Ten things I learned in Wroclaw, Poland…

Here’s the usual wrap up top ten list I do after most of our trips. Enjoy…

10. Poland has come a long way in teaching English since our last visit in November 2008. Just about everyone we met while in Wroclaw spoke near fluent English. It was both impressive and humbling, since I only know a smattering of a few languages and am only fluent in English myself.

9. Georgian food appears to be popular in Poland. I was very surprised to find two Georgian chain restaurants in Wroclaw, both of which offered authentic food, Georgian wine, and Georgian beer. I wish it would catch on more in Germany, because Georgian food is delicious and their wine is even more than delicious.

8. Art is a big deal in Poland. Well, okay, I knew this and even blogged about it a few years ago. However, the creative spirit really seemed especially apparent in Wroclaw. I saw all kinds of creative touches, from fun murals in restaurants to very serious art exhibitions in city museums.

7. Poles are happy to not be communists anymore. I saw plenty of evidence that Poland is a happier place, now that it’s no longer controlled by Russia. They even have a restaurant that pokes fun of those years as it also capitalizes on capitalism.

6. Craft beer is a thing in Poland! When we visited in 2008, I was not at all impressed by the beer available. What a difference eleven years makes! Now, there are breweries making fun beers available to everyone. And since there is no “purity law” in Poland to worry about, you never know what you’ll find there.

5. Wroclaw’s parking is better than it used to be. When we visited Poland in 2008, we noticed that it was hard to park there. I spoke to the bartender at the Sofitel, and he said that many families have two cars, which makes parking a challenge. The cab driver confirmed that a lot of people have their own cars and many families have more than one. However, I noticed that there weren’t as many double parked cars in Wroclaw as there were in 2008.

4. Gnomes are everywhere in Wroclaw. Although they were in the city in 2008, we didn’t notice them. It’s probably because they weren’t as plentiful as they are now. If gnomes creep you out, like they do my friend Mary Beth, Wroclaw is not your city.

3. Wroclaw has a beautiful airport that is super easy to get in and out of. Seriously… I wasn’t happy about flying to Poland, since I wanted to shop for art, but I was impressed by the airport. It’s very modern and nice.

2. But the drive to and from the airport from the city will probably take as long as the flight back to Germany, especially during rush hour… Like I said, lots of Polish people have cars now, and they’re all on the roads. However, their “autobahn” looked really good. Poland’s economy seems to be pretty good right now, and though it remains an inexpensive place to visit, I think it’s eventually going to give Germany a run for its money as an economic powerhouse.

And finally, 1. Polish people are warm and friendly… and if they don’t speak English, they will probably speak German. Both times we’ve visited, German has come in handy. However, this last time, almost everyone we spoke to could communicate in English, and overall, they seemed friendly, warm, and welcoming. And it didn’t seem to be just because Americans are probably better tippers than most other folks are. They definitely like money and they appreciate tips, but they also are genuinely nice folks who are eager to talk about their country. I hope to go back and learn more, maybe in an area we haven’t been to yet. I would love to visit Krakow or Warsaw or both. If Trump gets his “fort” there, maybe that will be a reality someday on another one of Bill’s business trips.


Big business in Poland, part ten

At last, it was Friday… the last day of my husband’s big Polish business trip. It promised to be a weird day, since our flight didn’t leave until 7:00pm and check out at the Sofitel was at noon. Fortunately, the staff at the Sofitel granted Bill’s request for a late checkout, so we had use of the room until 3:00pm, even though the hotel was booked. As it turned out, I didn’t need the room beyond noon. The weather was nice, so I decided to walk around the main square and check out the Christmas market, which opened that day. I dropped off a bag with the hotel staff and set out on my last Polish adventure.

First, I was going to have lunch. Originally, I thought I’d go back to the Doctors’ Bar, but for some reason, they appeared to be closed on Friday. Maybe they had a special event, since it looked like it was open, but the door was locked. So then I decided to find another place, which took some time, since I couldn’t decide what I wanted. I hate eating in restaurants alone, because I feel awkward. Eventually, I ended up at a place called Steak ‘N Roll, which appeared to be a steak joint loosely modeled after the Hard Rock Cafe.

There wasn’t any rock star memorabilia on the walls or gimmicky cocktails on the menu, but they were playing rock music on the sound system as they showed unrelated muted rock videos on the monitor. The music and videos were reminiscent of Hard Rock Cafe… and, in fact, I think the music was my favorite part about the experience, which ended up being kind of disappointing.

A tall young man invited me to sit down and handed me a menu in English. I asked him for a large draft beer. He said all they had was dark beer, which was fine with me. He went to get the beer and set it down, then asked if I was ready to order food. I wasn’t, because I was having trouble deciding what I wanted. I kind of didn’t want another burger, but it was either that, a Reuben sandwich, or a steak. They had other stuff on the menu that didn’t really appeal… salads, soups, fish bowls, and such.

I wasn’t sure I wanted a steak for lunch, and didn’t know if I had enough cash, although they do accept credit cards. I don’t really care for Reubens because of the sauerkraut, which I knew would result in a very windy flight. I just wanted a sandwich, and nothing jumped out at me as especially appealing. I asked the guy for another minute or two, which seemed to put him off a bit, even though there was only one other party in the dining room.

After a couple of minutes, the waiter came back and asked for my order. I decided to have the Classic BBQ burger, which consisted of a patty with cucumbers, lettuce, tomatoes, onions, BBQ sauce, and mustard seed mayonnaise. This is not really the way I like my burgers, but the only other regular burger choice was the Alamo Burger, which came with mustard seed & mayonnaise sauce, nachos, cheddar, bacon, tomato salsa, jalapeno, and lettuce. That sounded like a recipe for indigestion. Or I could have had a vegan burger, which came with goat cheese, lavender mustard, rucola, beetroot, and nuts… and that didn’t appeal to me, either. Side note: wouldn’t goat cheese render that burger non vegan?

Once I ordered, the waiter came back with a basket of grilled bread and a side of truffle spread. I’m sure a lot of people love the truffle spread and, in fact, Bill probably would have eaten all of it if he’d been with me. Unfortunately, I have a demonic hatred/phobia of mushrooms and truffles. Just having that spread near me was giving me the willies. I don’t enjoy the aroma of truffles, either, so I left the spread untouched and pushed it far away from me. I know a lot of people think this is crazy. Believe me, my life would have been so much easier if I didn’t hate fungus so much.

Finally, the burger arrived, along with a side of steak fries, which looked really good. However, just like the burger I’d had earlier in the week, the sandwich was too big to bite into. I had to cut it, which made a bit of a mess. Also, they had really slathered on a ton of the mustard seed mayonnaise, so much so that it was dripping copiously from the side in big glops. I don’t know what the deal is with mayo in parts of Europe, but I’ve found that people over here seem to love it and really load their burgers up with it.

I didn’t think the burger was as good as the one I’d had at Doctors’ Bar. The patty didn’t taste very fresh and had been molded, rather than hand shaped. The steak fries looked appealing, but had kind of a weird aftertaste, like maybe the were fried in old oil or something. As I was finishing up, the waiter asked me if I wanted dessert. They had a three items that looked appealing, but I decided I’d rather have another beer. By that point, they also had a lager, which the waiter offered. I told him I wanted another dark beer. I got up to go to the bathroom and when I came back, I found that he’d left me a small beer, even though I’d said I wanted another one and meant I’d wanted one just like the one I was drinking.

So I decided to just finish up and get out of there. I asked for the check, which the guy brought to me. The total was 61 zloty, so I put down a 100 zloty bill and asked him to bring me 30 zloty back. Instead, he brought back the whole amount and said, rather curtly, “Here’s the rest of it.” I kind of sighed and gave the guy a ten zloty note and went on my way. He did kind of smile at that. It occurred to me that he probably didn’t want the coins… who knows? The experience left me in kind of a bad mood, though. I wished I had just eaten shashlik at the stand in the Christmas market that was set up just outside. I probably would have had a better experience.

After I ate, I had a couple of hours to kill. I walked around the main square and took pictures of the Christmas market stalls I’d watched workers constructing all week. I’m glad I got to see them open before we left, although I didn’t end up buying anything. There was nothing there that I couldn’t live without and/or couldn’t buy in Germany. Still, the Christmas markets are kind of cool, and it was interesting to see one in Poland. Here are some photos.

I went back to the hotel a little bit before three and parked myself in the lobby to wait for Bill and his co-worker, who would be sharing a taxi ride to the airport. They got to the hotel at just after 3:00, and we started our journey back to Germany. Our cab driver turned out to be an older Polish guy who spoke broken English and wanted to bond over rock music.

We got in the car and he proceeded to speak to the men and ignore me. Actually, if I had been in a slightly less irritated mood, I probably would have enjoyed talking to him. He told us about how he’d grown up in Poland during the communist era and went to university when Americans weren’t friends. He studied German, because although English was available, learning it wasn’t all that encouraged. What a difference a few decades make. We ran into so many English speakers in Poland. I was shocked by the difference between 2008 and 2019.

Anyway, the guy kept listing all of his favorite English speaking rock bands… Rush (which he noted is Canadian), Metallica, Journey, and curiously, he even mentioned Blondie, but he wasn’t sure if Debbie Harry was American. He had no way of knowing that I was probably the biggest music buff in his taxi. Bill asked me about Ms. Harry’s citizenship, and I confirmed that she’s from the United States. The taxi creeped along, because Wroclaw has terrible traffic during rush hour and the roads are in the process of being expanded into two lanes. My mood was still slightly sour, mainly because I felt like a third wheel sitting there while Bill and his buddy chatted up the taxi driver.

We finally got to the super nice airport in Wroclaw, and this time, I did not get bumped from business class. I was allowed to use the lounge, but ended up hanging out with Bill and his co-worker at a restaurant. The co-worker turned out to be interesting to talk to, since he’s from Georgia and has a strong accent, but is quite liberal. We were lamenting that Trump is our president, and he told me about his plans to buy homes in different European countries and just rotate from house to house every ninety days. He’s already bought a house in Italy and is looking to buy ones in Germany and England. I’m not sure how well his plan will work, nor do I think it’s very practical, but I can understand the attraction of simply hanging out in Europe for awhile. I’m inclined to do that myself.

Our flight was okay. I was seated in 1A, which was not any more comfortable than any other seat on the small airplane, but had an empty seat next to it. I also got food, which on Lufthansa is at least somewhat edible. Actually, it wasn’t bad at all. We had some kind of guacamole like salad, hummus, panna cotta, chocolates, bread, and red wine. One thing I didn’t like about my seat, though, was that it was right next to the lavatory. At one point, a woman got up to use the toilet and neglected to close the door after herself when she was finished. I happened to be eating when this occurred, so I had a nice view of the toilet while I was chowing down on hummus.

But there was also a very kind flight attendant on board who was very solicitous to me. When I mentioned her to Bill, he knew which one I was talking about, because he’d also noticed how good she was. I’m always heartened when I run into flight attendants who are genuinely pleasant and seem concerned about giving good service as well as maintaining safety. I wish I could have seen her nametag. She’s one for whom I would send compliments to Lufthansa– a true credit to her profession.

We were quick to retrieve our luggage and on our way home before too long. Bill was smart enough to park in “business parking”, which is well worth the expense, and actually comes out cheaper than regular parking, anyway. On Saturday, Arran came back home and was delighted to be with his people again.

I wish we could have done more while we were in Wroclaw. It’s a great city, and I didn’t get to see enough of it. However, I think there could be a chance we’ll come back on our own terms, bringing our own vehicle with us so we can get out and about and try some of the city’s tourist attractions. I particularly would have loved to have sees Hydropolis, which is a museum about water near Wroclaw. And, of course, there are still some places in the area around Wroclaw that I’d like to visit, but with Bill in tow. It’s just a lot more fun to visit these places with someone else.

Next up– ten things I learned in Wroclaw, Poland.


Big business in Poland, part nine

Thursday morning was cold, rainy, and kind of depressing. It was the perfect day to visit an art gallery. Just around the corner from the Sofitel was the City Gallery promoting the works of Bronislaw Wojciech Linke, an artist who was born April 23, 1906 in the Polish community in Tartu, Estonia. From 1917 to 1919, he witnessed political turbulence; first he saw the February Revolution, then the German army fighting with the Red Army and Estonia’s struggle for independence.

In 1919, Linke, along with his father and brothers, were repatriated in Kalisz, Poland, which had been destroyed in 1914. It was one of the first cities in Poland to be decimated when World War I began. In 1914, there were 68,000 people living there. A year later, only 5,000 remained. By the end of World War I, the city had been mostly rebuilt, and most of the former inhabitants were able to return. Sadly, after the German invasion of Poland in 1939, Kalisz suffered another setback. It was annexed by the Germans and by the end of World War II, 30,000 local Jews and 20,000 local Catholics were murdered.

Linke graduated from a Gymnasium (a type of German high school for especially bright students who plan to attend university). Then he left his family and began working on perfecting his art. He studied industrial design in Krakow and painting in Warsaw. He was a graphic artist for the pre-war magazine, “Szpilki” and an illustrator for “Dziennik Ludowy”. Despite all of this, there was only one solo exhibition of his art. That was at the National Museum of Warsaw in 1963, which was the year after Linke’s death in Warsaw, Poland. Since then, with the exception of the April show at the Museum of Independence in Warsaw, there have only been small retrospectives of his work in Poland.

I was really just trying to kill some time when I stumbled on this free exhibit at the City Gallery in Wroclaw, which is running from November 8th until December 7th 2019. I’m glad I stopped in, especially since pictures can say things that words can’t… and since I don’t know Polish, art is a more effective medium anyway. Here are some photos I took of Linke’s art. As you can see, he had a lot to say about war, which he did with his art. And he wasn’t just saying it about Germany, either… Russia and the United States got a mention, too.

I spent about twenty minutes or so in the gallery. It wasn’t a particularly large exhibit, even though there was also a video presentation in Polish. I probably should have spent longer, since the helpful leaflet about Linke’s work includes more information about his history. The artist and his wife, Anna Maria, were forced to flee German occupied Warsaw in 1939 because he had been listed as an enemy of the Third Reich by the Gestapo. Adolf Hitler and his cronies weren’t fans of Linke’s work, which often depicted Hitler in caricatures and were published in the Polish and foreign press.

The Linkes escaped to Lviv, a city in Western Ukraine, then were sent to a camp in the Dubowa Village in the Republic of Chuvashnia, and then to Orsko, where Linke worked in industrial plants and painted propaganda and advertising banners. In 1946, the Linkes were repatriated in Warsaw, where Linke died on October 6, 1962. For more on Linke, click here.

After my visit to the art gallery, I decided to have lunch at the Hard Rock Cafe, an American chain restaurant that specializes in typical American food and memorabilia from rock stars. I really struggled with the decision, since it’s such an American institution. I’ve only been to two other Hard Rock Cafes– the one in Oslo, Norway, and the one in Berlin. We went to the one in Oslo because it was 2009; we didn’t have much money; and the Hard Rock Cafe had one of the most economical menus in Oslo, which is a very expensive city. We went to the one in Berlin because a couple of people in Stuttgart had requested that I pick up a couple of souvenirs for them, since they’re collectors of Hard Rock merchandise. I went to the one in Wroclaw because I felt like eating something American.

As it turned out, I really enjoyed my lunch at Hard Rock Cafe Wroclaw. I ordered “twisted mac and cheese”, which was fusilli pasta with a creamy, slightly spicy cheese sauce and grilled chicken. It was served with garlic bread. I know I shouldn’t eat such carb loaded things, but it was such a nice change of pace, plus it was very comforting on such a dismal, grey day. A bonus was that I got a great view of the square, as workers were putting the finishing touches on the Christmas market being set up to begin on Friday. One thing I didn’t like, though, was that Hard Rock Cafe had kind of a lame beer and wine list… but there were plenty of fun cocktails for those who are into that sort of thing.

I did some more writing and reading during the afternoon as I waited for Bill. When he arrived well after dark at about 6:00pm, we went looking for dinner. Wroclaw is interesting, because there are three Greek restaurants located almost right next to each other. They’re all on the same side of the square. Even weirder, two of the restaurants are called Akropolis. The other is called Greco. We ate at Greco in 2008 and weren’t all that impressed with it, so we decided to visit the first of the two Akropolis restaurants. It turned out to be more like an Italian restaurant with a few Greek accents. Our waiter seemed really tired, too. I was a bit disappointed in it… but at least the inside was cute.

This is also the only restaurant that billed a service charge. I’m not sure what the charge was for, but it was about 22 Zloty. Not sure if that was the tip or what, but it seemed a bit shady. I used to work at a place that had a service charge, but it wasn’t a tip. It was used for linens.

We stopped by the hotel bar one last time to say goodbye the friendly bartender. I spotted this funny label belonging to a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand, which is usually one of my favorite wines.

Next post, I’ll wrap up our last day…


Big business in Poland, part eight

Wednesday was a rather uncomfortable day. I had excruciating back pain, so I didn’t make a big effort to do a lot. However, I did have one thing on the brain all morning, and that was having another lunch at U Gruzina. I am definitely a fan of Georgian food. I also decided to be brave and order that Khatchapouri, which is also an Armenian favorite. I never ate it when I lived in Armenia because their cheese is so stinky and rank. I can’t eat stinky cheeses.

I visited U Gruzina at noon, and was their very first customer of the day. I ordered the classic khatchapouri, which is basically just fresh bread stuffed with mild cheese. It looks kind of like a white pizza. I gave some thought to getting the kind with an egg in it, but as it was, I couldn’t even finish the classic. I washed it down with a couple of glasses of marvelous Georgian wine– Mukuzhani and Saperavi, and some mineral water. Then I went back to the room to take some painkillers, read more of Elton John’s book, and take a nap.

They say that walking around is the best thing for back pain, but it really hurts to walk when my back is like this. The pain radiates to my hip, which makes every step difficult. It really sucks to get older, but then, maybe if I weren’t such a hedonist, I’d be in better shape.

Later, when Bill was finished with his work for the day, we had dinner at a really cool restaurant called Konspira. I had noticed it earlier in the week and it looked like a cozy place. I had no idea that it was a kitschy place dedicated to Poland’s years under the influence of the Soviet Union. The place was pretty busy, but we managed to score a tiny table near the bar area. I got a kick out of the murals on the walls, along with all of the communist era relics, and the funny “magazine” like menu with communist themed Polish dishes and information about those years.

At one point, we had a bit of a “waiter taste the soup” moment. The young, cheerful, energetic waitresses brought us two huge bowls of soup. The soup wasn’t for us, but even if it had been, we couldn’t eat it. Why?


Anyway, we had a good time at Konspira, and I see based on TripAdvisor, it’s one of Wroclaw’s best/most popular restaurants. To be honest, while I thought the food was good for what it was, it’s basically pretty heavy Polish food. And Polish food reminds me a lot of traditional German food. I like both, but they’re basically heavy cuisines meant for hardworking people in cold climates. Lots of meats, cabbage salads/krauts, and potatoes, as well as other root vegetables. I loved the restaurant’s theme, though, because I find the communist era of the Eastern Bloc and former Soviet Union fascinating. I would have liked to walk around the restaurant and check out all of the cool stuff they had on display.

We skipped the nightcap and went to bed early, since Thursday was to be our last full day in Wroclaw. As we were walking back to the hotel, I noticed an art gallery that offered free entry and determined that I’d be checking it out on Thursday. That’s exactly what I did, too. Stay tuned for the next post!


Big business in Poland, part seven

Tuesday morning, Bill had to get up much earlier to meet his bus, which departed at 7:30am. Because I am a dutiful wife and am used to waking up in the pre-dawn hours, I got up with Bill. We enjoyed another chaotic breakfast in the Sofitel restaurant. I’ll just say that every day last week, it was pretty much the same thing. Up early and waiting at the locked restaurant door at 6:30am, much like I did at Longwood College in the early 90s. The experience was eerily reminiscent of those days. The only things missing were the grits and biscuits and gravy, and a big, friendly, maternal black lady named Tina who called everyone “baby” and asked for their IDs. Instead, we had pretty young Polish women asking for our room numbers.

After breakfast, I came back to the room, did some writing, did some reading, and went back to sleep. I did this most days. Again, not so different from my college days, although back then, if I was up early, it was because I had an 8:30am class. It’s hard to believe I used to think that was super early. Now, I can sleep whenever I want to, but I’m usually up by 6:00am, despite having neither children nor a job.

Anyway, on Tuesday, I ventured to the Doctors’ Bar for lunch. It is just across the street from the Sofitel, and boasts some really excellent Polish craft beers. I am a beer lover, but when we were in Poland in 2008, I was not at all impressed with their regular suds. I tried beers like Lech, Zywiec, and Tyskie, mainstream brands that are probably akin to American brands like Budweiser or Miller. I concluded that I don’t go to the Poles for beer. Instead, I go to them for their vodka.

Well… I am here to tell you that in 2019, Poland has a rather exciting craft beer trend going on. On Monday night, Bill and I hung out in the hotel bar and tried a couple of the local craft beers made by Profesja, a Wroclaw craft brewery. I wasn’t hugely impressed by the Profesja beers, although they were better than the beers I tried in 2008. The one thing I did like was the cool label on the super strong dark beer I tried. Check out the picture below.

The Doctors’ Bar was pretty empty when I arrived at 12:00pm, and the pretty young server who looked after me invited me to sit anywhere I liked. They were playing upbeat jazzy piano music that I quite liked. I perused the menu, as the waitress said they had a bone in pork chop available. I ended up ordering a cheeseburger, although I noticed the pork chop was very popular. It was probably delicious. I should have ordered that instead. When the cheeseburger arrived, it was so huge I had to eat it with a knife and fork. Seriously… it was gargantuan! However, it was also probably one of the better burgers I’ve had in Europe. The patty was handmade, 100% beef, and very juicy, covered in mildly sharp Cheddar cheese and adorned with lettuce, onions, habanero mayonnaise, tomatoes, cucumbers, and guacamole. It also came with fries with the skins on.

On the day of my visit, Doctors’ Bar had eight draft beers available, again made by a Polish brewery. I ordered a Maryensztadt Klasycznie Porter Baltycki. Maryensztadt Brewery is located in Zwoleń, Poland, well east and a bit north of Wroclaw. I liked the two Maryensztadt beers I tried more than the Profesja beers I had at the hotel. I also tried the Maryensztadt Rye Oat Orange Stout, and enjoyed that one even more than the porter. Doctors’ Bar also has a full service bar and a large array of bottled beers available.

I had to walk off the lunch, so I wandered more around the city and found more potential venues for eating, drinking, and making merry. Wroclaw has a lot of interesting museums, a water park. an escape room, art galleries, shopping, and even a few activities for kids.

At about six o’clock, Bill came back to the hotel and we went out for dinner. Because I had such a huge lunch, we opted to share a rather plain buffalo mozzarella pizza at a restaurant called Bistro 8 1/2. Tucked into an alcove in the cluster of buildings in the middle of the market square, this tiny “hole in the wall” Italian place featured a very friendly waitress who sold us on a Venetian red wine that tasted of cherries.

Looking up this restaurant, I see that it has two locations. The one we went to appeared to be kind of a satellite location. The menu was small and, if I’m honest, I have had better pizza. I liked the crust, but the cheese was barely melted. This is kind of an issue for me, because I don’t like cold cheese. It’s a texture thing. But the waitress was so nice and the interior was so charming that I overlooked it. I wasn’t that hungry anyway. We did have dessert, too. Cannoli for me and panna cotta for Bill.

Ah well… we did stop by the hotel bar again, because there were some guys in there that Bill and I talked to the night before. They were also at the conference and commiserated with Bill about the ways of the Army. One of the guys is going to retire in about two years, so Bill was sharing his experiences. I got to say goodnight to a couple of cute dogs who were staying at the hotel. They made me miss Arran.

Next post!


Big business in Poland, part six

I didn’t get to see as many Wroclaw attractions as I had hoped I would, mostly because for some reason, lately I’ve been having some pretty severe back pain. It’s especially bad in the mornings. Nevertheless, Wroclaw (pronounced ‘vrohtz-wahv’) is a pretty town, especially down by the old part of the city in the enchanting market square. Pastel colored buildings surround the vast square with cool architecture and plenty of gothic touches.

There are museums, art galleries, and churches to be visited, as well as many restaurants with a surprising array of culinary specialties offered. There’s also plenty of shopping. I couldn’t help but think back to the 90s, when Poland was a Peace Corps destination and wonder what the people who served as Volunteers back then would think of Poland today. I know Yerevan, Armenia, where I served, is vastly different now than it was in 1995… and yet it doesn’t seem like it was that long ago that places like Wroclaw and Yerevan were off limits to the average American.

Wroclaw is known as the “Polish Venice”, because it sits on the banks of the Odra River and claims over 130 bridges which connect twelve islands. Sadly, I didn’t get a chance to explore the bridges or the islands, thanks to my aching back. However, I still managed to enjoy myself and see some stuff that was close enough for this aging lady to walk to without too much trouble.

Speaking of the former Eastern Bloc and Soviet Union, I did notice quite a strong statement against communism in Poland. For instance, there are over six hundred bronze gnomes in Wroclaw, which first started appearing in the city in 2005. The gnomes are tiny, standing at about a foot tall each, and can be found on the ground, atop roofs, on window sills, or climbing up walls. I didn’t even come close to getting pictures of all of them, but I managed to find quite a few.

The gnomes are a reference to the Orange Alternative, an anti-Soviet resistance movement born in Wroclaw during the 1980s. The group used dwarves as its symbol and helped stamp out the communist regime through peaceful protests. From 1981-83, the Orange Alternative, led by an artist at the University of Wrocław named Waldemar ‘Major’ Fydrych, defaced communist propaganda with surrealist art as a means to protest the government’s oppressive restrictions against free speech and public gatherings. The early 1980s were a dangerous time in Poland. There was martial law, and people couldn’t even go out at night without taking significant risks. The gnomes were cute, and gave people something to smile and laugh at. They also helped show ordinary citizens how ridiculous it was that they were having to live with such oppression and to encourage them not to be afraid. Judging by what I saw in Wroclaw last week, the Polish people are now very happy to enjoy the nightlife and express themselves. Here are some pictures I took of the many gnome statues I found in Wroclaw.

You can actually purchase guides to finding these little guys all over the city. Just visit any souvenir shop! Personally, I liked stumbling across them without any help. They really give people a reason to smile… unless they’re like my friend, Mary Beth, who says gnomes give her the creeps!

I also made a video of raw footage from buskers I saw in Frankfurt, Germany and Wroclaw, Poland. Sunday night in Wroclaw, there were quite a few people on the market square in Wroclaw performing for tips. Here’s a look at that! It would have been nice if I’d used my digital camera, but it wasn’t as handy as my “handy” was.

Some talented people entertaining for euros or zloty…

I also visited beautiful St. Elizabeth’s Catholic Church, which was just across the street from the hotel. This church, which was once the primary Protestant church between 1525 and 1945, is one of the most striking and visible buildings in Wroclaw. It is currently part of the Catholic Third Order and the structure dates from the 14th century. It suffered severe hail damage in 1529 and was gutted by a fire in 1976. It’s important to remember that this church has a strong German heritage, since Wroclaw was once called Breslau and was a part of Germany. Since 1999, there has been a memorial at the church to Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a native of what was then Breslau, Germany, and martyr to the anti-Nazi cause.

There is a huge tower with an observation deck that can be climbed for a small fee, but I never saw it obviously open, we had several gloomy weather days, and my back wasn’t going to allow me to hike up the tower, anyway. Still, if you’re up for a stout climb and the tower is open, it might be worth doing just for the excellent panoramic shots you can get of the city. Here are some photos from inside this beautiful church.

Not being Catholic nor particularly religious, I can’t speak much for what this church is all about. I just like to visit churches in Europe because they are so incredibly beautiful and inspiring. I also appreciate the quiet and peacefulness of them… warmth and shelter on a winter’s day, coolness and shade in the summer.

Next post, back to food…


Big business in Poland, part five

Monday morning, they were still registering people for the conference. The buses taking participants to the conference location weren’t scheduled to leave until 11:00am. We enjoyed a late breakfast with many, many American soldiers, government employees, and contractors like Bill. It seemed a little like organized chaos as the Sofitel’s staff handled all of the people trying to get breakfast at the same time. The staff didn’t have me in the system, so Bill had to fix that issue. We then took advantage of the late start by taking a walk to the nearest Zabka.

These were EVERYWHERE!

Zabka is a kind of mini market. They are ubiquitous in Wroclaw. I saw at least one, sometimes two, on every street. We used the one that was right on the square, which was just a block from our hotel; however, if we’d wanted to, we could have used one even closer than that! It reminded me of the time Bill and I went to Seattle back in 2005 and saw two Starbucks within spitting distance of each other.

We went into the Zabka because I thought I needed feminine hygiene supplies. I thought we’d need to go to an Apoteka (Apotheke/drug store) but it turned out the tiny Zabka store has a little bit of everything. There were just two aisles in the store on the square, yet they had fresh fruits, cat food, and liquor for sale, as well as the sanitary napkins I needed. Regarding those napkins– they had a couple of choices. I could have purchased the familiar Always pads, but I opted for a Polish brand. This morning, when I finally needed them for real, I noticed this description on the label.

Apparently, the Polish like their sanitary pads to have the healing properties of Tilia flowers. Fortunately, I don’t itch or burn “down there”.
We also bought a bottle of genuine Zubrovka (zoo-broov-ka)– “bison grass vodka” at the Zabka. The bison vodka available outside of Poland is usually artificially flavored, but this is the “real stuff” with a blade of grass in it. The grass is sourced from the Białowieża Forest, hand-picked and dried under natural conditions.

This vodka has an unusual flavor, but the real version with a blade of bison grass in it is illegal to sell in Germany and the United States, because the grass contains coumarin, a blood thinner. You’d have to drink many liters of the vodka before coumarin would affect you, but that doesn’t stop bureaucrats from outlawing it. They know what’s best for us…

Anyway, Zubrovka is available with grass or artificially flavored without grass. The artificially flavored kind is what I have seen sold in the US and Germany. The Zabka had both varieties, so we bought some “mit Gras”. The shopkeeper didn’t speak English and reverted to German when we requested the booze. Much to my amazement, I understood him before Bill did! We bought genuine bison grass vodka for the first time in November 2008, which was the last time we were in Poland. I could probably take it or leave it, but we like the real stuff whenever we can access it. People often chill it and drink it mixed with apple juice.

Monday was the first day of my individual quest for eating establishments. I ended up going for Georgian food again, but this time at a place called Chinkalnia. Like U Gruzina, this is yet another Georgian food restaurant chain in Poland. It was a bit different than U Gruzina. Located in the middle of the main square, the outlet I went to had more of an old school decor. Wines by the glass were not available; instead, those who wanted wine had to buy it by the bottle. I probably could have drunk the whole bottle on Monday, given how chilly and rainy Monday’s weather was. Instead, I opted for beer. I tried a Ukrainian draft beer that was pretty unimpressive, and then moved on to the Georgian beers they had, a lager and a dark beer. Both were much better than the draft beer and surprisingly decent.

I also had a pork stew called chanakhi. It was served in a small clay pot and topped with garlic. I had never had it before and mostly enjoyed it, although it tasted like they might have microwaved it. Some parts of the stew were hotter than others. I noticed other guests enjoying chinkali and khatchapouri and kind of wished I’d gone for the khatchapouri, although the pork stew, with its potatoes, carrots, and Georgian spices was filling and tasty. I also enjoyed the friendly Polish waiter, who said he’d been to Georgia on vacation.

This was a pretty reasonably priced lunch. I think I spent about 60 Zloty before the tip. Then I walked back to the hotel in the rain and took a nice nap. The weather was perfect for it.

For dinner, Bill and I had Italian food at a place called O Sole Mio. We hadn’t planned to eat Italian food, but we kind of got roped in by the lady standing at the door, inviting people inside. Bill had lasagne, which was very good. I had grilled salmon and two sides– huge portions of spinach with Parmesan cheese and baked potatoes. I was picturing one or two potatoes, but they brought out a whole trough of them!

Our waitress was very young and cute, and just like every other server and cab driver we ran into during this trip, she spoke excellent English. Really, I am very impressed by how proficient most everyone was with English. I think they may even have the Germans beat in that department. It’s a stark contrast to 11 years ago, when most of the Polish people we met didn’t speak any English at all. But then, we were in the countryside, rather than a charming, tourist friendly city like Wroclaw. Older Polish people don’t speak English as much as the younger ones do, but they do tend to speak German. Since Bill can speak some German and I can understand it and speak a few words, that’s also helpful.

On Monday, I also got some photos from the inside of St. Elizabeth’s Church and many of the 600 gnomes scattered around Wroclaw. I will write about that in the next post!


Big business in Poland, part four

The featured photo for this post was taken in November 2008, when Bill and I visited Wroclaw for a few hours.

I’ve now come to the part of my series in which it’s time to write about the hotel. This week, I’ve spent a lot of time at the Sofitel Wroclaw, mainly because this wasn’t a pleasure trip. Bill had a choice of several hotels that were within the per diem set by his company and would be offering transportation to his conference this week. He chose Sofitel because they were the one hotel that could offer him a double room at an acceptable rate. We have also stayed in at least one Sofitel before– it was in Luxembourg. I had a mostly good impression of that property. Now that I think about it, we also stayed at a super nice Sofitel hotel in Hamburg called the Alter Wall. That one is newer that either the one in Luxembourg and Wroclaw and it’s pretty posh.

First thing’s first. This is a “five star hotel”. But five star means something different in Europe than it does in the United States. In America, we tend to think of five star hotels as super fancy. Here in Europe, a five star hotel is not necessarily fancy; it simply offers a lot of amenities. This particular property is a bit dated and could use some upgrades, but overall, it was a decent place to spend five nights. It is not on any level on par with the Jumeirah Frankfurt, which is five star in every sense of the expression.

First off, the hotel’s location can’t be beat. It’s a mere block from Wroclaw’s impressive main square. There are several good restaurants very close to the hotel, as well as a restaurant in the hotel itself. The staff is friendly, helpful and accommodating. For instance, Bill managed to get us a late checkout, since our flight doesn’t leave until 7:00pm. I am typing this review as checkout time lingers, but am welcome to stay until 3:00pm, even though the hotel is pretty well booked for the weekend. Christmas markets start today.

As it is, I’ll probably write this review and leave the room, since it’ll be about lunchtime, anyway, and Bill is planning to pick me up at about 3:30pm. I’ll just go across the street and hit the awesome Doctor’s Bar again, drink some craft beer, and see how far I can get into one of their specials. Or maybe I’ll go to a different restaurant… I have plenty of choices, which is a nice thing. Breakfast, by the way, is pretty good. They have a large array of hot and cold items available, as well as an omelet stand. Service is friendly and professional, and they were good sports about hordes of Americans in Army uniforms descending on them at 6:30am every day this week. I was reminded of college!

This property has a spa, which I did check out, but never used. They have Balinese massage on offer, as well as a jacuzzi, sauna, steam room, and a very small gym. I actually meant to use the spa during our time here, but never got around to it.

There’s also a bar, with friendly bartenders, creatively prepared cocktails, local craft beers, and funky music. The prices in the bar are high; you can certainly drink for less money at any of the local restaurants. Nevertheless, we used the bar on several nights because it was handy and a good place to mingle with others who were at the conference.

The hotel itself is in kind of a mall… not really a proper mall, per se, but there are some offices and a couple of shops in it. Underneath the building is parking, which we didn’t use this time, although I think we did use it in 2008, when we first visited this city. I remember when we came here the first time, people were parked bumper to bumper wherever there was space. Now, they seem to have come up with other options and parking is no longer as chaotic. This time, I haven’t seen anyone double parked, like I did in 2008.

The room we rented faced the street and when the drapes were open, we could see people working in their offices. Had we been on the other side of the hall, we would have had a view of the courtyard/mall. We had a good bed, even though I still had some back problems this week which cramped my style a bit. I noticed today and yesterday that the pain was lessened. I think the mattress on the bed in our room is better than the one we have at home.

WiFi worked well, and there is also a good television that offers a couple of channels in English. I didn’t bother with the TV. There’s also a minibar and coffee/tea set up. I didn’t use the minibar, as the prices were pretty exorbitant and there’s no telling how long the stuff has been sitting there. I noticed during working hours, I could hear people in the street or on the other side of the wall, although it wasn’t an issue at night.

One main complaint I did have about this room is that the shower pretty much sucked. It’s a shower/tub combo with a glass screen that doesn’t do the best at keeping the water off of the floor. Getting hot water often took a long time, and there wasn’t much pressure from the spray nozzle. However, they did provide good toiletries from Lanvin (Paris), and they were generous with them. The housekeeper did an outstanding job getting the room cleaned early so that I came back to a fresh room in the early afternoon. If there’s one thing I dislike, it’s coming back to an unmade room at 4:00pm.

Another complaint is that the air conditioning/fan system seemed to be on by default. I could turn the fan off, only to have it come back on at some point. The air was a bit chilly/drafty, and the duvet cover was almost not enough. Fortunately, the weather in Wroclaw was very mild temperature wise. I barely needed a sweater, even though there was some rain.

Another minor grumble about this hotel is that the elevators are a bit of a pain to use. You have to use your keycard to get it to work, and although there are three of them, they take awhile and get crowded. Also, there is no restroom in the lobby, which is kind of a pain when you’re in the bar and have to pee. You have to go to the first floor.

Overall, though, I enjoyed my stay at Sofitel Wroclaw, and would consider staying again. At the same time, I look forward to flying home this evening, taking a shower with plenty of hot water and pressure, and sleeping in my own bed for as long as I want with no worries that I’ll inconvenience the housekeeping staff. In fact, I really enjoyed Wroclaw… wish I could have seen and done more, but now we have an excuse to come back on our own terms and see more of Poland. It was nice to be with Bill this week instead of sitting at home alone, and I’m grateful that we were able to make it happen and were so well accommodated by the Sofitel staff!

Here are a few pictures of our room, as seen when we first arrived on Sunday, the 17th.