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Four cities in Poland, 2019

(Multiple posts will be needed)

We returned from a 10-night trip to Poland in August, 2019. We flew to Warsaw, via Frankfurt, which slightly reduced the airfare. We flew to London from Krakow at the end of the ten nights. Some phrases in this report have appeared in other posts (by me) on this newsboard.

We slept in Warsaw (3 nights), Wroclaw (3 nights), and Krakow (4 nights). We did a full-day rail trip to Łodz (from Warsaw) and car-and-driver trips to both Churches of Peace and to Auschwitz-Birkenau. I believe it is practical to store bags in Łodz Fabrycna and see the town quickly on the way elsewhere. But you can’t visit the massive Jewish cemetery with a shortened day like that. Krakow does deserve the most nights. Wroclaw was not wasted time, but it pleased us the least. It has plenty of history, but many attractions, including the old market-hall and the UNESCO WHS Centennial Hall are disappointing. The old town has the freshly painted Disney (sorry!) gloss of rebuilt German ports. By that, I mean if you’ve seen a bunch of the Hanseatic cities, the core of Wroclaw isn’t that exciting. Other cities that may be of interest to people who know who Isaac Bashevis Singer was might be Poznan and Lublin, but we didn’t have time to see them.

Since we prefer to keep a hotel room for three days, I will suggest that we should have added a night in Warsaw, to permit a daytrip to UNESCO WHS Toruń (also accessible from Gdansk, which we did not visit-simply for time reasons.) Other nights taken from Wroclaw could permit a day visit to Lublin or Poznan (I mean, for people who know who Isaac Bashevis Singer was ... ). I toyed with visiting Lwiv/Lvov, which comes up in every historic event in southern Poland! But it seems to be up to 7 hours by land from even Krakow. I had some interest in Tarnow from Krakow, but the photos don’t quite justify it.

Polish trains were a pleasure. Purchasing in advance online was easy, and we qualified for a 30% discount for over 60. The tickets I bought earliest were automatically priced even lower, as Advance Purchase. These online tickets are for specific trains, and can’t be changed at a live agent’s booth. But they are so cheap that it didn’t matter the one time we wanted to go earlier. We even got a good, seated meal for our First-Class ticket from Warsaw to Wroclaw. However, that didn’t happen Wroclaw-Krakow, and in fact we arrived an hour late. That wouldn’t matter except that I had unwisely booked Schindler’s Factory Museum (which is more about the Occupation of Krakow than it is about Schindler) for the same afternoon. By taking a cheap taxi from our hotel to Schindler, we managed to pay for our internet-reserved ticket just 10 minutes before our 3:40PM entry time. Because that museum was, as usual, sold out for the rest of the day, our 3:30PM waiting line at the Factory was zero!

Do not fail to download the .PDFs of the “XXXXX In My Pocket” guides to each city you are going to visit. They demand an email address to do the download. Although this is an advertising-supported tourist book, it is a very good one. (One of our three hotels had the printed “… in my Pocket” on the room’s coffee table as a giveaway.)

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During our 2019 trip to Poland, I confronted DCC at every single credit card transaction, from tiny local store to national rail ticket windows. In some cases, the term DCC appears. In other cases, there is a dialog for choosing $US or *ZL (Polish zloty.) At the airport ATM, the dialog attempted to scare me in English by offering a “guaranteed” $USD exchange rate, or a scary “bank rate NOT guaranteed ZL.” Of course, I chose the scary bank rate!

Because most European restaurants put the POS terminal in your hand, you have to READ the two line screen and respond appropriately. And as is often pointed out on this board, be ready for misleading prompts! I was usually able to decipher the two-line POS device displays, but it takes a leap of faith to press a button labelled (for example) “F4” simply because it is physically located directly beneath the part of the glowing display saying “ZTL?”. In some other cases, the prompt required selecting a scary choice like “Refuse”, which was never as explicit as “Refuse DCC.” When in doubt, refuse!

I experienced a similar “threatening” requirement to acknowledge that I was “rejecting the currency exchange guarantee” at a few POS terminals in London, the same month in 2019.

I had a different problem when checking out of the excellent Metropolitan Boutique Hotel in Krakow. When they gave me my 35-day old charge slip (for a fully prepaid room rate, which was what I chose) it said in thermal printed English that I had declined the Mastercard rate and had agreed on a 3.5% conversion fee!! My web interface confirmation page from that day says only that I paid 2450 Zloty, which I had assumed meant that I had successfully opted to pay for the room in Zloty.

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WARSAW: We stayed at the soul-less Hilton Warsaw Convention Center for the air conditioning and the Hilton points. It’s not an ideal location, but it was absolutely fine for us. The hotel is 2 blocks from Warsaw Uprising museum, but near nothing else. Trams 73 and 24 from Centralny train station (8 minutes), Unbelievable 35 Zloty, 20-minute cab from WAW airport. Busses 102 and 105 to/from Royal Way. Other trams at hotel stop (Warsaw Uprising Museum) are 1-28-74. Notable marked fragment of ghetto gateway 2 blocks away from the hotel at Graybowska/Zelazny. Real Estate Bubble office construction all around the area. If you can get a similar price from the old and famous Hotel Bristol (Nazi administration and brothel, that’s why it wasn’t razed … ), which is conceivable, that might be better. But we were happy here. Good view from our 2509 room. 2005 construction? Room had two outlets with green dots that stayed on with power-enabling card removed. One occupied by hotel’s digital alarm clock. Front desk could not change 50 Zloty note to leave a housekeeper tip. Extremely good air conditioning at a hot time of year.

Nice touring stop not in Rick’s books, the University of Warsaw Library has a modest rooftop garden with a view of the river, free. It’s not a high location (maybe 4th floor), but a pleasant, airy place to rest and look around. The “old” center of Warsaw is a UNESCO WHS, despite being “rebuilt”. It is very attractive, much nicer than Wroclaw, for instance. Between Rick’s book and Lonely Planet, we had a good old-town walk, going into several churches and the like, but did not choose to visit the interior of the Palace.

There are traces of the ghetto wall all around. After the old-town, we walked to the Polin Museum. I agree with Rick that it is a must-see, but it was disappointing how many displays (however technologically savvy) had reproductions or photographs of objects that are off in some collection elsewhere. I prefer a museum with actual objects in it. Of course, a faithful reconstruction of a burned-down wooden synagogue is invaluable. But while the museum deserves its awards, it had, for me, a hollow-feel.

LODZ: My father’s parents left Lodz around 1920. That was lucky for me, because it was long before the notorious Litzmannstadt Ghetto was set up. Their address is lost to me, but we wanted to visit their cousin’s apartment building façade. There are so many trams in Lodz that we only had to walk a few hundred feet. More important was to visit one of the two or three largest Jewish cemeteries in Europe. Although it closes early on Friday, the caretakers who sold us our 10 Zl. ticket said we could stay as long as we wanted, and the guard would let us out. It’s unbelievably large, and close to being reclaimed by the forest, due to lack of maintenance.

Lodz was also a nice “city” visit. In the 1990’s, the economy crashed as Asian fabric mills destroyed the massive textile business. The two biggest fabric companies, one Jewish and one Protestant German failed, leaving vast mills empty. One of them has been reinvented as a mall. The mansions of the owners (now museums) seem five to ten times as big as the J.P. Morgan or Frick mansions in New York City. The government is investing in redevelopment, so we saw an equal number of lovely 19th Century mansions that were abandoned and that were fully renovated and on pedestrian shopping streets. My point is that there’s a lot more to Lodz than “Jewish Tourism.” It may not warrant an overnight for everyone, but it was a very worthwhile stop. I got the idea that Bialystock may have a lot in common with Lodz, including a previous domination by the textile business.

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WROCLAW: First-class train Warsaw to Wróclaw included lunch service at seat. $35 advance purchase p.p.

Doubletree by Hilton Curved spaceship white building with only two long-hall floors of rooms. Sixt car rental office in lobby. The “clean” modern design means there aren’t enough towel racks or places to put things in the room, other than the stock (!) Hilton wardrobe and bureau. Flatscreen TV is integrated into long swoop of mirrors on the wall of the room. Hint: Hang closet hangers with damp washing over the top of the mirror line. Indoor pool and big gym club. Master electric switch for room requires card key insertion. (What happens if you choose keyless entry??) Huge breakfast buffet includes substantial Asian options, omelet station, superb fresh squeezed orange juice. Revving motorcycles could slightly penetrate our double-glass front window. 4 minute walk from Galleria Dominicana [Mall] tram stop. If coming from the train station, walk towards the back of the tram (away from the Hilton) after getting off, to find a grade-level crosswalk, avoiding stairs with your luggage. Walk to the Hilton first along the back of the mall to avoid hundreds of feet of mini Belgian Block in front of the hotel’s building. This is parallel to the fetid municipal pond that separates the Hilton from the Mall. There is no reason to enter the Mall except maybe to buy a cheap pre-made but good lunch sandwich.

Lovely park adjacent to the Hilton includes Raclawice Panorama and National Art Museum [good art collection, mostly old masters]. Architecture and Telecommunications museums nearby, as well as the riverbank-walk, not far to Hala Targa (which is a disappointing Market Hall.) Panorama ticket is pricey (and sells out daily) but includes 3 other museums. I noticed a Mercure Hotel on the same big block as the Galleria Dominicana, which looked cheaper, but also smaller and much more exposed to tram and street noise.

Very hard to find a Tram map anywhere, including online. Generally easy to get around, but outside downtown beware of (for example) TWO Tram #3 routes that end in different places. 72-hour ticket seemed a good value. In Poland, you have to deal with waiting for at least two traffic lights (i.e. crossing two big boulevards) when making an orthogonal line change where two tram lines cross. That’s because the tram tracks have auto traffic on both sides of them. To reverse direction if you ride too far, you may need to wait for three lights, because few tram stops “face” each other. They are symmetrically “before” or “after” the intersection. Most trams make every stop, without a signal to the driver.

Edit Additions: We love botanical gardens, and the Wroclaw one is very nice, worth a few hours. The interior of the Centennial Hall (a lame UNESCO WHS if I ever saw one) is CLOSED for renovation. But it was fun to see the locals out for a Sunday in the sun, sitting around the anemic magic-fountains pool. Kind of a Rick Steves Moment. The line to buy tickets for the Japanese Garden there was so long we gave up on it. There is a huge food-truck court at the Centennial Hall, and we happened (on Sunday) to hit a fairly good flea market there. I also liked the National (art) Museum. I couldn't get to the Contemporary Art Museum during open hours, but I went to see the famous (?) vertical steam locomotive planted in the ground across from it.

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I was hesitant to book a car and driver in Wroclaw using Trip Advisor. But at least the name Viator was familiar to me. Viator was pretty transparent about the actual provider of the private excursion (Wratislavia Tour), so I tried to book it directly with the real provider. But their website only had “Church of Peace Świdnica and Some Dull Nazi Bunker” and I wanted “[BOTH] Churches of Peace, in Świdnica and Jawor”, the latter being only on Viator’s menu. When I confirmed (as advised to) with the provider, I said I would have preferred to book directly with them and give them all the money. They said, in effect, “Yeah, we know it’s not all on our own website.”

Our driver was on time (9AM at our hotel), cheerful, well-informed, and knew the area very well. Our huge 8-passenger minivan was very comfortable for 2. It turns out that the site (but not the church!) in Jawor is much smaller than in Świdnica, and does not have toilets. When I asked, the ticket lady gave me a paper flyer for a pub (Restauracja Augusta-Victoria) about 200’ away. They did not mind our arrival at all, and besides volunteering 4 Zl. for the toilet use, I bought a 3 Zl. ($0.75) 330ml draft beer. When I told the driver about the beer, he did not think that anyone had 3 Zl. beers anymore!

Each church was superb in its own way, and I am very glad to have seen both. The photos of the Nazi bunker looked very bare and missable. However, there is also a pairing of one church and a castle/mansion that might appeal to other visitors. Because of miserable highway traffic and rubbernecking of an accident in the other divided-highway direction, we did not get back to our hotel until 2 PM, an hour late. (No charge for that, of course.)
Because I made a rookie mistake in my Trip Advisor booking, I had to use the interface’s options to Change Pickup Point and Change Tour Date. I was far enough in advance that I was told There Will Be No Charge for This Change. That was a really good internet experience!

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Great report, I'm reading every Wroclaw word in advance of my visit in a few weeks. I was planning a DIY trip to Swidnica but will check out the tours one more time.

Thanks for the helpful reminders of the "scary" DCC tricks!

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KRAKOW: Best of our cities. Even harder to find tram maps than other cities, and Google Maps simply refuses to offer any tram routing when calling for “Directions.” This is probably because so many streets and tram tracks are torn up for work. We still found the 7-day transit pass a convenient value. We chose Zones I-II because we planned to tram out to Nowa Huta. Like other Polish cities, Silicon Valley electric scooters are a threat to pedestrian life and occupy “dockless” public space that the d.b. Bro’s in San Francisco don’t pay for.

I will warn that the massive modern, attractive rail station (we arrived from Wroclaw, almost an hour late) is a nightmare to navigate. If the PDF of “Krakow In Your Pocket” hadn’t had a specific sentence about how to tram to Kazimierz, we’d still be looking for the underground tram #19 tunnel stop! As it was, the automated ticket machine wouldn’t accept my chip and PIN card, and the first attended ticket booth I went to told me to go to “the other one.” That wasn’t easy to find, but I bumbled into it and joined the line. Luckily, the tickets I wanted were in a window display, so I was able to scribble the Polish for the ticket, added “2 x” in front of it, and added the posted cost “68 Zl.” for good measure. It worked, and my card worked in that POS terminal.

Rick is right about the best hot chocolate in town. Adding to his comments about the old University building, there is a large musical clock inside the courtyard that plays (free) several times a day. (Hours on the sandwich board about museum tickets.) The Faculty Garden Rick describes has had several Polish/English text panels added describing, in painful detail, the exact sufferings of the senior faculty seized by the Nazis.

Rick’s Old Town Walk is pretty good. I found his description of Wavel ticket office locations to be cryptically un-useful. He under-emphasizes how good is the Old Market Hall just beyond the Barbican. Although he gives a full tour of the Art Nouveau St. Francis Basilica. I would give it three triangles, as unmissable. It is poorly lit, especially on a grey day, which is too bad. The Wavel Cathedral (with optional pay ticket added) is the other unmissable church, although there are many nice churches here. Although the Cloth Hall street-level interior is attractively restored, it is essentially 50-odd souvenir shops, including some painted wooden figures of Orthodox Jews, some of them holding money bags. (You can’t make this stuff up. ) Otherwise missable.

The Lady With An Ermine by Da Vinci is currently at the National Museum main branch (... excellent Decorative Arts collection) but will be moving to the re-opened Czartoryski Museum in December 2019. The sweet looking Municipal Engineering (or Tram) Museum is closed for renovation. It’s right beyond the Judah Square Food Truck zone.

Although you can hear a lot of English in Rick’s restaurant recommendations in Western Europe, he did great for us in Krakow. Besides Hamsa, we had a great lunch in the tony Pod Baranem , and a nice dinner at Miód Malina. We had good food at the Judah Square food trucks, but having no place to wash your hands afterwards is a handicap. Like Singapore Hawker Centers, it’s best to bring your own napkins. I’d like to have tried the lavish Pod Aniołami. Lunch in the gentrifying Plac Nowy was worthwhile, if also short of napkins. Do try a zapiekanki french-bread pizza, one serves two adults. The official street snack of Krakow, obwarzanek, were a doughy, not-obviously-fresh-baked disappointment. So share one among the whole party.

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Metropolitan Boutique Hotel: As Rick might write, this is a Worthwhile Splurge. Since everything in Poland is so cheap, it was really worthwhile. In particular, the Asian-looking “Split Ductless Air Conditioner” was fierce and directly under our (wireless remote) control. The Superior room (103) was massive, with a big, all-marble bathroom. The shower (only) stall was not “too small”, but the high-end solid brass faucet was in the wrong place so it intruded annoyingly into the occupant’s space. Because the sloped floor had no rubber safety mat, the wet shower floor was extremely slippery. The hotel’s classy Brazil Nut Oil Soap (my sister is deathly allergic to Brazil Nuts) left you feeling slippery, like the water was salt-softened, which was not the case. (I tried my own soap to compare.)

Our room faced the side street with the hotel’s address. Because the view is negligible, it would not be a mistake to ask for a back room. Our bedroom was very quiet, but the same modern window product in the bathroom seemed to be less soundproof. The streetlight was right outside, but the bedroom had opaque drapes. The hotel is one long block from the Miodowa tram stop, which is at the heart of Kazimierz tourism. The two closest sites, (one more block, and both significant) are the New (i.e. post-1800) Jewish Cemetery, and the Remuh Synagogue/Old Jewish Cemetery. (You need long pants in Poland’s Jewish cemeteries because they can’t afford enough maintenance.)
We had two great meals at “new-Israeli cuisine” Hamsa, within sight of that tram stop. We were lucky enough to get same-day tickets to a Chanticleer (the Amerikanski a capella ensemble) in the Temple Synagogue, for 60 Zloty. The performance lighting improved our view of the ornate interior. They sang the next night at St. Francis’.

There is a liquor store at the corner of the hotel’s block (odd beer assortment, including Brooklyn Lager), and a big supermarket across the street from the hotel. The Goodbye Lenin Hostel is just past the hotel, but we never heard a sound from the patrons. Because the hotel is 200’ from a tram line, and 200’ from a train line, future attention has to be paid to possible noise. But we never heard either in bed. That train line is building a huge new station near the Schindler Factory.

Note that “nothing” is near the Schindler Factory! But the hotel is one long tram stop (Ghetto Heroes Square) plus an 8-minute walk away from it. Use the railroad underpass from the return-tram side of Ghetto Heroes Square. We were about 10 minutes by tram from stop Teatra Bagatela for the main square (Rynek Glowny) by tram, and about 6 minutes from Ul. Dominikanska (tram stop name Pl. Ws. Świętych) for the Royal Way. (No trams go right into the legendary main square.)

The front desk spoke good English and was cheerful and helpful.

Although I booked (and prepaid) the room in advance directly on their website, it was not as modern and transparent an interface as most hotels offer today. Luckily, I printed my web page confirmation as soon as it popped up, because I never got an email confirmation, even after I called and asked for one. (They said they would send it again, but it was not even in my Spam folder.) Even after I sent the complaint in the next paragraph, I still have never received an email from the hotel.

Upon checkout, they gave me my prepayment charge slip from about 38 days earlier. It shows that I chose DCC dynamic currency conversion with a 3.5% fee!

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Our official tour (10:15 AM) of Auschwitz/Birkenau was satisfactory, but not really “better” than you could do with a thorough reading of Rick and Krakow In Your Pocket. Auschwitz is extremely crowded, and the guides are under pressure to keep you moving through multiple barracks/museum displays. My point is that despite good training and sincere efforts, the professional (3.5 hour) tour product is simply, satisfactory. The August sun and heat were brutal, but they had at least a dozen consumer floor fans in each barracks. You should wear a sun hat that can accept a two-muff headset for the official wireless receivers. Actual tour content can vary, and I did not realize until we were done that we had omitted the outdoor international memorials (I am talking about “artwork”, particularly a brand new one by Daniel Libeskind, and not about the many individual barracks museums devoted to the various deported nationalities and ethnicities.) We also failed to hike the 1 km at Birkenau all the way to the crematorium ruins. This may have been due to the 90-degree temperatures, but I was distressed to have missed these things. The guides have a schedule to meet.

I am glad to say that they sell water and other beverages at the very limited tourist services room (“Bookstore”) at Birkenau. Both camps charge 2 Zl. for clean, well-kept toilets. It is almost impossible to have time to eat at the good Auschwitz cafeteria in the few minutes before your guide takes your group on the same shuttle bus used by independent visitors. I say by way of explanation about eating that, except for the staggeringly vast scale of the site (and crimes) at Auschwitz and Birkenau, we found our first KL visit (to Buchenwald) to be more personally upsetting. It was jarring to walk behind two 16-year olds in tiny shorts, tiny tank tops, and maribou mules! I think their mother “chose her battles.”

I bought our timed Auschwitz tickets myself from the official seller. We used Rick’s recommended car service, 8:15 AM hotel pickup, with a young colleague of Andrew’s named Lucas. He did good work. I had not realized in advance that the official guide (not Lucas) would be taking us to Birkenau on the shuttle bus for the last hour of our 3.5-hour tour. I had mistakenly assumed that we would sit down for lunch, before seeing Birkenau independently. Of course, we could have done anything we wanted to after the tour. But in retrospect, I believe this should be elected in advance and requested from Andrew. In my opinion, the extra time might be charged for. Andrew wrote me that they will pick you up for even the earliest Auschwitz tours, about 2 hours before the ticket time.

During the return ride, we asked to be dropped off in Nowa Huta (the Soviet-Era planned Steel Mill urban community) instead of our hotel. Lucas called Andrew and we were told that would be 60 Zl. extra. It turned out to NOT be on the way to our hotel, and a substantial detour, so I thought the extra charge was entirely FAIR. Lucas quoted a driving tour of Nowa Huta, but when we chose “independent”, he recommended a walking route and a specific Chinese restaurant. Because we had Zone I-II Tram passes, the long ride home (a single tram) was included.

A taxi to the airport was quite cheap, and worth the convenience. No price gouging happened to us, in Krakow or Warsaw. (End of Report)

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Enjoying your report. While I can’t see making a specific trip just to Poland, I can certainly see adding it as an extension to say, Germany. Thanks for posting!

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Oh, I'm sorry you did not enjoy Wroclaw so much, honestly my favourite city in Poland. I personally did not feel the old town was so disneyfied, as you noted, then again I have never been to Disneyland lol! I stayed in Mercure Wroclaw Centrum the 3 times I have been, it was smallish but comfortable, modern, and not very noisy. I agree the Centennial Hall is a one and done type deal. Wroclaw also makes for a good springboard to the Sudetn Mountains area, with it's medieval castles, 19th century Spa towns, and lush primeval forests.

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We too found Wroclaw an enjoyable, small city. Cathedral Island was an easy walk and lovely to stroll around. The city center was nice, we great cafes and restaurants. Wroclaw is where we ate our first, fabulous doughnut. We also were quite surprised how much was enjoyed the Panorama of the Battle of Raclawice more than we thought we would. We stayed at the Qubus Hotel, short walk everywhere.

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Thanks for the report. I enjoyed reading it. I've only made it to Krakow in Poland (with a day trip to Zakopane and northern Slovakia) and found it great. I stayed at Hotel Wentzl on Rynek Glowny in a room with a window that gave a great view of the square. And I got kissed by a drunk Polish man at 4 am on that square! I wrote a trip report about that kiss:

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Diveloonie, Poland would make a great trip on its own for most travelers! I spent 5 weeks there last year and had to cut a lot of places I wanted to see because I needed so much time for Gdansk, Warsaw and Krakow. The tourist infrastructure is excellent (English throughout just about all the key museums, many of which are modern and super-engaging) and a large percentage of the population speaks very good English. The food is quite good. The best Thai restaurant I've encountered (though I haven't been to Thailand) was in Warsaw, which has a large variety of cuisines available and seemingly something of a food culture; the best Greek restaurant was in Poznan. It's true that in the traditional, inexpensive Polish restaurants you may encounter a limited selection of vegetables: potatoes, green cabbage and red cabbage. That's really the only negative I can think of. It is a great place to visit.

I would heartily recommend against trying to squeeze a bit of Poland into a trip to Germany--though if you must, it's better than nothing.

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Tim, your Auschwitz report reminds me why I enjoy cooler fall season travel. It also hit me, hearing your description, how the harsh heat (and cold winters) would have been an intense component of the burden for the prisoners.

Barbara, I'm looking forward to that donut in Wroclaw. And your comment on the Raclawice Panorama encourages me to prioritize it.

And now I'm off to read about Dave's Polish kiss!

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There are enough Poles in New Jersey that Pączki get into the papers every Lent, if not more often. We finally had one in Krakow because the bakery shelf label promised "rose" jam. But every pączek we saw was "glazed", and I prefer granulated sugar on my jelly donuts. It wasn't better than fine-donuts at home!

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Thanks for taking the time to post all these details!

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707 posts

I really enjoyed reading your trip report! Thank you so much for posting it.