ADD = Attention Deficit Disorder, something that affects more than 85% of company executives, practically all teenagers and my wife.
Anyone considering coming to Poland for the first time, or first time as a tourist perhaps, might appreciate this very broad-brush overview of the options. I’m certain this will be expanded and generally gone into in greater detail as time goes by but this should be a good start.
Top of the list has to be the city of Kraków and surrounding area. There are many towns worth visiting in Poland but none can bring the history, architecture and buzz together on the same scale as Kraków (Cracow or Krakau – depending on which map you’re looking at). Krakow was the capital of Poland from 1038 to 1596 and has been a leading centre of Polish scientific, cultural and artistic life ever since. Unlike Warsaw, it was spared the ravages of war and came out of WWII pretty much intact so the architectural history is very much still there to see as you walk around. Nothing exemplifies this better than the market square, at 200m x 200m it is the largest medieval market square in Europe and in summer especially, is really lively with bars all around the square and the magnificently turned out horse and carriage rides trying hard to keep up with the demand. Be warned though, they are not all cute blonde babes like these below!
After the square, Wawel hill is the next stop to see the castle where the kings of Poland lived and the cathedral where they are buried. The last significant Krakowian landmark is the historical Jewish area of Kazimierz. Close by the actual site of Schindler’s factory (of Schindler’s List fame), Kazimierz is the historical home of Kraków’s once considerable Jewish community from the 14th century until the second world war. The area has been undergoing a renaissance in recent years and is now a trendy and cosmopolitan area to spend some time in.
You would need at least a day to see the places mentioned above as well as the rest of Krakow’s old town area, two would be better.
Close to Krakow (a taxi ride away) are the salt mines of Wieliczka, a world heritage site. These are one of the worlds oldest operating salt mines and have been active since prehistoric times. The maze of underground tunnels and caverns are amazing and some of the rooms the miners carved from the rock are spectacular, for example the massive Chapel of St Kinga. Just be aware, if you are claustrophobic or scared of lifts, the last time I visited the only way up (327m) is using mining style lifts which are a bit cramped.
Slightly further afield but still from a Krakow base are the infamous Nazi death camps of Auschwitz-Birkenau. These are around 1hr drive from Krakow and are a must see, if you think you can handle it. I’d recommend making sure you see both camps, they are within five minutes of each other by car. While Auschwitz gives a much more comprehensive picture of what it was like in these camps by use of exhibitions and so on, Birkenau has, in my opinion, a much more haunting presence as it has largely been left exactly as it was found.
A somewhat more uplifting experience can be found by driving south from Krakow into the mountain region to the town of Zakopane. Be warned though that this road is totally inadequate for the amount of traffic it gets. Drive carefully and expect a three hour drive. Zakopane is one of the largest and most commercial centres on the Polish side of the Tatra mountains. The air is clean and fresh and everywhere you go you have the sights and sounds of the traditional Polish mountain sub-culture. Be sure to try some of the mountain cheese, oscypek, it’s very tasty, especially when grilled/fried.
So, all in all, the Krakow and surrounding area trip alone could easily occupy you for five days or more, without allowing for time to get to Krakow in the first place. I find the train from Warsaw is by far the easiest and takes around 2.5 hours. Driving from Warsaw would take around four hours but there are also many flights direct to Kraków these days.
If you have even more time available then you could try either the Polish “lake district”, Mazuria, or the Polish Baltic seaside. These are both in the opposite direction from Krakow, north from Warsaw. The lake district takes between two and four hours drive depending on which part you choose and the seaside is anywhere between five and ten hours drive away. Neither of these areas are served by good (fast) train routes, nor by cheap flights to handy airports.
The Baltic seaside has some great beaches, wild dunes, an awful lot of amber and wonderful grilled fish. Roughly similar to the British seaside including the unpredictable weather but you won’t find any rock to suck on. If you are in the right part of the coastline the you must take in Gdansk and the whole tri-city area with Gdynia and Sopot. Gdansk has, in my opinion, the best old town area after Kraków. An easy way to pass a week is between these towns, the surrounding coastal areas and the Hel peninsular. It’s not often you say you have been to Hel and back and really mean it, is it! Also while in this region you can also easily pop down to Malbork to the castle of the Teutonic Order, built in 1274 and now another of Poland’s UNESCO world heritage sites. This is, I suppose, maximum an hour’s drive from Gdansk.
The lake district offers plenty of opportunity for messing around on boats and in kayaks. Some beautiful unspoilt countryside with rolling hills, trees, lakes, meadows, little wooden churches. I can understand why Hitler built his Wolf’s Lair here (well worth a visit). Did he have a kayak?
If you’re in the part of the lake district that lies in the top right-hand corner of Poland, you can quite easily take a day trip, or weekend break to Lithuania, Vilnius for example.
Both the lake district and seaside are very popular with Poles in the summer months – late June to early September. This is good because there is a lot going on but the downside is many more people and HORRIBLE traffic.
These are just the main areas. There are many and varied other delights to be found in Poland. For example Krynica Zdroj, a spa town in the Tatra mountains where you can engage in general winter jollity as well as “take the waters” from one of the many pump rooms containing strange contraptions dispensing water that tastes like it’s come from rusty pipes but is supposed to be very good for you.
Or perhaps Kazimierz Dolny, a kind of arty-cum-healthy place about two hours drive from Warsaw. This is a good destination for a weekend trip with lots of cute tea-houses, art shops and chickens made from bread.
In general, I have thoroughly enjoyed what travelling we have done around Poland. Much of it is still very unspoilt, understated and you can find interesting moments around every corner. There is however so much more that could be done to exploit the immensely diverse history that has taken place on this soil as well as the wonderful nature that surrounds us. It is after all a history of one land, but of more than one nation. There are significant sites here for Poles, Jews, Germans, Catholics, Ukrainians and many many more. These significant sites are, for the most part, not as well developed as they would be, for example in western Europe, often not developed at all. If the Americans ever got in charge, the whole country would be like one massive Disneyland. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve happened across a particularly delightful or deeply interesting place and said something like “Now, if this was in England, that place would be a cute cafe and over there you could buy local produce, down there would be a souvenir & guide shop, this would be all lit up and………………”. Still, this is not England and that’s one reason I like it so much. I suppose development will happen as more and more people visit and we’ll just have to hope it is done tastefully such that it adds to the enjoyment rather than detracting.
You’ll notice I have not mentioned Warsaw yet. That’s partly because I don’t want to encourage more people to clog up my streets when you could all have more fun elsewhere but mostly because it’s just not a good tourist city, or area. Warsaw old town is nothing compared to others in Poland and the rest of the city is lacking anything of interest beyond WWII & Jewish history. The almost total destruction of the city during WWII means that there really is nothing much of any historical interest to look at. No ghetto to be seen for example. There is however enough here to keep you busy for a weekend, 3-4 days maximum. There are some very nice parks, Wilanów palace, the ‘Royal Route’ from old town down to Łazienki, the whole WWII & Jewish thing, Palace of Culture, couple of museums, couple of cemeteries, couple of shopping centres, the Cytadela and you’re outa there! Travelling out from Warsaw is also pretty naff. There is a national park but pretty lame compared to others. There’s Chopin’s birthplace, which is only worth doing if you’re a Chopin nut, and …well….that’s about it!
If you want more advice just ask. Otherwise, you can find more photos in my gallery.
Have a fun trip to Poland!