Given the abundance of Polish workers in the UK, I (foolishly) surmised there might be something wrong with Poland – why would so many people leave? Was Poland dreadful? Were the streets of the cities filled with poor? What could be causing people to head west their droves? To be quite honest, I’m less sure now than I was before I left.
Poland will surprise you. I grew up as the Berlin Wall fell and still had in my mind Soviet era images of Eastern bloc countries where old ladies stand in queues for bread, men work in factories and the buildings are concrete, colourless and perfectly matching. Despite 30 years of history, Eastern Europe was still shrouded in mystery in my mind. By contrast, modern Poland is the eighth largest economy in the EU, visited by 16 million people a year. Compared to our little island it’s enormous. A road trip beckoned. But where to start? A problem easily solved by a quick glance at Easy Jet – the cheapest ticket flew us to Gdansk so we decided to start there, driving down the country until we finished at the jewel in the crown – Krakow.
After picking up our hire car and finding the hotel, we hit Gdansk old town, entering through the arch of Swan Tower, a lone reminder of the ancient Teutonic castle which once stood in the city. The area’s rich trading past is never more than a stone’s throw away and shops and stalls overflow with glittering amber – Baltic gold. As always, however, we were travelling on a shoe-string, so as much as I wanted to rush in and gather up all pretty treasures, I restrained myself and we set about working out what to do for free in Gdansk.
It’s easy to give yourself a quick walking tour through city centre. Quaint and classy, the old town is flanked by the majestic ‘Green Gate’ at one end and the ‘Golden Gate’ at the other. The harbour is a feast for the eyes, a mixture of maritime history and venerable old buildings, including the Mariacka Gate and the SS Soldek, the first seagoing ship completed in Poland.
Whilst in Gdansk we did take a quick trip to the beach but I wouldn’t recommend it unless you have kids with you, like British seaside towns it’s stuffed with amusements and fast food and nothing to write home about.
Before heading off we stopped at Stutthof Concentration Camp. This was the first concentration camp outside German borders, gruesomely placed in Poland because the Germans didn’t like the smells coming from their own back yard. It was also the very last to be liberated. Trapped between the Nazis and the Red Army, Poland spent many years abused by more powerful neighbours and the scars still cut across the country, carefully tended and dressed but still achingly close to the surface. Travelling the country you can’t help but feel how unkind history has been to the stoic Polish.
Heading down the E75 our next stop was the massive red brick pile, Malbork Castle, a UNESCO World Heritage site. We didn’t pay to go in but you can walk inside the grounds for free so, since we were on a tight budget, it didn’t really feel necessary.
At the time it was built it was the largest red brick castle in the world, however it was slightly spoiled for me knowing most of it had to be rebuilt after the war, so a lot of what you see isn’t original.
Nearby Torun, also a World Heritage site, is stuffed full of culture and medieval architecture. The square is dominated by another beautiful town hall and you can visit the home of Copernicus as well as sampling the town’s famous gingerbread. There are old town walls, a tower to climb, (we love to climb towers!), and a planetarium too, definitely worth a nights’ stop-over.
We’d been told lots of scary stories about traffic and bad roads from our Polish friends but we didn’t have any problems at all during our stay – maybe we got lucky, or perhaps given the traffic on the M1, it’s all relative.
Poznan is an affluent city with big business, a booming student population and night life to match. The centre is chocolate box pretty and, because a lot of it was rebuilt after some serious bombing during World War Two, the paint is fresh and brightly coloured – a Saxon style rainbow. The big open square that characterises Polish cities is bursting with life.
We had a fabulous night out here and since we’d been on the road for a few days we were pleased to discover the Polish enjoy a drink as much as English. There is the obligatory selection of vodka, German lager, (it’s just over the border), and plenty of pubs and restaurants to choose from. Poland in general has quite a lot of rock venues, few and far between in the UK these days. There is, of course, also plenty of history and architecture to gaze at.
What is not to like about a town filled with over 100 tiny gnomes? We had a fantastic time in Wroclaw, hunting for the little men who are literally hiding all over the city. I’m still not entirely sure who put them there, or why, but they did go a long way toward making Wroclaw my favourite part of the trip (I think the cherry vodka we drank later in the evening might also have had something to do with it).
Wroclaw has been in an out of Germany, Czechoslovakia and Poland during its history and this is reflected in the character of the buildings, although to me it all seemed very Polish – a big open square, colourful buildings and lots of bars and restaurants. The streets of the old town are quaint, the night life is fantastic and we spent our evenings chatting up the locals in various taverns and ‘testing’ quite a lot of different flavours of vodka. We were lucky enough to meet a very friendly bloke who spent the entire night answering our questions about life in Poland under Communism and offering his views on pretty much everything. Which sums up our general experience of the Polish – friendly and welcoming (but not so keen on queueing or saying ‘excuse me’).
We saved Krakow for the end and it didn’t disappoint. The 13th Century town square, one of the largest in Europe, is breathtaking. Impressive buildings dominate the centre ringed by medieval churches, .
I’ve been a bit spoiled by growing up in a Cathedral City and don’t tend to spend much time visiting European churches however I made an exception for Krakow because they’re too good to miss. As well as the more obvious ones in the centre, take time to visit the Franciscan Church which has retained its Medieval style and typically Polish decoration. The city also boasts proudly of the nation’s favourite son, Pope John Paul II, who is, quite rightly, on display at every available opportunity.
They are used to visitors in Krakow so beware the pricey nik-naks in Cloth Hall, head instead for the tower next to it for a great view from the top. Beneath the hall you can sneak underground for a peek at Medieval Krakow in the excavated caves below.
Once an hour listen out for the trumpet call from St Mary’s Bascilica, cut off part way through, in memory of an unfortunate medieval patriot, (shot in the throat by Mongols before he could finish), who died trying to warn of impending invasion.
For art, visit the famous Wawel Castle and cathedral, once the seat of the Kings of Poland, and now one of the country’s major art galleries.
The real highlight of our visit, (we happened to be there on August 1), was the annual commemoration of the Warsaw uprising, the largest uprising of any nation under Nazi rule, brutally crushed to the tune of 200,000 lives. The chilling scream of an air-raid siren through a warm August afternoon, signaled the beginning of a minutes’ silence. The sky was lit with flares and soon smoke and singing filled the city – a fabulous and haunting memorial, if you happen to be there.
Auschwitz-Birkenau featured pretty heavily on our ‘must do’ list. Friends who had visited told me of the rooms full of spectacles, shoes and hair which brought tears to their eyes. The wretchedness of these too-short lives really bringing home the horrors of our collective past. Unfortunately for us, we visited the same week as the Christian Youth of the world, (literally – that is a real thing, they filled the entire city, moving in swarms, flanked by millions of nuns).
They had descended on Auschwitz-Birkenau in their droves and as a result all the museums within the compound were shut. Instead we traipsed around a designated path with hundreds of chattering ‘youth’, only able to see from the outside, reading potted histories on placards in the yard. In fact, we were lucky even to do that. We discovered on the way out we only got in because they thought we were with them, it was actually shut to the public…whoops! So at least we got to see it for ourselves. It was still a moving experience but not quite how I had imagined it. We got a far better sense of the tragedy at the Stutthof Camp earlier in the trip, where we could be alone with our thoughts and reflect on what had happened.
Our next stop was Schindler’s Factory, (from the film!). If you want to get a sense of what World War Two meant to the people of Krakow there is no better place to go. The story is told from many points of view; Jewish, Catholic, Gypsy – all sorts of different people, a true reflection of the devastating effect of World War Two on the Polish. Schindler’s Factory is a ‘must’ if you are visiting Krakow.
We finished off with a ‘jolly’ to the Wieliczka Salt Mine which was in operation between 1996 and the 13th century. Now it is the home of some amazing salt sculptures, including a huge underground chapel, complete with the Stations of the Cross and an impressive altar – you can even get married down there if you really want to! Just make sure you book ahead in August because the queues are shocking.
So there ended our road trip. We stuck to the cities but Poland has plenty to offer in terms of open spaces, from the Masurian lakes to the Table and Tatra Mountains. Poland shares borders with a lot of interesting countries so it’s ideal for sightseeing, you can easily take a few days out and pop to Berlin or Prague. Next time I visit I’m going to make sure I get my visa and head into Belarus or neighbouring Ukraine (the safe bits anyway) and finally satisfy my Eastern curiousity.