Before arriving in Poland, I conjured up images of a war-torn, desolate, gray, and gloomy country with crumbling, smoke- churning factories and bullet-ridden building facades. Have I been suprised! Though I only had the pleasure of spending one week in Poland, primarily between the big cities of Warsaw and Krakow, I immensely enjoyed the dynamic weave of kind locals, pretty medieval cities, and colorful heritage that I experienced.

Here are a few of my highlights of Poland thus far!

Mazes of lovely parks – I love to run, and I tend to get grumpy if I am not afforded the opportunity to stretch my legs, especially while traveling. I do not ask for much – a sidewalk through town, a swath of beach, a forest path, perhaps even a staircase to run up and down. I will even run in circles around a football field if I must. Upon arriving in a new destination, my eyes often search out the available running opportunities and their relative location to my accommodation. Much to my suprise, the city centers around both Warsaw and Krakow offered beautifully manicured parks to satiate my running obsession. Many of the parks featured ornate bridges, duck ponds, statues, wrought iron fences, and neatly trimmed hedges. This one had sets of “love” locks clasped to a sweet bridge along the walking path.

IMG_20150308_114003The locals came to feed the ducks, stroll the paths, and run as well.

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And they sat on benches to chat, of course.

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These bagel-like things sold for 1.5 zloty Obwarzanki are wonderful for a morning treat. Fresh, sometimes warm and soft if bought first thing in the morning, and easy to carry on bus trips for a last minute snack. Plus, they are ridiculously inexpensive. 1.5 zloty is about 40 US cents.

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They are sold at little street stalls by friendly vendors such as this charismatic man. Just kidding, I think he was a little annoyed that I was sneeking photos of him. Fair enough.

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Yummy, mouthwatering Pierogis– These ravioli-like dumplings come with various fillings, and, oh my, are they delicious! As a vegetarian, I had to write down the Polish words for mushroom, cheese, and sauerkraut and show them to the serving lady so I did not wind up with minced meat pierogis. If I lived in Poland, I would eat these every day and probably gain 15 pounds.

IMG_20150308_064317Once night, my cheese pierogi was served with a delightful yogurt, sugar sauce. It tasted like nothing I have ever eaten before, and I was in pure food heaven!

Warsaw’s Old Town– I spent my first day in Warsaw recovering from jet-lag, but I was soon out on the streets, exploring the city, snapping photos of the Old Town, and getting lost along the cobblestone alleyways.

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Most tourists begin their Warsaw adventure along the boulevard of Nowy Swiat, a busy, overpriced street lined with hip shops, coffee stops and eateries. However, strolling along this street with lead one directly to some of the best historical sights in Warsaw such as the ornate Royal Castle and the symbolic mermaid fountain.

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The ever present tulip vendors – Tulips must be in season in Poland. Every street corner and pedestrian boulevard features one of these little stands. Tulips are one of my favorite flowers and seeing these happy blossoms everywhere brightened my day.

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Krakaw’s Main Market Square – The sprawling main square of Krakow became one of my favorite places to sit. I would grab a coffee, pile on my gloves, hat, and scarf (for it is cold here in Central Europe), and gaze at the whilrwind of events around me. Magicians, vendors, musicians, tourists from every country around the world, flocks of cooing pigeons, and a mirade of other interesting things to look at fill the square day and night…even in the rain. (Yes, it has been raining.)

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It is worthwhile to spend a good few hours wandering around the iconic buildings near the main square too: the Cloth Hall, the statue of Adam Mickiewicz, the tower town hall, and St. Francis Basilica are just a sampling of the sights to see. Afterwards, pick an alley and explore beyond the square.
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A humbling afternoon at Auschwitz-Birkenau– A day visiting the Auschwitz-Birkenau camps is perhaps one of the most moving experiences in all of Europe (or the world for that matter).

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The grounds, which can be reached via tour or public bus, serve as a memorial to the Holocaust victims of one of the most notorious Nazi concentration camps.
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Though one cannot enjoy such a day spent reflecting on the horrors inflicted on the Holocaust victims, I certainly appreciated the opportunity to pay my respects and remember. It is a sight to definately not miss while in Poland. (more on my trip to Auschwitz later)

Bakeries– Carbs….need I say more? Poland seems to have a bakery on every corner. Of course, being a bread loving gal, I properly read up on the savory and sweet offerings before diving through the front door. These were plenty of delicious treats to sample, and I had my fair share. Piekarnia (a bakery with breads) and cukiernia (a pastry shop) are the answers to every backpackers soul after a weary afternoon of sightseeing. polandbreadb1

My favorite was the makowiec, or poppy-seed cake. However, a paczki, or glazed jelly doughnut is a typical Polish treat. Actually, simply indulging in the variety of wheat, full-grained breads was a treat (and the smells were drool-worthy too).

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Medieval architecture– Poland is no slacker in the department of creating beautiful buildings. All throughout both Warsaw and Krakow are Gothic churches, crypts and tombs to visit, and climbable towers offering magnificient views of the cityscape.

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Castles with splendid courtyards, cathedrals, museums, wood-carvings, and tranquil gardens featuring statues, Gothic carvings, and more sit on hilltops. In most cases, it is free to roam the grounds of the castles and churches. However, to explore futher inside many of the larger churches or to see some of the splendid, well-known paintings, tickets must be bought first. (But they are very cheap!)

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Cheap milk bars– Not, not chocolate bars, nor an establishment for drinking alcohol. “Milk bars” in Poland are fantastic little eateries offering local Polish food, usually for rock bottom prices.

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During Polands communist era, the government subsidized food at milk bars, and today, this still occurs at many of the milk bars throughout the country. I only went twice (both times to buy pierogis), and my bill was astonishingly low – about $2 US dollars. Though it can be confusing ordering in a milk bar since the milk-bar lady does not often speak English, I just pointed, smiled, and ended up happy with whatever ened up on my plate!

It seems that many of my “Poland favorites” revolved around food as I was just rereading this post. I hope my next stop in the Czech Republic has as many tantalizing and tempting treats.