These men were able to hold off Nazi forces for nearly a month and is known as the largest Jewish revolt in the second World War. In 1944 the Warsaw uprising took place which led to the retreating Nazi forces basically destroying Warsaw which is why 85% of its buildings were rebuilt after the war. The Jewish Walking tour takes you to many of the memorials around the city, past the cemetery and points out the markers on the sidewalk that indicate the borders of the Jewish ghetto.

So that covers my time in Poland. I think Poland is largely overlooked as a European destination, but if Warsaw is any indication of what the rest of the country has to offer I’m quite certain I’ll be back to explore more!

Vimy Ridge France

I’ve been a little absent on my blog, but rest assured I’ve got a lot of new posts coming, once I get my thoughts in order. It’s been just over 2 weeks since Pops and I finished up the Camino, and we spend the beginning of November chilling in Paris. Chilling because it’s actually been pretty damn cold. We did some sightseeing checking things off Pops Paris bucket list and not giving our feet and legs the much needed rest that they deserved. Pops has returned to Canada, but one of the major things that he wanted to do during our time in France was to visit Vimy Ridge War Memorial. It just so happened that the first weekend in November the Veteran Affairs of Canada hosted a memorial service there. So we bought tickets and took the high speed train from Paris to Arras, the town closest to the site. The train takes about 50min. We ended up staying in Arras overnight because the memorial service times and the train times didn’t allow us to make it a day trip.

Vimy Ridge is of huge historical significance for Canadians. I’m sure most Canadians would recognize the name, but given my WWI history isn’t so great (and I’m assuming the same can be said for some of my readers especially my dear cousin Amber) I’m going to give an overall summary. WWI started in 1914 when Austria- Hungary declared war on Serbia. Because of treaties with neighbouring countries this then drew Germany, Russia, Great Britain and France into the conflict. Once Britain declared war this automatically brought Canada into the war. In 1914 Canada was still a relatively new country and this war was the first time Canadian forces fought as an independent force. By the end of the war 67,000 Canadian soldiers would be killed and 250,000 would be wounded. WWI or the “Great War” as it was known ended November 11, 1918

The battle at Vimy Ridge was fought over a 4 day period in April 1917. Basically German troops held the high ground prior to the Vimy Ridge assault and Canadian forces were credited with reclaiming the high ground from the Germans and this was essential for the advance of the British Army from the south. This victory though, came at a very steep cost. There were nearly 3,600 men killed during those bloody 4 days and over 10,000 wounded.

The Canadian National Vimy Memorial stands as a reminder to all those who served and risked their lives or lost their lives during WWI. The monument stands on soil that saw some of the most vicious fighting overlooking the Canadian battleground. The monument is imposing as its white marble stands in contrast to the surrounding hillside and skyline. The night prior to the memorial service we met some fellow Canadians (we started chatting with them trying to figure out where they got their poppy pins from) and they ended up being from Veterans Affairs Canada and were involved in the ceremony the following day. Being the nice Canadians they were they gave us their poppies and told us to meet them in the parking lot after the service for whisky shots. I liked them a lot.

The morning of the memorial service was blustering cold. The wind was raw, working itself between the seams of our jacket and scarfs. We arrived a couple hours before the memorial service was to start. The entire site is quite large consisting of a visitor center, the monument, a cemetery and then the German and Canadian tunnels and trenches. There is also work taking place to enlarge the visitor center by next year in time for the 100 year anniversary of the battle. We spent some time wandered thru the trenches and then walked back towards the monument. Much of the area is roped off with warning signs of the possibility of unexploded shells and bombs. So people aren’t allowed to walk thru the fields but nearby farmers do allow their sheep to graze thru this area. As I mentioned there is a cemetery, so we walked down to have a look. Most of the graves were unmarked inscribed with the country and sometimes the Battalion of the troops involved. Occasionally there were graves with names. We were the only visitors at the cemetery during our time there. The grave stones were lined in long rows and the cold wind blew the changing fall leaves across the cemetery. The occasional grave was adorned with flowers that had long since died or had a single poppy planted in front the petals still bright red. There was a certain heaviness in the air of all that had been lost during those 4 days nearly 100 years earlier.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We took our time walking back towards the monument. The walkway up to the monument was packed with Canadian troops. Many young, but also several older servicemen. Some were Air Force, some Army, some Navy. Some wore green and others blue. There were a few ladies in the mix. Walking between them was one of those moments where you are filled with complete pride for your country, and for those who continue to risk their loves to protect it. The  backside of the memorial is adorned with 2 large statues of a man and woman on either side of the stairs both appear to be mourning. They are known as “The Mourning Parents.” Around both sides of the monument are the engraved names of those Canadian soldiers that died in France. As you walk thru the monument passing by the “Mourning Parents” you come to the front side of the monument and can stand staring up at the 2 large columns in front of you. There are several statues carved into the pillars. One statue stands out more than the others though. It’s of a young woman wearing a cloak. Her sorrow-filled face turned down towards the field below.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The memorial service started a little before 11. I’m guessing there were a couple hundred people in attendance. There were some government dignitaries and the service was conducted in both French and English. Lining the front wall of the  monument were the retired servicemen and women holding flags throughout the service. Some songs were sung, poems read, wreaths laid and a moment of silence to honour the dead. It was really special to be able to attend a memorial service honoring Canadian soldiers on such a historical site. By the time the service was over we were frozen. The rawness of the air had numbed our toes and fingers and it was time to get on our way. Luckily, we ran into the Canadians we met the night before and true to their word we followed them to the parking lot for shots of whisky. This seemed like a fitting end to the service and proved an excellent way to warm up! I have never been a fan of scotch or whisky, but I can know proudly say that there is a type of whisky made in Eastern Canada that has maple syrup added to it and it is divine. And coincidentally, it would make an excellent stocking stuffer with the holidays coming up. It’s called Sortilege. So good.

After we warmed our insides with the sweet deliciousness of maple syrup whisky we walked back to the visitor center and had a tour of the underground tunnels and trenches. The Veteran Affairs of Canada has a program where Canadian university students can apply and become guides of the site for a semester. Applicants must be bilingual, but if you know a student that is interested you should encourage them to apply. It’s a really cool program. Our guide was Patrick from BC and he was awesome. He took us through the tunnels and talked to us about what it would’ve been like for the soldiers of that time, and preparation that went into the battle at Vimy Ridge. We then walked thru a small portion of the Canadian trenches. It’s hard to imagine the inhumane conditions those soldiers lived in.  How cold, and wet, and scared and hungry they must have been. It’s unimaginable really. We then stopped in the visitor center so Pops could buy himself a book and made our way back to the city of Arras and to the train that would return us to Paris.

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If you are in France (and Canadian) I would encourage you to visit Vimy Ridge or the Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorial which is nearby. Pay your respects to those who lost their lives in honour of our country. My patriotism always comes out when I glimpse a Canadian flag on foreign soil.

 

“In Flanders fields the poppies blow

Between the crosses, row on row,

That mark our place; and in the sky

The larks, still bravely singing, fly

Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the dead. Short days ago

We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset grow,

Loved and were loved, and now we lie

In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:

To you from failing hands we throw

The torch; be yours to hold it high.

If ye break faith with us who die

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow

In Flanders fields.”

Written in 1915 by Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae

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