How to Meet People and Have Fun
In last Friday’s article, we talked about making time and money for travel. I decided to write this article as an illustrative example of that one: how ordinary individuals can find time and money for extraordinary travel experiences.
From time to time, we travel with a bus group. It’s always the same driver – Wojtek (pronounced ‘Voy-teck’); he recruits from his pool of customers and customizes tours or destinations for them. There are ‘regulars’, of course; Ela & I qualify, as well as a couple nurses in town and a handful of teachers. We don’t join them for every trip but three or four times each year, we’re off on a long weekend in Wojtek’s auto bus.
Before we decided to join the trip to the Polish capitol, we needed to know the cost. We’re retired and live on a budget which means we are mindful of quality and cost. And we’re pretty much finished with hostels and camping. I don’t need 5-star, but I want someplace comfortable and civilized and affordable.
For our 20-person group trip to Warsaw, it was 700 Polish zloty per person (approximately USD 155) for the 800 kilometre round trip in a Mercedes tour bus, two nights in a 3-star Best Western with a breakfast buffet, and Warsaw tour guide for two days. Our private tour included Old Warsaw, the Royal Palace, St. John’s Cathedral, St. Ann’s, Belvedere and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier… and that was on Friday. Our exploration continued on Saturday through Lazienki Park, Pawozki Cemetery, the Museum of the Warsaw Uprising, and the Palace of Culture and Science. And, before driving home, we spent Sunday morning touring the Wilanow Palace. Ela and I went out to eat one night on our own, so we added that to the tour price which, even with pamiatki (souvenirs), totalled less than USD 200 each.
I’ve travelled a lot in my life, but this bus tour group has a personality all its own… not what I expected when Ela suggested it the first time. Seriously, I am not the ‘bus tour’ kind of adventurer, right? I had visions of retirement homies with canes and keepers being herded around the zoo. But Wojtek’s groups destroy that stereotype; they are normal people who live normal lives and tour like mad. For this trip, he picked Ela and I up in front of our house at 0200. Half a dozen people were already in the bus, mostly friends of his from a neighbouring village or the regulars from Strzelin like us. Then we drove 40 kilometres up the road to pick up another dozen teachers and spouses and others. I couldn’t catch much of the conversations because everyone was animated, the greetings and discussions ongoing, and laughter rolled in waves. I don’t speak Polish very well, especially at 0200, so I missed a lot of details.
By 0300, the whole party was in cruise control on the highway. Six hours later, we met our guide in Old Town Warsaw and began our all-day tour of the city.
“Who normal stays up all night driving? Why not start at 0600?” I inquired through bloodshot eyes.
“And waste the whole day?? A-hahahahaha!”
Elka Pentelka Adrenalina… what a trooper. My perfect match.
The bus tour group uses every hour from the time they leave town until they return. They remain ready for adventure. There is nothing boring or retiring about our bus tour group. They turned me on to a new kind of adventure.
Wojtek dropped us off under Sigismund’s Column, a recognizable landmark of the 16th Century Polish king with a sword in one hand and a cross in the other. As we waited for Wojtek to park the bus, I gazed at Old Warsaw. It was, of course, a reconstruction; in revenge for the Warsaw Uprising, the Nazis systematically destroyed every building in the district, almost every building in the city before they retreated. And, at the first opportunity, the Polish people began rebuilding. Brick by brick, often with the same bricks, referring to old pictures and paintings if necessary, they reconstructed Old Warsaw with loving perfection. It was the perfect place to begin our tour.
A young mother of four whose family has lived in Warsaw for generations was our professional tour guide. She handed out radio receivers with earpieces before we began so we could hear her comment on the history of the city. We travelled as a group, which isn’t always our preference; Ela and I like our freedom and don’t like to feel restricted. But being part of the group tour provided us with a treasure trove of knowledge and insight we would otherwise have missed. Our guide began in the Royal Palace, the home of Stanislaw Augustus… the man responsible for bringing the first Constitutional government to Europe.
We spent three hours touring the Royal Palace, St. John’s Cathedral, and walking along remains of the medieval walls that surround Old Warsaw. Back at the column, we had coffee and cake before beginning the Royal Route that led southward from Old Town through a number of historic landmarks. We ended Friday’s tour at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier after the changing of the guard. Our group retreated to a restaurant underground for traditional Polish fare near Old Town.
Saturday began at Lazienki Park, also known as Royal Baths Park or the Palace on the Isle. Stanislaw Augustus rebuilt the park into a setting for palaces, villas, follies, and monuments. The sculptures and paintings in the bath house itself were originals from the 16th and 17th centuries, dozens of them representing a fraction of what was once Europe’s greatest collection.
From there, we loaded on the bus for a quick drive to Powazki Cemetery, a necropolis in the western part of the city best known for its unusual and occasionally extravagant tombstones and memorials. There was an impressive wall of graves and tombs called the Avenue of the Distinguished where memorials marked outstanding Poles in every human endeavour; actors, musicians, politicians, writers… all individually and most appropriately expressed.
It was getting dark and cold, and we stopped on a long crowded street to hurriedly disembark in front of an old brick warehouse building. Through a high chain-link fence and into a cold empty lot. We waited for the rest of the group outside the Museum of the Warsaw Uprising and I felt the change in vibe.
“What is it?” I asked.
As an American who grew up in the 60s and 70s, all I knew about Warsaw was its invasion by the Nazis and the treatment of Jews in the ghetto. I learned more at the Museum of the Warsaw Uprising. It was presented in visceral displays spread throughout three floors of a cold concrete warehouse, a masterful blend of modern media and eighty-year old artifacts from WWII. The museum evoked a variety of emotions… different for every visitor, I’m sure, but every visitor was touched by the story of the Uprising. And its aftermath.
We slept in Sunday morning and took time to enjoy the generous breakfast buffet. After living in Central Europe for a year-and-a-half, I believe that the term ‘Continental Breakfast’ was coined for the American continent because no European would settle for a dry Danish, a wrinkled apple, and a lukewarm box of watered-down juice. At BW Portos, the buffet was complete with cold cuts, cheeses, sliced vegetables and appetizers (like olives and devilled eggs), hot scrambled eggs, sausages, muesli and cereals, and a wide variety of fresh bread. And the standard European coffee machines; two of them, so no one was waiting for their coffee, cappuccino, espresso, or latte. The accommodations were comparable to a clean Best Western in the States, but there was no comparison with breakfast; it was presented as the most important meal of the day.
Sunday marked the end of the trip but not the end of the tour. Our last stop in Warsaw; the Palace of Wilanow. It was home to John III Sobieski and seemed to welcome us with an inviting personality… a lively Baroque-style palace, smaller than most but absolutely charming. The King was an interesting character who liked to relax and enjoy a variety of intellectual and eccentric activities.
Like the Royal Palace and the Lazienki Palace, there were hallways in Sobieski’s home adorned with original paintings from the 16th and 17th centuries.
On the way back, Aggie and I compared perspectives. (‘Aggie’ is Ela… is Elka Pentelka… is the Best Polish Witch. Poles are fond of lyrical and affectionate nicknames, and we are constantly inventing new ones for each other). Aggie felt a deeper appreciation for Old Town and the Royal Palace. But Wilanow Palace and the Museum of the Warsaw Uprising were most impressive to me. Everything in Wilanow was original; the architecture, furniture, and art were hundreds of years old.
“Respectfully speaking,” I explained, “there is not a single building in Old Town older than I am. Isn’t that what the guide said? I understood it was so devastated by the Nazis that old paintings and pictures had to be used as references in the reconstruction effort. Everything there was painstakingly rebuilt by the Polish people after the war and Soviet occupation. Nothing original in Old Town…”
“Yes,” she sighed behind pale blue eyes. “Can you imagine?”
I was lost in thought about our weekend in Warsaw all during the six-hour drive home.