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A Visit to Poland

Christmas and the New Year are over, and now you are going to potter around the house, do indoor jobs, catch up on a few chores, read those magazines that have been piling up on the coffee table, watch TV, and wait for spring.

You snooze in front of the TV, you dream of holidays on tropical beaches with sunshine and palm trees, but more and more frequently during this warm fantasy, the dream screen scrambles and you get a commercial from your conscience which shows rolling hills not unsimilar to the area where you live, Teutonic castles, elegant palaces, and Gothic churches. It is a daydream you have kept having for some time, a nagging from your subconscious that you need to get in touch with your roots.  You ask yourself, "Is this the year to visit Poland?"

Yes! I would say now is a good time to visit Poland. Travel to Poland is inexpensive and there is a direct flight from Toronto to Warsaw, and travel within Poland is cheap.  The country is experiencing a commercial boom and everything is available, but as the boom continues so will inflation, and it won't be many years before Poland becomes just as expensive as the rest of Europe.

As it is most likely that you will arrive in Warsaw, I recommend staying there at least a couple of days.  In Warsaw you can visit the Royal Palace and be overwhelmed by the beauty of its interior, and its collection of Canalettos; go to the National Theatre and enjoy its superb productions of ballet and opera; relax over a drink in the Old Town Square and enjoy the atmostphere of this 17th century market place, and wonder that it is actually a recent restoration from what had been a pile of rubble in 1945; walk through the Jewish Ghetto, and reflect on the dark side of man's nature.  And of course shop!

Most towns in Poland have in their centre an "old town" and most are being restored. The Gdansk Old Town made special efforts to complete restoration by 1997 for the 1000 year celebration of Gdansk being granted city status.   The old buildings in the city square of Gdansk are reminiscent of Dutch architecture, quite a different and a more detailed style than those of Warsaw's Old Town.  From the Old Town Square it a pleasant walk through the city gate and along the river front where there are outdoor cafes on the promenade which catch the afternoon sun. On a sunny day it is a perfect stopping place to have a drink and to do some people watching.

Choose St Mary's Gate to return into the old town and this brings you on to the most well known street in Gdansk "Mariancka", which is another street totally restored from rubble.  This is a good street to browse for amber in the many amber boutiques or to stop for refreshments when the weather isn't good enough for sitting outdoors.  This street leads to St Mary's Church which doesn't look very impressive from the outside except that it is quite high. Once inside, you will realize just how high it is. A true demonstration of the belief that the higher the church was the nearer it was to Heaven.

Krakow on the other hand wasn't damaged during the war and its architecture is real 11th, 12th, 13th etc century. There is so much to see and the atmosphere so congenial that it attracts tourists from all over the world to enjoy strolling through the old streets, around the castle and along the Vistula. Young people love Krakow as it is not expensive to stay there, and in the evening there are clubs with music to appeal to every taste. Most foreigners go to Krakow to shop for souvenirs.

The Old Cloth Hall in the centre of the town square has, in my opinion, the best collection of Polish crafts in Poland-- amber, embroidered table cloths, crystal, leather goods, woodcarvings, ceramics and paintings.  Just so you don't feel that materialism is getting the upperhand over culture, upstairs, above the craft stalls, is an art gallery where there is a permanent exhibition of Polish paintings including several Matejki's whose canvasses, for size alone are outstanding.

A side trip from Krakow, or on your return to Warsaw, would be easy to arrange and a good time to visit the shrine of the Black Madonna in the Jasna Gora Monastery at Czestachowa.  It is an incredible experience to see the devotion of the pilgrims as they take Mass in front of the lovely painting of Madonna and child.  The baroque basilica at the side of the chapel of the Madonna is also very beautiful to see. Also, if there is time, other side trips from Krakow could include Auschwitz, the salt mines at Wieliczka, and a visit to Zakopane in the foothills of the Tatras.

Warsaw seems to have every train from somewhere in Europe to somewhere else in Europe passing through.   It is central, not only for Poland but for Europe. Buses leave Warsaw for such places as Paris, London and Prague. So depending on whether you are doing the "Grand" tour of Europe or the "Petit" tour, Warsaw will be on your itinerary.

There are guided day trips to just about anywhere in Poland from Warsaw. I have been to Gdansk (3-1/2 hours), Krakow (2-1/2 hours), Chopin's birth place (l hour), Czestochowa (4 hours), and Malbork Castle (3 hours) on day trips. I have made these trips with friends who only speak the same few words of Polish as me, and haven't found communication too much of a problem as English is spoken to some degree by most people on the tourist circuit, especially the young who learn it in school. If I am really lost I approach a teenager to ask directions, as they are happy for an opportunity to try out their English.

For those who still speak some Polish, even the Kaszubian dialect, you will be able to understand enough, and make yourself understood, to at least get by. Kaszubian Polish is "different" to mainstream Polish, but it is related enough to be understood, and that certainly gives you confidence for being adventurous and to visit Kaszuby and those little villages where your roots truly are.

Kaszuby (in Poland) is in the "Pojezierze Pomorskie", the Pomoranian Lake District.  It is incredible how many things it has in common with the area round Barry's Bay. Firstly, it is full of Kaszubs who speak an uncommon language. Then, there are several large national parks which like Algonquin Park attract people who enjoy camping, trekking, water sports and wildlife. The villages which the majority of Kaszubs emigrated to Canada from lie between three of these parks. All the activities that people enjoy in the Madawaska Valley and Bonnechere valleys are enjoyed here.

In one of the parks, the Wdzydze Park Krajowskie, is an outdoor muzeum of traditional Kaszubian buildings which were collected from the region, restored and furnished and set up as a folk village. Perhaps some of them were abandonned by the Kaszubs as they left to look for a new life in North America, Brazil or Australia.  There us a little church, which is so beautiful, you must be moved as you imagine your great or great great grandparents saying their prayers there for a safe journey.  And even if your forefathers (and mothers) didn't come from Kaszuby, it doesn't take much to imagine how it must have been for them to say their goodbyes to friends and family, knowing they would never see them again.

Although there are excellent places to stay in the Kaszuby area, I think it best to go to Gdansk by train from Warsaw, and make Gdansk your centre. From Gdansk it is not far to most places in Kaszuby from the Hel Peninsula on the Baltic to Bytow in the West and down as far as Swiece on the Vistula. One or two of the Barry's Bay families have roots in the villages round Sweice.  But for the most part, the villages along the road from Lipusz to Brusy are the main roots places.  For flexibility in searching our your families' villages, it would probably be best to hire a car.  There is a good bus and train system throughout Poland, but if you want to visit these small villages by the time you have worked out connections your holiday may well be over.

I am sure you would have no regrets giving Poland a try and if you remember what rapid strides Poland has made to catch up with the West in these few years since the fall of communism, you will be proud of your heritage. For those whose roots are in Kaszuby, the Kaszubs will be so delighted to hear you speak their language they will welcome you back like the long lost relatives you are. And as you stand in the church where your forefathers (and mothers) were christened, married and worshipped and hear the same language that your grandparents, parents and maybe even you speak, I am sure you will not regret having sacrificed your tropical holiday under the palm trees.

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