Dispatch, Poland 1: Heritage trip starts with some hurt

KKPOLANDTravel Weekly's Ken Kiesnoski and family members are visiting Poland on a heritage trip. His first dispatch follows.

My family came to Poland to find our roots. But during our first afternoon in Krakow, my mother actually hit the dirt.

Mom’s first trip to the land of our ancestors almost ended in early disaster when she took a nasty spill after posing for a photo with a man in a dragon costume at the base of famed Wawel Hill. (My sister Tara and mom are posing with the dragon in the below photo.) POL-1SMOK1

Site of a royal castle, the national cathedral and a long unoccupied dragon’s den, Wawel is Poland’s national Acropolis, if you will. Or, better yet, its Westminster Abbey and Windsor Castle, rolled into one.

My mother had reluctantly acquiesced to the silly, souvenir photo op at my urging. So, as one would expect of a guilt-ridden son, I spent the next hour exhausting my limited supply of Polish vocabulary at nearby apteki, or pharmacies, trying to procure ice packs, elastic bandages and painkillers for her nearly sprained ankle.

Luckily for us all (Mom, my sister Tara and I), we apparently come from hardy stock -- strong like bull, as they say -- so no long-term damage was done.

A real trooper, my mother limped all the way down picturesque Kanonicza and Grodzka streets to the medieval Old Town market square, said to be Europe’s largest and certainly one of its prettiest.

We went on a tour of St. Mary’s Basilica and then had lunch at a trendy café. How could we not? It’s been sunny and in the mid-70s since we arrived iPOL-1CARRIAGE5n Warsaw.

After we ate, I splurged on a scenic, 100-zloty (about $30) horse-and-buggy ride to our hotel (right photo), so Mamusia could rest up and make a full recovery.

After all, we still have a full week ahead of us. We’d spent two perfect, accident-free days in Warsaw after arriving for our 10-day heritage tour.

We’d trawled the capital’s historical Old Town. Shopped on spotless, sparkling and sophisticated Nowy Swiat Street. Toured treasure-filled Wilanow Palace, baroque, 17th century summer home to Jan III Sobieski, one of Poland’s greatest kings. And, like true Varsovians, admired peacocks and lingered over cones of lody, or ice cream, in the shade of linden trees in Lazienki Park.

The only thing we hadn’t managed to squeeze in, unfortunately, was knocking on some wood.

Still to come on the itinerary are Zakopane, Poland’s southern, alpine ski resort in the Tatra Mountains; Wroclaw, a gothic city of 100 bridges, where a wujek, or uncle, of ours serves as a Catholic priest; and Mielec, for all intents and purposes ground zero of our trip.

Mielec is a small Galician city not far from Krakow, where my maternal grandmother, now deceased, was raised.

We still have family there, my mother’s first cousins. They live on the very homestead where Grandma Vera spent her childhood.

Although I have visitPOL-1SALTMINE3ed Poland five times before, for both leisure and business, I’ve never been. More importantly, this is the first visit to any part of Poland for both Tara and Mom. Thank heaven for strong bones.

Just a day after the mishap, we’re all in tip-top shape and ready for the rest of our ancestry expedition.

This morning, Mom even managed to negotiate some 500 steps down into the seven-centuries-old depths of the salt mines at Wieliczka (left photo), for a two-hour tour that taxed even my own untwisted ankles and other assorted joints.

Talk about salt of the earth!

I’m more eager than ever to touch the soil, stroll through the fields and breathe the air of the Polish countryside -- where my family took root.

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