Miles and Smiles Away: A Compilation of Amazing Sights and Stories

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Westerplatte, a peninsula in Gdansk, Poland. It was where the first battle in the Second World War took place in all of Europe.

Alas, our three week adventure to the gorgeous and historically profound countries of the Czech Republic and Poland has reached its end.

While in previous posts (you can find them here) I have discussed some of the major highlights that struck me as significant, there are some little gems and amazing stories that we uncovered and explored that I haven’t gotten the chance to share yet. Sitting in the Frankfurt Airport waiting to board a 9-hour flight to Toronto seems like the perfect time to reflect and list off some of my favourite moments from the trip.

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Mood towards these backpackers struggles.

Just for laughs before getting into the real reflection, some less beautiful – nonetheless character building – experiences we had are as follows….

1) Having our 1-hour flight from Warsaw to Gdansk cancelled and having to take a 6-hour bus through the night instead.
2) Booking sleeper car train tickets for the wrong day and having to take a regular seated train car overnight.
3) Chelsea getting sick and hibernating while I explored Zakopane solo.
4) Me losing stuff constantly! (Lost my headband and adaptor in Cesky Krumlov, earrings in Krakow, toothbrush and paste in Wroclaw, brand new nikes on a bus to Wroclaw, a shirt in Frankfurt…. but still beats the time I lost my passport coming home from Thailand).
5) Wandering aimlessly in blistering heat trying to navigate the maze-like streets of Prague.
6) Wandering aimlessly in the middle of the night in search of a cab in small-town Zakopane.

But in all seriousness, situations like those as well as living out of a bag, wearing dirty clothes, language barriers, trying to figure out new social and cultural norms, and having travel plans swapped and moved around unexpectedly are all part of the journey. Stuff like that is what has made me a more patient and appreciative person than I was before I started backpacking.

Some of the most outstanding moments and memories include..

1) Our second day, when we visited the town of Kutna Hora, situated in the Czech Republic’s bohemian countryside. It was a mining town which competed with Prague economically, culturally, and politically throughout the 13th -16th centuries. We visited some astounding churches, most notably the Bone Church – ‘Sedlec Ossuary,’ decorated with the bones of over 40,000 people.

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Stepping into the bone-decorated church.

Its history began in 1370 when the Abbot of the Sedlec Monastery, Abbot Henry, scattered soil from the Grave of the Lord in Jerusalem across the cemetery. This made the site the most desirable burial site for people across the region. In 1870, a woodcarver named Frantisek Rint was hired for the dark task of artistically arranging thousands of bones, resulting in the chandelier as depicted below.

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This chandelier is composed of almost every bone in the human body.

Our guide, David, told us that the bone church was meant to serve as a solemn reminder of our mortality, the fact that we all die. David also said “It represents the fact that we are all equal in death in the eyes of God, and we all owe our service to him.”

To this day, bones are still being excavated from the crypts below the church.

Creepy, but beautiful in my opinion.

2) The Charles Bridge is a highlight of Prague for tourists around the world, and it is no wonder why. This 13th century historic bridge crosses the Vlatava river, making it the only means of connecting the Prague Castle to the Old Town until 1841.

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View of the Charles bridge from a boat over the Vlatava river.

Crossing the bridge and grazing my hand against the statues and stones gave me the opportunity to appreciate how many historic moments this bridge has stood through. From floods and disasters to cannon fire damage, the Charles Bridge’s pillars have stood tall and eerily beautiful.

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The statues on the Charles bridge are mostly replicas, the originals are placed in the National Museum.

3) Located in the South of Poland at the base of the Tatra mountains, rests beautiful Zakopane. We spent two days in this resort town, speckled with 20th-century wooden chalets. I took a 5-hour hike to Morskie Oko, pictured below, which is the largest lake in the Tatra mountains. The name translates to ‘Eye of the Sea,’ and is derived from the legend that the lake was once connected to the sea via an underground passage.

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Morskie Oko.

The first 2.5 hours of the hike, I was dripping in sweat, and the last 2.5 hours I was caught in a torrential downpour. Either way, the view was well worth it.

4) The Wieliczka Salt Mine just outside of Krakow was a pretty amazing place to literally delve into. Beneath the earth’s surface, we had the chance to explore the 13th century mine which features statues, monuments, carvings, and four entire chapels made from salt crystals.

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Gorgeous chandelier made from salt crystals.

At this UNESCO World Heritage Site, we got to learn about the different legends associated with the mine, as well as detail about mining culture and the wealth it brought to Poland up until the late 90s-early 2000s. We also got to taste some premium salt right off the walls!

5) Chelsea and I were perusing the colourful streets of Wroclaw when a massive parade passed us. We watched in awe, and later found out that this event is called Corpus Christi, a Catholic feast celebrated as a public holiday in Poland and many other countries around the world.

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People scatter flowers to welcome Jesus. It is believed that he walks with the people during the Corpus Christi processions.

It is a day when the Catholic church commemorates the practice of the holy Eucharist, or Communion. The procession included children dressed in white spreading petals on the streets, nuns, priests, citizens dressed up in regional costume as well as military uniform. Although at the time we did not know exactly what was going on, I knew it was something surreal that I would never see at home.

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It has been celebrated to honour the Eucharist since 1246.

Police blocked off traffic from all the main streets as the procession made its way through the town, their singing, music, and prayers heard from blocks away.

6) All of the amazing – albeit often times heart wrenching – Second World War museums, monuments, and historical sites scattered across the country. We spent hours drinking it in throughout every city we visited.

Following a visit to Auschwitz, we explored the Museum inside Oskar Schindler’s Factory in Krakow. These two tours paired together well, because the events that took place during the Holocaust and the Second World War did not occur independent of each other. There were really no isolated incidents or random acts. Each element from city to city (based on what I saw) reflective of that period is in some way, somehow linked. The history of that period is definitely a complex web – of occupation, of anti-Semitism, of elaborate underground networks feeding a Polish press and assisting fleeing Jews.

Schindler saved 1200 Jews, and that story is exhibited at the museum as well as his office which has been preserved since 1939. But the museum focuses more heavily on the occupation of Krakow and how the city continued to preserve their culture, beliefs, and family life under Nazi occupation. There were many compelling stories of the average citizen risking everything to help Jews escape from concentration camps, keep them in hiding, and provide them with fake papers so that they could have a chance of slipping under the Nazi radar.

A week later when we paid a quick visit to Warsaw, the capital of Poland, a city that had been completely destroyed in the early days of the Second World War, we visited a monument marking the edge of the Jewish Ghetto. By the end of the Holocaust, it had imprisoned over 400,000 Jews. The captive population was ravaged by outbreaks of disease, mass hunger, and regular executions.

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It was the largest of all European ghettos during this period, where people lived in horrific conditions completely cut off from the outside world.

Also in Warsaw, we spent some time in the Warsaw Uprising Museum. This helped to contextualize the significance of the Ghetto in relation to the broader population of Poles living under German occupation. Here, we saw a true testament to the resilience of the Poles. Heinrich Himmler, leader of the S.S, had ordered the utter destruction of the city in 1944. The relentless barrage left the city in ruins.

Visiting Warsaw and particularly this museum reminded me of a line from one of my favourite books, ‘The Zookeeper’s Wife’ by Diane Ackerman,

“Dozens of statues and monuments grace Warsaw’s streets, because Poland is a country half submerged in its heavily invaded past, fed by progress, but always partly in mourning.”

Learning from the museums we visited in Krakow and Warsaw, it really is astounding to imagine the terror and uncertainty the Poles faced throughout the Second World War and the Holocaust. I can’t even begin to express the respect I have for Polish people and the Jewish community, who have managed to hold on to their beautiful and distinct cultures throughout such mass destruction. To be honest, after what I learned, it amazes me how much of Poland there is to see that has been preserved and immortalized in monuments.

As a tourist/traveler, I can honestly say I am in awe of the country in every way that you can be. From aesthetics to history to food, despite such darkness and years of occupation, it is a welcoming and safe country to explore. As someone who deeply values knowledge and learning from our past in order to progress forward as better people, I can’t stress enough how important that is. Poland, and also the Czech Republic, are places that we can go and actually learn from real local people about the history of a region that was entirely ravaged by the Second World War.

There are some things you just can’t learn from books or movies, no matter how hard you try.

I recognize that not everyone can or wants to travel, which is why I hope that by sharing my personal thoughts, experiences, and reflections, that you can learn something new or thought-provoking too.

If anyone wants to chat more about Jewish/European history, or share any of their local or worldwide travel experiences, I am all ears. You can reach me below at any of the links under my photo. To those who read along and shared their feedback with me – thank you.

Now it is back to the grind, the normalcy of everyday life. But rest assured I will fill my leisure time avidly reading the many books I brought home from my travels, and daydreaming about the next time I will be miles and smiles away.

I leave you with this, a traditional Polish soup called zurek soup. Served in a bread bowl, it is made from sausage, mushrooms, and eggs. One of my last – and most delicious – meals in Poland.