Of Drawbridges and Dungeons

Just beyond the somewhat Americanized landscape before me (McDonald’s and KFC’s galore – who would’ve guessed!), I catch a glimpse of red sandstone parapets rising above a line of towering oak trees. Complete with majestic ramparts reflected in a gleaming lake, fluffy white clouds framing the 143,591-square meter marvel, classic wooden drawbridges, not to mention the crafty arrowslits lining the sentinel towers and aging 15th century cannons – I felt like I had stepped into my very own Brian Jacques novel. It was simply surreal to step inside the world’s largest castle (when measured by land area) – a castle that was built by the Teutonic Knights and completed in 1409. Malbork castle located just south of Gdansk certainly turned out to be one of the many unexpected gems of Poland, a country I previously knew little about.

I am truly falling in love with Eastern Europe, not only because of the medieval architectural feats, but also due to the quiet charm of the sleepy towns and the staggeringly cheap fares. I am surprised that there are so few tourists in Poland’s main cities compared to other popular European cities. Out of Gdansk, Warsaw, and Krakow, I found the most tourist-filled to be Krakow. Granted, I did visit in March, which is not quite tourist season yet. In Poland, you can experience all the charms of Europe – from the informative museums and detailed cathedrals to the inspiring landscapes and shining seas – but without the jostling crowds of tourists and frustratingly overpriced fares. Throughout Poland, I dug into delicious three-course meals at top restaurants for an average of $6 per meal.

Not only were the prices of food very affordable and delicious, but there were also free educational walking tours in each of the three cities I stayed in. I learned so much about Poland. For example, our local tour guide in Warsaw explained to us that by January 1945, between 85% and 90% of the buildings in Warsaw were destroyed by the Nazis during World War II. This unmitigated destruction was directed in response to the Warsaw Uprising since Hitler had promised to level any city in which an uprising occurred. Most of the city was rebuilt by hand by 1955 thanks to one of the largest crowd-funding events in history. The buildings were rebuilt as close to the originals as possible by studying 18th century paintings of Warsaw. To me, the fact that all of the buildings are so new was obvious, yet didn’t detract from the beauty and historic ambiance of the city.

Krakow, on the other hand, was not leveled in the recent past, which made visiting the stunningly detailed St. Mary’s Basilica, the famous trading-post called Cloth Hall, and the overall Old Town quite different from Warsaw. The buildings felt much older, especially once you were inside them. The historic capital of Poland had its own charms. Whilst walking through Krakow, I would hear the great St. Mary’s Bell chime every hour, followed by a live trumpeter playing his tune from the highest tower in the town. After listening to the trumpet, I would walk to the revamped milk bars that remain from the Communist era, dodging past elaborate horse carriages decorated in the jovial floral style signature to Poland.

Having studied in Sweden for the past two months, there are a few differences between the two countries that stand out to me. For instance, I must say that the Poles know their food. Not only do the Polish pastries typically cost between 50 cents and two dollars compared to Sweden’s average $8 dessert, they also taste significantly better (in my personal opinion). Swedish desserts are often not very sweet and contain odd spices such as cardamom normally used in savory dishes. On the other hand, Polish desserts such as the famous fruit-filled pieroglis and the fluffy paczki are decadent and baked to perfection. Another difference between Poland and Sweden includes getting around. It is a bit more difficult to communicate with Poles, considering only 37 percent of Poles speak English compared to Sweden’s 86 percent. Still, in my experience, most Poles, particularly the younger generation, can at least help with directions and can maintain a basic conversation in English. There are hundreds of differences I could mention, but these are two that stood out to me.

Overall, I was able to do and see so much more than in my typical trips, given the student-friendly fares in Poland. Shayan and I were able to visit numerous museums and historical sites throughout Poland, many of them free. These included the Malbork Castle in Gdansk, the European Solidarity Center, the Copernicus Science Center, the Royal Castle in Warsaw, the Wawel Castle in Krakow, and much more. Truly, the Poles have a fascinating history that I could go on about for pages, but suffice it to say that I highly recommend stopping by Gdansk, Warsaw, Krakow, or perhaps elsewhere in Poland if ever you’re in Europe.

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