Boleslawiec, Poland, has long been known to American military wives as the city for Polish pottery. Within driving distance of many of the bases in Germany, it is a favorite destination for overnight bus trips and Girls’ Weekends Away.
My first trip to Poland was with the USO somewhere back in 2002. For approximately $80 each, my friends and I boarded a bus in early evening, watched movies, talked, and laughed-until-we-cried while the bus driver drove over 8 hours to Boleslawiec. After a short nap, we disembarked one after another at the popular shops donning colorful Polish pottery. Our pockets were full of German Francs, American dollars and even some zloty for those of us who had time to plan for the currency exchange. No Visa (or any credit card, for that matter) was accepted. Even then, with plates, teapots, baking pans, and serving utensils, spread out across dirt floors, the selection was overwhelming. The stores were rudimentary but the experience was memorable.
Decorative pieces of Polish pottery are in abundance in Boleslawiec.
On my next trip, my friends and I drove. Why pay the increasing cost of the bus when that cut into our shopping money? Still, the drive was brutal. Crossing the boarder was ominous with seemingly miles and miles of 18-wheelers clogging the lanes. But we mapped the route including the last gas station accepting military gas coupons at the border and braved the traffic. We talked the entire trip (well, likely I talked the entire trip!) and 8 hours flew by.
The most obvious sign that we had arrived were the enormous potholes dotting the roads. We often joked that we could get stranded if we hit one of the “sinkholes”. Often, we arrived late in the night and I would white-knuckle it to our hotel not wanting an encounter with the police. Rumors were abundant of Americans being stopped and bribed by the police or cars being stolen right out from store fronts. But I always packed plenty of candy and sodas for the children loitering around the shops. A few pieces of candy went far in exchange for watching my vehicle. When I ran out of sweets, a few American coins did the trick. The children were thrilled to show off the few words of English in their vocabulary; despite their dirty and sad condition.
Change given during a recent shopping trip in Poland.
On one of our early excursions, my girlfriend, Kellie, and I had invited our teen daughters along. Arriving after midnight, our Bed and Breakfast owner had already gone to sleep and did not respond to our knocks at such a late hour. We returned to Kellie’s minivan truly perplexed on what to do. We were exhausted from the long drive and it was bitterly cold outside. Driving around and around looking for another hotel in which to stop, it soon became clear that we may have to sleep in our car that night; something neither of us had packed for nor considered an option in the past. It was close to one o’clock in the morning and our girls were shaken. We tried to put on a brave front but both of us were at a loss on how to handle the situation. A police car pulled behind us and put on its lights. Relieved and terrified all at once, I pulled to the curb and put on my strongest face.
“I noticed you have been driving for a while. Do you need help?” He spoke English! We tried to hide our enthusiasm still unsure whether he deserved our trust.
“Yes sir. We had rooms at a bed and breakfast but we arrived after hours.” I had pointed over my shoulder towards the direction we had come despite the fact that the bed and breakfast was several miles back.
“I know of a hotel not too far up the road. Would you like me to take you there?” We were breathing a sigh of relief while squelching visions of axe murderers and body snatchers. One of the girls in the backseat was visibly crying. I was shaking my head as if we really had any choice. Carefully making a u-turn in the dimly lit road, I followed the police car into the parking lot of a hotel we had already past but had refused to stop. A huge, bald man looking like someone out of a horror movie stood on the porch, arms crossed. The officer stepped out of his patrol car, said a word to the burley man then headed into the establishment. We sat in the car arguing if and which of us should get out. The officer reappeared and approached the driver’s window in which I rolled down.
“They have a room for you.” Pointing to the oversized biker who still hadn’t taken his eyes off of us, the police officer added, “It’s okay. He’s security. He will show you where to park your car in the secure lot.” Well, if this guy doesn’t kill me, my husband will when he hears what we’ve done. I obediently drove the van into the lot, removed our overnight bags, and followed the man back to the front of the hotel. “Goodnight,” he called after us after taking up his post again.
We went straight to our room, fell into our beds, and promptly left the place without breakfast in the morning. On our drive home, I vaguely remember us making a pact to never share the story with anyone… especially our husbands. However, we made many return trips and never experienced anything remotely as fearful; but of course, we were pro’s by then.
Typical European breakfast of rolls, deli meats, cheeses, and jams.
Generally, the hotels were/are quaint and affordable. Most had (have) onsite restaurants serving the family’s finest Polish delicacies. The European breakfast spread of “brotchen”, deli meats, cheeses, and jams were always a favorite. Hard-boiled eggs were an occasional treat. I’ll never forget the morning, the owner of the hotel in which we stayed came out to greet us at breakfast and asked how we ate our eggs. When I answered that I normally ate scrambled eggs, he asked how we do that. Good-naturally, I explained how I cook my eggs happy to expound on his knowledge of American culture. Before I realized what was happening, he promised to make me scrambled eggs and whisked off towards the kitchen. In minutes, he brought back a surprise. My friends and I were touched that he was so excited to make us feel at home with his first attempt at eggs “American-style”. We stayed at his hotel each visit to Boleslawiec thereafter; often recounting that story to other friends.
During my excursions I would learn to meticulously select pieces labeled with a “1” sticker indicating that the piece had been inspected and no flaws were found. Other labels, “2’s” and “3’s” could be acceptable for decorations only. The highest quality is imperative for oven bakeware needing to withstand the heat of the oven,. The most unique pieces were stamped with “unikat” indicating that the item was hand-painted. Originally, most were painted with shaped sponges and few “unikat” patterns were available. Since then, many new designs have been added. Often, the design is a reflection of the store/manufacturer and avid shoppers are able to identify from where it was made simply by the colors and patterns.
Beautiful honey pot still donning zloty price tag.
Signed logo of unikat wax melter.
This unique lasagne pan has handles, an added bonus when lifting the weight of the ceramic and its contents from the oven.
It wasn’t until years later, after upwards of 20 trips to Poland, that I learned many Polish people have never seen the popular hand-made ceramics made in their country. It was move-in day for us in Germany (again!) and I cautioned the Polish movers to be very careful with my Polish pottery. Pointing to the English written on the oversized boxes, the Polish mover said in a thick accent, “Americans love this Polish pottery but I have never seen.” I laughed at the irony and asked him if they would like to see my collection. He nodded affirmatively. Slicing the tape, we pulled out piece after piece, unwrapping the paper and setting them on a nearby table.
“You do not use Polish pottery at your house?” I asked him to be clear that we weren’t having a miscommunication. Several of the movers stood around examining the goods. They all indicated that they had never seen it before.
“It is so heavy. The Americans love it, but Polish people do not use this.” They brought in several more boxes of the heavy kitchenware relieved to have it safely delivered. I was dumbfounded.
Many things have changed in Boleslawiec, Poland. The roads have been paved. Stores are cleaner; the wares sit on shelves. Clean bathrooms have been added. The children are in school. And Visa is now accepted (for a fee). Tours are given of the manufacturing facilities and artists can be seen painting many beautiful designs. Numerous restaurants have opened to serve visitors traditional foods.
The beautiful front lawn of the Opalkowa Chata Restaurant.
All these years later, I still use many of my original Polish pottery dishes. As a matter of fact, I can count on one hand the number of pieces that have broken. I’ve added to my collection and love to display it in my home. In my experience, Polish pottery cooks evenly; it cleans easily; and it is beautiful. The perfect combination for any kitchen. Every time I use them, I am reminded of the wonderful people of Poland working so hard to outsmart poverty. I am happy to have done my part.
If you’re interested in learning more about Polish pottery and online shopping, check out these (unaffiliated) links:
Pottery from Poland
Polish Pottery House
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