Friday-Sunday, April 20-22
Leaving Laboe, Germany we headed towards Straslund, one of the Hanseatic cities on Germany’s northeast coast. The shortest path to this port city involved a triangular route, which took us to an anchorage outside the main harbor of Helgenhafen, Germany, then north to Gedsner, Denmark, and back south.
Favorable winds and weather meant our making one-nighter stops in the above two towns, arriving in Stralsund on Sunday. Here, we planned to stay for a bit in order to tour some places further east by car.
Within two days we had rented a vehicle and left for Poland, specifically Warsaw and Gdańsk. We had wanted to see these two cities ever since we traveled here (via bus) in 2002. Back then we had planned land excursions when wintering aboard JUANONA in Rota, Spain. Imagining ourselves zipping through scenes of vineyards, alpine valleys, and landing in a major city, we soon realized that ain’t gonna happen. After calculating where our budget of $35/night could take us, we opted for Eastern Europe via buses. Billed as seats you can sleep in, some rides became our motorized hotel room for the night. Let me just state I respectfully disagree about the promoted sleep-ability of those seats, especially after our trek from stepping into the bus in Madrid at 19:30 only to exit the same bus the next day at 14:30 in Paris.
In 2002 our first destination once we crossed into non-EU countries was Kraków. Under damp, chilly November skies we toured this old city with its 10th-century town square, communist-bloc apartment buildings, and remnants of the WWII ghetto. Every day coal smell and smog accompanied us, adding a pervasive feeling of grayness to our touring. We left with an appreciation for this city’s history, a better understanding of the horrors of war, and a yearning for blue skies and brilliant color.
What a difference those 16 years have made. The obvious prosperity from, dare I say it, capitalism, has created bustling metropolitan areas. Construction cranes and newly built apartment buildings dot sky- and landscapes.
Familiar retail meccas and fast food chains offer items found in the US and Western Europe. And, tourism–one of the bellwethers of a locale’s growing popularity–seems to be thriving. Yup, 2018 definitely engenders a different feel and vibe from 2002. Plus, the luscious spring weather made walking a breeze compared to the freezing mix of early winter 16 years earlier.
Of course, the reason for the newness came from the extensive bombings of both these cities during WW II. In the historical areas this lent a rather Disney-esque atmosphere to our tours. You stand in a square immersed in medieval times
only to realize you’re actually gazing at homes, shops, even a castle built within the past 50 years. A bit disorienting but also stunning to think of how much effort went into such projects. And, how rewarding for both Warsaw and Gdańsk to receive recognition of their historical sites by being placed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List.
One aspect that didn’t seem to change from our travels 16 years earlier was the smell of coal wafting in the air on colder days. No surprise considering Poland’s cities have earned the dubious title of some of the most polluted in Europe from using this fossil fuel for heat. The NEW YORK TIMES recently covered this topic with a curious mention that Poland’s coal burning served as a patriotic rebuttal to relying on Russia’s natural gas. (April 22, 2018).
Some local areas are taking steps to combat this dangerous pollutant. Kraków plans to ban all coal and wood burning by 2019, and an activist in Zakopane, a mountain town, has received an EU grant to continue her war against air pollution. Unfortunately, the Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki of the Law and Justice Party champions this ‘black gold’. But, pressure from possible EU fines and the health risks to children caused the national government to pledge fighting smog with over $8 billion in the next ten years. Will be interesting to see if that actually occurs.
Let me provide a quick history of this country that we’ve gleaned from online research, tourist brochures, and one city’s walking tour…
Poland as a country came into being when the leader of several Western Slavic tribes, Duke Mieszko (930-992 C.E.),
took the Bohemian princess Dyoubravak as his wife. In 966 C.E. he consented to being baptized in the Christian faith to maintain independence from the Holy Roman Empire and to gain the protection of the papacy.* His son Bolesław I (966/67-1025) continued the expansion becoming the first official king of Poland in 1024.
* This had a lasting affect on the country’s religion as over 90% of the 38 million residents identify themselves as Catholic; however, a precipitous drop has occurred over the last ten or so years in those who actually observe the Catholic rites. And, non-believers has risen, especially among the 18- to 24 year-olds.
The Mieskzo dynasty lasted until the end of the 14th century when the royal line petered out. No problem. Intermarriages among noble houses, specifically that of Poland and Hungary, led eventually to one of Poland’s most popular monarchs (a female, no less): Jadwiga (1373/74-1399) who at age nine was declared queen of Poland. At the ripe old age of 12 she married Jogaila the Lithuanian Grand Duke (1351-1434) aka Władysław II Jagełło in 1386.
In 2002 we toured Jadwiga’s castle, an impressive fortress rising above Poland’s second capital, Kraków (the first being Gniezno, an important pagan center in 940 C.E. and later a Christian one developed by Bolesław. Only after Gniezno’s destruction and plundering by Bohemia in 1038 did Kraków become the capital.)
I’ll mention the switch to the Poland’s third capital, Warsaw in 1596 because it provides yet another example of the complexity of who’s ruling whom among all the monarchies of Europe. So, we’ve seen the ties between Hungary, Lithuania and Poland, right? A fast recap: Jadwiga was the daughter of Louis I, King of Hungary and Poland, and Elizabeth of Bosnia; Jogaila, Jadwiga’s husband, was the son of Algirdas, grand duke of Lithuania, and Yuliana, daughter of the prince of Tver (a Russian principality).
Now, add in Sweden with Sigismund III Vasa (1566-1632), son of Grand Duke John of Finland, later King of Sweden, and Catherine Jagielloxn, daughter of Polish King Sigismund I.
Some historians say Sigismund III moved the capital to Warsaw due to its being closer to Lithuania (and Sweden). Whatever the reason, Warsaw has remained Poland’s capital to this day.
Now, if you’re not screaming yet, I’ll continue on. Actually, even if you are going bonkers with this historical minutia, I’ll still keep at it…
Just some interesting facts leading up to Sigismund III’s reign, one being the Polish Golden Age (the 16th century to early 17th century). Timber and grain trading increased the wealth of the aristocracy. During this time Poland established a democratic monarchy, partly due to nobles representing 10% of the population compared to 1% in other European countries. Poland also legislated protection of minorities’ rights making it a tolerant melting pot. Ironic considering its later history.
This freedom of worship affected more than to whom you could bend your knees or look adoringly at an icon of. It also fostered scientific advancement. Poland is the home of Copernicus (1473-1543) who stated the earth orbited the sun, a teaching Galileo tried to promote in Italy only to be punished by the pope and the Catholic Inquisition.
Sigismund I (1467-1548) and Sigismund II (1520-1572) ruled during this time, relying on the support of the powerful aristocracy. Sigismund I’s Italian wife influenced a Polish cultural renaissance, as well as introducing lettuce, leeks and cabbage to the diet. (To this day you can purchase a bunched group of them called włosczczyzna (the ‘Italian’). In 1569 Sigismund II created the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth resulting in Poland being a powerhouse in 17th-century Europe.
Then, along comes Sigismund III who tried to be king of both protestant Sweden–didn’t work–and catholic Poland–worked, but not without setting the stage for a lot of dynastic wars. Yet, a startling footnote for this king is he is the only leader who has captured Moscow, which occurred in 1610.
A column erected by his son and heir, Władysław IV Vasa (1595-1648) stands in Warsaw’s Castle Square. Note the cross (and forget the diving pigeon on the left).
At that time the church only allowed statues on columns to commemorate religious figures. Władysław managed to obtain the church’s approval by ensuring the highest point would be a cross. This memorial is a fitting homage to a king who was also recognized as a supporter of the Counter-Reformation.
As neighboring countries’ powers grew, Poland’s began to shrink. Feuding of nobles, funding of constant warfare, and loss of population combined to weaken what was once a force to be reckoned with.
Which lands us in the 1700s and the three partitions of Poland resulting in the end of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Let’s just say the cause for taking over some of Poland’s territories was due to threatened monarchs and peeved nobles. In 1772 Russia, Prussia and Austria laid claim to some Polish territories. In 1793, following Poland’s drafting in 1792 of what some say was Europe’s first constitution, Russia and Prussia carved away more of what was left of Poland; and, in 1795 they completely removed Poland from the map (image from emersonkent.com)
after crushing a heroic revolt by Tadeusz Kosciuszko in 1794. †
† One of Koscluszko’s models for the constitution came from America’s recent struggle for independence. He actually served in the American Revolution as an engineer colonel and fought under General Horatio Gates in Ft. Ticonderoga and General Nathanael Green in North Carolina. Due to his contribution the United States awarded Kosluszko U.S. citizenship and the rank of a brigadier general in the U.S. Army.
Russia, Prussia and Austria managed to not only to carve up Poland but also cause this country to disappear for the next 123 years. The disappearance of an entire country is pretty strange to contemplate.
Maybe ‘gone’ but definitely not forgotten as the Polish people kept their culture alive. After several unsuccessful uprisings in the mid-1800s, the Poles wisely changed tactics, turning to education (teaching their native language and history), advocating social reform and pleading their case to their occupiers’ enemies. But, it wasn’t until November 11, 1918 when Poland’s name once again appeared on a map. Which is symbolized by the photo of a crowned eagle (Poland’s symbol since Boleslaw I) breaking its chains at the start of this post.
Between the two world wars Poland struggled to grow its economy and unite its citizens who had been under the rule of three different countries. Being in such a perilous condition it’s not shocking Hitler managed to invade and conquer Poland within a month. Then, the three powers that be gave Poland to Stalin, leading to another period of repression and authoritarianism until the Solidarity Movement in 1980 and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 finally gave Poland its freedom.
For awhile Poland served as the ‘how-to’ manual for peacefully switching from communistic to democratic governance. But, no more. With the election of the Law and Justice Party (PiS) in 2015 and its faces, Prime Minister Beata Szydlo
President Andrzej Duda
and the puppeteer behind the scenes, PiS party leader, Jaroslav Kaczynski,
this country now provides lessons on how an authoritarian group can use the cloak of democracy to dismantle an independent judicial system, a free media, and an electoral process. Pretty frightening, right? Public outcry can limit some of PiS’s work (such as its recent vote to not reward its ministers with major bonuses), but can it be enough?
As a tourist you wouldn’t think this would affect you, but one site, in particular, had PiS’s fingerprints all over it.
So, stay tuned as we visit first Warsaw, then Gdańsk…