We arrived in Poland fresh off of a Holland and Belgium President’s tour and we were instantly taken aback at the dazzling sights and sounds of this wonderful, new land. Caroline and I made our way into The Hotel Grand Sal’s restaurant to meet, for the first time, our local Trip Leaders Asia and Bibi. We weren’t quite sure what to expect, but after a prompt shot of vodka and an encouraging hug from our new-found Polish friends, any uneasiness or uncertainty quickly evaporated—we knew from that moment on that we were in good hands.
As it turns out, our first impressions were dead-on. Asia and Bibi are so full of life and spirit, with an infectious energy; an energy that we felt it right away at our surprise welcome at the door of the restaurant. Over the next couple of days we could see that our guests were understandably smitten by these capable leaders! Asia and Bibi are perfect complements to each other and took great care of the group. From language lessons and slide shows, to being lively partners for the traditional Polish folk dance (the Taniec Ludowy, not the Polka which is actually Bohemian in origin), to fine-tuning the bikes, these ladies were great.
To our delight, this convivial Polish hospitality seemed to run-ramped throughout the country. Everyone we met at the hotels, restaurants and shops were very friendly and happy to talk about their country and its history. We had the pleasure of meeting a man in a small local craft shop in Krakow who is a writer and an artist. He didn’t speak English perfectly (as so many of the young people do because it is a mandatory language in school), but he had a worn Polish-English dictionary by his cash register that allowed us to have a lively conversation. He was absolutely charming, and we ended up finding some wonderful handmade wooden crafts, hand-dipped candles and painted cards to take home with us.
We also had some terrific tour guides at the absolutely incredible Salt Mines, in Krakow, who were very proud and knowledgeable people. Again, not quite knowing what to expect, we were amazed at the appearance of the rock salt. It was dark and smooth, almost like limestone. We learned that these amazing mines rested 450 feet below the surface and were made up of a 150-mile maze of tunnels. They also housed a fascinating subterranean cathedral whose centerpiece was a large, overhanging chandelier, carved all from rock salt.
We weren’t only struck by our time spent indoors and underground. Our daily rides took us through some absolutely stunning countryside. We were there just after peak foliage and the woodlands were golden and gorgeous – very much like Vermont in Autumn. But the small towns we rode through were quite different from those at home, with the contrasts of the new and the old.
Finally, we are beyond pleased that this tour makes its way from Warsaw to Krakow, two of Poland’s thriving cities. We would not have wanted to miss either of them as they were equally interesting and exciting.
Warsaw was fabulous. The rebuilt Old Town is a charming marvel. One would never know it was not original: Truly an astounding feat of hope, pride and determination. During our exploration, we stopped and spoke with a young woman who was working on a restoration project and marveled at the detailed work she was doing on an old church. She was trained as a lawyer but preferred repairing the stonework! We also had the opportunity to enjoy a delicious, traditional food, pierogi, in a local Warsaw restaurant.
Towards the end of our tour, Krakow was also extraordinary – the Main Market Square is full of Renaissance, Gothic and Baroque architecture, and the center was bustling with locals and tourists. There were lots of colorful flower stalls and pretzel stands. We had a fantastic tour of the town which ended with a carriage ride back to the hotel. Our guide, Anya imparted so much information which indeed helped our understanding of the culture and history – both ancient and recent – of Poland.
Having been home for a couple weeks now, we both have found that Poland has truly made a lasting impression upon us. It is a nation full of color, amazing history and great food! Most of all, we found that Poland is a beautiful land made up of warm, remarkable people who were seemingly always willing to chat and share as much as they could about their home with a couple of eager travelers.