A Whirlwind Tour Around Poland

The memoirist trades Tuscany for the northern light and unexpected pleasures of Krakow and Gdansk

Krakow possesses a wealth of cultural treasures such as Wawel Royal Castle where the country's kings lived. (Christophe Boisvieux / Corbis)
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In 1990, when my husband, Ed, and I bought an abandoned villa in Tuscany, we hired three Polish workers to help us restore a major terrace wall. They were new immigrants, there for the money, and not happy to be out of their homeland. At lunchtime, we saw them opening cans of sausages, sauerkraut and other delectables they could not live without. On holidays they drove north in a battered car of some unrecognizable make to Wrocław, a 26-hour trip, where they had left children and wives. They returned with big gray cans of food so they did not have to eat the dreaded Italian pasta. They were gallant. With neat bows, they kissed my hand.

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The Poles were over-the-top, full-out workers. They hardly paused. We used to say, "Take a break. Get some rest."

They always replied, "We can sleep in Poland."

We adopted the response. Anytime we want to push through a project, we remind each other, "We can sleep in Poland."

Now we are going. To sleep but even better to wake up and find ourselves in a language full of consonants, a history that haunts, a poetry we have loved, a cuisine of beets, sausage and vodka, a landscape of birch forests and a people so resilient they must have elastic properties in their DNA.

We fly into Krakow at dusk and step outside into balmy air. The taxi drivers, all wearing coats and ties, stand in a queue. Soon we are slipping through narrow streets, passing lamp-lit parks and glimpses of the Vistula River. We turn onto cobbled Ulica (street) Kanonicza, named for canons who lived in the regal palaces there. "You will be staying on the most beautiful street," the driver tells us. He points to number 19/21, where Pope John Paul II once lived. Noble inscriptions in Latin cap carved doorways, and through upstairs windows I see painted beamed ceilings. Our hotel, the Copernicus, reflects an exciting blend of old and new. The candlelit lobby, once the courtyard, is now glassed over and verdant with plants hanging from inside balconies. A grand piano seems to be waiting for Chopin to sweep in and pound out a mazurka. The manager points out 15th-century ceilings, murals of church fathers, botanical motifs and gothic-lettered hymns from the 16th century.

I experience the delicious shock of the foreign as we step out and walk along the lower walls of the massive Wawel Royal Castle complex, where kings and queens of Poland are enjoying their long rest in the cathedral. We turn into a swath of deep green as twilight seeps into dark. When medieval walls were demolished in 1807 and the moat drained, this space became, by the 1820s, Planty Park, which rings the old town and provides a civilized promenade.

We pass a Ukrainian restaurant, shops selling amber jewelry, and strolling Krakovians—newly out of their coats, no doubt—in the spring evening.

"They look like my cousins," Ed remarks. He was raised in a Polish neighborhood in Winona, Minnesota. The relatives of his American-born parents immigrated from Kashubia in northern Poland, some in the 1830s, some during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, others as recently as 1900. Many other Poles from Kashubia also made their way to Winona as well.

We double back to the hotel, where dinner in the intimate, candlelit dining room nicely ends this travel day. When the waiter brings out an amuse-bouche of spicy salmon topped with cucumber sorbet, we know we're in good hands. Dumplings are light, with spinach and shrimp. We feast on duck, accompanied by parsley ice cream and roasted artichokes. Where's the sau­sage and potato? If they were on the menu tonight, they would be transformed by the masterful hand of Chef Marcin Filipkiewicz.


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