I had just finished a 10-day house/pet sit in Prague and now had 9 days before I was scheduled to arrive on the Isle of Man for my next sit. What to do? Where to go?
Last summer Joyce and I had spent a wonderful week in Krakow but hadn’t made it further north to Poland’s capital of Warsaw. I checked with friends whom I have known for more than 30 years to see if they were going to be in town and they generously invited me to stay with them.
I had the option of flying from Prague to Warsaw for $50. If you don’t know, once you get to Europe you have a choice of numerous budget airlines that take to from here to there for as little as $19! Ryanair, Vueling, Easy Jet, Flybe, etc. etc. etc.
Here’s a Travel Tip: The next time you want to vacation in Europe, fly out of a big city if you possibly can, such as Chicago, NYC, Dallas , or LA. Then choose your landing destination from one of the European biggies – London, Madrid, Paris, Amsterdam. You will always find really reasonable RT flights between any of these. But you say I wanted to go to Prague or Barcelona or Rome? Now book a flight from the city where you have landed to your final destination on one of the budget carriers. You can save literally hundreds of $$.
I saved almost $300 booking my flight from Chicago to London and then getting a British Airways flight from London to Prague for $59. Yes, you do have to go through customs, recheck your bag with the next airline and go back through security, but normally you can book your connection with plenty of time to do all this. I landed in London at 7:00a.m. I went through customs, found the terminal for my British Airlines flight, checked my bag and into my flight to Prague, went through security and was sitting down to a very nice English breakfast in a lovely restaurant near my departure gate all in less than and hour and a half.
But I chose not to fly to Warsaw. Since I had the time I decided to take the train instead – because I love train travel. This 8-hour trip on the Polish National Railway cost $24.95 in 2nd class.
First class means you get to sit on one of those Agatha Christie-type compartments that seat 6 and has a door that closes. Joyce and I traveled in one last summer and though we really enjoyed being seated with 4 very large, loud Czech college students that had just returned from a very rowdy weekend in Krakow, we found we much preferred the openness of the 2nd class carriages.
This train did not have a dining car but instead had a very nice porter who brought around his trolley filled with hot coffee, sandwiches, chips, water, snacks and soda every couple of hours. Most European train travelers bring their own food for a trip, but I had used the last of my food supplies at my house sit and because my train departed at 6:05 a.m. none of the shops and restaurants in the depot were open that early. I was happy with coffee, a fresh Danish and later a sandwich and a Coke.
We passed through a mountainous region where the travelers who had brought their skies on board departed. Thankfully, my totally drunk seat companion who had screamed at anyone who got on our carriage and spilled his morning beer all over our little table and my lap departed as well. Yeah. The next 6 hours were quiet and lovely. I napped, read and looked out the window at the passing scenery. I arrived in Warsaw to a cold and wet and very gray day but was received a very warm welcome at the home of my friends, the Martens.
Rick and Nina have been teaching at International schools all over the world for 25+ years. I have known Rick since he was a very young man. He not only lived around the corner from us in Lake Elmo, MN, but his parents were our best friends and he was my boys’ babysitter! We attended Nina and Rick’s wedding where they literally paddled away in a kayak – and on their way to their first teaching assignment in the Philippines. (Rick is a high school math teacher. Nina is a 4th grade teacher.)
They have been in South America, Africa, Central and Eastern Europe and many more locations I am leaving out. During this time they have raised two beautiful daughters. They were my very first house/pet sit 7 years ago while they were living in Copenhagen. Warsaw will be their last assignment before retiring and returning to the States next year with plans to buy a camper and set out to traverse Canada and the US.
Nina had arranged with one of her fellow workers at the International School to take us on a walking tour of the Mokotów area of Warsaw. During the tour, Steve who is a Scot from Galway and has a deep love of history, explained that over 85% of Warsaw was bombed and totally destroyed by the Nazis in response to the Poles resistance and rebellion against them. Though the Mokotów residential area was spared the bombing, it was a center of the rebellion and buildings riddled with bullet holes and scrapnal are still left as visual reminders. Next came the Russians and then years of Communist rule. Warsaw has had a long and hard history from which they are still trying to recover.
Little crosses have been nailed to the sides of buildings and can be found everywhere. These show the specific spot where a Pole was gunned down. The neighborhood is starting to be revived with murals, if they are a bit strange, which adorn some of the bullet-pitted walls.
Because of the chilly weather, Steve planned a couple of stops for warmth, sweets and beer. Our first was at a really cute tea room with enormous sweet treats, good coffee and interesting local clientele. They even had an adorable room in the basement which would be perfect for a bridesmaids luncheon or small wedding party dinner.
The next day I did a free walking tour of the historic district of Warsaw. But… if 85% was destroyed, is there a historic part left to tour? Sort of. The Poles have rebuilt, with as much detail as they can find in the archives and from old photos, the old historic center of Warsaw. This area is now bordered with modern high rises, skyscrapers and every well-known store available to shop and spend your Polish złotys.
Once again my choice of a ‘free’ walking tour company was Sandemans New Europe Tours. I have taken their tours in over a dozen cities throughout Europe and have never been disappointed. This time our tour guide was a college history professor who does these tours just because he enjoys sharing the history of his country with visitors! (Free means you tip your tour guide at the end of the 2 1/2 – 3 hour tour what you feel is appropriate based on how well he/she did. Normally I tip the equivalent of $5 – $8.)
When we began the tour the clouds were low, dark and threatening. We saw many of the restored buildings, including the royal palace, several churches we weren’t allowed in and had it explained that the Christmas lights and decorations were still up and shining because of local customs that extend the holidays into late January.
The rains came in buckets the last 1/2 hour of the tour but our guide had pointed out his favorite place for lunch that had good schnitzel and a glass of beer for $1.80. The Poles love their beer but when my dirndl-clad waitress asked if I wanted a small or large beer, I thought she meant a normal small and large. I asked for a large and it took both hands to lift it! It was a liter and a half of good, dark larger and I really tired, but I just couldn’t finish it all!
One evening when the rain held off Rick, Nina and I walked just up the street to King Jan III’s Palace in Wilanów. It was night, so the museum wasn’t open, but every holiday season they fill the park with a wonderful light display. There was a field of lit tulips, a frame that Nina and I posed for our picture, fountains overflowing with lights and dazzling archways. The biggest display was set to the music of Chopin and moves, sparkles and dances. Afterwards, Nina and I stopped in a local pub for a dinner of perogies and…beer. Yum!
No matter where in the world they have lived, Tuesday night is Taco Night at the Martens. Their friends, staff members and children are invited to their home to enjoy a delicious dinner of tacos (with handmade tortillas) and whatever else others bring to contribute. It was so fun to meet their co-workers and share a meal. Nina also took me as her guest to the PTO Trivia Night and the staff’s monthly PayDay Dinner. If I were a teacher, I would grab the chance to teach at an international school!
For my last day I had scheduled a walking tour of the Warsaw Ghetto but the weather just did not cooperate. Sleet and snow made it a day to stay inside, read a book and binge-watch Netflix with the loveable Tigo on my lap.
Uber arrived at 5:30 a.m. the next morning and whisked me quickly to the airport for my next stop – Amsterdam! Fingers crossed for better weather but I can’t thank the Marten’s enough for a wonderful 5 days and their gracious hospitality.
Until next time….