ONE OF THE MOST UNDERRATED EUROPEAN COUNTRIES: POLAND
When we think of Europe we often think of the quaint coffee shops of Paris, pubs of Dublin, and gelato of Italy. Don't get me wrong, Italy's gelato=one of my closest moments to reaching the clouds of heaven, but it's nothing I'd consider a "secret" of Europe.
Although I love France, Spain, and Switzerland, I wouldn't say they are my favorite European countries. Instead, Austria, Slovenia, Poland, and Bulgaria are closer to the top. Countries I had little-to-no opinion of before I left the states.
Poland was a country I knew of, but knew not much about. It all started on an overnight train ride from Prague, Czech Republic to Oświęcim, Poland. The night before we'd stayed up until sunrise and therefore hoped this train ride would be empty and easy. Wrong. Let's just say a six person cubby which included two backpackers (us) and a homeless person didn't smell the best and we each managed an hour or two of sleep.
Other than a rough start upon arrival, Poland proved to be one of the cleanest, most affordable, and completely wonderful places we visited along the trip.
First off, Warsaw. A clean, wonderful, and old-Europe city still filled with incredible culture (and not completely overrun by western tourists like Barcelona or Amsterdam). One night we decided to walk near old town. We followed the cobblestone streets to the city center, passing violin street bands, a woman handing out roses, and a pop-up art gallery. I sat near the tallest statue in the city center for a while. Not doing much but sitting and watching. Listening to distant music while staring at the thin streets that reminded me of something out of a Harry Potter film.
There was something about the ease of life. Locals were happy to have you in Poland, to show you the great place they get to call home.
But not everything in Poland was lovely, welcoming, and happy. The Polish have endured more than most countries in the world, yet their foundation and loyalty are strong.
Auschwitz-Birkenau, the mass-genocide concentration camp which murdered roughly 1.1 million innocent people during its five years of operation, is situated in the southwest corner of Poland. There were few things I knew I wanted to experience while in Europe, and this was one of them. Learning about the Holocaust is one thing, standing in the place where it happened is a whole new realm.
We all learn about it in the United States. We watch videos in history class and hear stories from survivors. We all read Anne Frank. However, nothing could prepare me for what I would feel that day and the great lessons Poland would teach me.
We arrived in the early morning, just as the camp was opening to visitors. Unbeknown to us before arrival, the Pope had been here a day earlier. We walked by giant posters of Pope Francis and stood on the podium next to the rubble of gas chambers where he spoke not even 24 hours prior. Auschwitz-Birkenau is quite large, and because we arrived so early in the day we walked the grounds completely alone. An eerie silence following most of the way.
I stood in tall grass, watching dozens of bright yellow butterflies flutter in the sun's rays while listening to the songs of birds in the distance. I stood next to a murky-brown colored pond watching the fish jump to catch small flies hovering above. If you didn't know where you were, you'd say it was beautiful. Instead, you looked at the pond, no more than thirty feet wide, knowing that this exact spot was the place where ashes of a million innocent people were dumped. We were alone in this moment, just us and those million people who endured the unthinkable in their final resting place. My heart sank.
I saw the steps to the chambers, I stood in the woods where the women and children huddled and waited, I saw the bunks, walked inside of the barbed fences, and cried. I still can't shake the feeling.
That day I realized Poland was one of the strongest countries. The streets are alive, and clean, and beautiful. They survived something we could never imagine, but are still strong and full of spirit.
If you ever plan to visit Auschwitz, arrive early in the morning. By the time we were leaving dozens of filled tour buses were emptying into the entrance. It felt more like you were exiting a zoo than a concentration camp. I can't imagine any of those people experienced the depth of the place as we had.
Back to the happier notes:
As a budget traveler, Poland is a haven. Many of their grocery stores have the absolute best fresh bakeries in all of Europe. We soon became obsessed with the freshly baked loaves of garlic bread, which were sixty cents a piece. My diet in Poland consisted of 90% carbs and 10% ice cream. No regrets.
Beer is cheaper than water. Giant swirled ice cream cones are a dollar. Need I say more? I talk about missing Polish bakeries more than just about anything in Europe. Not to mention we easily survived on our $40/day budget here. Hostels run for $12 or so dollars a person. You basically get all the same perks of a big city in Western Europe, just with a lot less drunken college tourists and for about 50% cheaper.
Poland is filled with an immense amount of history. I learned more about this country in a week than I would have in an entire course semester. For example, I sat on an incredibly beautiful beach just outside the also incredibly beautiful Gdynia and stared at the open Baltic Sea. A few days before standing here I learned of a boat which left the port of Gdynia to escape to Germany following a Russian invasion. The boat left Gdynia and was struck by Russian torpedo's directly off the coast where my feet stood. The boat held over 10,000 people, 5,000 who were children. Less than 1,000 people survived, making this ships sinking nearly 6x more deadly than the Titanic.
If you ever plan a Eurotrip, don't forget to place Poland on you list. It's filled with good food, lively culture, and humbling life lessons. But if you're planning to come to Europe to party and get drunk, stick to Ibiza.