When I told people I was heading to Poland for my half term break I was faced with a pause, then a smile, and then an... ‘Oh, okay!’ Some people even went as far as following it with, ‘...er, why?’
If I knew then what I know now, I could have responded with something much more romantic and culturally sophisticated than, ‘... because the flights were really cheap’, but at the time that was the best I could come up with. It was also because I’d never been to Poland before, and give or take a few politically-hot territories around the globe, I’d probably travel anywhere if it meant one more place crossed off the map.
The original plan was to spend five days in Warsaw, but we soon realised that there probably wasn’t enough to keep us there for that long so we looked at where else we could visit that was only a short train ride away. It turns out, not many places, as Poland is MASSIVE, but we decided on an industrial port town in the north called Gdansk and we even managed to bag ourselves a beaut of a hotel on the harbour front using some travel points we’d collected during our honeymoon.
Packing for a city break is easy when the temperature is set for minus figures. LAYERS is the only thing you need, and you don’t have to worry about whether anything goes because you’re never going to take your coat off. We landed on Sunday afternoon and the pilot described the weather as ‘breezy’. He wasn’t wrong, although it seemed like a bit of understatement when we were being whipped in the eyes by our own hair. It was also sleeting, and this became the theme for the following 48 hours, but OH! It still felt glorious to be on foreign soil.
You can learn a lot about a country when you arrive in the middle of a public holiday, and in this case we learnt just how very Catholic the Poles are as a nation, and that you’ll be hard pressed to find anything to eat or drink in the capital on Easter Sunday. On the one hand, this was a bit frustrating because we’d been travelling for 9 hours by this point and we were very very hungry, but walking around the city on the hunt for (vegan) food meant we covered a lot of ground, and this helped us to find our bearings and get a feel for the place. Every cloud! In the end, we settled for a noodle bar that advertised vegan ramen in the window. Winner.
We later ventured into the old town and found what seemed like the only open bar in the city, tucked away down an old cobbled street, behind one of those tremendous ornate wooden doors that wouldn’t look out of place in the Beauty and the Beast castle, and we supped a few pints of Tsykie before calling it a night.
The following day was breezy but bright, and we ventured out to do more exploring on foot wearing All The Clothes. Warsaw looks very doable on foot, but everything is actually very spaced out and we needed lots of pit stops to rest our legs and warm our cockles. We started our self-guided tour up by the Palace of Culture, an impressive looking building that looms over the entirety of the city and is actually the tallest structure in Poland. We made our way back down into the old town, where we took in the views from The Warsaw Barbican and Castle Square. It looked very different by day, especially when filled with people, and we enjoyed watching the hustle and bustle from a local coffee shop. In the afternoon we took an Uber across the river to the Neon Museum, an edgy little exhibition housed in an industrial warehouse that has on display exactly when it says on the tin. Whilst I agree that there’s nothing not to love about a retro collection of strip lights and letters, I did have to dissuade Rene from buying a giant R and K to take home, as well as a row of old cinema seats. Imagine trying to get that on a Ryan Air flight.
One thing we underestimated about our visit here was how spoilt for choice we’d be for food. There were vegan cafes on every other corner, and luckily for us, the word Vegan seemed to transcend any language barrier. We were never short of a good meal, from quinoa cheese burgers and fries, to potato pancakes, coconut kofta curry and mezze plates of deliciousness. And there was me thinking we’d be forced to eat sausage.
The next day we took a train from Warsawa Centrala up to Gdansk and enjoyed the novelty of a comfortable and reliable rail service, something that seems a forgotten memory back home in the UK. We watched out the window as acres and acres of open green land rolled by and I was struck by just how remarkably flat the country is, not to mention how much of it there is. There’s nothing quite like taking in the beguiling views of an unfamiliar place to make you remember that there’s so much more to life than what you think you know.
Gdansk is an absolute beauty of a place, and somewhat of a best kept secret as far as we could tell. What’s actually part of a triborough made up of Gdansk, Sopot and Gdynia, the centre point of Gdansk is the area around the harbour, where you’ll find beautiful cobbled streets, riverside restaurants and brightly coloured building fronts. There is an all-round nautical vibe, with boat trips offered up and down the river, fish restaurants at every five paces and clues about the city’s maritime history steeped in plaques and statues and in all its architecture. We didn’t need much entertaining whilst we were here, and whiled away our time by meandering along the river, soaking up the sights and sounds of the main shopping street, and losing ourselves as we weaved in and out of the many beautiful cobbled streets.
On the second day in Gdansk, the sun was SHINING and we took a train up to the nearby city of Sopot. This was a last minute plan hatched late into the night no less than 9 hours before, so we arrived expecting nothing more than the joy of new surroundings. Not only was it NO COAT WEATHER, we soon found ourselves on a beautiful beach no more than a kilometre from the train station. Holy smokes, we honestly thought we had died and gone to heaven. It was so much more amazing than we bargained for! As we walked along the seafront, the sky was blue, the waves crashed around our feet and the sand was soft between our toes. ‘The only thing that could top this off,’ we thought as we breathed the deliciously salty air into our lungs, ‘would be a cold drink and a sea view...’
And then whaddya know...
We spent the rest of the day admiring the view from the end of the pier, walking the length of the beach along the sand or the forested area that ran parallel to it. We wandered away from the coast and hunted out a vegan cafe for lunch, where we ate peanut curry, and cauliflower and millet cutlets with salad and mashed potatoes. That’s right, this ain’t your average seaside town. There wasn’t a crappy candy floss stall or burger joint in sight. We took some cakes back to the beach and ate them on the sand as the sun set. Not too shabby for Katy.
The evening was spent back at the hotel, enjoying a drink or two on the balcony as the sun disappeared completely behind the harbour and the air grew chilly. We popped next door to an art cafe called Klatka and were given some homemade plumb liquor to try while we waited for our food. Oh yes. This was a life I could really get used to.
We took the train back to Warsaw the following afternoon, wishing we had longer in this brilliant place. We had only been in Gdansk for 48 hours, but we’d been treated like royalty and been shown genuine kindness by the nicest of people. We had never felt such love! From our friend in the cafe Feed My Soul, who rustled us up some potato pancakes and lentil goulash when we turned up just as he was closing, to the waitress in the hotel who saw that there wasn’t much for us on the breakfast buffet on the first morning, so presented us with a platter of hummus and vegetable sticks the next day. It was so sweet it was almost upsetting.
Back in Warsaw for one night only, we concluded the trip as any good Rene and Katy holiday traditionally ends: with a massive pizza. This has been hard to do well since we went vegan, but the talented folk at Leonardo Verde on Poznaska (also known...by us...as VEGAN STREET) were definitely up to the task. Check these out:
It was strange to spend time here again when the sun was shining, when we’d been wrapped up head to toe in wool only a few days before. It certainly put a spring in our step on our final morning and it was the perfect weather in which to spend a few hours visiting the Palace on the Isle - a seventeenth century palace built for one of the most important writers and philosophers back in the day. The palace is set against a backdrop of beautiful woodland and was originally intended for his ‘rest and contemplation’. Hmmm, I could do with one of those.... The beautiful park that surrounded the palace was a perfect way to spend our last few hours in the city, before making our way to the airport. Sob!
If somebody asked me now why I chose to visit Poland, I’d give them a million and one reasons. Mainly, ‘Why wouldn’t you?!’
We met so many lovely people, with their helpful ways, humble nature and genuine kindness. Almost everybody that we came across spoke English so fluently that not only did it put us to shame, but made everything so easy. We could learn a lot from their lifestyle too - there are cycle paths everywhere in the city, places to exercise outside and delicious, healthy food available on every corner (not to mention it being a veggie and vegan paradise!). This could explain why everybody looks GREAT too. There’s always something interesting to see, with historical beauty set in every brick, every doorway, every ancient cobblestone. Even the bits of Warsaw that got rebuilt after the war contain a certain unassuming charm.
We felt perfectly at home on this foreign soil - like visiting a branch of distant cousins. There’s a sense as you walk around any European city (if you are also European) that everything is familiar, but different. It’s exciting and new, but safe. We are the same, but not quite. I couldn’t help but mourn the fact that it might not feel like this for us much longer. The shadow of Brexit loomed over everything we did and all I could think about was what an insane decision it seemed that we were pulling out of something so great. We’ve chosen to make these places less accessible for us, and the opportunity to travel and work and live across Europe a little bit harder to do. We might not feel as welcome after the divorce. It might be like turning up to a party after everyone’s heard you brag about how much you’d rather just stay home alone.
Well, not this girl. Oh no. Let it be known that I love everything about Europe and I hope I’m always welcome at their party. Travelling to Poland was an amazing experience, and, cheap flights or not, I’d go back there tomorrow in a heartbeat.