Explore. Experience. Engage.

Part 3: Operation Iraqi Freedom vacation - in Europe!

Author: Ben Shakman (More Trip Reviews by Ben Shakman)
Date of Trip: March 2006



  • Part 1: The Epic Travels Begin

  • Part 2: The Saga Continues

  • Part 4: The Adventure Ends


    March 30th (Day 13)
    We had a pleasant breakfast in the hotel's restaurant and then I went to pay the hotel bill while Charleen took the kids to the bathroom before we got back into the car. I looked carefully at the bill and learned that they had tacked on an extra 40PLN per child that I had not agreed to the night before. It took a few minutes to convince the woman behind the reception desk that I would not be paying something that I had not agreed to when we checked in and finally the bill was correct. Our night at the Gramada wound up costing us about $130, not too bad considering the size of the "apartment" (more like a suite to US travelers) and the quality of the breakfast.


    We left the hotel and made the short drive to Warsaw. While heading for the center of the city, we happened to look at a building on our left and discovered that it was our hotel (Hotel Jan III Sobieski). Miraculous -- it was the first time that we had made it to our destination without any confusion or extra time spent bumbling around a foreign city. We parked the car, checked into our rooms, and then headed out to explore for most of the day.

    We took a bus down to the old town area and then set out on foot. Charleen was pretty hungry at that point and asked if we could find somewhere for lunch. We walked right past the royal palace and then headed down a small street towards the old town center.

    We happened across a street performer who was dressed from head to toe in black muslin and looked like the grim reaper with the staff that he was holding. There was a cup for coins in front of him and he would stand perfectly still until someone dropped a coin into the cup. At that point, he would begin shaking some bells that he had hidden in one of his sleeves and raise and lower the staff. It was creepy, yet entertaining all at once and the kids loved it! We watched the show for a while and then headed further down the street to find a place for lunch.

    We opted for a place called Pierogarnia -- a pierogi restaurant. The restaurant was very quaint and only had about a half-dozen tables all together. The wait staff was very pleasant and spoke enough English that we did not have to try to struggle through the menu or our meal. The kitchen was located at the rear of the restaurant and there was a lady sitting on a stool making the pierogis by hand -- definitely a good sign as far as our search for authentic Polish food.

    Charleen and I both had a sampler plate that included several different varieties. We ordered a "sweet" plate for the kids that featured plum, sweet cheese, and apple pierogi. Allison took a liking to the apple and Lizzy seemed to like the cheese. Neither of them liked the plum, but Lizzy took a huge liking to the meat-filled variety and actually wound up eating more of them all over Poland.

    We continued down the street towards the old town square. I was astonished at how empty the square was when we finally got there. It was a rainy day, so there were very few tourists and only a couple of "art" dealers. Even more surprising, the sole gypsy family (it is terrible to say, but I viewed them as potential pick-pockets) was sitting quietly on a bench and only one of them made a half-hearted attempt to beg money from us.

    We looked around the old town square for a while and the kids chased every pigeon they could see before walking on towards the new town square. Getting there involved walking by an old castle and down some narrow streets. The weather was much colder than Charleen was accustomed to (March in Iraq usually brings temperatures in the 90s) and she was cold. We stopped into a small store and bought her a hat with matching gloves. I am pretty sure that one purchase did more to increase her comfort level than any of the others on the trip.

    We walked around the new town square and the associated cathedral for a while and then headed back towards the royal palace. The weather had improved gradually over the course of the afternoon and that left us thinking that it was considerably earlier than it actually was. As a result, we missed our opportunity for a tour. We noted their opening time and decided that we would try to make things work out such that we would be able to visit it in the morning.

    We were walking towards the bus when we spotted something interesting -- a huge portrait of Pope John Paul II being prepared for mounting on the front of a museum. Based on how they were preparing things it looked to Charleen and me as if it was a Polish joke in the making. We hung around and watched for awhile, but nothing catastrophic happened so we left.

    We caught another bus back to the hotel -- the cost for all four of us to ride was about $2 -- and freshened up a bit before dinner. We had driven past a sushi restaurant on the way and that was what Charleen decided she wanted to have for dinner. She was feeling a bit of a cold coming on so I put her in a taxi to go to the local Apteka (pharmacy) while the kids and I walked down the street to the Shokuyoko Japanese restaurant.

    We walked in to a very nice, albeit warm, restaurant that looked like a lot of the higher-end sushi restaurants do in the states. The most notable difference was that almost the entire dining room was divided up into individual dining areas by the placement of the paper screens. This created a very cozy atmosphere and probably kept the noise level down as well.

    Charleen finally arrived and we ordered a variety of sushi and other dishes. Everything was fantastic! Our sushi that night definitely ranked right up there with some of the best I've had anywhere (it did not hurt that the kids were well behaved either). After dinner, we walked back to the hotel and Charleen took Lizzy up to the room to get ready for bed while I took Allison into the desert bar for a piece of desert -- a reward for eating so well and even trying something new -- wasabi (Japanese horseradish paste) on her sushi. She ordered a chocolate cake that came wrapped in a wafer-thin layer of chocolate and dusted with some chocolate powered. I let her eat her fill and only managed a couple of bites myself. It was nice to be able to spend some one-on-one time with her during our vacation and I think that it made up for the fact that I had spent several hours building a snowman with Lizzy when we were in Garmisch. Lizzy definitely enjoyed her time alone with Charleen, too. She decided that she wanted to be the first one ready for bed, and also be a helper to get things ready for the morning. She went through the shower and got her pajamas on, then helped lay out the next day's clothes before Allison and I came back and we all went to bed.

    March 31st (Day 14)
    We went to breakfast in the hotel and discovered a feast! They had everything typical of a Polish breakfast (sausages, cheeses, vegetables, etc.) along with some good stuff typical of an American breakfast (cereals, scrambled eggs, toast, etc.) such that everyone wound up happy with their meal -- a rarity in our family.

    After breakfast we took a cab over to the old town area so that we could tour the royal palace. There were just so many spectacular things to see inside that it seemed that the few hours we spent was only a sample. As a hobbyist woodworker, I have a great appreciation for the amount of work that goes into creating spectacular woodwork. I was especially astonished at the intricacy of the floors. Each room was graced with a different style floor, each of them amazingly intricate, and displayed phenomenal craftsmanship. There was even one room that had a floor that resembled something that Escher might have created because the use of contrasting species created a 3-dimensional appearance. As wonderful as the floors were, the furniture blew it away in terms of sheer beauty and detail. The veneer work and carving was some of the best that I have ever seen. One thing that Charleen found interesting about the castle was that there were custodians stationed in every room. They ensured that no one damaged the furnishings, but also pointed the way through the castle such that you didn't miss anything.



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