Poland Culinary Tour - 9-11-2012 - 9-25-2012
How this trip evolved: We are constantly searching for new worldly adventures. We comb through endless e-mails, blogs and guides for new and interesting destinations. Lynn and I had been to Gdansk, Poland in 2003 on a Baltic cruise. We were so impressed with the old town of Gdansk...the restoration of a town that rose from the ashes of WW2.
We saw an ad for a culinary tour of Poland for travel agents. Though I don't cook this seemed like an interesting twist for a new destination. We contacted Sarna Rose for this adventure which was to include the Pomeranian/Kashubian area of northern Poland including Gdansk. We also contacted Evza Bilakova, a friend from Prague and an expert for Eastern Europe tourism. We were flying into Warsaw and we thought that spending a few days there prior to the culinary trip would be a good idea. It was a really good move since we were able to travel with an outstanding guide, Ziggy (Zbigniew Pelczyk).
We were up early on 9-11 for our 9 AM United flight to Warsaw. The Republican Convention had just completed in Tampa and the Tampa Airport was adorned with very nice elephant sculptures which I assume will eventually be auctioned for a worthy cause. Our journey would take us to Washington Dulles Airport with a 5 hour layover before connecting to our SAS flights to Copenhagen and Warsaw. We recently got United Mileage Plus Visa Cards. One of the perks was a pass to the United Club. We used two of the 4 passes that we had in Washington. The room was big and offered snacks and house brand liquor. Very nice. Friendly people.
Our flight on SAS from Washington was loaded and left punctually at 5:15 PM. Dinner on the SAS flight was served at about 6:30 PM. What was touted as Chicken Marsala was really Chicken Curry. We were having flashbacks to our recent trip to India. Lynn and I really aren't fond of curry! Wine and drinks were complimentary with the meal. We had a California Pinot Noir which was really quite nice.
Our flight was uneventful. Our Polish guide, Ziggy, met us promptly upon departing from baggage claim in Warsaw at 9:30 AM the following morning. After being transported to our hotel, The Polonia Palace Hotel in the heart of Warsaw and a short orientation tour we have the day to ourselves. The hotel is one of the few buildings to survive WWII. It is a spectacular hotel. Our spacious room had king beds, a work desk and an excellent bathroom. We were amazed by the mass transportation which was everywhere in Warsaw. Modern electric trams and buses ran only seconds apart in the center of the city. We walked across the street, behind the train station for some shopping at the Warsaw Hard Rock Hotel...and lunch. We had burgers and beers and bought T-shirts for the kids.
Our dinner, selected by the tour company was at the Delicja Polska Restaurant. We had asked the tour company to include typical Polish meals during our stay in Warsaw. We walked about a half mile to the restaurant which was on an interesting European street. Our meal included pâté, Polish style roasted ducks with apples and home-made apple pie with vanilla sauce. It was Excellent with a very nice atmosphere.
The following morning we had the buffet breakfast at the Polonia Hotel. This was quite a meal with an omelet station, lots of interesting breads, even vodka or champagne! We met Ziggy at 9 AM for a city tour. We spent time at the incredible Warsaw Rising Museum. The facility featured a history of Poland's conflicts and occupation by the Germans and the Russians. We also stopped at several War monuments and a beautiful palace before lunch. Lunch was at Komanda Lwowska...a delightful restaurant...again, traditional. The menu included tomato soup, breaded fish filet and home-made cakes.
After lunch we toured the Old City. This is a delightful collection of typical European buildings with cozy restaurants, courtyards.
Ziggy suggested that we have dinner at Kasztelan, near our hotel. We enjoyed the ambiance, the WWII era music and the cuisine. Lynn had beef stroganoff. I had the bean soup and beef pierogis with Kasztelan Beer. Service and food were great. We walked to and from the restaurant from our hotel.
At 9 AM...Friday - we met Ziggy for our 2 hour drive to Treblinka...the site of a German extermination camp during WWII. The terrain along the way was pretty flat farm land punctuated by tiny villages. We drove away from the main highway onto a fairly poor road with occasional small directional signs directing us to Treblinka. We arrive at a grassy area with large boulders at each end of the death camp. This site was razed following the War. A monument was erected later and the property was maintained as a memorial site to the thousands that were exterminated here. There is a small museum at the entrance to the site with some photographs and some artifacts that were found there. The site is not large, but hundreds of thousand prisoners we're executed in the gas chamber at Treblinka. A series of cement railroad ties have been erected to indicate the tracks of the railroad that brought the prisoners to this place. A large stone monument marks the spot where the gas chamber had been. The monument is surrounded by hundreds of stones that memorialize the thousands that lost their lives here. The absence of any remnants of the extermination camp here is haunting as it should be. We were certainly moved by Ziggy's commentary.
On the drive back to Warsaw we made a lunch stop at a large clean truck stop, Goscinny Gaj. We had local soups and ice cream to tide us over for the remainder of the drive to Warsaw. Upon arrival at our hotel, we decided to cross the street and take the elevator to the 30th floor of the Russian building for an aerial view of the city. This is the tallest building in Warsaw. The building was built by Stalin in 1955 during Soviet occupation of Poland.
Dinner later was in the old town at another excellent restaurant, Galeria Freta. We started our meal with a generous caprese salad followed by a breaded pork chop. Dessert was a huge ice cream extravaganza with whipped cream, nuts and grapes.
Ziggy promptly picked us up at 8 AM the following morning. We had First Class ticket to Sopot by train on Saturday morning. This was a 5+ hour journey (approximately 200 miles) on the express train (5+ hours) to Sopot. We enjoyed our Warsaw guide, Ziggy, so much.
We crossed the Vistula River and rode through hours of farmland, rolling hills and occasional tiny villages. There was a lot of construction going on along the train tracks. The trains are all electric in Poland. The ride was comfortable, smooth and relaxing. Why can't we have anything like this in the States? Ziggy advised us to look for a castle at Malbork. Without his guidance we would have missed it. It was big and beautiful in its place on the river. We were surprised later since Gosia; our Pomerania guide would take us there for a full day tour.
We arrived in Sopot, a charming seaside town just one stop north of Gdansk. We immediately hauled our heavy luggage to a cab, and our hotel, Villa Baltica which was located right near Sopot's beautiful sand beach. The desk clerk was friendly. There is an elevator for the three floors of the small hotel. Our room was among the smallest that we have ever had...just room enough for a bed and a small bathroom with a shower. I was basically a shoebox, but clean and comfortable. Breakfast was good...simple and typical.
Villa Baltica was right on the Baltic Sea. The beach here is endless with simple beachfront bars and cafes. The sand is soft like at home in Florida...really! We stopped for a drink on the sand...and later for dinner at Bar Przystan. Lynn and I had haddock and calamari. We learned later that this is one of the most popular restaurants on the beach for seafood with the locals. Here you order at the counter and wait for your food.
On Sunday morning we met the tour operator, Sarna, Our guide, Gosia and our driver, Mark. We traveled with only one other couple, Robert and Joan from Los Angeles. There were just the 6 of us plus a guide and driver. We drove to our lodge in the country for the next 3 nights, Manor House Lisewski Dwor. This is a former hunting lodge in a quiet village miles dating back to the 18th Century away from any large population. Our room on the second floor was huge with a sitting room, a king size bed and a twin bed and a nice view of the front of this spacious country property. A delightful breakfast was served in the morning. The staff was friendly and attentive to every detail. This was a nice place to relax and to walk the grounds.
On Monday morning we drove to our first cooking class with Kashubian women from a nearby village. The Kashubian people have their own language as well as speaking Polish. They don’t speak English. We cut up vegetables and chicken for soup. We also cut and pitted plums for the desert. When we were completed cooking we enjoyed obiat, lunch together with our new friends. Later we drove along the coast making stops to visit a lighthouse and to walk along the beach. We also walked in the city square in Puck. Later we had an early dinner at Restauracia Mordowi Mol, a large fancy restaurant. Lynn had baked whole trout. I had goose breast with a carrot and a cabbage salad. We both had mushroom soup. Everything was fresh and good.
On Tuesday morning we drove along the Poland peninsula. Our destination was to be the Hel Peninsula. Hel had been a military installation that was recently opened to the public. On the trip we stopped at a hotel and spa for spa treatments. Lynn and I opted for one hour facials. I had never had one before. I didn't want to get undressed for a full body massage. But, Surprise! I had to get undressed anyway (:g). It was really quite refreshing. Following the spa we had a hearty lunch in the hotel restaurant. I had a wonderful herring salad followed by grilled salmon and shrimp. It was another delicious meal. Lynn, as is her custom ordered trout. It also was quite good. Now, this is living.
On Wednesday we packed and left the delightful Manor Lisewski. Today's adventure was another cooking class at the Kashubian country home of Regina. We cut up herring and cod for salad. We broke eggs to make a pudding. Regina was quite a character...very positive and quite a community leader (and a firefighter!) in her small village. Later, we stopped at a local market to see how the fresh meat, seafood and vegetables were displayed. We drove to Sopot and spent time window shopping on the walking street. Then we walked out on the longest pier in Europe before being transported to our next hotel, Hotel Gdansk.
The Hotel Gdansk is just across the canal from the Classic Old Town. The entire town was bombed in WW2, but was totally reconstructed to its original glory between 1945 and 1970. Our hotel is a historic site in a reconstructed granary just a few minutes’ walk from the old town.
On Thursday we drove to Malbork Castle, the largest castle in Europe, dating back to the Teutonic Knights of the 12th Century. Later, we went to a pottery shop and watched a demonstration. This was a busy day. Late in the afternoon we went to the actual starting place of WW2, Westerplatte. An original bunker, a monument and a few graves of Polish soldiers were all that remained. We then boarded a Pirate ship for our trip back to the Old Town.
On Friday morning we had our third and final cooking class. This time it was with chefs from the Polish Culinary Academy. We split into 2 groups of 3 each. We pounded meat and filled it with cooked red cabbage while the other group stuffed cabbage leaves with cut up fish. Part of the fun of the culinary experience was eating the food that we cooked and enjoying it with the local wine. Our farewell dinner was at an elegant Gdansk restaurant, Pod Lososiem in the Old Town, I had lobster soup (quite interesting with lobster and crayfish) and sturgeon. Lynn had sole and trout.
Saturday, we drove to a most unusual part of Poland in the northwest part of Pomerania. This was a national park with huge gray and white sand dunes. The white dunes shift while the gray dunes are anchored with trees and vegetation and don't move at all. This is quite a site with the dunes leading to the powdery sand beaches of the Baltic Sea. We walked the dunes and along the beach. These huge sand dunes surprisingly reminded us of our recent visit to Namibia. Later we stopped at another spectacular hotel for a lunch. My lunch included cold borscht cucumber soup and veal saltimbocca. Lynn had mushrooms in a puff pastry and trout with asparagus and Béarnaise sauce. We were stuffed when we arrived back at our lodging. We had a couple of glasses of red wine and called it a night.
On Sunday we drove to Stutthof, a German concentration camp during WWII. This was a surprise...a camp that we had never heard of before. This was actually the first camp that the Nazis constructed outside of Germany and it was the last to be closed. Thousands of prisoners were sent here. Most lost their lives. Many of the original buildings including the Administration building, barracks and even a gas chamber remain. This was quite a moving experience. A room holding thousands of pairs of shoes from those that died were in huge piles in one of the barracks rooms. Following this haunting experience we took a one hour boat ride on a river to our stop for lunch at a small family owned restaurant on the river. Later an Oktoberfest dinner at the hotel Gdansk with beer and pigs knuckle for me. Lynn had a pork cutlet and sauerkraut.
Monday was our last day in Poland...a sad day. We have seen so much, met many new friends and have enjoyed the spirit of such an interesting country. We have even learned a few Polish words like gindobre (good day), gincuya (Thank you), dobre (good), tack (yes) and of course toleta (toilet).
We traveled to the small village of Simbark where we visited a small themed attraction which was funded and built by a wealthy gentleman in the logging and real estate business. The attraction included the longest plank and the largest piano (Guinness World Records). Additionally, they had constructed an upside down house with a 36 degree pitch. Walking in it gave you an eerie feeling. What most interested me was the replica of the bunkhouse of a Russian concentration camp including a replica of a Russian train used to haul prisoners to Siberia. Accordingly, more than 2 million people were transported. Only 500,000 ever returned. We had lunch at Simbark where we tried their own porter beer which was quite good. After some shopping, a beer and pizza along the river in Old Gdansk we attended an organ concert (our least favorite experience).
Gdansk's Lech Walesa Airport is new, small and very efficient. Service was quick at the SAS counter. We were able to get our boarding passes for all 3 flights on one ticket. Checked baggage is picked up by an automated robot and moved along a conveyor belt I assume to our plane. Security was also expedient.
Camera Equipment : Nikon D7000 and Nikon 17-55 mm 2.8 lens, Olympus EP-L3 with 14-44mm Olympus lens, 32 gig Sandisk and Transcend media cards. I also took a Tamron 28-300 mm lens and an Olympus 44-150mm lens, but I didn't use either. All photos were handheld though I did take a Gitzo monopod. I would have liked to have taken an aerial photo of Gdansk from the top of the old city hall, but we never were back in Gdansk before they closed the staircase at 3:30 PM.
This was a very unique trip with lots of variety of things to do. Very little English was spoken here however guides and employees at the hotels and restaurants all spoke excellent English. I think that folks have a misconception of what Poland has to offer. Historically it is very important. The first battle of WWII was fought here. This country was later occupied by the Soviet's until 1989 and there has been an incredible rebuilding effort ever since WWII. The food is excellent here and the chef's strive for perfection in every type of establishment. Travelers are missing out by not spending time in this interesting country.