Travel In Przemyśl, Poland

Plan B In Poland

Vicki and I arrived in town and checked into our boutique B&B. Before we could even start to unpack, the owner whisked us into his music room.

“Concert tonight.” Someone placed a glass of wine in our hands, closed the door, and left. The concert began, a music salon straight out of 200 years ago.

Welcome to Warsaw, Poland.

Only six of us attended the concert, and two were shills, I suspect, perhaps music teachers for the girls who played oboe and violin.

The girls, in black concert dresses, each played a couple of pieces, in turn. Then they both came up to play the featured work, you guessed it, a duet for oboe and violin (Bach). The duet brought the house down, although this was a very small house, as I’ve explained.

Poles love music, it seems. Polish history provides a fair share of solid heroes, from Copernicus to Pope John Paul II and many in between. Yet the national hero, at least in Warsaw, is Chopin. And everywhere in Poland, musicians rule. We heard an impressive soprano in Krakow singing in a plaza. Vicki and I stopped for a beer in a pub, and the owner sat down at the piano and played show tunes. Construction workers doing repairs in our hotel listened to Mozart on the radio.

Poles have room for other artists, too. Vicki and I wandered into a museum in Warsaw’s medieval town square and learned it was dedicated to a poet. All over the country Poles somehow find money to restore and upgrade art museums and their collections and build monuments to painters, writers, and statesmen.

Still, more than any others, musicians capture the Polish soul.

Chopin’s popularity in Poland seems a bit surprising, at least to me. Chopin’s father was French. As soon as Chopin became of age, he moved to Paris. He worked and played there, and never returned to Poland. You could be forgiven for assuming that Chopin considered himself French, especially as at the time (mid-1800s) Poland didn’t even exist. By the end of 1795 Poland had been partitioned among Germany, Austria, and Russia. Poland only returned to the map some 120 years later, after World War I.

But in spite of Poland losing its statehood—or perhaps because of Poland losing its statehood—and in spite of Chopin writing his best stuff in France, Chopin considered himself Polish. The French and Poles consider him Polish.

Count on it. Chopin was Polish.

Vicki and I came to Poland mainly for the history, from medieval castles and moats to cobblestone streets, battlefields, cemeteries, and 20th-century carnage.

Poland has a major-league city, Krakow, that offers all we sought after. But Krakow was overrun with tourists, especially now, in summer. We dislike tourist hordes, high prices, long lines, crying babies, rip-off taxis, crowded hotels and bars, and the pickpockets who take advantage.

We found Krakow to be a fine place, especially the castle with its feudal walls and its tiny, gorgeous cathedral. And we never saw a pickpocket or even heard of any pickpockets. But our patience quickly wore out.

So we went to town B: Przemyśl. Forget about pronouncing it, call it Prez.

We first hit on the town A/town B concept years ago in Austria and Hungary. To appreciate the Hapsburg Empire—Mozart and Franz Joseph—most people go to Vienna. Vicki and I like Vienna. But Vienna gets crowded, expensive, tiring, and overdone. So we chose to spend more time in Budapest. In those days few tourists went to Budapest. We pretty much had the town to ourselves. We got Hayden instead of Mozart. But I think we had more fun with less cost, less hassle, than in Vienna.

For the same reasons we decided on town B, Prez, instead of Krakow. We spent several days in Prez, the only tourists there, viewing cemeteries, cathedrals, castles, and the town square. I say cathedrals; we saw both a Roman Catholic and a Greek Catholic version. Prez’s museum displays a fine collection of sacred icons from churches in the area.

In town B our huge hotel suite cost half that of a tiny room in town A Krakow. Exchange dealers offered a reasonable spread, while sharp dealers in Krakow hit careless tourists with a 25% to 35% vig.

Prez is Poland’s second-oldest city, after Krakow. In World War I Prez became a major battle ground between Austria and Russia. In the end Prez fell to Russian invaders, with some 100,000 dead in the two armies.

We saw the bridge the Russians blew up, the military cemeteries, the remains of the forts. There’s a castle on the hill, an old town, a Jewish quarter later wiped out by the Nazis, a river through the center.

Our hotel, two blocks from the train station and on the edge of the old town, had a pub in the basement. We repaired daily to the basement pub after long days wandering the streets. Perfect.

Take my advice: In your travels consider town B, prefer second best. You’ll often have a better time.

Paul Terhorst

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