By Ernest Barteldes
Our third trip to Poland was not exactly supposed to happen this soon, but when we heard about a very good sale from LOT Polish Airlines that was impossible to miss – prices were discounted at 50 %, so after taking a quick look we decided to take the plunge again, but this time we tried to plan the trip in a way that we’d go to places where we had never been before even if it were a city we had already been to.
We knew that the first days of the trip would be dedicated to spending time with Renata’s family in Chelm. It is a chance to basically relax and go for lengthy walks and the occasional visit to a restaurant (I had firm plans to check out their local pizza place, as I have mentioned on a previous post), and the action would mostly be reserved for the second part of the trip, which would include a quick weekend in Warsaw, a few days in the Tatra Mountains and a couple of days in Krakow, which is still my favorite city in Poland.
We left New York on Friday night after work and arrived in Warsaw airport some time after 2 PM. Just outside the terminal there is a bus station for transfers to other towns, so Renata located a mini-bus that would take us to Lublin, where we’d easily find a connection to Chelm. The ride was pretty uneventful, so we spent the bulk of it either napping or watching videos I’d previously loaded on to my Fire tablet. We reached our first stop a couple of hours later, stopped for a quick bite at a local lunch stop and then met our connection – another unremarkable bus ride that took about an hour or so.
If was already around 6 or 7 PM by the time we reached Chelm, so there was very little to do there. We laid down our bags and changed into more comfortable clothing. After eating a proper meal, Renata, her dad and I walked to the town square where we had a pre-snooze drink at an outdoor bar set up in the area.
I thought it would be mostly a quiet week, but it proved to be more eventful than expected. That weekend we hung with Renata’s brother Mirek and his girlfriend Beata. They drove us to Lake Biala near the town of Wlodawa. It is a resort-style area where some locals own summer homes – it is about an hour’s drive from Chelm, and it kind of a blend of Fire Island and some of the beach communities back in Brazil.
It was like spending an afternoon by the beach, except for the fact that it was a freshwater lake – something I had not experienced in a very long time. We also rode cycle boats on the lake for an hour or so, and then went for a some grilled kielbasa at Beata’s parents’ summer house.
Monday was a slower day, but I made a point of checking out Kozak, a local Italian restaurant and hotel. I detailed that one on a previous post, but I should add it is a nice little hang out that could be discovered by visitors to Chelm who might stop by to visit its unique chalk mine – its main attraction.
On Tuesday Renata’s dad drove us to Lublin, where we explored the city’s Old Town and browsed through the Historical Museum where we saw a lot of archaeological and historical information, works of art and also “proof” of the strange legend of the Devil’s Paw, where the hand of a devil burned on a table at the city’s highest tribunal. I was hoping to see the remains of the Majdanek concentration camp but due to time constraints we didn’t make it. We had dinner at a local college-style restaurant (the food was unremarkable but definitely affordable), and spent some more time with Mirek and Beata there – until it was time to return to Chelm.
On Wednesday we joined Renata’s uncle and aunt for yet another day trip. This was Zamosc, a city about 70 Km (about 40 miles) from Chelm. Zamosc is known to have been designed as a “perfect” city, mostly designed by an Italian architect. We spent a few hours there and explored its old town, which included former town defenses and a former synagogue (now converted into a museum) and stopped for a quick drink. While there, I learned about Cebularz, a kind of onion bread unique to the region – and Renata’s dad was kind enough to procure some for me in Chelm – it was delicious – it had a bit of a Middle Eastern feel with a local edge.
Before we left, I had told Renata that I wanted to – at least once – cook for her family. It took a lot of thinking what I was going to make, but I finally settled into making a moqueca, my favorite Brazilian dish. Aware that I was not going to find unfiltered palm oil in Poland, I took one of my own bottles ( I get as many as I can every time I go to the Brazilian supermarket in Queens) and counted on finding the other necessary ingredients there.
Most of them were easy – we got cilantro, bell peppers, onions and garlic around the local supermarkets, but coconut milk was a challenge. When we asked around for it (even in Lublin), folks were puzzled – eventually we found a coconut drink that was a bit too thin but I made do the best way possible. We got the fish at the local fishmonger at the city market and then went back.
It was quite a ride – I am used to being left alone in the kitchen, but there I had several “co-pilots” in the form of Renata and her mom. I did my best to keep my cool, and at the end dinner was served for 6 – and everyone seemed to enjoy it (or put on a brave face – this is not the kind of think Polish folks are used to eating).
Before dinner, we took a short drive over to Pstrągowo, a favorite fresh-water fish restaurant just outside of town. It became sort of a tradition to go there since our first visit in 2010. This time we went with Renata’s parents, and I chose the smoked trout wrapped in bacon with a side of veggies, which was great for a light lunch. It was delicious as usual – the fish is grown on-site, so everything tastes fresh.
On Friday, we woke up early and walked over to the Basilica of The Birth of the Virgin Mary on top of a hill in town. We had always planned to visit its tower, but somehow it had never worked. It is a very tall structure outside the basilica where you get striking views of the surroundings – it was an amazing experience, which closed what turned out to be one of the most interesting times we had in the area. In the afternoon we boarded our bus to Warsaw, where the next part of our adventure would continue.