When one lands the opportunity to live in Europe, eventually (usually sooner rather than later), you’ll be asked the age old question, “Have you bought any Polish pottery yet?” If you’re a newbie over here, just wait. I promise you, it’s coming. Polish pottery is pretty popular among Americans living in Europe. I honestly don’t know if it’s as popular among the locals, but it seems like it’s everywhere — bazaars, flea markets, even a pop-up shop in the mall. Some collect and hoard it like it’s going out of style. Others look at it and say, “Meh.” I tend to fall in the middle. I like the bright, bold and semi-eccentric patterns. I LOVE that you can mix and match and it stills looks cool. I DON’T love the prices that tend to accompany them. So when a friend asked if I was interested in going to the mecca of Polish pottery, Bolesławiec (pronounced Bol-uh-swah-vitz), for its annual pottery festival, I figured why not?
Trip win/fail #1: 19. Hours. on. a. Bus. I’ll admit I signed up for this knowing that it wasn’t going to be the most comfortable trip. However, €85 for round-trip transportation is pretty much a steal. Not driving (my international permit has expired), being able to having a glass or two of vino and stopping at places I probably never would have has its advantages. Then again, 19 hours of cramped joints and others with questionable gas escaping from their backsides in an enclosed space can put a damper on the trip.
We left our designated meet up spot at 8 p.m. The only bad thing about night travel is that you don’t get to see the cities that you pass through. We drove through Leipzig and Dresden, but I was either a) knocked out or b) couldn’t see because it was so dark. But of course, it has its advantages because you get a full day in at your destination. I consider it a draw. After getting pulled over by the German polizei for a random bus inspection, we had an hour to pass at a truck stop just across the Polish border. I was grateful I managed to bring an extra set of clothes, as I felt pretty grungy after three hours of broken sleep. I grabbed a latte and watched the sunrise over the rolling, green hills of the Polish countryside — not a bad way to spend an early Saturday morning.
Trip win #2: Andy’s Pottery. The first stop of the day was Andy’s Pottery. The factory was on the outskirts of the town and we were all a little surprised that there was already another tour bus there. Note to future pottery shoppers: these places open up ridiculously early, like 6 a.m. Since it was a big weekend for the town, the good folks at Andy’s offered up free breakfast to its customers. Free food? Um, yes please! They had made-to-order waffles with berries and whipped cream, along with grilled polish sausage, bread, schmalz (a lard spread with bacon in it … yes, you can actually feel your arteries closing up) and pickles. Quite possibly the strangest breakfast combination I’ve had in a while. But hey, free is free is free. Choice of beverages included coffee, water, juice and beer (I waited until 8:30 a.m. for my first beer o’ the day, thank you). After snarfing down my odd breakfast assortment, I wandered into the factory shop.
Trip Fail #2: The actual shop. When you drive up to the actual building, it looks huge. I was excited because I was pretty sure there would be a gazillion pieces to choose from and plenty of space without people climbing over each other. I was SO. WRONG. The shop itself is pretty small. By the time I walked in, there were now three large busloads of shoppers crammed into about a quarter of the building. Seriously. The shop only took up a small corner of the building. I think the rest of it was either the actual factory or a warehouse. I’m still not sure. If you wanted a basket to hold the precious ceramics, you had snatch one up the moment someone started to put it on the ground. People were clawing their way past each other to get to their prized patterns, with some even yanking dishes out of other people’s hands. I liken it to Black Friday shopping on a slightly smaller scale. There were a lot of beautiful and intricate patterns to choose from, as well as some really unique pieces. There were also a lot of elbows and knees being thrown just to look at said patterns.
At about 10 a.m. we went over to the main drag of Bolesławiec. There were a bunch of different pottery factories and shops. We were left to our own devices for a couple of hours and I managed to score a few great pieces as gifts for friends and family. After awhile, I noticed that most of the shops had many of the same pieces and it was really a matter of the quality (1 is the best) and price. There were some antique stores mixed in with the shops so I ducked into a few of them just to see what they had to offer. As I was perusing their wares, I noticed one shop had a corner with a lot of World War II memorabilia. As I was looking at the different medals, I ran across a lot of Nazi paraphernalia. I know it shouldn’t come a surprise, but I would think that in Poland especially, they would rather burn anything Nazi related than profit from it. I chose not to take any pictures of it, as it just seemed creepy.
Trip Win #3: Bargaining in a completely different language. As we were waiting for our bus to take us to the actual festival, I found these really awesome vintage barn window frames. I love anything kitschy like that (even though I still have NO clue what to do with them), so I walked over to the seller. I asked if he spoke English and he said no. He asked if I spoke Polish, I said no. He asked if I spoke a little German and I said just a little. We then resorted to price negotiations in broken German. I’d say that I scored a pretty good deal of two for €8.
We climbed back on our bus and headed into the center of town for the festival. The Polish Pottery Festival was pretty much like any other European festival that we’ve been to: vendors selling handmade goods, a couple of stands with fried food goodness, and rides with questionable safety standards. A few of us decided that we were hungry and wanted to try out traditional Polish food for lunch. I checked Yelp and found a restaurant down the street that was both the oldest one in town and had a 5 out of 5 on Yelp. It couldn’t be that bad right?? Wrong.
Trip Fail #3: Pod Złotym Aniołem. There are only two redeeming qualities about this restaurant: 1) location and 2) the cappuccino. Since I’m a lover of all things potato, I ordered a mashed potato dish with celery puree, Emmental cheese and mushrooms. It came out and looked pretty good. I dug in and immediately wished that I hadn’t. The celery was overpowering, the mushrooms resembled nothing like mushrooms and they had seasoned it with dill and fennel. My friend ordered the same dish and she said that the more she ate it, the more she liked it. The more I ate it, the more I couldn’t choke it down. I ate about a quarter of it and was done. My other friend ordered chicken, salad and fries and said that the chicken was bland and resembled chicken leather. In other words, I don’t recommend.
When we finished “lunch”, we split up and walked around the town. Bolesławiec is a beautiful town. The architecture is a mix of modern and old. You can see the reminders of the Eastern Bloc influence in the apartments and how they were constructed. They’ve repainted them and the curb appeal has improved, but you can tell it was very much an industrial town in how it was built.
After the festival, we headed back to our first stop, Andy’s, for one last shopping hurrah. They still had food going (it was the same offerings as the morning), so I grabbed another waffle as my dinner and called it good. I took advantage of the time to change into comfy clothes (aka: yoga pants and a sweatshirt) for the ride back to Germany.
While I don’t know that I’ll take another bus tour again, I’m glad I at least went on one. Recommendations include bringing extra clothes, snacks, an eye mask, travel pillow, blanket, something to keep you occupied, and of course … wine. The bus gets cold at night, so blankets and pillows come in handy. If you want to have your own seat, you may luck out (as I did) and not have a seat mate. Otherwise, you might have to pay for an extra seat to guarantee it.
I didn’t come home with that much pottery, but at least I’m a little more knowledgable about it and know to bring my armor with me the next time I go. It left me wanting to explore Poland, which is a country that I really don’t know all that much about, aside from what I was taught in school. It was a beautiful and serene region, and the exchange rate between the euros and zlotys (Polish currency) was ridiculously awesome, making it very affordable to visit.