Bolaslawiec : All aboard the Polish pottery express for a long day, but big bargains
Stripes Travel reader
¶ Survival tips for express trips. See end of story.
Brushing my teeth at 3:45 a.m. never felt so good.
I’d just gotten home from the USO’s express shopping trip to Poland, which left at 9:30 Friday night and returned at 3:15 Sunday morning. When I arrived home, I left my items in the trunk. I just wanted to brush my teeth and go to bed. Even a shower could wait.
Why did I do this, you may wonder? I’d wanted not only that Polish shopping experience, but also a little taste of Poland, even if it did cost me two nights’ sleep.
The USO bus left Patch Barracks in Stuttgart, Germany, at 9:30 p.m. We had two drivers with us so that we could make this crazy trip through two nights and one day. For these trips, you’re guaranteed two seats to give yourself a little more room to stretch out.
Our USO guide, Ann, had it all worked out. We would start on the other side of the town of Bolaslawiec with the cheaper factory stores. These also did not restock during the day, so it made sense to get to them first. Then we would work our way through town, hitting more retail stores until we were on the other side near the border.
She also told us to look for first- or second-quality items if we wanted to use them in the oven, microwave or dishwasher. We should look for stickers with “GAT I” or “GAT II” on the items, and run our hands over the glaze or hold it up to the light to make sure it was evenly spread.
Most stores color coded their quality stickers, but a blue tag might mean first quality in one store and third quality in another, so she recommended we look for the number. Lesser quality items might crack under heat but would be fine for display purposes.
If we saw the word “unikat” on the bottom, that meant it was a pattern unique to that factory and would likely be more expensive.
At 5:15 a.m., we reached the Polish border. It’s a real border stop. They checked every passport. It took us until 6:30 a.m. to get through.
We stopped for breakfast on the edge of Bolaslawiec. I was sleepily expecting the typical autobahn rest stop, but this place looked as if its heyday had been in the 1950s. It was clean enough, just dark and rectangular and socialist-looking. My first stop in an former Communist country. I was thrilled.
After our breakfast, the next stop was at a hotel in the middle of town, where we changed money for zlotys. Most stores would take either dollars or euros, but the first store did not; it only accepted zlotys or credit cards. I exchanged about $150.
The shopping begins
The first store gave out boxes to put your selections in as you shopped. I picked out just two things, and when I paid for them, they took my box away. Most people kept their boxes, which they put in the storage compartment of the bus and kept adding to during the day. Already I’d made a rookie mistake.
We had two hours to walk down this industrial area of town, where we would meet the bus at 10:30 a.m. and then go through a second factory store. Along the way were several other shops. Most of the buildings were one or two stories without a lot of windows. There was nothing slickly retail about them. Many of the signs looked hand-lettered, like cousin Tadeusz had painted them after a hard day at the factory.
In addition to the traditional blue-and-cream pottery in all kinds of patterns, some stores had baskets, carved wooden boxes, carved Christmas items, nesting dolls, dried flower arrangements and other home decoration items and toys.
I had great fun poking through it all. I was looking for Christmas gifts for family, and for inexpensive items for an office holiday party. I found some small baskets in the $1 to $2 range and a couple of lovely carved wooden boxes. The most expensive one, designed to hold two decks of cards, was about $4.60.
We arrived back in the town center at 11:30 a.m. with two hours for lunch and more shopping. One woman cleaned up at the crystal store, buying about six boxes of crystal. Other people pursued amber jewelry or leather goods. I found a lead-crystal egg for $2.50. I intended it for the office holiday party, but it may never leave my house.
I bought a short guidebook, my favorite souvenir, with an interesting chronology. It listed the outbreak of the Thirty Years War in 1618, but nothing about World War I or World War II. No mention of the Nazis, communism or its fall. In 1945, it stated that Soviet troops entered the town, but that was it.
I had lunch at a pizzeria on the pretty town square. A small cheese pizza and a diet Coke cost me the equivalent of $3. Then I wandered through the church briefly before heading back to the bus, admiring the baroque interior and wondering how much of it had been hidden for about 50 years during the 20th century.
At 1:30 p.m., we headed to another factory store, where I found several more Christmas items. A couple of ceramic Christmas trees cost me about $2.30, and a cute egg-shaped salt-and-pepper shaker was about $2.75.
Our last major stop was an area called the Three Sisters, with three retail shops strung together. A few other stores were also nearby. One of them had great deals on crystal, selling a set of six lead crystal wineglasses for as little as 80 zlotys (about $20).
I enjoyed this stop the most. I think I’d finally woken up, and I had fun running around to each store to see what was there, then going back to buy. I was down to my last 100 zlotys (about $25) and needed to spend them. I ended up with baking dishes for mother, sister and me, and I couldn’t resist a tea-for-one (teapot and teacup that fit together) for about $5.
We made one last stop before the border at a large shop in the middle of nowhere. It also had the cutest little baby buggies for dolls, made out of wicker lined with cotton cloth, including a pillow for the doll’s head.
Then came the bus ride back. My legs ached, my neck was stiff, and I probably hadn’t slept more than 30 minutes at a time in the last 30 hours. But I’d met my goal of seeing (and buying) a little bit of Poland.
I rinsed the toothbrush, wishing I had the energy to pull my treasures out of the trunk and look at them again. But instead, I just fell into bed, ready to dream of Krakow.
Eva Doyle is a freelance writer who lives near Stuttgart, Germany.
¶ Bring a blanket and pillow, even if you’re traveling in the summer.
¶ The back of the bus tends to be warmer, I’ve been told, because that’s where the engines are.
¶ My strategy is to get a seat on the right side of the bus. I also like to sit just a row or so behind the back door of the bus, for easy exit and entry.
¶ I bring magazines, an electronic Yahtzee game, and snacks. Brown Sugar Cinnamon Frosted Pop Tarts are my sinful delight on these trips.
¶ I wear loafers or moccasins that I can easily slip on and off, and the most comfortable pants I own.
¶ I bring plenty of aspirin, for stiff neck and back.
— Eva Doyle