In April 2018, I and my brother flew to Warsaw, Poland for almost 2 weeks, to drive around the country and see the towns of our Grandparents. Needless to say, even though we arrived in Warsaw late in the evening, we still managed to have a very good Polish dinner the first night. Pierogi and sour rye soup with amazing horseradish. How's that for a start? Did I mention how good the food is here?

Even though we were staying in the heart of Warsaw city centre, we started out our trip by driving about an hour west to the town of Żelazowa Wola. It may not be a hotspot or a place you've ever heard of, but it does have some history. This is the birthplace of Fryderyk Chopin, composer and pianist. The home he was born in has been heavily modified since 1810, but this is the place. Not far from here is also the church where he was baptized. After spending the morning there, we returned to Warsaw to walk around and see more sites. Later, we went to an evening performance of Chopin's music in a building where he performed when he was 14 years old. Since he only ever performed publicly about 30 times during his life, this was a special treat. As the saying goes, into your life a little culture must creep in, or something like that.

Our hotel was in the heart of Warsaw city centre. While there, we started out early to see a few monuments in Warsaw. Yea, I could go on and on about how spectacular they were, but that's expected. The reason for the early start was to get to our Polish cooking class at 10 o'clock. We spent 6 hours learning about Polish food, Polish traditions, making Racuchy z jabłkami (apple pancakes), making a couple different kind of pierogi, and sampling lots of Polish food and drink that was provided to us. Did I mention this was a 6-hour class? There was that much food! Needless to say, we were the star pupils. We even got a certificate to back that up. Despite all that eating, we somehow managed to continue our Chopin Odyssey from yesterday. We still had time to go to the Bazylika Świętego Krzyża (Holy Cross Church), where Chopin's heart is entombed in a column within the church. Not far from the church is the Muzeum Fryderyka Chopina (Fryderyk Chopin Museum). Even though there may not be many of his personal effects remaining, they do have quite a bit of his sheet music in his own handwriting remaining, letters he had written, and the history of his life. The highlight was that they actually have the last piano he owned on display.

We drove south from Warsaw to see the Kopalnia soli Wieliczka (Wieliczka Salt Mine) in the town of Wieliczka. I can tell you are all excited to hear about that. But first a family detour. We had the opportunity to go to the towns where our grandmother and grandfather were born on our father's side. Our grandfather was born in Szydłów, a town with history dating back to the 12th century. It has the ruins of a 14th century castle, with fortified walls and 2 standing gates. It is also home to the annual Festiwal Śliwka (Plum Festival) every August. Our grandmother on our father's side was born in Trzciana, about 117 kilometres (73 miles) away. Here's where it gets confusing, there are actually several towns with that name in different districts. Fortunately, we have a small bit of paperwork for both of them, so we were able to determine which Trzciana it was. Even more confusing, when I was here back in 2012, I went to the town of Mielec thinking this was her birthplace, since I completely misinterpreted the Polish on the paperwork (no wonder no one recognized me). So, we were able to walk the streets of these towns, despite them having been rebuilt after the war, we knew we were in the right towns. I didn't forget, back to the salt mine, the Wieliczka Salt Mine specifically. It really was a pretty amazing site. While only a small portion (a pinch, if you will) of the mine is open to the public for tours, even with that, we were over 152 metres (500 feet) below the surface at one point. The mine goes down 327 metres (1,073 feet) with about 287 kilometres (178 miles) of passages. It had a lot of sculpted historical figures made out of salt done very artfully by the miners. There were also some huge rooms that have been open since the 13th century. The most spectacular is the massive St. Kinga's Chapel. It has numerous statues, wall carvings, alters, everything, including the chandeliers, carved out of salt. Beautiful. Enough to get your blood pressure up!

Oświęcim is the Polish town name where Auschwitz and Birkenau concentration and death camps are located. We got there early, at 07:30 a.m., and were able to go around with relatively few crowds. We spent 6 hours there between the 2 camps, lots to see. As part of the entry, they provide a shuttle bus between Auschwitz and Birkenau camps. Pretty amazing sites, with even more staggering statistics of what happened here. Since we had an early start, we drove the 1 hour and got into the city of Kraków early afternoon (you do the math).

Kraków was once the capital, so there's a lot of history here including the 13th century Zamek Królewski na Wawelu (Wawel Castle) perched high above the town with great views from the banks of the scenic Wisła (Vistula River). Kraków's Rynek Główny (Main Square) centerpiece is the 15th century Sukiennice (Cloth Hall), a beautiful building full of market shops. In the 13th century, the city had walls surrounding it with 39 towers, 8 gates, and a moat. Unfortunately, only 200-metres (656 feet) remain of the original walls, with only 3 towers and 1 gate, the Brama Floriańska (Florian Gate). We found the buffet restaurant near the town centre I remembered from last time I was here. Yum! Despite the enormous Polish buffet (is the word Polish even needed?) we couldn't resist having more for dessert after we found a bakery and had several scrumptious Pączki. Since our hotel in Kraków was virtually in the old town, we spent a little bit more time in the morning roaming the streets, and watching the Main Square get set-up with the street vendors before moving on.

When we did leave Kraków, we made a few minor stops before reaching the city of Wrocław located on the banks of the River Oder. Most of the old town has been beautifully restored, including all the buildings around the Rynek we Wrocławiu (Market Square) and the city's 13th century Stary Ratusz (Old Town Hall). It was a pleasant city to walk around. I will point out, that no matter how you said the name of this town, you've said it wrong. I heard it pronounced several dozen times and still am not sure how the letters all come together for the correct pronunciation. So, take this as acknowledgement that I have now been in this town, and "its name" will not be spoken (mis-spoken?) again.

On our way to the city of Poznań, we made some stops at a couple minor castles along the way. Yes, eventually, when you're in Europe long enough, you have to rank castles as minor and major. Poznań has a really nice restored and colorful old town, and you just can't get enough old town in your travels. In the Town Hall Tower at noon, they have two goats that come out and butt heads. I'm sure it's pretty cool, missed it by 12 minutes. We also drove to the town of Toruń. This town and Poznań probably don't get many tourists, but they should. Toruń is the birthplace of Mikołaj Kopernik (Nicolaus Copernicus, 1473-1543), has a tremendous and rather large preserved medieval old town, and also has Toruń (Thorn) Castle built by the Knights of the Teutonic Order in the 14th century located on the Vistula River.

Most of what we have seen has been south and west of Warsaw. It was time for a bit of a drive to get all the way north up to Gdańsk, along the Baltic Sea. Fortunately, we had several days in this beautiful city. Wow! Spent the day walking around Gdańsk. They have done, and are doing, a phenomenal job of rebuilding and restoring the city. Even new apartment complexes are built in the old town with the look of medieval buildings. Also, around the city are waterways where they have built river walks (the Motława River flows through the city). Of course, Gdańsk is best known for the Solidarity uprising in the early 70s and also early 80s. Because it is on the Baltic Sea, it is a major port. They erected the Pomnik Poległych Stoczniowców 1970 (Monument to the fallen Shipyard Workers 1970), and the Gdańsk port sign which is synonymous with the 80s uprising and Lech Wałęsa (who eventually became Polish President in 1990). Gdańsk really managed to combine all the best of the towns and cities we had seen so far. Really beautiful and pleasant city to walk around in.

Oh yeah, where was I? Oh, that's it, Gdańsk. Can't really say enough about the city. So, after spending the night in the Heart of the City (we were up until midnight walking around), the next morning we drove just north to Westerplatte Peninsula. At Westerplatte is a memorial dedicated to the first shots fired at this location to start WWII on September 1st 1939. Castle time! Zamek w Malborku (Malbork Castle) to be exact, and what a castle. This Teutonic Knights Castle was begun in the 13th century, and is actually the largest castle in the world measured by land area as well as the largest brick building in Europe. I know, right? As a point of reference, it's four times larger than Windsor Castle (if that helps, or, just think BIG). We then returned to beautiful Gdańsk for the remainder of the day and another late evening.

For our last full day in Poland, we left beautiful Gdańsk and took our time driving down backroads to the Treblinka extermination camp. It is about an hour northeast of Warsaw, and way out in the remote countryside. Pretty much everything was destroyed before the end of the war, so almost nothing remains. In fact, there was only one small sign on the main road indicating where to turn off the road to the memorial. Once there, as you walked around, they did have plenty of signs to provide information. Very interesting, but very few people compared to Auschwitz. In the three hours we were there we probably only saw about 8 or 10 people. We drove back to Warsaw for some final sightseeing and our last night in Poland. That last evening, we had a full Polish dinner at a nice restaurant, eating outside on the square. Placki ziemniaczane (Potato pancakes) in goulash and potato pancakes in cream sauce with mushrooms, thanks for asking. Very good...

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Warszawa, Poland - First stop, starting the trip to Poland on a full stomach. Yummy pierogi!


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Warszawa, Poland - Plac Zamkowy w Warszawie (Warsaw Castle Square), all lit up at night, and a lively place to be.


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Żelazowa Wola, Poland - We ran into our old friend Fryderyk Chopin at his birthplace. He looks good for his age.


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Żelazowa Wola, Poland - Rumor was, the neighbors complained about all the loud music. So they moved to Warsaw when he was about 1 year old.


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Warszawa, Poland - In the Rynek Starego Miasta (Old Town Square) with a delicious zapiekanka. Don't forget to top it off with ketchup.


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Warszawa, Poland - We were hungry, so we signed up for a day long Polish cooking class. Now we're certified in Polska Sztuka Kulinarna (Polish Culinary Arts).


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Warszawa, Poland - The Nicolaus Copernicus Monument. He came up with his theory while circling around a Pączki.


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Warszawa, Poland - Fortunately the Muzeum Fryderyka Chopina (Chopin Museum) was open, they found all 88 of the keys.


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Warszawa, Poland - The Pałac Kultury i Nauki (Palace of Culture and Science) is Poland's tallest building, standing at 237 metres (778 feet). To put that in perspective, that's 778 kielbasa end-to-end.


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Szydlów, Poland - The walled town has several 14th century buildings and the ruins of a castle. Cześć Dada...


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Trzciana, Poland - When you're in the neighborhood, you look up family. Cześć Busha...


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Wieliczka, Poland - The Kopalnia soli Wieliczka (Wieliczka Salt Mine) was in operation from the 13th century until 2007. I know a clever joke about salt, I wonder if I should tell it? Na...


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Oświęcim, Poland - The Konzentrationslager Auschwitz (Auschwitz concentration camp) main gate.


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Brzezinka, Poland - Us at the main gate of Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp.


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Kraków, Poland - A scenic view of Kraków along the Vistula River, Poland's longest river, with the 13th century Wawel Castle as a backdrop.


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Kraków, Poland - Two brothers walk into a Polish Buffet Restaurant. They both had great meals.


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Kraków, Poland - The Stare Miasto (Old Town) includes the Sukiennice (Cloth Hall) in the Rynek Główny (Main Square), the largest medieval town square of any European city (day or night).


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Wrocław, Poland - The Rynek we Wrocławiu (Market Square), with the 13th century Old Town Hall (Stary Ratusz) surviving.


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Poznań, Poland - The town's symbol is 2 goats butting heads on the Town Hall clock tower at Noon. Here's our recreation at 11:59.


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Poznań, Poland - There are lots of colorful pedestrian streets around the Stary Rynek (Market Square) in the town centre.


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Toruń, Poland - The Old City Town Hall (Ratusz Staromiejski), in the Old City Market Square, is one of the biggest and most magnificent buildings of its kind in Europe.


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Toruń, Poland - After circling the block several times, we finally found the birthplace of astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543).


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Toruń, Poland - See, I told you Copernicus' theory was influenced by Pączki.


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Gdańsk, Poland - Ulica Długa (Long Street) is the main pedestrian street, and stretches from Langgasser Tor (Golden Gate) to Langer Markt (Long Market) and Koggentor (Green Gate).


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Gdańsk, Poland - Us at the entrance to Gate #2 of the Gdańsk Shipyard. To the left is the 42-metre (138-foot) Pomnik Poległych Stoczniowców 1970 (Monument to the fallen Shipyard Workers 1970) and Europejskie Centrum Solidarności (European Solidarity Centre).


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Gdańsk, Poland - Beautiful reflections along the Motława River (Mottlau River) that flows through the Gdańsk city centre.


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Gdańsk, Poland - The Brama Żuraw (Krantor crane) is a landmark of this beautiful city, and only adds to its charm.


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Gdańsk, Poland - The 25 metre (82 foot) Pomnik Obrońców Wybrzeża (Westerplatte Monument) marks Germany's invasion of Poland, and the outbreak of World War II in Europe.


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Malbork, Poland - The 13th century Zamek w Malborku (Castle of the Teutonic Order in Malbork) is the largest castle in the world measured by land area. It also is the largest brick building in Europe. A twofer!


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Elbląg, Poland - One of the oldest cities in the north, it is also home to the largest brewery in Poland, from 1872.


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Olsztyn, Poland - A quaint Old Town and Market Square make this an interesting town to walk around in.


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Treblinka, Poland - One of the memorials at the extermination camp represent symbolic tombstones for various locations (925,000 people estimated).


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Warszawa, Poland - My brother has the pose, it's just backwards.


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Warszawa, Poland - One last dinner. Placki ziemniaczane (potato pancakes), one with mushrooms and cream sauce the other with goulash.


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Warszawa, Poland - Chopin seeing us off at the airport. Nice guy. He seems to pop-up everywhere.