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Trip Report: The Baltics, Finland, and Poland (September 2019)

Trip Report: The Baltics, Finland, and Poland (September 2019)

Old Apr 29th, 2020, 01:12 PM
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Trip Report: The Baltics, Finland, and Poland (September 2019)

Years ago, when we visited Russia, during the initial planning stages of our trip, we wondered whether we could also include stops in the Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania); however, as our preparations continued, we realized that we did not have enough time. Those cities remained on our “to see” list until fall 2019, when we finally were able to visit Tallinn, Riga, Vilnius, including additional stops in Helsinki, Krakow, and Warsaw.

Wednesday 9/11: Home to NYC

On the evening before our trip, a car service drove us from our home in PA to the Hilton Times Square in NYC, where we spent the night before leaving on our Eastern European adventure the next night. After we checked into the hotel, we ate dinner nearby at Boqueria Midtown.

Thursday 9/12: A Day in NYC Before Boarding Our Flight

After an early-morning meeting, we returned to the Hilton, where we checked out and stored our luggage with the bellman. Then we caught the number 7 train to Citi Field to attend the 1:05pm NY Mets vs. AZ Diamondbacks baseball game. After the game (the Mets won 11 to 1), we rode back to Manhattan, traveling to the end of the line at Hudson Yards. We admired the exterior of the new Vessel sculpture and browsed in the adjacent mall. We enjoyed a tapas happy hour at Mercado Little Spain’s La Barra before we returned to the hotel to claim our luggage and depart for the airport.

Our LOT Polish Air flight departed from Newark’s Terminal B, which does not have many amenities. Fortunately, because we were flying business class, we had access to the SAS Lounge while we waited for our flight. (We also had access to the Art and Lounge through our American Express Priority Pass membership; however, that lounge is located landside, not airside.)

As we boarded the 10:50pm LOT flight, we were thrilled to be flying a Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner from Newark to Warsaw. We prefer that aircraft’s business class cabin to others because of the open, straight-forward-facing seats that do not enclose passengers’ feet like other equipment. Service was pleasant, the food was good and plentiful, and the time passed quickly. The overall flight experience was good, and we would gladly fly LOT again.

Friday 9/13: Flying and More Flying

Upon arrival at Warsaw’s Frederic Chopin International Airport at approximately 1:15pm, we quickly passed through immigration and had our passports stamped. We did not need to claim our luggage because it was through-checked in Newark. We already had our LOT connecting boarding passes, so we made our way toward the gate for our connecting flight.

We had a little more than a 2-hour layover, so we visited one of the LOT lounges. Note that Priority Pass members have access to only specific lounges, whereas business passengers have access to those same lounges plus others, and first class passengers have additional private lounge space. There were LOTS of lounges at the Warsaw hub for LOT Airlines! The busy lounge that we visited offered self-serve food and beverages.

At 3:25pm, we boarded our 1.5-hour LOT Air flight from Warsaw to Riga Latvia. Because we were still technically flying business class (even though there was no true business class seating), we were each allotted two seats rather than just one, so we sat in two different rows at the front of the plane. Service was good, and we received a small meal with drink service despite the short duration of the flight.

Upon arrival at Riga International Airport at 5:45pm (there is a 1-hour time difference between Poland and Latvia), we disembarked by jetway directly into the terminal. We did not need to pass through immigration because both Poland and Latvia are members of the Schengen Zone that allows passengers to move freely between countries, so we proceeded to baggage claim.

Because the room category that we booked at our hotel in Riga included complimentary one-way airport transfers, a driver was waiting for us after we departed baggage claim. In about 15 minutes, he ferried us from the airport to our hotel in Old Town, the Grand Palace (we stayed at their St. Petersbourg Hotel in Tallinn later in our trip).

The hotel has a great location just a 2-minute walk from Cathedral Square, where the Riga Cathedral (also called the Dome Church) is located. Built in the early thirteenth century, the Cathedral is the largest medieval church in the Baltic states, recognized for its pipe organ and rooster weathervane. The city’s famous Three Brothers is a 1-minute walk away, and the House of the Black Heads and St. Peter’s Church are 7 minutes by foot. Numerous shops and restaurants are within easy walking distance of the hotel. In addition, a convenience store/market called RIMI Express was a 3-minute walk away. (We visited it each day to purchase drinks (both alcoholic and non-) and snacks for our room.

Because we visited Riga at the end of the peak travel season, the Grand Palace’s outdoor sidewalk cafe was no longer operational (although its tables, chairs, and flowers/greenery had not yet been dismantled). In order to reach the lobby of the hotel, we had to climb a few steps, which could be a bit difficult for older guests or those toting large luggage. Once inside on the main floor (located sort of a half-floor above the street level), the elegant Pils Bar and Pils Restaurant are in separate rooms located to one side, with the front desk and concierge in a room on the other side. Behind the lobby room is a business corner as well as the stunning glass atrium ceilinged Orangerie Restaurant, where we enjoyed a complimentary buffet breakfast each morning. The breakfast at the Grand Palace was our favorite of our entire trip, with various hot and cold selections, including a lovely assortment of cheeses, caviar, and champagne, as well as some cooked-to-order dishes like omelets. We loved the Orangerie room, the food, the staff, and the intimate setting. (We had more expansive buffets at other hotels later in the trip, but the smaller size of the room and the lack of a crowd made this one stand out.) Other Grand Palace Hotel amenities include free Wi-Fi, fitness center, sauna, and steam room.

Our Junior Suite was spacious (about 400 sq ft), with two dormer-style windows (that opened, and one of which provided an excellent view of the ochre-colored steeple of the nearby St. Mary Magdalene Catholic Church), air-conditioning, a seating area (with sofa, lounge chair, and coffee table), twin beds (which had been pushed together to form a king) with a bedside table on each side, desk/chair, television, large closet (which held a coffee service, minibar, and safe), and an antique-style bathroom with pedestal sink, toilet, and combination bathtub/shower (with robes, slippers, and excellent aromatherapy toiletries).

Later, we took a walk through Old Town in search of a restaurant where we could have dinner. We ate at a bar/restaurant called O’Paps, where we shared an enormous meat and veggie board for two that included beef sausage, blood sausage, hunter sausage, ribs, minced beef patties, grilled veggies (yellow and green squash, red and green bell peppers, mushrooms, mini corn-on-the-cob, and snap peas), potatoes, purple cabbage coleslaw, two sauces, and a sunny side-up egg. Our dinner cost about $40US for the hearty portion of food and a few rounds of drinks.

Saturday 9/14: Riga Central Market, Old Town, and the Art Nouveau District

After we enjoyed an amazing buffet breakfast in the Grand Palace’s Orangerie Restaurant, we took a 15-minute walk to the Riga Central Market. We had heard a lot about the market, which was added to UNESCO World Heritage List in 1998. The market was completed in 1930 and seems to stretch for miles, with over 3,000 vendors occupying five old Zeppelin hangars from WWI. Most buildings have a specific purpose, including ones dedicated to vegetables, bakery items, dairy, meat, and fish, with additional outdoor vendors who sell a combination of items including fresh flowers, farm-fresh produce, clothing, and household goods.

Next on our agenda was a walking tour of Old Town, so we made our way from the Central Market to our meeting point at the Laima Clock. (The clock was completed in 1924 and was initially called the “Big Clock”, but in 1936, it began to display the name of the Laima Confectionery Company. During the Latvia Soviet Socialist Republic [1940 to 1991], it was used as a political information stand.) Because we were a bit early for our tour, we enjoyed some drinks nearby at the Bar Mazais Otto at the Hotel Roma. At 2:00pm, we walked to the clock, where we met our private guide from a company called Around Latvia. We had arranged for two back-to-back tours that would last three hours (the cost was about $185US, which we paid ahead of time using a credit card).

First, we took a 2-hour Old Town walking tour, which began with the Town Hall Square and included stops at the Baltic Way Footprints, Monument of Freedom, Large and Small Guilds, Cat House, several old churches (St. John’s, St. George’s, St. Jacob’s, and St. Peter’s), Convent Square, the House of the Black Heads, Three Brothers, Dome Square and Cathedral, Swedish Gate, Jacob’s Barracks, the National Opera, and the City Channel.

The Baltic Way Footprints mark an unprecedented event in world history when roughly 2 million Latvians, Estonians, and Lithuanians joined hands to form a 372-mile-long human chain from Tallinn to Vilnius via Riga. The mass demonstration memorialized the 50th anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact that took place in 1989, when the Baltic nations were still occupied by the Soviet Union. A small red granite “footprint” indentation at the crossroads of Kaļķu and Vaļņu (near McDonald’s and the Hotel Roma) serves as a reminder of that historic event.

The Freedom Monument honors soldiers killed during the Latvian War of Independence (1918 to 1920) as an important symbol of the freedom, independence, and sovereignty of Latvia. Unveiled in 1935, the 138-foot high monument made of granite, travertine, and copper often serves as the place for public gatherings and official ceremonies in Riga. The sculptures and bas-reliefs on the monument, arranged in thirteen groups, depict Latvian culture and history. The core of the monument is composed of tetragonal shapes on top of each other, decreasing in size towards the top, crowned by a 62-foot high travertine column bearing the copper figure of Liberty lifting three gilded stars.

The Large Guild was erected between 1854 and 1859 in the English Gothic style. Although the building is currently used as the Latvian National Symphony Orchestra’s concert hall, its original purpose was as a merchant organization, with tradesman and craftsmen of all kinds accepted except for weavers and sauna operators. Later, the two guild organizations were split by economic and social interests: the Large Guild hosted traders and the Small Guild brought together craftsmen.

The Cat House is an example of medieval architecture with some elements of Art Nouveau. It is known for the two cat sculptures on its roof, with arched backs and raised tails. It is said that the owner of the house wanted the cats to be placed with their tails turned towards the house of the Great Guild nearby, because he held a grudge against its members because they refused him membership. It was later ordered that the cats should be turned so as to face the Guild House.

St. Peter’s Evangelical Lutheran Church was built in 1200 and exhibits architecture from three periods: Gothic, Romanesque, and early Baroque. A 236-foot-high viewpoint in the tower provides panoramic views of the city. Chimes sound five times a day, with bells ringing on the hour. The spire has hosted seven different rooster weather vanes, the most recent gilded in 1970 to commemorate the church’s 800th anniversary. In 1997, St Peter’s Church was included on the UNESCO World Heritage List. We tried to visit the lookout tower in the later afternoon after our walking tour, but we arrived too late to gain admittance; unfortunately, due to our limited time in Riga, we didn’t have another opportunity to return.

The House of the Black Heads was erected during the early 14th century for a guild of unmarried merchants, ship owners, and foreigners. The exterior features decorative ornamentation, including sculptures. The building was bombed by the Germans in 1941; however, it was rebuilt between 1996 and 1999. Today, it houses a museum, with grand ballrooms on the upper level. On another level, you can visit historical presidential cabinets before they moved to Riga Castle. The House of the Black Heads sits on Town Hall Square, where we also saw the Roland Statue (he was the nephew of Charlemagne and a Frankish military leader).

The Three Brothers is a building complex of three houses that together form the oldest complex of dwellings in Riga. Each house represents various periods of development. The building in 17 Maza Pils Street is the oldest, dating from the late 15th century. The exterior of the building is characterized by crow-stepped gables, Gothic decorations, and a few early Renaissance details. The neighboring house 19 Maza Pils has an exterior dating from 1646, with a stone portal added in 1746. The style of the building shows influences from Dutch Mannerism. The last house, located at 21 Maza Pils, is a narrow Baroque building that gained its present look during the late 17th century. Today, the Three Brothers complex houses the State Inspection for Heritage Protection and the Latvian Museum of Architecture.

The Swedish Gate was erected 1698 as a part of the Riga Wall that provided access to barracks outside the city wall. Just opposite the Gate and the largest fragment of the old city walls lie three long yellow buildings with orange tile roofs that are collectively known as Jacob's Barracks (or James’ Barracks). The structures were initially built in the 18th century as barracks for local troops, and they served that function for successive regimes until the end of the 20th century. The buildings stretch for roughly 750 feet from the Powder Tower to the road. Today, instead of providing military housing, they are now occupied by souvenir shops, bars, and posh cafes. We particularly enjoyed looking at the many colorful decorative coats of arms for various Latvian parishes (cities and municipalities) that were painted on the wall on the end of the row of buildings.

One particularly interesting place that our guide took us through was the National Costume Center, a shop/museum that sells and exhibits supplies for Latvians to craft their national costume. Mannequins are clad in the traditional costumes of various Latvian cities and municipalities. Since the restoration of Latvian independence in 1991, Latvians have wanted to show pride by wearing their own costume at important events, including those held at the song and dance festivals and on national and religious holidays. (In fact, the next day, when we visited Bauska Castle, we observed a group of six Latvian women tourists who were dressed in their traditional costumes while they toured.) The shop also sold beautiful clothing items (including mittens, hats, belts, crowns, and socks), fabrics, textiles, and other notions needed to create a costume. We really enjoyed this short 20-minute stop; it wasn’t somewhere that we would have ventured on our own because we would have thought it was just a store/shop and not a small museum.

Our guide also led us through the cafe/bar called Black Magic (another place that we wouldn’t have thought to enter on our own). She led us through the cafe area, which sold pastries, coffee, and cocktails and displayed many flavors of balsam (a dark astringent liquor made of 24 different herbs). Then, she led us through a sort of secret bookcase entrance down some steep steps to the basement chocolatier/confectionary area, which also had seating areas for guests. Although we didn’t try any drinks or candy while in the shop, we did try the currant flavor of the black balsam as an after-dinner cordial later that night (it tasted like cherry cough syrup!).

We took a short break indoors at a tiny bar/café called KD Konditoreja before we continued on the second part of our tour, a 1-hour walk that featured the Art Nouveau District of Riga. Art Nouveau (also known as Jugendstil in Germany, Stile Liberty or Stile Floreale in Italy, Modernismo in Spain, and Sezessionsstil in Australia), with origins and bases in English and French, became popular during the peak of the Latvian economic prosperity at the end of the 19th century. We saw various buildings on Elizabetes Street and Antonija Street designed by architect Mikhail Eisenstein. We also saw a building erected on Blaumana Street by Karl Johann Flesko featuring dragons, wolves, and gargoyles with gaping mouths. Finally, we saw a bright yellow hotel on Jauniela Street that features an enormous woman’s head hovering above the entrance.

After our tour (which ended on the opposite side of the river from our hotel), we walked back to Old Town, stopping for one round of drinks (about $10US) at the sidewalk terrace of a bar/restaurant called the Key to Riga. Later, we ate dinner at Restorans Salve (recommended by our guide), where we sat outdoors beneath heated lamps. We shared a variety of traditional Latvian dishes and a few rounds of drinks (about $66US), including homemade dumplings (pelmeni), peas with bacon and onions and served with a glass of buttermilk, potato rosti with salmon and cottage cheese, pork and sauerkraut soup served in a bread bowl, a dessert made of rye bread, whipped cream, and cowberries, and a glass of black balsam.

Sunday 9/15: Riga to Vilnius with Sightseeing Along the Way

Rather than flying from Riga to Vilnius, we decided to employ a driver from the company Discover Lithuania to chauffeur us by van so that we could make a few sightseeing stops along the way. (It cost about $350US for a 10-hour day paid via credit card.)

Our first stop was at the Salaspils Holocaust Memorial, about 30 minutes from Old Town Riga. Although our driver was inquisitive as to why we wanted to visit it, we were intrigued by the enormous concrete statues that we had seen online. Salaspils was established in 1941 as an extended police prison and later as a re-educational labor camp. Although it was not a death camp (there were no gas chambers), its guards treated its occupants quite severely, especially its children. During its existence, about 12,000 prisoners went through the camp. About 2,000 people died due to illness, heavy labor, executions, epidemics, and so on. It rained lightly as we walked on the sidewalk paths around the statues that occupy an expanse of grass surrounded by peaceful forest. A melancholy metronome meant to represent a heartbeat haunts guests as they walk around the site. Seven gigantic Soviet-style monuments convey what life was like at the camp. “The Unbroken” monument captures the spirit of the prisoners whereas “The Mother” stands tall to protect her children in the face of “The Solidarity” of those in power. “The Humiliated” shows prisoners cowering meekly behind a tree, hiding from terrors we can only imagine. Other statues are titled “Protest”, “Red Front”, and “The Oath”. Because we visited early in the day, the small indoor museum was not yet open. This stop on our itinerary took less than an hour, but it is something that we won’t forget.

Back in the van, we drove about an hour to Bauska Castle, an example of military architecture built between the mid-1400s by the Livonian branch of the Teutonic Knights at the confluence of the Musa, Memele, and Lielupe Rivers. It was intended to protect the border of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and to control the trade route from Lithuania to Riga. Later, it became one of the residences of the Duke of Courland. Although parts of the property were under construction, we were still visit the residential castle and the fortress, with its bastions, walls, and ramparts. We also visited a small onsite museum occupying a few different floors, with Latvian artifacts and some beautiful authentic costumes. This stop took about one hour. There are good restrooms on site, but you may have to ask to use them (they are a bit hidden).

Our next stop was Rundale Palace, about a 15-minute drive from Bauska, where we spent an enjoyable 2 hours exploring this monument of Baroque and Rococo architecture (which loosely reminded us of Versailles). If you are there at the right time of year, be sure to look for the monstrous stork nest built atop one of the towers/chimneys. (Storks return to the same nesting spot year after year; although we didn’t see any birds, the massive size of the nest was just incredible!) Rundale was built in the mid-18th century as the summer residence for the Duke of Courland by the same architect who designed St. Petersburg Russia’s Hermitage, Peterhof Palace, and Catherine Palace. It includes 138 elaborately decorated rooms spread over two floors of a U-shaped building, a French garden (with Baroque elements like hedges, pavilions, and arbors), a Rose Garden (featuring 8,000 different roses, in colors like red, yellow, pink, white, orange, black, and blue), and a Latvian museum. We toured rooms including the White Hall, Great Gallery Hall, Gilt Hall, Duke’s and Duchess’s suites, four staircases, and two kitchens. This site offers a gift shop, restrooms, and cafes/restaurants. We visited the casual Cafe Ozollade Rundales Novalva (meaning “Oak Chest”, where we had a round of drinks for about $5US; it is not necessary to purchase admission to the Palace to dine there). Other dining options at the Palace include the Restorans Rundales Pili, Cafe SIA Kommats (in the porterhouse and garden pavilion), and the Cafe Under the Gold Vase (in the garden).

Once we reached Lithuania, our driver stopped for lunch at a local roadside restaurant called Kavine Baras Plugo Broliai/Brojoniskio, where for about $15US, we enjoyed hot borscht, herring and potatoes, enormous meat-filled dumplings, and drinks. (Update: We recently heard that this restaurant experienced a fire and is now closed.)

Our last stop was the Hill of the Crosses, an outdoor hill/mound (called Jurgaiciai - Domantai) that contains more than 200,000 crosses of various sizes, materials, and decorations. We spent about one hour walking amongst the crosses (some steps are required). For over 100 years, people have been visiting/making a pilgrimage to leave crosses and prayers. The site contains a gift shop, food service, and restrooms (although you must pay to access them, so be sure to have some coins to operate the turnstiles). As we walked out to the Hill, it was drizzling, but by the time we walked back, the wind and rain were whipping so hard that we were soaked when we reached the car. This was the worst day weather-wise that we experienced during our entire trip.

About 3 hours later, we arrived in Vilnius around 6:30pm. As our driver was dropping us off at our hotel, he pointed out a nearby weekend street fair that would soon be closing at 7:00pm, so after a quick check-in and stowing of our luggage, we walked a block to where the street fair began. Although many of the merchants were in the process of packing up their wares, we were still able to sample some local cuisine (one item was something similar to a cabbage roll or halupki). We walked for quite a distance on Gedimino Street before we turned around. On the way back to the hotel, we stopped at the Lidl Supermarket to pick up some drinks and snacks (credit cards accepted); however, we were dismayed to find that we could not purchase beer on Sundays after 3:00pm. We also stopped at a small kiosk/shop called Caffeine at the corner of Gedimino and Odminiu Streets where we bought some name-brand sodas (Diet Coke) that weren’t available at Lidl (they accept credit cards).

The Grand Hotel Kempinski Vilnius offers 96 rooms and suites in various categories. The property offers a spacious lobby, fitness center and spa, event space, and several food/beverage options, including the Telegrafas restaurant (where we ate breakfast), the adjacent elegant Bar Le Salon, Atelier Wine Bar, Le Cafe (a mostly take-away lobby shop that offers coffee and delicious-looking pastries), and a sidewalk Summer Terrace (no longer operational when we visited). We loved the location of the Grand Hotel Kempinski Vilnius in Old Town and just across the street from Cathedral Square. The hotel was located just steps from many shops and restaurants, and an ATM cash machine was located right around the corner.

At the Grand Hotel Kempinski Vilnius, we reserved a Junior Suite. Our fifth (top) floor suite offered a spacious living room, with sofa, two lounge chairs, coffee table, side table, television, desk/chair, and built-in refreshment/closet unit that held a minibar and coffee service. The separate bedroom was smaller, with room for a king-size bed and two nightstands, lounge chair, and a second television. Due to the antique sloped attic ceiling at the edges of our room, we had to take care when opening the dormer windows (two in the living room and one in the bedroom), which we did often because they offered a stunning view of the Vilnius Cathedral. (Note that we could not see the Cathedral unless we stood in one of the dormers.) The modern bathroom (accessed through the bedroom) offered a combination bathtub/shower (although the room description online said that these would be separate, they were not in our suite), sink, and toilet. Quality toiletries were provided. A welcome gift of a fruit plate and some cute meringue lollipops was waiting when we arrived in our room.

On our first night in Vilnius, we ate dinner at the London Grill. We were thrilled with the amount of food that we received for about $30US. The restaurant chain uses a ceramic charcoal grill to cook your choice of 20+ kinds of meat, accompanied by a choice of 15+ hot and cold side dishes and 9 sauces (we chose things like potato puffs and garden salads).

Monday 9/16: Vilnius Sightseeing

Our room rate at the Kempinski included a complimentary buffet breakfast in the hotel’s Telegrafas Restaurant. Their lovely buffet offered both cold and hot items, including some made-to-order items.

Our guide Augustinas Zemaitis from the company True Lithuania (he’s the owner) met us in the hotel lobby at 10:00am, and we paid him cash (99 Euros) for our 3-hour walking tour of Old Town, which is preserved as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We began our tour across the street from our hotel at Cathedral Square, where we proceeded inside the immense Cathedral (properly known as the Cathedral Basilica of St. Stanislaus and St. Ladislaus of Vilnius). The main Roman Catholic Cathedral in Lithuania has hosted many coronations of Grand Dukes inside; it is also the site of crypts and catacombs that hold famous Lithuanian and Polish people. We proceeded inside to admire the various frescoes and paintings hanging on the walls, as well as some sanctuaries and chapels (like the Chapel of St. Casimir with its sarcophagus). During the Soviet regime, the Cathedral was converted into a warehouse; masses began being celebrated again starting in 1988. The first Cathedral was built on this site in 1251; however, many iterations have been either burnt down or been otherwise destroyed. The current neo-Classical Cathedral occupies a quadrangle shape, with its main façade adorned by sculptures of the Four Evangelists. Later, three sculptures of Saint Casimir (symbolizing Lithuania), Saint Stanislaus (representing Poland), and Saint Helena (signifying the true cross) were placed on the roof. Cathedral Square also contains a stand-alone bell tower (a design uncommon except in Italy, leading some historians to believe that it may have once been part of the city walls), the bronze Gediminas Monument (a tribute to the Grand Duke who founded Vilnius and Trakai), as well as the Royal Palace of Lithuania, which is located behind the Cathedral.

Next, we visited another Roman Catholic church, the ornate St. Anne’s, which is a prominent example of Flamboyant Gothic style architecture built in 1500. It exhibits traditional Gothic elements and shapes that are used in unique ways; Gothic arches are framed by rectangular elements dominating a symmetrical and proportionate facade, creating an impression of dynamism. The church’s one nave and two towers were built using 33 different types of clay bricks that are painted red. We also saw the neighboring Roman Catholic Bernardine church St. Francis of Assisi; dedicated to Saints Francis of Assisi and Bernardino of Sienna, it is another important example of Gothic architecture. Built in the early 1500s, it features Gothic pointed-arch windows and buttresses on its exterior, above which is a pediment with twin octagonal towers on either side of a fresco in the middle niche depicting the crucifix.

We passed by St. Michael the Archangel, a former Roman Catholic church that is now home to the Church Heritage Museum. Its most distinctive features are its black-spired bell towers that hold crosses atop, which match the cross atop the pediment with a floral-motif frieze. Atop the bell tower is an iron weathervane that represents St. Michael crushing the devil underfoot. The church was first built in the early 1600s as a mausoleum for the family of the Chancellor of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, but was later burned down and then re-erected.

One particularly memorable site on our walking tour was the Gate of Dawn, built in the early 1500s as part of the city’s defensive fortifications. Of the ten original city gates, only Dawn remains. In the 16th century, city gates often contained religious artifacts intended to guard the city from attacks and to bless travelers. The Chapel in the Gate of Dawn contains an icon of The Blessed Virgin Mary Mother of Mercy, said to have miraculous powers. For centuries, the picture has been one of the symbols of the city and an object of adoration for both Roman Catholic and Orthodox residents. Thousands of votive offerings adorn the walls, and pilgrims from neighboring countries come to pray in front of the beloved painting, where masses are held in Lithuanian and Polish.

We also passed by Town Hall Square, with its neoclassical building dating back to 1799 and its attractive fountain, as well as lots of open space for gathering. Then we walked past the Eastern Orthodox church of St. Nicholas. Before returning to the hotel, we walked past buildings belonging to Vilnius University (including its Grand Courtyard and its library), the oldest university in the Baltic states, and one of the oldest and most famous in Central Europe, preceded only by the universities of Prague, Krakow, Budapest, Bratislava, and Konigsberg. Founded in the 16th century, it was the easternmost university in the world.

After our tour, we rested with a round of drinks at Boom Burger near the hotel (about $6US) before we continued on our own to tour the Vilnius Castle Complex high on a hill behind Cathedral Square. The buildings evolved between the 10th and 18th centuries as one of Lithuania's major defensive structures, situated at the confluence of the Neris and VIlnia Rivers. Originally, the complex consisted of three castles: Upper, Lower, and Crooked; the latter was burned down by the Teutonic Knights in 1390 and never rebuilt. Although the Vilnius Castles were attacked several times after 1390, but the Teutonic Order did not succeed in taking the entire complex until the 1655 Battle of Vilnius. Soon afterwards, the severely damaged castles lost their importance, and many buildings were abandoned or demolished. Today, the remaining Gediminas Tower is a major symbol of the city of Vilnius and of the nation itself.We took the funicular to the upper complex (a 30-second ride in a lift that holds 16 passengers), where we climbed Gediminas Tower and browsed the exhibitions inside (photographs, flags, weaponry, and when we visited, a multi-media exhibit about the Baltic Way event. We even climbed several stories to the to the Tower’s observation platform, which offers 360-degree views of Vilnius and beyond. Note that there are separate charges for both the funicular and the tower entrance, but the cost is reasonable (about 1 Euro each way for the funicular and another 5 Euros for the tower.)

Back down on the ground in Old Town, we dined at Pilies Katpedele for lunch, where we ate a sampler platter that we dubbed “potato fest” because it contained sauteed dumplings, fried dumplings, boiled dumplings, potato sausage, and potato pancakes; we also shared two side salads (beet and Lithuanian [with potatoes, carrots, cucumber, peas, ham, and egg]), dessert (which was sort of a tall, circular crispy spiky-looking pizzelle served with fruit and whipped and ice cream), and a few rounds of drinks for about $54US.

After relaxing back at the hotel, we ventured out for a late dinner, choosing a restaurant/bar called 7 Fridays, where we ordered some chili and chips and a burger and fries with some drinks for about $25US. On the way back home, we stopped at the Vero Cafe for two slices of take-away cake for $4US.

Tuesday 9/17: Vilnius to Tallinn with Tallinn Sightseeing

Because of an early morning flight from Vilnius to Tallinn Estonia, we were unable to enjoy another complimentary buffet breakfast at the Kempinski’s Telegrafas Restaurant. Instead, the hotel graciously offered to pack us a breakfast bag to go, which included water, fruit, two kinds of yogurt (one spoonable and one drinkable), and pastry.

We used our American Express Priority Pass membership to use the Narbutas Business Lounge at the Vilnius Airport, which was one of the best maintained lounges we have seen anywhere. The small third-floor lounge (located near the Heineken Bar) offers self-serve drinks and food, and an attentive staff member reset/restocked the selections after each guest took something.

We flew LOT Polish Air from Vilnius north to Tallinn on a 1.5-hour flight. (We realize that our itinerary may seem a bit strange; logically, logistically, and geographically, it would have made sense to visit Tallinn first, then travel southward to Riga, Vilnius, and then over to Poland; however, because of flight schedules and availability, this is how we arrived at our unusual order of cities.) Upon arrival at the Tallinn Lennart Meri Airport, we did not need to pass through immigration because both countries are part of the Schengen Zone.

Because our time in Tallinn was limited, our private guide Maarja from Saku Travel suggested that she and her driver pick us up at the airport so that we start touring immediately from there. We paid her approximately $330US for a 6-hour tour, which included both walking and driving. For our first stop, the driver dropped us off near the Kumu Art Museum; regrettably, we did not have time to venture inside. The modern building was completed in 2006 (although the museum dates back to 1919 when it occupied the nearby Kadriorg Palace) and is set into the limestone slope of Lasnamae Hill in order to harmonize with the centuries-old Kadriorg Park. Kumu is one of the largest art museums in Northern Europe and contains Estonian art from the 18th century onwards, including works from the occupations period (1940 to 1991) that show both Socialist Realism and what was then Nonconformist art.

Next, we walked passed the pink-colored President’s Palace, which was built in 1938. (Prior to that time, the Estonian head of state worked at neighboring Kadriorg Palace.) The style of the Presidential Palace echoes Kadriorg, but not as decorative. Although we could not go inside because the President both works and lives there, we were able to admire it and to watch the honor guards out front.

We continued our stroll through Kadriorg Park to the Palace grounds. The pink-colored 18th century palace was built as a summer residence for Russian Empress Catharine the Great by her czar husband Peter. Although Catherine and Peter visited the site during construction, it was not complete until after the emperor’s death in 1725, and Catherine never wanted to visit or stay there alone afterward. We did not venture inside to explore the Kumu-associated art museum (which displays foreign art from the 16th to 20th centuries), but we did walk around the multi-level flower garden complete with two fountains. As we departed Kadriorg Palace by vehicle, we passed by the Luigetiik, a pond with swans, ducks, and gulls, with fountains and a small island.

Back in the van, we drove to the Song Festival Grounds, the center of the 1980s independence movement and where a festival is held every five years in the summertime. While the nation was still a province of the Russian Empire, the festival was considered responsible for fostering an Estonian national awakening. In 1988, Estonians gathered at the Song Festival Grounds to sing patriotic hymns in what became known as the Singing Revolution that led to the overthrow of Soviet rule. In modern day, the grounds have held international acts, such as Iron Maiden, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Michael Jackson, Tina Turner, 50 Cent, Metallica, The Rolling Stones, Elton John, Depeche Mode, Pet Shop Boys, Andrea Bocelli, Madonna, Lady Gaga, and Green Day. During the Song Festivals, when the grounds are packed, the number of people in the audience may reach 100,000.

Our drive continued through the neighborhood of Pirita-Merivalja near Tallinn Bay, where we viewed some typical middle-class homes and gardens. As we drove, we passed by the ruins for St. Bridget’s Abbey (also called Pirata Convent), and requested to stop to explore. The former monastery for both monks and nuns functioned from 1407 to 1575 as the largest convent in Livonia, and one of the largest in Northern Europe. The decline of the convent started during the Protestant Reformation in Estonia in 1525, although it was allowed to continue to function. During the Livonian War in 1577, the Convent was attacked by Russian troops under the leadership of Ivan the Terrible. They sacked the monastery, looted its riches, and started fires. The convent became abandoned; however, local people use adjacent lands as a cemetery, and sometimes events (like fancy concerts) are held in the summertime. We really enjoyed this stop; although it is not part of the normal Tallinn driving tour itinerary, it should be!

Next, we walked through the Rotermann Quarter, where warehouses and factories have been turned into apartments, galleries, shops, and restaurants. The area near the ports has always been important because roads to nearby cities of Tartu, Narva, and Parnu intersected here, creating large industrial enterprises. Buildings such as a former mills (for wheat, rye, and other grains), flour and salt storehouses, a boiler house, and a power plant have been renovated. Although Rotermann is on a much larger scale, it reminded us of an industrial history area near where we live, and what could be possible there with more development (currently, it contains only a cinema, performing arts center, and a [somewhat tasteful] casino).

We made a quick stop at the Seaplane Harbor Maritime Museum/Lennusadam in the neighborhood of Kalamaja, which we liked so much that we returned a few days later on our own. The three-level museum is located in a building originally constructed as a hangar for seaplanes near Peter the Great's former Naval Fortress. The main attraction in the museum is the 1936 submarine Lembit, which was made in the UK, and has been renovated to its original 1930s appearance and is available for touring to non-claustrophobic visitors. The museum also has a yellow submarine, a full-scale replica of a World War I era Short Type 184 seaplane, and a pool where people can sail miniature ships. The indoor part of the museum offers a gift shop, restrooms, coat check, and a cafe. Outside, guests can tour the wreck of the wooden ship Maasilinn, which dates to the 16th century. Also on display is the icebreaker Suur Toll, which originally sailed for Finland but was conquered from the Russians near Helsinki in 1918 and later donated to Estonia.

Upon arrival in Old Town, we checked into our hotel (more on that later) and enjoyed a lovely quality lunch across the street at Rataskaevu 16 (the restaurant name also doubles as its address). A few days before our tour, our guide gave us a choice of three restaurants, and we looked at their websites to make our decision. We were glad that Maarja had made a reservation, for it seemed like a popular restaurant that we would not have wanted to miss. While we waited for our food, our server delivered freshly baked dark rye bread and butter. For our main courses, we ordered two chicken dishes and a fish dish, all gorgeously plated with lots of colorful vegetables. Portions were not huge, but neither were the prices, and the quality was tremendous. We paid for ourselves and for Maarja (although that was not required), which cost about $47US for three main dishes and some drinks.

After lunch, we began our 2+ hour walking tour, including passing by many colorful medieval merchant houses with their blooming window boxes.

We stopped in front of the Great Guild Hall, a Gothic building that was home to an association of merchants and artisans from at least the 14th century to 1920. It represents the typical medieval architecture of the city, with a facade decorated by blind arches and a prominent portal. Inside, its largest room is supported by pillars with decoratively carved capitals. Today, it houses the Estonian History Museum.

Nearby, the Borsi (Exchange) Passage is a narrow lane where history is literally written on the pavement. About 50 tiles describe important events in the history of Estonia, from BC to present day.

We saw the Church of the Holy Spirit/Ghost, a Lutheran church built in the 13th century. The church has a plain, white-washed exterior with crow-stepped gables, an octagonal tower with a Renaissance spire, and few large Gothic stained-glass windows. But its most noteworthy exterior feature is the finely carved clock.

Tallinn’s Old Town Hall is the oldest in the Baltic region and Scandinavia. The two-story building with a weathervane on top (nicknamed “Old Thomas”) was used as a courthouse, a meeting space, a place to introduce goods, and even as an occasional theatre. Across the square (which was originally called Market Square) sits the Town Hall Pharmacy. It is one of the oldest continuously running pharmacies in Europe, having been in business in the same house since the early 15th century. Presently, the main part of the pharmacy is located on the first floor (up a few steps from street level) and sells most modern medicines. There is an antiques shop on the ground floor, and a restaurant called "Balthasar" on the second floor. Near the modern pharmacy on the first floor is a small museum that displays old medical instruments, historical chemist tools, and other curiosities. The museum also contains a large stone coat of arms (a griffin with a crown above a rose between lilies) of the Burchart family dating from 1635 (ten generations of the family ran the pharmacy for over 325 years). In medieval times, patients could buy mummy juice (powder made of mummies mixed with liquid), burnt hedgehog powder, burnt bees, bat powder, snakeskin potion, and unicorn horn powder for treatments. Also available were earthworms, swallow’s nests, and various herbs and freshly distilled spirits. Food such as candies, cookies, preserves, marzipan, and jellied peel was sold including special spicy cookies called “morsells”. The pharmacy also sold paper, ink, sealing-wax, dyes, gunpowder, pellets, spices, and candles. When tobacco was brought to Europe and eventually to Estonia, the pharmacy was the first to sell it.

We walked through St. Catherine’s Passage (also called Catherine's Alley or Monk's Alley), which winds its way from Vene Street past the southern end of the Dominican monastery to Muurivahe Street. St. Catherine's Church, from which the alley took its name, is thought to have been built here more than 700 years ago. The southern side of the alley is lined with predominantly 15th to 17th century residences, many of which house handicraft workshops (ceramics, glass, and clothing).

The last part of our day toured the upper part of town knows as Toompea Hill. Prior to our arrival, Maarja inquired as to whether we wanted to reach Toompea Hill by walking up a steep inclined hill, or if we would prefer to retain the van to drive us up for an additional charge of about $25 (we chose the latter because of some health/mobility issues).

We visited the 800-year old St. Mary´s Cathedral (also called the Dome Church). Originally established by Danes in the 13th century, it is the oldest church in Tallinn and mainland Estonia. It is also the only building in Toompea that survived a 17th-century fire. Originally built as a Roman Catholic cathedral, it became Lutheran in 1561. Inside, we saw numerous kinds of tombstones, stone-carved sarcophagi, an altar and chancel, and chandeliers from the 13th to 18th centuries; however, the most notable features were the elaborate coats-of-arms hanging on the walls.

We stepped through the city walls to see the Danish King’s Garden, where King Valdemar II of Denmark and his troops camped before conquering Toompea in 1219. It is thought that the Danish flag (the Dannebrog) originated there. According to the story, Valdemar's forces were losing their battle with the Estonians when suddenly the skies opened and a red flag with a white cross floated down from the heavens. Taking this as a holy sign, the Danes were spurred on to victory.

We stopped at the Kohtotsa observation platform, where we had excellent views over the red roofs and towering spires of the Old Town as well as of the gleaming high-rise buildings in the newer part of the city. In the background we could see the Gulf of Finland, the port, and the Pirita district.

Next, we admired the five onion-shaped domes topped with gilded iron crosses of St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, which was built in a typical Russian Revival style and is known as Tallinn's largest and grandest orthodox cupola cathedral. We declined to go inside, although we are sure that it is finely decorated.

Lastly, we saw the exterior of Toompea Castle, a Baroque structure built over a 9th century citadel. It is the present seat of the Parliament of Estonia.

Our long day of travel and touring complete, we proceeded to the hotel, the St. Petersbourg (we stayed at their Grand Palace Hotel in Riga earlier in our trip). The hotel claims to be the oldest in Tallinn, dating back to the 14th century (it was previously called the Hotel Rataskaevu, named for the street on which it is located). The hotel occupies a position on a small square that is famous for the “Cat’s Well”, which was once the main source of water for the city. According to legend, an evil water spirit lived in the well and threatened to make all the town's wells run dry if it was not given regular animal sacrifices. To keep the spirit happy, cattle and sheep carcasses were thrown down the well, but the main victims were stray cats. In a sense, the sacrifices worked because the town's wells never ran dry, but the practice of throwing animals down the well affected the water quality, and the Cat's Well had fallen into disuse by the mid 19th century. (We apologize for repeating this gruesome lore; we are animal lovers and the owners of two cats!)

Guests must climb a few steps past a summertime sidewalk terrace to enter the lobby of the hotel. The terrace belongs to the hotel’s sophisticated Tabula Rasa restaurant. The property offers a second more casual restaurant called the Golden Piglet Inn (called Kuldse Notsu Korts in Estonian), which occupies the lower level of the hotel (it is actually street level if you enter from Dunkri Street due to the elevation of the property). We dined each morning at the Golden Piglet because a lovely complimentary breakfast buffet was included with our room rate. (The breakfast included cold selections like meats, cheeses, fruits, vegetables, and pastries, as well as cooked-to-order served hot dishes.) The Golden Piglet also offers seating on a sidewalk terrace in the summertime. Additional hotel amenities include an attractive lobby (with various seating areas and a fireplace), a pool table (on the second floor), and a sauna (on the third floor).

The hotel offers 27 air-conditioned rooms in various categories like Classic, Superior, Deluxe, Junior Suite, and Suite. Note that this hotel does not have an elevator, so you may need to climb a flight or two of stairs to reach your room. We reserved Junior Suite Double Twin #201, which to our understanding was the only junior suite that had twin beds (pushed together to form a king), as well as a shower (not just a bathtub). Our 350-square-foot room had a sitting area with sofa, lounge chair, coffee table, and desk/chair, as well as two twin beds (pushed together to form a king) with a nightstand on each side. The antique-style windowless bathroom was a bit cozy, with a walk-in shower, toilet, and pedestal sink. A hairdryer, bathrobes, slippers, and toiletries were provided. A free-standing wardrobe held a safe and a minibar, with a small dresser nearby that held a coffee service on top. Decor was attractive, with wood floors, modern furniture, soothing colors, and quality fabrics and textiles. Our room had two windows that opened and provided a view of the small square below. A welcome plate of some pieces of chocolate bark (three flavors, studded with nuts or fruit) was waiting in our room when we arrived; the front desk had already given us each a cocktail downstairs when we registered.

After we relaxed at the hotel, we ventured out for dinner in the main square, where (unlike in Riga and Vilnius), the restaurants were still serving on their front terraces. We ate at the Russian-inspired Troika restaurant, which was one of our higher priced meals for a shared starter, two main dishes, and some drinks for $77US (but the view and the people-watching opportunities were unbeatable).

On our way back to the hotel, we visited the nearby convenience store/market called Kolmjalg OU (a 1-minute walk away) to buy some snacks and drinks (both alcoholic and non-) for our room. (Although our room had a minibar, we prefer not to pay those higher prices if we don’t have to). We then stopped at a restaurant/bar/coffee shop across the street called Von Krahli Aed to buy some take-away dessert to enjoy back in our room.

Wednesday 9/18: Day Trip to Helsinki

We took a mid-morning Tallink-Silja ferry from Tallinn to Helsinki. (Take care when both departing and arriving by ferry, because different ferry companies use different terminals; they do not all use the same station in Tallinn or Helsinki.) We took a taxi from the St. Petersbourg Hotel to the ferry terminal, where we waited with the masses to board the vessel. The ferry was quite nice, with many levels of seating, shopping, dining, and even live entertainment, making the 2+ hour passage seem quick.

Upon arrival in Helsinki, our private guide and driver from Helsinki Tour (an aggregator) met us at the ferry terminal. We were booked for a 5-hour driving and walking tour for the cost of 420 Euros (the priciest tour of our entire trip). We paid a deposit by credit card when we booked our tour, with the remainder paid in cash on the day of the tour. By van, we visited various tourist locations, hopping out of the vehicle for a better view of certain sites.

Our first stop was the Jean Sibelius Monument, dedicated to the Finnish composer. Completed in 1967 (ten years after his death), it is designed to look like stylized organ pipes even though the composer had not created much music for organs. The monument consists of series of more than 600 hollow steel pipes welded together in a wave-like pattern. It weighs 24 tons and measures 28 feet × 34 feet × 21 feet. We took a short walk by the waterside to the Cafe Regatta, a traditional red cottage cafe that brings a part of the Finnish countryside to the middle of Helsinki. Built in 1887 next to family’s villa as a shed for fishnets, the first cafe opened on the spot in 1952, with the present iteration opening in 2002.

Next, we visited Temppeliaukio Church (also called the Church of the Rock), a stone-hewn Lutheran church that opened in 1969.The interior was excavated and built directly out of solid rock and is bathed in natural light that enters through the skylight surrounding the center copper dome. The church is used frequently as a concert venue because of its excellent acoustics created by the rough, virtually unworked rock surfaces. Our guide provided us with pre-purchased wristbands that gave us admission to this site.

Afterwards, we drove to the Uspensky Russian Orthodox Cathedral, where we admired its brick facade whose multiple towers and spires are topped by 13 gold cupolas, before viewing its equally impressive interior, filled with altars, icons, and crosses, with the intricate patterns on its arches set against block of marble and embellished with gold. The Cathedral sits on a hillside on the Katajanokka peninsula overlooking the city.

Back in the van, as we drove, we passed Helsinki's strikingly original Art Nouveau railway station with its 48-meter-high clock tower that resembles the Chicago Tribune Tower. Had we been able to step inside, we would have seen monumental arched halls and delicately carved panels that decorate its walls. We wish that we had enough time to make a stop to explore this impressive building.

Then, we visited the majestic Helsinki Cathedral, admiring both its neoclassical exterior and interior architecture. The Finnish Evangelical Lutheran cathedral was completed in 1852 as a tribute to the Grand Duke of Finland, Tsar Nicholas I of Russia. It was formerly known as St. Nicholas' Church until the independence of Finland in 1917. The church is a distinctive landmark in the Helsinki cityscape, with its tall, green dome surrounded by four smaller domes. It occupies a prominent position high on Senate Square surrounded by smaller buildings, including the Government Palace, the main building of the University of Helsinki, the Sederholm House (the oldest building of central Helsinki dating from 1757), and a statue of Emperor Alexander II. The church's architecture resembles a Greek cross (a square center and four equilateral arms), symmetrical in each of the four cardinal directions, with each arm's facade featuring a colonnade and pediment.

After the Cathedral, we walked across the street to see the National Library of Finland, completed in 1845 and previously called the Helsinki University Library. (We had to check our coats and small bags upon entering.) After looking at various floors in the building (it has an elevator), we used their bathrooms (they also had a nice bookshop/gift shop and cafe). Earlier, as we were driving, our guide explained to us how important libraries are to the Finns, serving as community centers and social areas. Although this particular library didn’t necessarily illustrate that fact, we were glad to have seen the inside of this example of early 19th century Empire architecture.

We had a bit of free time in Market Square, where we bought some of the Finn’s famous creamy salmon soup at one of the orange-tented food vendors. From spring to autumn, Market Square is active with vendors selling fresh Finnish food and souvenirs. We also investigated the adjacent Old Market Hall (Vanha Kauppahalli), an indoor venue with food shops and vendors..

When we met up with our guide again, we took a short 15-minute ferry to Suomenlinna Island, where we enjoyed an hour walking tour. (The ferry offers two rooms with indoor bench seating, restrooms, places to store bicycles during the journey, and even space for two vehicles.) Suomenlinna (the Castle of Finland), also called Viapori (in Finnish) or Sveaborg (Castle of the Swedes in Swedish), is an inhabited sea fortress built on eight islands about 2.5 miles southeast of the city center. Five of the islands are connected by either bridges or a sandbar landbridge. Suomenlinna is a UNESCO World Heritage Site constructed by Sweden in 1748 as protection against Russian expansionism. A number of museums exist on the island, as well as the last surviving Finnish submarine, Vesikko. About 900 residents permanently inhabit the islands, and 350 people work there year-round.

After we returned to Tallinn and had a quick rest at our hotel, we walked to the main square, where we ate dinner at the restaurant Gaia Maja (about $67US for a shared starter, two plates of pasta, and some drinks). Regrettably, it was too cold to dine outdoors on their awning-covered terrace facing the square (even with the aid of blankets and heaters), but our indoor window table still gave us a decent view.

Thursday 9/19: More Tallinn Sightseeing and Then Off to Krakow

We enjoyed our second complimentary breakfast at the St. Petersbourg before venturing out to explore a few of the city’s sites independently. First, we took a taxi to the Seaplane Harbor Museum, where we explored indoors and outdoors for more than an hour. (We could have spent a few hours there, but unfortunately, we didn’t have the time to spare.)

Next, we caught another taxi to the Vabamu Museum of the Occupations and Freedom, where we spent another hour (again, we could have used more time). The museum opened in 2003 and is dedicated to the 1940 to 1991 time period when Estonia was occupied first by the Soviet Union, then by Nazi Germany, and then again by the Soviet Union. (During most of this time, the country was known as the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic.) The museum offers a cafe, gift shop/bookstore, coat check with lockers, lecture space, and restrooms. Guests receive an audio player to listen to while they tour three floors of multimedia exhibits. The permanent exhibition (called Freedom without Borders) tells the story of occupation, resistance, freedom, and recovery of Estonians in exile, everyday life in Soviet Estonia, and the Singing Revolution. It displays objects of significance to the atrocities that were committed during the occupation, such as a KGB device used to open mail sent to or received from foreign countries.

Our final stop was another taxi ride away back in Old Town at Helios Hall (formerly the Helios Cinema), where we bought tickets to the “Monet2Kimt” interactive art exhibit. Over 140 carefully chosen main works of Oscar-Claude Monet, Vincent Willem van Gogh, and Gustav Klimt are shown in chronological order, putting an era of art history under the same roof. The three geniuses, each in his own way, were pioneers in directing the change from classical to modern art. A restroom, makeshift gift shop, and coat check are available in this somewhat crumbling but repurposed venue. During the 45-minute continuous presentation, guests can stand or sit on folding chairs to appreciate the artistic works shown on the four walls (and sometimes the floor) set to appropriate music. We had wanted to see a similar exhibit that was “playing” near our hotel in Riga, but we didn’t have time, so we were thrilled that we caught its counterpart in Tallinn. (It would have been great to see it in both locations so that we could compare and contrast the space and works shown.)

After the art exhibit, we stopped at Restoran Kalle Kusta located just outside the city walls and the Viru Gate, where we enjoyed some drinks outdoors on their front sidewalk terrace with a view of the Flower Market opposite. The barbican of the Viru Gatewas part of the defense system of the city walls built in the 14th century. The city already had 8 gates with several towers and walls connecting them. The main tower of a gate was always square, and the barbicans had one or two small round towers. As the entrances to the Old Town were widened, several gates were demolished. The Viru Gate had change to allow a horse-drawn tram route that connected the Old Market with Kadriorg. However, the corner towers were preserved, where you can still see a part of the bastion that is called Musumagi. Viru Street with its many shops and restaurants has become one of the busiest pedestrian streets in the Old Town.

Because we still had some time left before we needed to depart for the airport, we enjoyed some drinks outdoors in Market Square at Maharaja Indian restaurant before we retrieved our bags at the St. Petersbourg. We took a car that the hotel arranged to the airport for our late afternoon flight (a one-way airport transfer was included with our junior suite rate). The airport is only 3 miles from the city center, and even at what we thought would be a busier time of day, it took almost no time at all to reach it.

After passing through security, we waited in the Tallinn Airport Business Lounge, courtesy of our American Express Priority Pass membership. The second-floor lounge offers several areas to sit (including outdoor deck space where guests can smoke), with self-service food and beverage nearby.

Our LOT Polish Airlines flight from Tallinn to Warsaw lasted just over 1.5 hours, then we had a short connection for our 1-hour flight to Krakow. Even though we only had about an hour between flights (too short for our comfort!), we were able to pop into one of the Warsaw lounges for a quick respite (thanks again, Priority Pass!).

Upon arrival in Krakow, we took a hotel-arranged car for the 15-minute drive from the airport to the Radisson Blu for about $30US, which we paid directly to the driver via credit card, although we could have added it to our hotel bill for an additional 8% charge. (Yes, an on-demand taxi would have been less expensive, but it was comforting to know that a driver was waiting for us.)

At the Radisson, we had reserved our 3-night stay in a Suite with an Old Town View. The hotel has a great location next to Planty Park, between the Wawel Castle and the Main Square. We had requested a King-size bed instead of a Queen, which the hotel granted. Because we did not pre-book a rate that included breakfast (our mistake), we added it upon check-in for another $25US per night. When we made our reservation, we thought that we could find breakfast nearby (such as some take-away coffee and pastry), but after enjoying the ease of eating the hotel breakfasts provided by our previous three hotels, we changed our minds at check-in. We had hoped that perhaps we could get a Radisson Rewards status match for our Hilton HHonors Diamond membership that would grant us breakfast, but it didn’t happen.

Our suite had a huge living room, with a sofa, two chairs, coffee table and side tables, desk/chair, refreshment center (with a minibar and coffee service), and another piece of furniture with drawers for storage. The foyer area of our room contained a large closet and half-bathroom (toilet and sink but no bathtub/shower). The bedroom (which could be closed off with doors) was cozier than the living room, with just a king-size bed, two nightstands, closet unit, and small bureau that held the second TV. The large bathroom was accessible through the bedroom, with a separate soaking tub, walk-in shower, long vanity with sinks, and toilet. A complimentary welcome gift of two different flavored bottles of Redd’s Apple Ale and a cute tiny tin bucket of nuts was waiting in our room when we arrived.

After we unpacked and relaxed a bit, we took a less-than-5-minute walk to a nearby convenience store called Zabka to purchase snacks and drinks (both alcoholic and non-) to enjoy in our room. We then tried to find a restaurant where we could eat dinner, but our first choice (the neighboring Biala Roza restaurant) was no longer seating guests; it is an extremely popular restaurant, because we tried on two subsequent nights to dine there and were turned away three times in total. Instead, we dined at the Salt & Co. bar at the Radisson, ordering food from their Milk & Co. adjacent restaurant.

Friday 9/20: Walking Tour of Krakow

After a buffet breakfast in the hotel’s Solfez restaurant, we met our guide Joanna from Krakow Direct for a 4-hour walking tour of the city. We had requested to combine three of their tours: a 1-hour tour of the Ghetto /Podgorze, a 1-hour tour of the Jewish Quarter/Kazimierz, and a 2-hour tour of Old Town. Our guide suggested that we begin with the Ghetto, so that we would start with the sites farthest from our hotel and then walk our way back to Old Town.

We took a tram from the street corner near our hotel to the old Ghetto. The tram let us off next to Ghetto Heroes Square, the first stop on our itinerary. The square was erected around 1838 as the second market square for Podgorze, which was a separate town. After 1880, it was called “Little Market”, but in 1917, it became known as “Concord Square” after the town of Podgorze became incorporated with the city of Krakow. Its present name dates back to 1948 and commemorates the Polish Jews who lost their lives in the Krakow Ghetto between 1941 and 1943. The main gate to the ghetto once stood where the present entrance to the square is, coming up from the Vistula (Wisla in Polish) River. In March 1941, the Germans locked up all the Krakow Jews inside the recently-built ghetto. Over 20,000 people lived within the Ghetto walls, where previously only 3,000 people had lived. One of the Ghetto’s most famous survivors was director Roman Polanski, who is thought to have survived because he was blonde and did not look traditionally Jewish; eventually he escaped the Ghetto, changed his name, and lived in the countryside, aided by family friends.

The most notable feature of today’s Ghetto Square is its Empty Chairs memorial, which contains 33 memorial chairs made of iron and bronze that symbolize the tragedy of the Polish Jews. In 1943, once the Ghetto had been emptied, the belongings which the Jews had managed to carry as they were herded around, and which they had been forced to abandon before beginning their last journey to Plaszow or Auschwitz, had accumulated. Wardrobes, suitcases, tables, chairs were left in the square. Written documents, photographs, and direct testimonies of survivors describe the history of the Ghetto as a succession of removals. In one photograph, you can see a line of children filing along the pavement, each carrying a chair on his head. In another, a little girl carries her bundle between the legs of a chair with the back sticking up. The choice of the memorial was to tell the story of the place through the configuration of the urban space itself, so that the memory of the absent ones would be manifested through the presence of everyday objects that compose the urban furniture.

Another important part of the square is the Eagle Pharmacy, whose non-Jewish owner Tadeusz Pankiewicz (the only non-Jew to live in the Ghetto) and his staff provided help and aid for the Jews imprisoned there. Besides medical help, it provided smuggled groceries, information from the outside, and a space for the clandestine meetings of the resistance. The Nazis allowed the chemist to continue operating because they were afraid of epidemics spreading without the medicine that the pharmacy provided. Today, it is one of 14 branches of the Historical Museum of the City of Krakow.

Next, we walked toward the Jewish Quarter, crossing a bridge where our guide pointed out the Vistula River embankments. The Vistula is the longest and largest river in Poland, and the ninth-longest river in Europe.

We arrived at the Jewish Quarter (also called Kazimierz), where between the 14th and 19th centuries, it functioned as an independent city, a royal city of the Crown of the Polish Kingdom named for Casimir III the Great, separated from the Old Town of Krakow by a branch of the Vistula River. For many centuries, Kazimierz was a place of coexistence of ethnic Polish and Jewish cultures. The area became the main spiritual and cultural center for Polish Jews, hosting many of Poland's finest Jewish scholars, artists, and craftsmen. Krakow had over 120 synagogues during that time; in Kazimierz, we saw the Old, Remah, High, Izaak, Popper, Kupah, Tempel Synagogues. In 1993, Steven Spielberg shot the film Schindler's List primarily in Kazimierz (in spite of the fact that very little of the action historically took place there). In particular, we saw the courtyard and stairs where Mrs. Dresner hid while the Nazis went through the nearby apartment homes looking for Jews.

As we approached Old Town, our first stop was Wawel Royal Castle and Cathedral, the very first ever UNESCO World Heritage Site in the world. Built by King Casimir III the Great, it consists of a number of structures from different periods situated around the Italian-styled main courtyard. The castle represents nearly all European architectural styles of Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque periods. The complex consists of numerous buildings of great historical and national importance, including the Wawel Cathedral, where Polish monarchs were crowned and buried. Some of Wawel's oldest stone buildings can be traced back to 970 AD. For centuries, the residence of the kings of Poland and the symbol of Polish statehood, Wawel Castle is now one of the country's premier art museums. The complex is huge, and we enjoyed walking around the vast property, even though we did not enter any structures (except to use the restrooms at the visitor’s center and to take a brief outdoor beverage break at the adjacent Kawiarnia pod Basztą).

From an early period of the Wawel's history originates the popular and enduring Polish myth of the Wawel Dragon that is commemorated today on the lower slopes of the Wawel Hill by the river. A modern fire-breathing metal statue of the dragon sits in front of its den in one of the limestone caves scattered over the hill. The dragon was a mystical beast that supposedly terrorized the local community, eating their sheep and local virgins, before being heroically slain by a Polish prince, who founded the city of Krakow and built his palace above the slain dragon's lair.

We departed the castle on by the west entrance, which was a different road/route than by which we arrived, passing the bronze equestrian monument to Tadeusz Kosciuszko, a Polish and American hero of independence. The original statue (cast in 1900) was destroyed by the Germans in 1940; a replacement was erected in 1960, with a duplicate placed in Detroit Michigan in 1978 by the Polish people to celebrate the USA Bicentennial (although that was in 1976!). In 1794, Kosciuszko initiated an insurrection in Krakow's Main Square, which resulted in a tragic partition of Poland. Prior to leading the 1794 Uprising, Kosciuszko had fought in the American Revolutionary War as a colonel in the Continental Army. In 1783, in recognition of his service, he had been awarded a higher rank by the Continental Congress to brigadier general and granted citizenship in the United States.

After we descended from Wawel Castle, we proceeded to walk through Old Town. Our first stop was at the church of Saints Peter and Paul, completed in 1619. It was the first structure in Krakow designed entirely in the Baroque style, with its most notable features its niches filled with statues of Jesuit saints (Ignatius of Loyola, Francis Xavier, Aloysius Gonzaga, and Stanisław Kostka) and in front of the church, pedestals with raised sculptures of the twelve apostles standing on the gates.

Our guide led us to the Collegium Maius or “Great College” that is now called Jagiellonian University. The 15th century building is designed around a central courtyard with a well. In olden times, the street level was ringed with arches that led to various teaching and lecture areas, while the second floor was reserved for professors’ living quarters. Mathematician and astronomer Nicholas Copernicus was one famous attendant of this school; today, guided tours show elaborately decorated rooms outfitted with cases filled with astrolabes, telescopes, globes, clocks, and weights like those used by him. In the courtyard, our guide pointed out its famous clock, where every two hours, a procession of historical figures parades past accompanied by music.

Then we arrived at the Main Square, which dates back to the 13th century. At 9.4 acres, it is the largest medieval town square in Europe (its massive size is certainly the largest we have ever seen!). Surrounded by brick buildings, historic townhouses, palaces, and churches, we also saw the Town Hall Tower (although no town hall survived), the 10th century Church of St. Adalbert, and the 1898 Adam Mickiewicz Monument (a memorial to the greatest Polish Romantic poet of the 19th century). Medieval cellars of the buildings are used as pubs, restaurants, and cabarets; in addition, the square is lined with restaurants and cafes at street level. The Main Market Square is also known for its large population of pigeons, florist stalls, gift-shops, beer-gardens, and horse-drawn carriages (said to be driven by a beautiful woman [who entices the tourists] and an ugly man [who does the work]).

One of its main features of the square is the Cloth Hall, which dates back to Renaissance times. Krakow was once a major center of international trade. Traveling merchants met at the Cloth Hall to discuss business and to barter. During its golden age in the 15th century, the hall was the source of a variety of exotic imports from the east, including spices, silk, and leather, and while exporting textiles, lead, and salt from the Wieliczka Salt Mine. Today, the street level houses a gallery with vendor stalls, with an art museum on the upper level.

As we finished our Old Town tour, our guide recommended that we eat lunch at one of her favorite restaurants called Wesele II. Our lunch for two people included two starters [Zurek, a traditional sour soup served in a breadbowl and a cold beetroot salad], one shared main dish [a banquet of several kinds of dumplings], a shared dessert [layered apple cake], and a few rounds of drinks cost about $48US, payable with a credit card.

After lunch, we had two more stops to make in/near Main Square. We walked to the nearby St. Florian’s Gate, a 14th century rectangular Gothic stone tower that was part of the city fortifications against Turkish attack of 1241. It was connected by a long bridge to the circular barbican erected of brick on the other side of the moat. According to records, by 1473 there were 17 towers defending the city; a century later, that number nearly doubled to 33. At the height of its existence, the wall featured 47 watchtowers and 8 gates. The south face of the gate is adorned with an 18th-century bas-relief of St. Florian, whereas the north face shows a stone eagle. The gate began Krakow’s Royal Road to Wawel Castle.

Next, rising above the square are the Gothic towers (of two varying heights) of St. Mary's Basilica, built in the 14th century on the ruins of an earlier church destroyed by the Tartar raids of 1241. From the square, tourists can listen to the heynal, a traditional, five-note Polish anthem played every hour on the hour, four times in succession in each of the four cardinal directions, by a trumpeter located on the highest tower of the church. The noon performance is broadcast via radio to all of Poland and the world. The anthem commemorates a famous 13th century trumpeter who was shot in the throat while sounding the alarm before a Mongol attack on the city. We purchased tickets to the church at a tourism shop across the cobblestone way from the side entrance. Virtually every square inch of the interior is painted, carved, frescoed, tiled, draped, or otherwise covered in fabulous and colorful decorations, including stained glass windows and the blue starred ceiling. But its crowning glory is the magnificent 40-foot wide x 34-foot tall wooden Gothic altarpiece carved by a 15th century German artist over a period of 12 years. It is covered in detailed figures carved from oak and linden wood depicting various Biblical characters and events, most prominently the Assumption of the Madonna, which makes sense for a church named for that event. Side panels depict other scenes from Mary’s life, mostly with Jesus, including the Nativity, Crucifixion, and Resurrection. We were dismayed to find that conservation work was being done on the altarpiece, so not all elements were on display during our visit. However, the church did a great job of still allowing the public to see many of its features, including a time-lapse video representation of the altarpiece. Visitors can also climb the towers with a separately purchased ticket, but the space was sold out on the afternoon that we visited (not that we would have had the strength to climb anyway!).

In the evening, after we relaxed in our hotel suite for a while, then dined at the Radisson’s restaurant Milk & Co, where we had a pleasant meal.

Saturday 9/21: Day Trip to Wieliczka and Auschwitz

We enjoyed a breakfast buffet at the Solfez at the Radisson to begin our day. At about 8:00am, we met our guide, Christopher (Chris) Blaszczyk from Krakow Guide (his own company) for our 30-minute drive to the Wieliczka Salt Mine. Although Chris is trained/licensed as a guide, he could not guide us inside the mine nor at the camp because those sites require the use of local on-site guides. Instead, Chris provided us with some informative commentary during our drive.

Our tour of Wieliczka Salt Mine lasted about 3 hours. We had pre-booked the time and pre-paid using a credit card a few weeks before our visit (about $46US for 2 people). Wieliczka is Europe’s oldest salt mine still in use from the Middle Ages. In 1978, it was entered on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Today, visitors explore the mine by walking down 360 steps (which is easier than it sounds, because the stairs have good handrails, modern steps, and tourists travel in one direction only) to 209 to 442 feet below ground. After descending, we explored mine excavations on a route of about 1.25 miles through (or past) chambers, corridors, chapels and underground lakes. In one large cavern toward the end of the tour, visitors can use restrooms, purchase souvenirs, and enjoy basic snacks. Later, at the end of the tour, guests can eat a full meal at a large cafeteria before boarding tiny cage elevators (about 10 passengers are squashed in at a time) to rise back to fresh air. We did not visit the adjacent museum because we felt that we had seen enough (particularly of salt statues) below ground.

Afterwards, we began to make our way toward the town of Oswiecim, where Auschwitz is located, about an hour away. En route, we stopped for lunch for Karczma Zagroda, which occupies an old Polish building in the town of Wygiełzow. Our meal cost about $32US for our group, including three very hearty main dishes and some drinks.

Before we ate, we had about 30 minutes to walk through the adjacent open-air Vistula Ethnographic Park, stopping in various structures to learn about Polish life. (We had passed up a few opportunities earlier in our trip to visit similar open-air ethnic museums, so we are glad that we had the chance to do so at this relatively uncrowded one.) The park contains over 20 reconstructed buildings, including a granary, shoemaker and silversmith workshops, rural cottages, an eight-sided barn, bell tower, and the impressive wooden St. Cross church. Although we didn’t have time, guests can also visit the nearby Lipowiec Castle, a 13th century structure.

Our tour of Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp (pre-paid online for about $31US via credit card and booked well in advance because tours sell out) lasted about 2 hours. Because we did not take the additional included 1-hour portion that included Birkenau, Chris instead drove us there so that we could see it from the outside. (The number of chimneys in the field, indicating the multitude of barracks housing that was once there, was both chilling and unforgettable.) The Auschwitz tour is a sobering reminder of the horrors and atrocities that humans can inflict on each other when one group deems themselves superior to others. In 1947, the Camp was turned into a memorial-museum by the Polish Parliament, and it was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1979. On our walking tour, we visited various buildings as well as a crematorium and paraded past sobering displays of prisoner possessions (including suitcases, shoes, clothing, and even hair). It was a difficult stop, but we felt it was important to see.

After Auschwitz, we had about an hour’s drive back to the Radisson. For the third night in a row, we tried to dine at Biala Rosa, but were turned away again! Instead, we walked through Planty Park back to Market Square, where we had an enjoyable outdoor dinner (under heat lamps and with blankets) at La Grande Mamma (about $47US for a shared starter, two pasta main dishes, and some drinks. On our way back to the hotel, we stopped at a local gelato shop for a sweet after-dinner treat.

Sunday 9/22: Krakow to Warsaw and Dinner with Friends

We enjoyed a leisurely breakfast at the Radisson before arranging with the concierge for a taxi to transfer us from the hotel to Krakow Central Railway Station, a journey that took less than 10 minutes. Because we already had our train tickets, we proceeded to the platform to await our coach. The 2.5-hour trip cost about $60US for two first-class tickets (pre-paid via credit card), which included pre-selected seats and at-your-seat food and beverage service. Passengers must load their own luggage onto the train, but there was plenty of space for bags at the end of the coach.

Upon arrival at the Warsaw West station, we took a taxi for the 15-minute journey to the Hotel Bristol, a Marriott Luxury Collection property. The gorgeous hotel, opened in 1901, is situated on the Royal Route, next to the Presidential Palace and close to other important sites. The hotel offers several dining options: the Café Bristol, the chic Column Bar, and the Marconi Restaurant (where we enjoyed breakfast each morning, but which also serves lunch and dinner). Other hotel amenities include a spa and fitness center, parking (for a fee), a small business area, and event/meeting space. An interior split-level courtyard provides a relaxing al fresco location to enjoy drinks and food.

The majestic neo-Renaissance Hotel Bristol offers 165 rooms and 41 suites spread over 7 floors. Room categories range from Classic Queens, to Executive Kings/2 Twins, Junior Suites, Bristol, Grand, and Deluxe Suites, and even larger/fancier suites, but each has air-conditioning, minibars, Nespresso machines, evening turndown, and Art Deco features and furnishings. We booked a Grand Suite, which had three parts, two spacious equally sized living room and separate bedroom divided by a large bathroom with robes, slippers, quality toiletries, two-sink vanity, toilet, and separate soaking bathtub and standing shower. The living room had a sofa, two lounge chairs and ottomans, side tables, desk/chair, and furniture piece that held the TV, minibar, and coffee service. The bedroom offered a king-size bed with a nightstand on each side, second desk/chair, second television, an additional lounge chair and ottoman, and free-standing antique wood closet. Our suite came with butler service (packing and unpacking, coffee service, clothes pressing, shoe shine), although we didn’t use it. A complimentary welcome gift of a plate of chocolate desserts (a sort of spoonable mousse, a square of cake, and three dollops of goodness) was waiting in our bedroom when we arrived.

After we settled into our room, we walked to the nearby Carrefour Express convenience store/market, where we purchased some drinks (both alcoholic and non-) and snacks. Next, we walked down the Royal Route to a cafe in Castle Square (called Krolewski) where we enjoyed some al fresco drinks (a few rounds for $23US). Then we met up with a group of four friends who coincidentally happened to be visiting Warsaw at the same time. We dined on the sidewalk terrace of the Zapiecek restaurant near our hotel, enjoying dumplings, hot borscht, and grilled meats. Despite our revelry, we tried not to stay out too late because we had a full itinerary of touring planned for the following day.

Monday 9/23: Warsaw Day Tour

In the morning, we enjoyed a buffet breakfast in the hotel’s Marconi restaurant (an extensive display of both cold and hot options, including cooked-to-order main dishes). Although our room rate did not include breakfast, we were happy to learn at check-in that as Bonvoy Platinum Elite members, we would receive a complimentary meal for two each morning (valued at about $30US per person); other choices for a welcome amenity included a souvenir gift or extra points. This buffet was easily the most extensive of our trip, but only our second-favorite due to the large crowds and less personal feel (lots of businesspeople and work colleagues attending conferences).

We met our guide Hubert Pawlik from Warsaw City Tours in the lobby of our hotel to begin our walking tour of Old Town. We paid him $150 Euros in cash for a 5-hour combination walking and driving tour. Beginning with the walking portion, we strolled from the Bristol down the Royal Way. Just next door, we stopped outside the gates of the Presidential Palace, completed in 1645. Nearby is the monument to Adam Mickiewicz, one of Poland’s most famous poets from the Romantic period. Next, we saw the exterior of the Royal Castle (which we knew ahead of time was closed on Mondays). The castle was built in the 13th century as the residence of Mazovian princes. Once the Royal Residence was moved to Warsaw from Krakow, the castle served as seat of the kings and the government.

We stepped inside St. John the Baptist Cathedral, with its gorgeous stained glass windows (which we found to be curiously secular). In the 17th century, this Gothic church was rebuilt in the Baroque spirit as one of the richest and most important Polish churches in the country. The basilica has hosted royal weddings, coronations, and funerals. The first European Constitution was sworn in there in 1791. The basement crypts contain former dukes, archbishops, and kings.

We also visited Market Square and saw the Warsaw Mermaid statue. The square was the main plaza of Warsaw from the Middle Ages to the end of the 18th century, so celebrations, markets, and legal judgements occurred there. In 1944, during the Warsaw Uprising, Old Town was completely destroyed. However, after World War II, all its buildings were reconstructed based on photographs, and their appearance is a remarkably perfect match to the square’s original look in the 17th and 18th centuries. As for the statue, legend has it that the mermaid decided to stay after stopping on a riverbank near the Old Town. Fishermen noticed something was creating waves, tangling nets, and releasing their fish. They planned to trap the animal, then heard her singing and fell in love. A rich merchant trapped and imprisoned the mermaid. Hearing her cries, the fishermen rescued her. Ever since then, the mermaid, armed with a sword and a shield, has been ready to help protect the city and its residents.

On our walk, we stepped through the city’s defensive walls called Barbican. The semi-circular Barbican gate is one of few remaining relics of the complex network of historic fortifications that once encircled Warsaw. Despite its intended use, the Barbican was only ever used in one fighting action in 1656 during the Swedish deluge, when Polish troops attacked to retake the city. Located between the Old and New Towns. On the way, our guide pointed out the former home (now a museum) of one of Poland’s most famous former citizens Marie Sklodowska-Curie. (We had previously thought that she was French, when in fact, only her husband Pierre was.) She and her husband conducted pioneering research on radioactivity and the discovery of the elements polonium (named after her native Poland) and radium. She was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, the first person and the only woman to win the Nobel Prize twice, and the only person to win the Nobel Prize in two different scientific fields, so it is no wonder that the Poles are so proud of her.

Then we began the driving portion of our tour. First, we visited the only existing portion of the previous Warsaw Ghetto wall. To create the Warsaw Ghetto, the Germans built 11 miles of brick walls around the Jewish Quarter, which was closed to outsiders in late 1940. The wall was torn down in 1943 when the Ghetto was liquidated; however, today there is still one short section of the original 10-foot-high red-brick wall remaining (most parts were lower). We also stopped nearby at the Umschlagplatz Monument Wall in the former loading yard, where from 1942 to 1943 Germans transported over 300,000 Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto to Treblinka and other camps. The monument is a 13-foot white wall with a black strip on the front, meant to be a reference to the colors of Jewish ritual robes. The space surrounded by the wall symbolizes an open railway wagon. On the inner walls, 400 of the most popular Polish and Jewish names are engraved in alphabetical order (from Aba to Zanna).

Next, we walked to the Mila 18 Bunker, now a grass mound and monument that marks the spot from where the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943 was led by the Jewish Combat Organization (ZOB), and where many of its fighters, including its commander-in-chief, are buried. Three weeks after the start of the uprising, the bunker was discovered by the Nazis, and tear gas was used to force the fighting command out. Some escaped, although the majority committed suicide by ingesting poison rather than surrender. Their bodies were never exhumed, and the site became a war memorial. Due to post-war changes in Warsaw's urban landscape, the current site no longer holds the address “Miła 18”.

Finally, we arrived at Krasinksi Square (also known as the Square of Polish Innocence), the site of several important memorials. Two main symbolic centers (the 1948 Monument and the 2013 Museum) are encircled by ten additional memorials, including the Jan Karski Bench. (He was a commissary and courier of the Polish Secret State during World War II. As a witness of the Holocaust, he presented his famous “Karski Report” on the extermination of Jews in occupied Poland to the governments of the allied powers.)

After, we looked at the Ghetto Heroes Monument (also called the Monument to the Fighters and Martyrs of the Ghetto), which commemorates the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943. On this spot, the first armed clash of the uprising took place in the former Warsaw Ghetto. The first part of the monument is a small circular memorial tablet inscribed with a palm leaf and inscription regarding the Jews heroic struggle for dignity and freedom. Later, a 36-foot-high “wall” was erected to represent not only the Ghetto walls but also the Western Wall in Jerusalem. The western part of the monument shows a bronze group sculpture of insurgents (men, women and children) armed with guns and Molotov cocktails. The eastern part of the monument shows the persecution of Jews at the hands of the Nazi German oppressors (we saw a duplicate sculpture outside of the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem when we visited in August 2018).

Then, we walked across the square/park to view the Warsaw Uprising Monument, dedicated to the event that occurred in 1944. During the 2-month battle, 90% of Warsaw's buildings were destroyed by the Germans while the Soviet forces watched. The larger elevated part of the two-part 33-foot tall monument shows a group of insurgents actively engaged in combat, running from a collapsing building. The smaller part shows insurgents descending into a manhole, a reference to the use of Warsaw's sewer system to move across German-held territory during the uprising, and specifically, to the evacuation of 5,300 resistance fighters from Warsaw's Old Town to the city center, a 5-hour journey that started from Krasinski Square. The realistic style of the monument has been compared to a still from a movie or an historical painting.

After our history lesson, our guide announced that he needed a coffee break, and would return in 15 minutes with the car to pick us up. Seeing nowhere nearby where we could rest, we entered the POLIN Museum to see if they had a cafe and restrooms. The POLIN Museum of the History of the Polish Jews (PMPJ) occupies a postmodern structure of glass, copper, and concrete that was completed by Finnish architects in 2013. The central feature of the building is its cavernous nearly empty entrance hall that forms a high, undulating wall meant to symbolize the cracks in the history of Polish Jews. It is similar in shape to a gorge, which could be a reference to the crossing of the Red Sea during the Exodus. The goal of the museum is to present the whole history of Jews in Poland from the Middle Ages to modern times, not only focusing on the period under German occupation, as similar museums like Yad Vashem in Jerusalem do. Regrettably, we did not have time to explore this interesting museum; we were only able to buy one round of drinks (about $5US) from the onsite self-serve part of the Warsze by Bracia Wisniewscy restaurant (previously called the Besamim Restaurant).

Our last stop of the day was Lazienki Royal Park, a short drive from the city. The expansive 17th century property on the site of medieval hunting forest of the Mazovian dukes is the summer residence of the last Polish king Stanislaw August Poniatowski. We saw the Monument to John III Sobieski (former king of Poland and grand duke of Lithuania), the Neoclassical Palace on the Water, the Amphitheatre on the Island (where a moat separates the stage from the viewing areas), the old Orangery (which contained not only lodging for gardeners but also a small theatre), and the Myslewicki Palace. We also climbed a bit in elevation (up some ramped inclines and steps) to see Frederic Chopin Park, with its 1907 large bronze sculpture of the musician.

Following our walking/driving tour, we returned to the charming and picturesque Market Square, where we ate lunch at one of the many outdoor cafes lining the square. (Unfortunately, this was one of the only restaurants where we paid cash and did not get a receipt, so we cannot recall its name.)

After we relaxed at the hotel, we ate dinner nearby at Trattoria Rucola. We shared two specialty pizzas and a few rounds of drinks for about $28US, plus we had some slices left over to take away for a midnight snack.

Tuesday 9/24: Warsaw Back to the USA

After we enjoyed the hotel’s breakfast buffet for a second (and last) time, we packed our bags and checked out of the Bristol. We took a taxi from the hotel to the Frederic Chopin International Airport, about 10 miles from the hotel, which cost about $15US.

Since we had some time before our flight, we took an elevator one floor down from the main level to one of the lounges that we could access because of our business class ticket. The lounge offered self-service food and drinks. Unfortunately, flights were delayed that day, so the lounge became a bit crowded with passengers who would have normally vacated earlier.

We knew that our 9-hour return flight, although technically LOT Polish Air, would be operated by Air Belgium on a leased aircraft. We missed the higher quality equipment, staff, and service on the Dreamliner by the LOT employees on our outbound flight from Newark to Warsaw that were noticeably lesser/absent on our return flight from Warsaw to JFK. A driver from a car service met us at baggage claim at JFK’s Terminal 7, and in less than 3 hours, we were back in PA.


We really enjoyed our trip to the Baltic states, Finland, and Poland. Although 10+ days on the ground is far too short a time to thoroughly explore even one of the locations that we visited, we feel that two nights in each place (three in Krakow) allowed us to get a brief overview of several cities. This is a region to which we would love to return someday when we have more time.
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Apr 27th, 2006 09:35 PM

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