Gotoco’s Cultural Tour: Exploring Warsaw and Krakow
Having said our emotional goodbyes to Dwór Pomorski, we got the bus to Poznan for the last time and, via a detour to the infamous station-side bar Umbrellas, boarded a train to Warsaw. Here started our ‘cultural tour’ laid on by Gotoco. The cultural differences started precisely there on the train, as Anya and I fangirled over the Hogwarts-esque personal carriages six people were enclosed in, and I mentally travelled to trains in 1970s Bombay through my book of choice for the trip, Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance. Rather than hot corn, the restaurant carriage boasted freshly-made tagliatelle and, of course, pierogi, although Nina and I were underwhelmed by the famed spinach cake. As ever, we met some fellow travellers who were, ridiculously, the fifth people we’d met from the Bristol area. Once we’d made it to the hostel in Warsaw under the kind directions of Matty from Gotoco, we encountered yet another travellers’ coincidence as Matt and Anya discovered fellow Angloviller Celia from week two nearly asleep in their hostel room! We dragged her out for falafel and our by-now staple vodka-Tabasco-raspberry shots, whose name, ‘Mad Dog’, was perhaps a non-coincidental reference to the English tourists buying them. We attempted a bit more night wandering and failed to locate a boat party before calling it a night. It was, after all, 2AM.
We shook off the cobwebs with a 10AM walking tour of Jewish Warsaw, which was fascinating and heart-wrenching in equal measure. The long-standing Jewish presence in Warsaw and Poland was intriguing to delve into for an early-modern/modern history enthusiast like me. Into the twentieth century, we heard of the horrendous conditions inside the Warsaw Ghetto and stories of the remarkable bravery of those who attempted to resist, subvert and escape them. Poland’s history is too often characterised by the world wars and Holocaust only and I enjoyed further exploring the longer Jewish presence in Poland at the Museum of Polish Jews. In the afternoon we headed to the park for a free Chopin recital, which, as the sleep deprivation set in ever so slightly, felt vaguely surreal as a wonderfully talented gold-dress-clad pianist provided an hour’s beautiful music to lawns full of people resting their eyes or, in Matt’s case, having an unashamed hour’s nap. Rejuvenated, we headed back to the centre and moved hostels to be with the other Gotocoers.
After freshening up, we set out for the Nocny, night market, experiencing some welcome strands of hot rain as we tried for too long to work out how to get to the bustling food stalls we could see below but couldn’t quite reach. The night market is set up on the abandoned platform of the train station. Eventually there, Georgia and I attempted to befriend people by offering them some of the spiced and salted unidentified insects we’d just bought. It worked in limited cases. Calamari Bao Buns and tasty Vietnamese dumplings proved a delicious second course with which to discuss our Angloville experiences with the other Gotocoers, and it was great to see that they had also enjoyed their weeks, although I was a little jealous of those who’d been two minutes away from a bustling town.
To celebrate the eve of Anya’s 21st birthday, the Poznan Six plus Matty headed to Czupito, a bar infamous for its ridiculously wide array of shots on offer. Nina and I attempted to co-electric-scooter there which, given that I don’t even cycle in Oxford, felt an elaborate prospect at night in an unknown city, a few drinks in. Needless to say, we abandoned the mission and called a Bolt there instead. The bizarre children’s ice cream shop decor of the shot bar proved the perfect location to hail Anya’s 21 years in, as we attempted to sing ‘Sto lat’. Invested in sampling Warsaw’s nightlife, we migrated to ‘Rave Square’ where we didn’t rave but did play table football and discuss politics. We were informed by some locals that the next place to hit was Teatro Cubano, which we duly did, via a drunken and confused stroll through the presidential palace park, where we were alarmed to find two poker faced soldiers guarding a grave. Obligatory dancing ensued in the club.
Bright, breezy and 4 hours of sleep later, we faked freshness and headed to the Warsaw Uprising museum, via a much-needed supermarket breakfast stop. My disdain for military history competed with the interesting and extensive nature of the museum, with my sleep deprivation also entering the battle for my attention. Others concurred that, sleep levels aside, the museum was great but they could’ve done better on communicating the basic facts of the Uprising. Still, for free entry that day, it was pretty good. We bussed to the Old Town, church-hopping and basking in the gorgeous buildings and glorious sun. All too soon, it was time to head back for a 5PM bus to Krakow. Warsaw was an intriguing and vast city with the epic, sprawling feeling of Berlin. I’d go back in a heartbeat.
Thanks to Faye’s level-headedness, we made it onto our Flixbus against the odds fated by the maze that was Warsaw bus station. Four hours later, we arrived in yet another city late at night. Krakow’s historic buildings and city walls intrigued us even in the dark, and Dizzy Daisy hostel’s old-world wooden feel added to the atmosphere. A few drinks and a McDonald’s later, we settled into our snug Ikea beds.
On Tuesday morning, we took the morning train to Oświęcim, before walking to Auschwitz. It was incredibly moving to be at one of the most infamous sites in history, the site of a genocide that still continues to shock the world. The juxtaposition between the unfailing August sunshine and the atrocities committed on the ground we treaded was immense. Aspects of the tour were incredibly shocking, particularly the walls of photos of those forcibly detained at Auschwitz, accompanied by their dates of internment, often painfully brief, and the swathes of hair and glasses of those murdered, encased within glass cabinets. The slick tourist machine ferrying buses of guests between Auschwitz and Auschwitz II-Birkenau and the extensive restaurant at Auschwitz felt a little
jarring against what happened at the site. That said, it’s obviously vital that generations understand what happened so as to never repeat it, which renders visiting the site crucial. Perhaps a more personalised tour with a few individual stories would have made it feel slightly less about squeezing tours and visitors in and slightly more a human reminder of what happened, more comprehensible at both the micro and macro levels. But I do understand why they opted for the macro and the bare facts. Ultimately, it’s less about what people like me get out of the experience and more about how those persecuted so awfully and their descendants think it best to convey the depth of malice waged on them.
Sombrely, we headed back to Krakow. Dylan, our friend from week one of Angloville joined us fresh from Barcelona, and with a few extra recruits from our hostel, we headed to Krakow’s bustling Jewish Quarter, Kazimierz, for zapiekanka, toasted baguettes topped with mushrooms, cheese and your choice of extras. A whole circular unit of around seven separate stalls selling the product left us spoilt for choice, and I thought I’d made a rookie error when I realised that I hadn’t scrutinised all the price options before selecting the stall with the smallest queue. My concerns were unfounded as the reason for my more expensive zapiekanka became clear when it arrived: it was longer than my arm! Via a by now familiar branch of Pijalnia wódki i piwa, we migrated to what we decided was the Polish equivalent of Wetherspoons, BaniaLuka.
On Wednesday, Nina, Rowena and I arose bright and breezy with the mission of visiting the salt mines at Wieliczka. Having dashed decisively for the 9AM bus, instilling a theme of running around Krakow which would dominate the day, we smugly boarded the 304 bus, halted only by the inconvenient realisation that the salt mines were sold out for a good few hours. We disembarked the bus near a museum and lamented that it wasn’t open at 9:07AM, like we’d normally be up and out at that hour. Via a Żabka yoghurt-and-granola-pot stop (2022’s answer to sliced bread, it seems, given their ubiquity on shelves), we headed to the Old Town. Impulsively, we joined a walking tour with Bartek of Krakow Explorers, only mildly deterred by his large Union Jack umbrella which to be fair was probably to indicate that the tour was in English, rather than a fashion choice. We learnt all about the history and legends of Poland’s former capital, from medieval salt hub, conveniently located right in the middle of Europe, to a Renaissance melting pot, demonstrated by the fabulous range of architectural styles coexisting at Wawel Castle and the rearing of such minds as Nicolaus Copernicus. Krakow’s modern history was equally fascinating even to an early modern obsessive like me, and the fact that lecturers maintained an ‘underground university’, teaching in a variety of locations, during the Second World War, felt somehow in line with female King (!) of Poland Jadwiga’s bequest of all her jewellery to Jagiellonian University as it suffered financially in the 1390s. Learning is worth preserving!
As we treated ourselves to the touristy experience of eating lunch in the main square, trying new Polish dishes, Rowena and I embarked on run number two of the day: back to the hostel to grab our jumpers. Poland’s scorching heat had decided to pause itself for the morning. We left Nina with a book and the incoming food to look sophisticated and maybe bag herself a Polish romance. Sweating our way back, the sun suddenly reemerged, and as we tucked into our grilled Brie, spinach and ricotta pancakes, and of course more pierogi, we didn’t wear the jumpers. As Rowena finally headed for the salt mines, Nina and I wandered unconvincingly back towards Kazimierz, stopping for coffee and cake along the way. I was having a last day splurge. Then it was time for run number three, as we finally booked tickets for the salt mines and ran all the way across the river for a bus. Nina very much led the way. As ever, I enjoyed getting public transport out of the city centre and towards different suburbs. Post-work traffic filled up the bus and green hills appeared beyond the road.
Constructed over 700 years and plunging to a depth of 327 metres, the mines were remarkable. Whilst the oldest salt-working tools in Europe were discovered in Barycz, near Wieliczka, dating back to Neolithic times, the first mine shaft was struck at Wieliczka in the 13th century. Maintained throughout the medieval era, mining accelerated in the 16th-18th centuries, only ceasing in 1996. Throughout that long history, the miners carved from the salt breathtakingly complex statues and rooms, including the most beautiful (and only) salt chapel I’ve ever seen, which apparently took three people 67 years to create. Our hilarious tour guide Piotr made the experience doubly surreal, as this perfectly-uniformed, militaristic-looking type noted, deadpan, that licking all surfaces was included in our ticket price, except for electrical cables and him. Ascending the lift at the end and re-entering the real world after two and a half hours was a sad prospect.
Back in the city, we did our last Polish supper in style. U Babci Maliny, or ’Raspberry Grandmother’, was an unknown entity from its modest door and small front room on Spitalna. Downstairs, chalet chic met granny core, with a healthy dose of baby pink roses and a sufficiently alarming quantity of smiling dolls adorning the walls for unclear reasons. Gold-framed photos of celebrities unknown to me watched my every move. Endless lamps, curtains and awnings confirmed to me that traditional Polish decor is not particularly minimalistic. Keen to fill my boots with Polish food for the last time, I accidentally ordered three main courses. Undeterred, we powered through the fried pierogi, ‘Budapest’ potato pancakes with goulash and fried sauerkraut. (I’m still sceptical that the sauerkraut was ‘fried’, and unsure how sauerkraut can be fried, but that’s probably a good thing for my arteries.) The dartboard-sized platters may have increased our cholesterol to alarming levels, but U Babci Maliny’s culinary delights proved, after many weeks, that Polish food can be delicious.
One BaniaLuka trip later, my Polish adventure was drawing to a close. I said my emotional goodbyes to the people who had been strangers to me a month ago and were now my close friends. Teaching English as a Foreign Language is one hell of a way to get to know people. On the plane home I drifted in and out of consciousness, dreaming about Koprzywno lake, Warsaw at night and the salty walls of an underground chapel. Teaching English with Gotoco has been an unforgettable experience and Poland has been such an interesting place to begin to discover. I’m sure I’ll be back soon.
Hope is a history student at Oxford University. She joined us for our Poland summer camp this summer (2022). She showed a passion for teaching and Eastern European history and is clearly a talent writer.