I’ve been wanting to go back to Poland ever since my first adventures there for World Youth Day back in 2016. Through a mixture of living in Eastern Europe, fate, a good friend, and not being able to travel home, I ended up spending a week in Warsaw for Christmas. It was not the Poland I met on my first adventure, but it was one I was grateful to have gotten to know.
How did this happen?
I’ll try to keep this brief. So in July 2016, the group I was with for World Youth Day Krakow was assigned a Polish guide who could communicate with us and help us navigate through the country to help us get to all the different activities (and in general, the guide’s task was to keep us alive). Through God’s blessing and a dash of luck, our guide was Paulina. Without her, to be quite blunt, our trip would not have been the same and would not have been so memorable. (Honestly, I would love to write a blog post about this experience, but I’ll save paper…er, internet space?… for another day.)
The following 2 years, Paulina and I kept in touch. As I moved to Moldova, she kept inviting me to visit her hometown of Warsaw, commenting on how close I was after all.
In Moldova and other Eastern Orthodox countries, Christmas is celebrated on January 7th, especially in the villages. So Paulina invited me to celebrate Christmas (the ones most Americans know about- December 25th) in Poland. As someone who likes to travel, wanted to visit with an old friend, and experience a new culture, I said yes! And so, my Polish adventure began. It lasted from December 22th through December 28th. I thoroughly enjoy Moldova, but it was a nice break to experience Warsaw and the Polish culture.
December 22nd through 28th
December 22nd, The Arrival
Upon arrival into Poland, I met my Polish friend and translator Paulina. Right away, we started catching up on how life has been treating us and about our more recent adventures (going into more detail about the adventures we had been telling each other through regular correspondence). I talked at length about my Moldovan and Peace Corps adventures. Paulina told me about her recent adventures in Mexico and grad school life. From this point on and until December 28th, Paulina filled me with all kinds of insight and trivia into the history, culture, and peoples of Warsaw (I felt it was an honor to hear it from a local).
Arriving late in the evening meant I was not able to see any sights. But tea and a good nights rest helped to start the next day with a lot of energy.
December 23rd, The Warsaw Adventure Begins
After a nice breakfast, Paulina picked me up at the flat and we started the Warsaw Adventure. We went into the more urban part of town (by public transit, of course). We did some site seeing; Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, walked through the first public park of Warsaw, saw a marker for where the Ghetto Wall had been, went to church (it was in English!), and then went to the Warsaw Rising Museum. (Tourist Tip #1: Go on Sunday, it’s free!) The Warsaw Rising Museum tells the history of Warsaw’s fight to rid themselves of the German occupation during WWII. It’s a powerful museum, showing Varsovians’ hope, bravery, and pursuit for freedom.
After the Warsaw Rising Museum, we ate dinner at a nice Polish restaurant, where I had my fill of pierogi and Żurek biały, which is a type of soup with mushroom. Paulina thinks this restaurant is one of the best places in all Poland for pierogi (in part because you can find it in many cities throughout the country). I found the pierogi delicious, so I can not argue with her there! The Restaurant name was Zapiecek, and I recommend you try it when you are in Poland! (Tourist Tip #2: This restaurant seems to be well suited to cater towards English speakers/tourists, so no translators are needed. The prices are very affordable too.)
We ended the evening with a little more sightseeing of some lights, I had a light dessert of a Pączki (Tourist Tip #3: Did you reall go to Poland if you didn’t eat one of these while there? If you are able to eat these sugary treats, I highly recommend having one!) and then we went to the theater (cinema) to see a Bollywood movie, Zero. That was not something I did not expect to see while in Poland, but it offered another opportunity to experience another culture. Paulina likes these types of movies and honestly, I can see why one would. Anyway, day one ended with lots of walking.
December 24th, The Christmas Eve Traditions
Although Christmas Eve, we still woke up early enough to do some site seeing around town before the Christmas Eve dinner at 5. This was another busy day, with a lot of walking. First thing we did was check out the Field Cathedral of the Polish Army (Church of Our Lady of the Polish Crown). This church houses a side chapel (on the left) dedicated to Polish soldiers from various battles and wars Poland has fought in. On the right is another chapel dedicated to the victims of the Katyn Massacre. Additionally, the chapel recognizes the 96 victims of the plane crash, consisting of many high ranking Polish officials, who in 2010 were on their way to Katyn for the commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the massacre when their plane crashed. If you do not know, the Katyn Massacre was when an estimated 22,000 Polish military officers and intelligentsia iwere murdered by the Soviet Secret Police in March 1940.
After that, we checked out the Old Town area and with some time to spare, we also checked out the Vistula River.
Christmas Eve Dinner
In Poland, Christmas Eve is traditionally when the big dinner and celebrations take place. At 5:00pm, Paulina and I strode up to the door of her sister’s place (this is where the dinner would take place). It was a family affair and consisted of Paulina, her sister and sister’s boyfriend, and her parents.
A Polish tradition is to leave a seat open in case an unexpected visitor stops by. If one custom could ever explain a culture, then, from my experience, I think this one does just that. Polish hospitality is not something you hear much of in America, but it ranks up there with Hoosier and Southern hospitality. It is rare for someone to feel so welcomed and so comfortable with (nearly) a complete group of strangers, but that’s how I felt. I felt so welcomed and had an amazing time filled with many memories.
So before we ate our meal, we first shared in the Christmas wafer, called an oplatek. This is another Polish tradition. What happens is everyone goes around to each other and gives each other blessings and good wishes for the new year. After giving each other wishes, you break off a piece of each other’s oplatek and eat it. This was such a unique and beautiful highlight of the evening. The night had just begun, but I was already enthralled with the celebrations at this point, and yet, even still, the evening continued to impress.
Christmas Eve marks the end of Advent. So traditionally, the dinner is meatless. This was true in our case. Additionally, 12 dishes are traditionally served during the dinner (as per Polish tradition). I was not keeping track of the amount of dishes, but if we did not get to 12, we were awfully close.
So the list of food is probably not complete, but from what Paulina and I remember, we had:
- Barszcz (Beet soup) with dumplings
- 3 (maybe 4) types of fish dishes including eating karp,
śledź (herring), and ryba po grecku (Polish fish in a Greek style)
- Pierogi z kapustą i grzybami (Pierogi with cabbage and mushrooms)
- Krokiety (which is similar to crepes and had cabbage in it)
- Salatka jarzynowa (A very traditional type of salad)
- Sernik (Cheese cake for dessert)
- And I’m pretty sure another type of cake for dessert
- and I drank susz (which is dried fruit compot)
The food was so good, the hosts were so friendly, and I even got some Christmas gifts (Paulina, I’ll have you know, the chocolates lasted for about 2 days, but I definitely gobbled them down). This was such a memorable Christmas.
Every time I’ve been to Poland, I have had what I can only call a surreal moment. This time, it happened while I was sitting at the dinner table. I felt as if I had been there before. It felt like déjà vu. For this round, I definitely think I had this feeling because it felt so cozy, and I felt at home and welcomed.
After dinner and Paulina’s slide show of her adventures in Mexico, we went to Midnight Mass. It was in Polish, but it felt warm and inviting. I’ve also never seen a church so crowded! Church lasted about an hour and a half. Before bed, I talked to some of my family in America. It was nice to talk with my parents and my grandpa too!
December 25th, The Christmas Day Concert
We started today later than normal so we could sleep in a little. But we still got in a lot of walking.
First we checked out a nice park that has a palace surrounded by a lake. This park had some nice light displays, but the main light show was at the
Wilanów Palace and Park. After seeing the lights and animated video, we headed back towards the Old Town district so we could go to a Frederick Chopin Concert. This was Paulina’s gift to me for Christmas. It was a remarkable performance. I was impressed that we were in the same building that Chopin had performed in (although he had been upstairs in the largest ballroom in Warsaw at the time and we were below it, but all the same).
It was a great gift to receive from a friend and helped me experience more of the Polish and Varsovian cultures. This performance probably had 30 or so people in it. And of that group, I ended up meeting a few Americans who live near some of my family in Ohio. What a small world!
December 26th, The Day of More Sightseeing
Today was another site seeing day. In a city filled with so much history, I think I could spend years exploring this city and still not see it all.
We saw remnants of the Ghetto Wall.
After that we stopped by N.ice Cream shop and of course had to eat some ice cream. They make their ice cream using liquid nitrogen, so that was like a mini-science experiment. Then we went to the church where Chopin’s heart is buried. There is a bible verse on the tomb that reads “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Also Chopin would live in many countries and cities in his life, but his heart was always in Warsaw (which could be one reason why he wanted it buried there).
Paulina’s sister invited us to dinner and a movie, so we joined her (Ewa and her bf Roman). We ended up seeing A Star is Born. It was in English with Polish subtitles. (I hope one day we will be able to watch a movie in Polish and I would be able to understand.)
After the movie we ended up eating at a good restaurant (Sphinx), but not Ewa and Roman’s favorite because it was closed for the holidays.
Paulina and I ended the night by going to church to celebrate the second day of Christmas.
December 27th, The Last Day of Sightseeing
Today was my last full day in Poland. We did some more sightseeing around Old Town, New Town and then saw the Museum of Warsaw (Muzeum Warszawy). (Tourist Tip #2: Museum of Warsaw is free on Thursdays.) That was a neat museum filled will all things Warsaw. It was interesting and gave me so much more insight into Warsaw. The museum was filled with history, artifacts, and paintings.
To end the day, we went to the Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Jesus to check out the architecture. It was modeled after the St. Paul behind the Walls in Rome. It’s said that the pillars inside the church were initially planned to go to St. Paul behind the Walls but they were too small, so instead, ended up there in Poland.
To end the night, I watched one last movie with Paulina, The Pianist. This movie follows the memoir of Polish-Jewish musician Władysław Szpilman and his powerful story of survival and the hardships he endured and witnessed. It came out in 2002, but I had not seen it until this evening. I found it very powerful and moving. It is very sad, but I suggest watching it.
December 28th, The See You Later
Due to my flight, this day consisted of getting up early and going to the airport. So no sightseeing was done…
I love traveling, and I love exploring and taking in new experiences and cultures. From my Polish-Varsovian adventure, I experienced more than I expected or bargained for. A big thank you for experiencing so much goes to my travel partner and Warsaw resident Paulina. Another big thanks goes out to her family for being so welcoming and taking me in for the holiday season. I feel so blessed to have been able to experience Polish hospitality. I honestly can’t wait to go back.
I loved visiting this city. Its people were kind; its sights were beautiful; and its a city that deserves to be visited. If I haven’t spelled it out yet, I would highly recommend you check out all the sights, museums, and areas of town I did (plus almost everything else I didn’t see).
Until next time Warsaw. Until next time Poland.
Special thanks to Paulina for providing some of the photos that you have seen today, as well as for being an excellent translator, tour guide, and most important, a great friend.
If you would like to see additional photos of my adventure, check out my post, Polski Views.
If you have any questions about my experience, feel free to ask them in the comments below (or shoot me a message), and I’ll be happy to answer them in detail.