Written and illustrated by Jenny Katz
Day 1-2: Warsaw – The Heart of Poland: A Complex Web of Time, Taste, and Tradition
Our family adventure began in the fascinating city of Warsaw, where every corner seemed to whisper secrets from its storied past. We arrived on a day when the sun was shy, hiding behind a thin veil of clouds—adding a kind of mystic glow to the cityscape. The architecture was a tapestry woven from different eras: gleaming glass skyscrapers mingling with solemn, stone-faced historical landmarks.
Warsaw invited us to explore, and our first conquest was the Royal Castle. As soon as I stepped inside, it felt like I was transported into a different era. The opulent tapestries, the resplendent chandeliers, the grand ballrooms—everything screamed nobility and grace. Tom, my 7-year-old brother, was more interested in the castle’s armory. He was captivated by the medieval weapons, pretending to be a knight while posing next to the armor displays. Jokingly, he declared he wanted a suit of armor for his next birthday. It was a comical moment, but it made me ponder the chasm of time that separated the world of those ancient knights from the fantasy world of a 7-year-old in the 21st century.
And speaking of time, the castle’s art collection told a chronological tale of its own. Each painting seemed to freeze a moment from a bygone era, inviting me to step into its frame to experience the joys and sorrows that have seeped into the very walls of this magnificent structure.
🌈 Insight: In that castle, history was more than just a collection of facts; it was an emotional landscape. I couldn’t help but compare this aura of grandiosity with the more modest museums and landmarks back in Georgia. European history felt so multi-layered, like a well-worn book whose pages you could turn endlessly without ever reaching the end. I realized that history is more than a linear timeline—it’s a complex web of human emotions, victories, and tragedies. It’s the collective memory of a place, influencing the present in ways we often overlook.
During our time in Warsaw, I sensed a tension between the past and the present. Warsaw itself is a city reborn from its own ashes, heavily damaged in World War II but resiliently rebuilt. Modern commercial spaces clashed yet coexisted with aged edifices, as if each era had left a footprint.
Day 3: Wrocław – The City of a Hundred Bridges: A Tale of Water, Stone, and Soul
Wrocław, often referred to as “The Venice of Poland,” greeted us with its labyrinth of canals, poetic bridges, and charming islands. Did you know this city is actually built on 12 islands and connected by over 130 bridges? That’s way more than a hundred! Wrocław not only surpassed my expectations but also turned them on their head.
Our day started with a leisurely boat ride on the Oder River, floating through a cityscape that seemed ripped from the pages of a Gothic novel. The boat captain told us that each bridge has its own name and story—like the Grunwaldzki Bridge, an engineering marvel built by the Germans in 1910 and surprisingly left undamaged after World War II.
As we approached the Wrocław Cathedral, my eyes widened at the sight of its towering twin spires. An interesting fact about this cathedral is that it’s actually the fourth structure built on that site, the previous ones being destroyed in fires and wars. It’s as if history refused to erase its presence, compelling humans to rebuild it time and again.
🌈 Insight: Stepping into the cathedral was like stepping into a theatrical set; every inch of space commanded attention. Grandiose altars, intricate stained glass, towering arches—it was overwhelming. Personally, I found it a bit too ostentatious. It was as though the structure was trying too hard to impress me, making me yearn for the simpler, humbler churches back home in Georgia. Beauty, I realized, doesn’t have to shout; sometimes, it whispers, and those whispers can be just as profound.
During our time in Wrocław, we also took a whimsical detour to hunt for the city’s famous dwarves—bronze statues scattered throughout the city. Tom had a field day finding these, each more unique than the last. What started as a local artistic protest against communism has now turned into a popular tourist attraction, and there are now over 350 dwarves across the city! For Tom, these dwarf statues were treasure; for me, they were a testament to the city’s resilience and sense of humor in the face of historical adversity.
Day 4-5: Kraków – A Walk Through History: A Journey into Fairytales and Forgotten Nightmares
The cobblestone streets of Kraków welcomed us like an old friend, unveiling a city that seemed caught between the pages of a history book and the ink of a fairytale. Our first mission was to conquer the Wawel Castle, perched atop a hill overlooking the Vistula River. It’s not just a castle; it’s a complex made up of a royal residence, a cathedral, and defensive walls. Tom was convinced he’d walked into a real-life fortress from a storybook. And here’s a fun tidbit: Legend has it that a dragon once lived beneath Wawel Hill, and the castle even has a Dragon’s Den you can visit!
From fairytales, we ventured into the stark reality of human suffering: Auschwitz. As haunting as it was essential to visit Auschwitz, the very name of the concentration camp is difficult to even think about. It’s strange how a place that witnessed such unfathomable horrors can exist so close to a city full of life and color. Auschwitz is not a relic; it’s a wound that hasn’t fully healed. It’s important to note that Auschwitz was actually made up of three main camps, and Auschwitz II-Birkenau was the largest. Here, around 1.1 million people lost their lives, a number so staggering that it’s hard to truly comprehend.
🌈 Insight: As I crossed the threshold into Auschwitz, I felt enveloped in an atmosphere thick with sorrow. Every step I took seemed to echo in a silent chamber of history. My mom’s grandparents fled Lublin in southeastern Poland before World War II, narrowly escaping the Holocaust and creating a life in America. Not everyone in our family was so fortunate. I thought about my great-aunt Rivka, whose stories had been passed down through the generations. She, along with many others in our family, perished during those dark times. Rivka was known for her warmth, her love for painting, and the hopeful letters she sent to relatives abroad until they suddenly stopped.
Even as we left, the city seemed to linger in my thoughts, a reminder that history is not a flat photograph but a dynamic tapestry—bright in places, terribly dark in others, but always invaluable as a lesson for the future. Kraków wasn’t just a stop on our itinerary; it was a poignant chapter in my ever-growing understanding of the complexity of human existence.
Day 6-7: Zakopane – A Symphony of Summer and Childhood Memories
Following the emotional weight of our Auschwitz visit, we welcomed the serenity and natural splendor of Zakopane. Nestled near the Slovakia border, this charming mountain resort trades its winter skis for hiking boots when the snow melts. We embraced the warmth of the Polish summer and embarked on hiking adventures in the Tatra Mountains.
The air in Zakopane seemed lighter, carrying the scents of wildflowers and pine. Tom and I engaged in our own miniature scavenger hunt, finding and picking wild berries as we traversed the mountain trails. Every so often, we’d hear the “click” of Mom’s camera capturing these candid moments. These photos would eventually be part of Dad’s YouTube travelogue, but for me, they captured the essence of fleeting childhood joys.
Zakopane boasts an authentic wooden architecture that adds to its allure. A specific style called “Zakopane Style,” characterizes many of the buildings here, merging seamlessly with the natural surroundings. It’s as if the man-made structures have evolved to pay homage to nature, not defy it.
🌈 Insight: As we moved through the thickets and clearings of the Tatra Mountains, I felt as though I’d entered a different universe compared to the suburban terrain back in Georgia. These mountains weren’t just tall; they were ancient, carrying the weight of millennia on their rocky shoulders. I felt both small and infinitely significant at the same time, like a single note in a grand symphony of existence. It brought to mind stories my grandparents shared about the rolling landscapes of southeastern Poland they once called home. Although Zakopane is geographically distant from Lublin, it still felt like I was walking in the footsteps of my ancestors, enveloped by a nature they might have loved and respected.
As we descended the trails and the evening drew near, Zakopane felt less like a destination and more like an experience, where nature served not just as a backdrop but as a character in our story.
Day 8-10: Gdańsk – A Mosaic of History, Culture, and Childhood Wonder
As our trip neared its conclusion, we arrived at Gdańsk, the jewel of the Baltic Sea. This port city encapsulates centuries of layered history, noticeable as we walked its streets and wandered through its museums. One of our first stops was the Oliwa Cathedral, renowned for its majestic organ. When we visited, we were lucky to catch an organ concert that filled the cathedral with celestial sounds, soaring and cascading through the vaulted space like an angelic choir.
But it was St. Mary’s Church, one of the world’s largest brick churches, that truly captured our imagination. Its Gothic structure, intricate artworks, and historical artifacts all seemed to whisper ancient tales. Tom was completely smitten by the maritime museum, especially the painstakingly crafted ship models that sparked his imagination.
Gdańsk is also home to Solidarity Center, a museum dedicated to the peaceful struggle against Communist rule. It’s not often that a city can offer a lesson in modern resistance along with its historical treasures.
🌈 Insight: Gdańsk felt like a city caught between worlds. Its architecture and culture are a blend of German and Polish influences. This reminded me of a story my grandparents often recounted—a tale of Poland’s constantly shifting borders and blended communities that were both a strength and a challenge through the centuries.
While Gdańsk didn’t have the unadulterated Polish essence we’d found in other cities, its mixed identity was fascinating in its own right.
As we prepared to leave Poland and continue our travels, I couldn’t help but feel that each destination we visited wasn’t just a place but a chapter in a larger story, one that we were writing together as a family. And just like the diverse landscapes and historical sites we explored, we too are a blend—a blend of past and present, of heritage and discovery, creating our own complex and beautiful mosaic.