Hey guys I’m Douglas and this is my first article on my first ever solo trip! Being a passionate historian, history will be the basis of all my travels. All my travels will have a form of historical significance to me! Thanks to my family for supporting me on this trip with all their necessary guidance and special shoutout to a friend, who inspired and helped me so much to kick start my backpacking account. 🙂
On my first trip which was also my first time to Europe, I made the most unexpected decision ever, to travel Poland, Russia and Lithuania.
This will be mainly my personalised account of my trip in Poland. I will be doing separate articles on my trip to Russia-Lithuania and what to expect in the places I been to, so stay tune! 😀
These Poland is significant to me because :
I) Poland is my favourite country.
II) The culture is rich and history is strong within these lands.
III) It is cheaper than Western Europe.
IV) It is a distinct personality of truly Central Europe, both East and West (Slavism and Catholicism)
V) Acting hip away from mainstream tourism. (Lel)
Historically the places I covered are all part of two huge historical entities known as the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which saw Lithuania and Poland as one, and Royal Prussia, which are the lands of considerable German heritage.
I have been reading so much of the glories of the lands and I cannot wait to finally see it for myself.
I was actually fearful as I entered the departure hall. I cried as I moved to the boarding hall, calling my family and closest friends. I was happy because this was the first time in my life I have complete liberty. However I was afraid of the challenges ahead and what I will face. I am completely unprotected by anybody myself. It was the strongest sadness and happiest I have ever felt.
However ultimately I took this leap of faith to pursue what I really passionate about, to learn. The flight was smooth but as soon as I landed I was into a deep mess.
I missed my transit flight to Poland. Overconfidence clearly blinded me. Thankfully I was able to board the next flight with minimal time wastage.
Krakow, my first stop, Poland’s royal capital. When i first landed, I felt a sense of soul connection to the land I looked up upon for so long. The cool breeze, the contact on Polish soil and the atmosphere around me. It was like living a beautiful dream in the realm of reality.
Krakow itself was a beautiful city. Medieval style castles and churches and beautiful architecture. It was a fairy tale city which one can only live in the books. I was mesmerised. I loved every single part of the city as I wander through the passage of time, seemingly frozen in the modern era for me to exalt. This would be a repeating hallmark of the cities I been to. I wouldn’t be bored of it one bit.
I stayed in the hostel and being in military service before, sleeping with many people was never an issue. In fact, the more the merrier for I made so many beautiful friends across the world. Over my trip in all my cities I definitely made friends who broadened my own insights of the world. These people are what made my trip exceptionally beautiful and they form the core of my trip. 🙂
However, the engine of my trip wasn’t just pleasure, it was for knowledge. I had one of the most emotional parts of my trip, which was to go to Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp, a short train ride from Krakow. The graveyard of 2.5 million untermench or subhumans, as labelled by the Nazis. The victims of unjustified supremacist ideologies.
I was traumatised. I struggled to complete the journey and nearly wanted to give up. I forced myself to see through every exhibit they have on the various groups interned in the camps, so that I can educate myself on the horrors of radical extremism. And I did. I thought it would be easy, learning about Auschwitz through various media. However being there makes you feel the essence of the genocide more clearly.
After Krakow, I went to Warsaw, the capital of Poland. Warsaw is a very peculiar city. Everything around me was built in the 20th century, including their supposedly “Old Town”. The city was torn down after the Second World War and almost everything was rebuilt. I felt a sense of artificial aura at first. However I began to overlook the supposed artificial artefacts and see it as a culture of revivalism. Historically the Poles have always been a suppressed people who never failed to rise back from the ashes of destruction. Warsaw was the testament of the spirit of the Poles. While Krakow was the soul of Poland, Warsaw would be the ever going heart.
I felt this sense of pride the Poles have of their homeland and began to ponder if my own Singaporean homeland would do the same. It was a city which sparked my thought and I so admire the Poles for being loyal fighting people to their homeland.
After Warsaw it was to the Wolf’s Lair, the eastern headquarters of the Führer Adolf Hitler. Going there was tricky because it was away from the urban settings I have been experiencing. The Wolf’s Lair is near the town of Kętrzyn, a relatively simple town. I did not explore the town and took a cabby straight to my accommodations which is situated right where the Wolf’s Lair is.
Why the Wolf’s Lair? Being a fan of history, I was interested in viewing the place where Hitler was almost assassinated by his own military, led by Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg. I watched the 2008 adaptation of the events in the movie, Valkyrie, and it really stirred my curiosity (though can’t say the same for Tom Cruise).
I definitely placed myself at risk in the middle of the forest. Firstly I was a victim of Neo-Nazism as Nazis saluted me with the Hitler Salute, to intimidate me perhaps. Secondly, I traveled the interior of the ruins when I am not supposed to. Debris was all over the floor and one bad fall would definitely kill you off.
This was also the only trip I was in a hotel, so I made sure I organised and cleaned myself up really well at my own luxury. 😉
The Wolf’s Lair was the first time I manage to explore a place I have seen in the movies. I loved that feeling and it was great to be able to say you been to that scene in film.
After Wolf’s Lair, it was off to Gdansk. Knowing I was a foreigner (clearly through my eye slits), the staff of the Wolf’s Lair hotel helped me to ensure I got a taxi to the bus station. The cabby was even more helpful who literally held my hand like his own son and sat down with me at the bus station till my bus arrives. He even made sure I paid the right fee and I am going to the right destination. I was so touched by their willingness to go the extra mile just to help me out, which was something so unknown at home. It really teaches me to want to go an extra mile for others as well.
Gdansk is indeed an unique city. The city had been known as Danzig when it was under German control for a bulk of its history. It is a major port city with a very distinct mix of German-Polish culture in it. You could feel the blend of cultures in the city which gives it a distinct identity from Warsaw and Krakow.
Also I have finally been waiting for one perfection element of the trip, the ocean. I always loved water and I was pretty bored of seeing tropical waters all the time. Finally I got to see what does northern waters look like in the form of the beautiful Baltic Sea. What better way to do it than to ride a galleon as I explore the ocean. 😉
I learn that Gdansk was more than just a city of mix cultures. It was a prime example of maritime greatness, the center of Baltic trade. It was like a Venice of the North with all the wealth of the seas flowing into it. To the inhabitants of Gdansk/Danzig it could be just coin and treasures. However to me whatever I am seeing simply enhances my knowledge of what I already know.
Nearby Gdansk, is another German influenced Polish city called Malbork or Marienburg in German. I often have a strong connection between Europe and knights. What are knights without a castle? Malbork does not only have a castle, but the biggest castle in Europe. The former home of the Germanic Teutonic Knights (hence the German influence) was glorious. It has such an ancient romanticized structure which stirs the imagination of writers and readers of the glories and chivalry of knighthood. I formed ideas and fantasies of my own as I embarked my trip around the castle.
I actually felt overly fatigued trekking around the castle. It did lived up to its name as the biggest castle in Europe because despite the whole day there, I could not appreciate everything that was there. The castle did left me a fantasy which I can never forget.
After Malbork, I returned to Gdansk and got ready for my next city, Kaliningrad, in Russia.
I left Poland happier than I could ever felt. It was such a beautiful land, with beautiful culture and people. Call it exalting but in this trip, I really felt like myself over there, free to be who I am and away from societal expectations. I am able to live the person I want to be. For the first time in my life, I met people whom I can relate to in my passion and interest in history and culture, which was something I struggled to find in Singapore. This was truly a breakthrough in finding myself as a person and a broadening of my life. I love Poland and all the various friends I met from distant lands. This will not be my last time visiting this land of greatness.
I will write about Kaliningrad and Lithuania in my next article! Thanks for reading and I hoped you enjoyed my first piece in SoulStranger! 😉