I got to Poland from Berlin by way of an uneventful train ride. My first stop in Poland, which made it my first stop in a formerly communist country, was Sczcecin. It was a big city close to the border and I assumed it would have something interesting. I was wrong; nothing really interesting in Sczcecin. I got a room in the Hotel Piast for 63 zlotys, about $15, with breakfast included. It was on the list of acceptable mid-range hotels in the 1999 Lonely Planet Poland book, but it seems to have gone down hill. My first night there I discovered that the hotel restaurant/bar was a staging ground for prostitutes. I think they did their business elsewhere, but it gave the already run-down place a seedy feel. I talked with one of the women who wanted to practice her English. She said she had been a school teacher in the Ukraine, but things were so bad there she had to find other employment. I suppose her story could have been fictitious, but I think she was telling the truth. She asked for, and I gave her, a few zlotys for the juke box, but she didn't try to do any other business with me. I'm sure all of the ladies present would have preferred to be working further west, but the Polish/German border was as far as they could get.
I didn't stay long in Sczcecin, other than a minor castle, there wasn't much to see. I arrived on Wednesday, saw the castle and bought a Polish/English dictionary on Thursday, and headed to Gdansk on Friday. The most memorable thing to happen was during breakfast before I left. There was an old man who worked at the restaurant/bar who had tried to tell me something the first day there. He spoke Polish and German, but I'm a monolingual idiot who only speaks English. The second morning there he tried again, this time rolling up one sleeve, pointing to some ugly scars on his arm, and saying "Hitler, Hitler!". I was beginning to learn that in eastern Europe the past is still very much on people's minds. Sczcecin isn't a very interesting city, but the people there were an interesting introduction to a part of Europe that suffered the most in WWII and its' aftermath.
From Sczcecin I headed to Gdansk, one of Poland's largest cities. Currently it is best known as the place where shipyard strikes led to the establishment of the independent trade union Solidarity in 1980. This was a significant step in a long chain of events that led to independence from the Soviet Union for the Warsaw Block countries and the disestablishment of the Soviet Union. However Gdansk has long been the location of historic events. Over one thousand years old, it has gone back and forth between Polish and German/Prussian control. World War II began when German warships fired on the Westerplatte peninsula at the entrance to the Gdansk port. The city was reduced to rubble during the war, but the communist government did a fantastic job of rebuilding the historic sixteenth century center. A short train ride from Gdansk is the reconstructed Castle Marlbork, a leftover from the Prussian/Polish power struggles, and one of the most impressive castles in Europe.
I left Gdansk on 14 June and headed by train to Torun. It was on the way to Warsaw and my guidebook described it as an attractive historic town with much of its' medieval quarter intact. My guidebook was right.
After a short stop in Torun I headed to Warsaw. Warsaw is Poland's capital, biggest city, economic and transportation center, and most western city. But it's expensive compared to other interesting places in Poland. There is a lot to see and do in Warsaw, but the fact that it is more modern and western than the rest of Poland made it less interesting to me.
After Warsaw I headed north to Lithuania, St Petersburg Russia, Estonia, Latvia, then an overnight bus trip back to Warsaw to catch a train to Krakow. I arrived in Krakow on July 17 at 11:00 in the morning after 12 hours on a bus, three hours in the Warsaw train station and a three hour train ride. The overnight bus trip was rough. I've developed a distinct dislike for Belarus and their ornery transit visa policies. So, if you want to go through the web pages in the same order as my visits, you should now go to Lithuania. If you want to finish Poland, read on.
Enough grousing about the traveling. If you can only visit one place in Poland, make it Krakow. It's a beautiful city, over one thousand years old, looted but not bombed during WWII, with lots to see and almost everything in walking distance of the Old Town.
I saved my last day in Krakow for a trip to Auschwitz. It was disturbing but worthwhile.
Travel advice for going to Auschwitz: If you try to go by bus from Krakow, you will be approached by taxi drivers offering to take you there for a set price. If you have someone to split the fare with this can be a good deal, but be careful about the negotiations. In my case a driver offered to take me there, wait while I visited, then drive me back from Auschwitz for 200 Zt, a little under $50 at the exchange rate at the time. I declined, and he came down to 150 Zt, about $35. I declined once more and, with a great show of how anguishing is was for him, offered to do the whole trip for "75 American dollars". I wonder how many people fall for that.
The day after I visited Auschwitz I received news that required me to return home for a while. My travels resumed in Prague in early September.