Monday, August 18, 2008

First Sips of Poland

Upon arriving in Warsaw, we immediately boarded a small plane for Gdansk. But, not without a little refreshment in the airport first! The creamy iced coffee, pictured on right, is more like a milkshake than the watery iced coffee we have in the U.S. (love that its served in a beer glass!)

Next, we boarded a small plane for a 45-minute flight to Gdansk, a charming city on the Baltic Sea, known for amber (petrified tree sap – the more bugs in it, the more expensive). It is also known for its shipyard and has been an important port city for Poland.

As we approached Gdansk, I noted the very green terrain, below and small houses. On the ground, we piled into taxis and checked into our hotel, situated right in the heart of the Old Town.

Fifteen minutes later, we started off in the drizzling rain for lunch to a restaurant whose name roughly translates to "under the salmon."

It was originally founded in 1598 and blends traditional decor (big brass light fixtures, lace curtains, large wood tables topped with candelabras and fine china) with typical cuisine. The waiters were polite, thought they didn't speak English and delivered the food with hour-long gaps in-between courses.

I enjoyed herring several ways (creamy sauce, herbed and in a tomato sauce) followed by a salad, and along the way tasted other peoples' dishes - creamy mushrooms, gamey deer sausage and a bite of duck.

Of course, we had 2 kinds of Sobieski vodka - the "regular" and the fancier one. They were served ice cold in small liqueur glasses, and that is how we drank it throughout the meal - straight up. To finish our lunch, we had 'goldvasa' or sweet liqueur with bits of edible gold leaf floating in it, said to enrich the body with minerals.

Upon finishing lunch (about 3 hours later), we realized that dinner was only a few hours away. To digest, we took a walking tour of the city.

Our guide told us that the first mentions of Gdansk as a city show up around 997, making it more than 1000 years old. Its history is one of tumultuous power plays and destruction. For example, the Polish King sent the Bishop of Prague to convert the Prussian pagans to Christianity, only to have the Bishop’s dead body returned to the King with a note of warning to stay away. Poland’s borders have expanded and retracted over the centuries, as well. For example, at one point in the 18th Century, Poland - which had been one of the largest countries in Europe - was conquered and divided between Russia, Austria and Prussia.

One of the main sites is a statue of King Sobieski atop a great horse who, upon defeating the Turks in the Battle of Vienna in 1683 was declared the "Savior of Vienna and Western Civilization" by the Pope at the time.

From there, we walked down the broad, cobblestone street which stretches from the main archway entrance to the once walled city to the Vistula River, which runs through Gdansk. We passed many tents selling amber necklaces, crocheted slippers and bags and other typical market items on our way to a replica of a pirate ship.

Once aboard, we sailed along past the famous port and turned around where the river mouth opens up into the Baltic Sea.

Just at that point there is also a WW2 statue, as Gdansk is known for being the site where the Nazis aggression, in 1933, preceded the war. In the first stand off, 210 Polish soldiers held back 4000 Germans. However, the Nazis returned with ferocity and took the city over on Easter 1945, destroying 95% of it. Once the war was over and the Germans retreated, a crippled Poland was in no position to hold back the Russians, who marched right into the country and cloaked it in Communism for the next few decades.

Still, the people of Poland persevered in their attempts at creating a balance in power between government and citizens, as exemplified by the Protest of the Shipyard workers in 1970, and again in 1980. That union leader later became president of Poland.

In 2004, an independent Poland joined European Union. Its economy is still significantly less powerful than that of its wealthier Western European counter parts but privately held companies (such as the Sobieski distillery) are allowed to exist and thrive.

It became a bit chilly on the top deck, so we did what any good Pole would do... we headed down into the wooden belly of the boat where we sipped typical Polish beer from glasses decorated with Polka dancers!

Back on land, we had about an hour until we met up in the bar of the hotel. One of the guys on this trip found a 'typcial' Polish snack and brought it to the hotel for us to try as an aperitif. The pickled beans are called "bob" or "boob" - hard to tell with the accent. They tasted ok - but not something I'll miss too much when I go back home...

Ironically enough, Belvedere vodka happened to be doing a promotion in the bar of our hotel. Sobieski is owned by Belvedere S.A., a large French spirits company. However, the brand of Belvedere vodka has since been sold to another company. So, we politely refused their specialty cocktails out of loyalty to our hosts and I had grapefruit Sobieski with a bit of lime and orange juice.

Several dirty martinis (we taught the bartender how to make them because he'd never heard of one), a few pierogis (Polish dumplings - yum!) and a spinach souffle later, I was finally in bed at about 11:30 pm (after being awake for nearly 30 hours since leaving L.A.) and slept with visions of sausage-stuffed pierogis dancing in my head...


Anonymous said...

World War II started in 1939 not 1933. The Nazis came to power in 1933. said...

Thanks for your input, anonymous. The nazis came to Poland in 1933, according to our tour guide. If you have any dispute with that, you'll have to take it up with him... said...

And, to clarify, the Nazi occupation of Poland is indeed one of the first actions signaling the start of WW2 - even though it was not yet officially declared a "war."