This is Bielsko-Biala

While I have mostly written about my travels around Europe, I hardly took the time to write about life in my temporary home away from home – Bielsko-Biala, Poland. Now that several months have gone by, I forgot to appreciate what Bielsko-Biala has to offer. Lately, I have been seeing the dirty, ugly, and the unattractive sides of Bielsko-Biala. I have been viewing Bielsko-Biala as the place I live in. While residing in this city, my focus has been on work and rest. I have developed a routine here in Bielsko-Biala that life that doesn’t include much exploring and experimenting. When I do explore, the first thing I want to do is get out of Bielsko. Last Sunday, I forced myself out of bed, grabbed my camera, and toured my temporary hometown.

A Brief Background of Bielsko-Biala

Bielsko-Biala is a city in southern Poland with approximately 174,000 residents. The name, Bielsko-Biala, refers to the river that cuts through the city, the Biala River or White River. Originally, the city used to be two smaller cities, Bielsko and Biala, which was divided by the Biala River. In 1951, the two cities merged and formally became known as Bielsko-Biala.  Within this last century, Bielsko-Biala was one the home of World War II victims.

Not far from where I live, there is a post indicating a site of a Jewish synagogue that was destroyed during the war and many of the Jews that once lived in this city was sent to the infamous concentration camp, Auschwitz (which is located not too far from Bielsko-Biala). After the war, the Soviet Union instilled communism in Poland. In 1981, a general strike took place in Bielsko-Biala in protest against the corrupt communist leaders, which resulted in their resignation and an increase in wages. Eventually communism fell and 1990 became the year known by many as the formal end of Communist’s People Republic of Poland and the beginning of the modern Republic of Poland.

Bielsko-Biala Today – 2015

Today, Bielsko-Biala is an industrial city for textiles, machines, and automobiles. It also attracts visitors with the nearby Beskid Mountains that can be seen on a clear day. Back in October, a couple of teachers from the language school I work at took a hike in the Beskid Mountains and soaked in the beautiful trees and the view of other mountains. In the winter, many people ski in the mountains (but not me since I am not much of a skier).

Bielsko-Biala has a mixture of the old and the new. There are building that have stood for over a hundred years, and yet there are modern structures and modern art that help redefine Bielsko today. Some of the older buildings are kept in good shape while others are starting to crumble and fall apart. Some buildings are abandoned altogether. I do not have much of an explanation for this. Perhaps the people want to let some of the old crumble away and ignore it altogether. Perhaps someday there is a plan to destroy and replace it with something new. Reflecting on its history, I don’t blame Bielsko for wanting to recreate itself.

However, there are many places that look old, rundown, and neglected. Staircases are crumbling, and smokers find cracks on the ground to place their used butts instead of seeking an ashtray. In one part of town, there is a street lined with crumbling buildings with layers of exposed brick.

In other parts of Bielsko, there is lots of color. There is one apartment building that I admire with the balconies painted several different colors. Near the city center of Bielsko, there is one street where the buildings on both sides are painted yellow (though personally I find this a bit tacky).

Bielsko-Biala, like almost all cities in Poland, is catholic. Images and monuments of Christ, Mother Mary, popes, and apostles can be found throughout the city. And yet, Bielsko is also unique by being accepting of Protestants who dwell in the city. In fact, Bielsko-Biala takes pride in the fact that their city has the only statue of Martin Luther in all of Poland, which is located in front of its Lutheran church. As a Seventh-day Adventist Christian, I am blessed that have a church nearby with about a hundred members who welcomed me on day one.

My Life in Bielsko-Biala

As I mentioned earlier, I have mixed feelings about Bielsko-Biala as a whole. Many days, I wished I lived in Krakow for the year, or another bigger city full of history, art, and culture. At the same time, living in Bielsko-Biala has allowed me to experience an unique aspect of Poland and Europe. Poland may be very catholic with people who go to church every week religiously, but there are non-Catholics who find a different (protestant) church to attend religiously without shame. It may have old buildings that are falling apart, but there is the hope that something new will one day take it’s place, recreating and redefining itself. (Though there are pessimists who believe that Bielsko-Biala will just decline further – I like to be hopeful but I will admit that I am uncertain.)

More people are learning English in Bielsko-Biala. The older generation, the ones who lived throughout the communist era, never had the opportunity to learn English. Today, there is a strong desire to learn English, starting at a young age (which is where Native English teachers like me come in). There are days where I keenly feel the language barriers, finding people both young and old who cannot communicate with me. Yet there are places where there are young people who can speak to me in English. Sadly, most are too shy to talk to me. It took at least a couple of months for some of the Poles in the school I work at and the church I attend to warm up to me. At the same time, there are those who enjoy talking to me and want to practice their English and get to know me.

Is there a brighter future for Bielsko-Biala ten years from now? Twenty? Will it decline? What will happen? I don’t know, but I like to see it improve and continue to definite itself. As for today, for better or worse, it is my home away from home.

*Author’s Note: Embedded into this blog, there are links to the sources I used for the historical information that I referenced. Also, all the pictures in this blog are taken by me.


Seven Hours in Munich

February 14, 2015

Looking at my flight itinerary, I noticed that I had a seven hour layover in Munich as I traveled from Athens back to Kraków. My vacation was over, and the last way I wanted to end the week was to sit in an airport for seven hours. A friend who stayed in the same hostel as me in Athens recommended that I visit the city center. Since she has spent a lot of time in Europe, she knew from memory what transit line I needed to get on and the stop with the best sites and shops. Her advice definitely did not lead me astray.

I only had a small snippet of Munich, but what I took in during those few hours were rich. As soon as I emerged from the underground at Marienplatz, this was the first thing I saw:

I was in awe. My eyes scanned the beautiful architecture. The buildings that surrounded me were gorgeous and I couldn’t take enough pictures. I behaved like a starved tourist, but my seven hour layer suddenly wasn’t long enough. I wanted to make each moment count.

First, I needed to get the necessities out of the way, which included buying coffee and going jean shopping since jeans in Germany are more stylish and more form fitting than Polish jeans. (Personal opinion.) After that, the rest of the day was mine. I explored the square and saw lots of markets. What caught my eye was the cheese market. I sampled all the cheeses that was allowable and then bought a chunk of cheese to take back with me. Thankfully it made it past security when I had to check myself back into the airport.

I peaked at the other shops and stands in the square. Since it was Valentine’s Day, there were flowers sold right and left. Women walked around with their significant other in one hand and a rose. I even came across of a statue of a woman with a rose in placed in her hand.

As I explored more of the square, I overhead an English tour guide talk about climbing a nearby tower for two euros. Less than two minutes later, I approached the tower and climbed hundreds of steps to receive a stunning view of Munich.

When I climbed back down, I knew I had limited time before I had to take the underground back to the airport and go through security all over again. With that in mind, I decided to soak in as much art and architecture as I can before heading back.

During my flight back to Krakow, I couldn’t help but think about how much I liked Munich. It’s the second city I’ve explored in Germany and so far I really like this country, the architecture, and the culture. One way or another, I have to go back someday and properly explore Munich and other cities in Germany. In the meantime, I will savor the memories I have made in this city and country so far, even if I only had seven hours.

A Greek Photo Diary

Recently I posted a blog about going to Slovakia during a two week winter holiday in Poland. During the first week, I went to Slovakia with the school I teach at. If you haven’t already, check out my blog on Slovakia here. As soon as I returned to Poland from my ski trip, I immediately left for Greece early the next morning. I almost didn’t go to Greece because I had more than one friend tell me that Athens wasn’t worth visiting for more than one day. The ruins were pathetic and there wasn’t anything worth seeing.

I’m here to prove otherwise with several pictures I took throughout the week. I loved Greece and I would love to someday go back. February isn’t the best month to visit. It was cold for several days, and the museums closed earlier in the day. Still, every moment was worth it.

Sunday, February 8

Every Sunday at 11:00 am sharp, there is a “Changing of the Guards” ceremony in front of the Parliament building in Athens. Soldiers wear their finest uniforms, which includes white kilts and black clogs with what seems to be giant pompoms on the front. Still, the parade that proceeded the guard change was interesting to watch and gave me an insight into Greek culture. I never pictured modern Greek soldiers to look like this, especially since my mind reels back to images of mostly naked Gerard Butler in the film 300.

After watching the ceremony, I took a hike up a nearby mountain which provided a beautiful view of Athens, the Acropolis, and the sea. On the view top was a tiny church and a priest selling rosaries. The view was spectacular and well worth the muscle-building hike.

Monday, February 9

On this day, I visited three different museums since it was a cold, rainy, foggy day. A friend I met at the hostel came with me and we learned more about ancient Greek culture and Greek mythology. Unfortunately cameras weren’t allowed in the museums, but outside of the Acropolis museums were dig sites that were well worth seeing.

One of the sites I visited was the ancient Greek baths. Next to the site was a sign with a drawing of what the baths might have looked like back in the day. I can’t help but wonder if I would have liked to bathe with a bunch of other naked people if I had lived back then. I’d like to think not.

Tuesday, February 10

This was the day when I visited most of the ancient ruins that can be found in Athens, which include the infamous Acropolis, the Temple of Zeus, and Hadrian’s Arch. It was still a cold and rainy day, but I had an agenda so I braved the cold. In fact, as I climbed to the top of the Acropolis, it started to snow big fluffy flakes. Watching the fat snowflakes fall around the Acropolis and other ancient ruins was actually a beautiful, and unique site. However it was harder to take a good picture of the snow and the pictures I captured were before and after the brief snowfall.

An interesting fun fact about Athens and the Acropolis is the mythological story of the showdown between the goddess Athena and the god Poseidon. There was a competition to see who would be the patron god or goddess. Poseidon tried to prove his might be creating powerful horses. Athena countered this by creating an olive tree to symbolize peace. As you can guess, Athena won and the city was named Athens.

Around the Acropolis, there were various statues and the Theatre of Dionysus (god of wine).

On this day, I also visited Hadrian’s Arch and the Temple of Zeus. The ruins were also neat to see and explore.

Wednesday, February 11

At six in the morning, I woke up and hiked to the bus station on the other side of Athens took a three hour bus ride to the tiny mountain village of Delphi. Reflecting back on this trip, I would have to say that this was my favorite archaeological site. There was so much to see in Delphi and the view of the mountains against the ruins were gorgeous. It was another cold, windy day. And there weren’t a lot of tourists, but that just meant more artistic pictures for me to create.

The picture below is of the Temple of Apollo, the god of music and prophecies. One would have to make the hard hike up the mountain to seek guidance from Apollo and hear a prophecy from one of the oracles.

This is the Rock of Sibyl. According to local traditions (and the sign I read near this site), the first prophetess of Delphi stood here to utter her prophecies. Near the rock stands the Treasury of the Athenians.

Not far from the treasury and the Sibyl Rock, there was an interesting site called “Circular Open Area of Halos.” Every 8 years the Septerion (a ritual featuring the reenactment of the god Apollo slaying the serpent Pytho) took place here.

Overall, I really enjoyed Delphi and there was a lot of cool ruins to see and look at .

But what I especially enjoyed about my trip to Delphi was the gorgeous view of the mountains.

If you ever visit Greece – do not skip out on Delphi, even if it’s a cold day.

Thursday, February 12

On this day, I took a day trip to the ancient port at Cape Sounion. There I saw a beautiful view of the sea and the Temple of Poseidon.

This day was the windiest day of the entire week, and I had a hard time taking a good selfie.

The sea was stunningly beautiful, which made me glad that I braved the intense wind.

Friday, February 13

This was my last full day in Greece and I took a day trip to the city of Corinth. I was interested in visiting this city because of my Christian background and special interest in the Apostle Paul’s travels. To be honest, Corinth was a disappointment. There was little ancient evidence and the city felt rundown with very few interesting things to see. The view of the sea, however, was beautiful with its blue waters.

When I returned, I made up for this trip by having one last fun night with the hostel friends I made throughout the week. We went out to eat at a restaurant that sold amazing gyros and then hiked around Athens. The weather finally warmed up and we explored the night life of Athens. The best part of the evening was climbing the rocks near the Acropolis and looking out at Athens lit up at night. Unfortunately my camera battery died so I don’t have photographic evidence of this, but I still remember view of the Acropolis lit up and the white building below us shine. It was a beautiful week to end out the trip.

Saturday, February 14

This was the day I packed up and flew back to Krakow. It was a long trip back with a seven hour layover in Munich. During my flights, I reflected on this trip and I couldn’t help but disagree with the people who say that Athens is uninteresting. There was a lot to see in Athens and I didn’t get to everything. There is amazing food, olives, gyros, and Greek pastries. There were olive trees, orange trees, and cats everywhere. There were museums filled with ancient artifacts that preserved Greek history and myth. I would highly recommend visiting Athens to anyone interested in Ancient Greek culture, and if you find that February is the only time you can make the trip, don’t be disappointed. There are still many cool things to do and see.