Welcome to Poland
Technically situated in East Europe, Poland is an amazing and diverse country. Having travelled there before in 1994 when the country was just begining to 'open up' to Western culture and tourists, visiting again just recently saw some major changes having come about - but still that feeling of old Soviet life remains.
The best of all Polish cities (in our opinion!). Krakow is a mix of young, hip students and 30-somethings, with stores, cafes and bars to reflect this, and older, more traditional Poland that has been preserved to appeal to tourists and perhaps some locals as well. The first point of call in Krakow is Rynek Glowny, the massive main square in the centre of the old town, which is the largest in Poland and apparantly all of Europe. It dates beack to the 13th century and the tourists flock here in take in the amazing space, the cloth hall that is filled with all types of market stalls, the Town Hall Tower, standing erect toward the south-west corner, and St Mary's church that has a bugle call every hour that is unfortunately cut off halfway through as apparantly the original bugler in medieval times was shot by an arrow here whilst sending out a warning call. The square is perfect to wander around if the sun is out during the day, and extremely vibrant during the evening. Surrounding the square are upmarket stores and cafes, many with outdoor seating, and we had tea in one of the traditional tea rooms one after when there in winter.
Wawel Castle is another of Krakow's attractions. Sitting atop a steep hill, the castle and it's grounds are expansive and it's a great place to view Krakow from above. Surrounding most of the old city is a narrow stretch of parkland which is also great for walking or running. A short walk away will take you to the city's Jewish Quarter. Krakow itself is infamous for the jewish ghettos that were established by the Nazis at the beginning of WWII. If anyone has even seen the film Schindler's List, much of this is based in Krakow. It's amazing that this small but vibrant area of Krakow still exists today considering the many millions of Jews that were murdered during this time. There's a number of very small synagogues that are worth a least seeing form the outside, if not venturing in. The area also has interesting architecture and art, which is different to other parts of the city. We also found loads of great little bars and cafes down here and every seemed pretty relaxed and enjoying some fine Polish ales one afternoon.
Whilst staying in Krakow, it is an absolute must to visit the small town of Wieliczka, about 20kms away. It's easy to get there on public mini-bus that leave from near the main bus terminal. The town itself is fairly small and uninteresting, except for a nice church, but the real reason to visit is the Salt Mine. This did not immediately appeal to us, and having to queue for almost 2 hours in the freezing weather outdoors, the appeal lessened by the minute. However, once inside, the wait was definitely worth it.
Joining a tour in English, you decend underground for a few hundred metres and come across an another city - entirely made of salt. Now producing only a small quantity, the mine had been running continously for 700 years. Within the 300kms of underground tunnels over 9 levels (of which only a few are open to tours) there are churches, a performance hall, living quarters, chandliers, and statues that are carved, and been preserved, from salt. I don't advise trying to taste any of it though to see if I'm telling the truth. Out of all the amazing things that we have witnessed on our travels so far, and we've seen a fair bit, the salt mine has to be in the Top 5.
Another really fascinating site within Poland, but for a completely different set of reasons, is the town of Oswiecim - better known by the German name of Auschwitz. Less than 1 hour drive from Krakow (you can do a day trip by car, bus or train), Auschwitz is probably the most infamous of the Nazi concentration camps established during WWII. Most of the buildings and fences are still intact and a tour through the buildings will give you some of the history of what went on in the camp. Although very well preserved and orderly now as a museum, be prepared, it's pretty horrifying. Each of the buildings open to the public highlights different areas of camp life - one features wooden bedding that prisoners had to cram into, another shows a glimpse of the thousands and thousands of personal effects taken from the mainly Jewish people (although many Russians, Poles, Hungarians, and Italians were also killed there) with reading glasses, combs, shoes and suitcases. In amongst all of them are framed pictures of many, many prisoners that are barely distinguishable from each other due to the stripped uniform, shaven heads and malnutritioned bodies that was a common feature of the camp. There's also a really interesting video that's shown a few times a day in the visitor centre.
Just up the road is the Auschwitz II camp called Birkenau. You can walk there as it's only a couple of kilometres, but well worth it. This is a much larger camp but temporary in its existing ie. not many brick buildings. Walking through the structures, laid out in perfect order, gives a sense (although a very small one) of the lonely and frightening existence there during the 1940s. Although lonely, the kitchens and latrines are still in place in some areas so whether eating or crapping, you were certainly not alone. There are a few paintings and scribbles on some of the walls too, put there by prisoners. Walking straight down through the camp will bring you to a stone monument dedicated to the dead. On each side of it are the remains of gas chamers and crematoria blown up by the retreating Nazis. The film Schindler's List gives a indication of how it must have been at Birkenau, and if you've seen it, you will recognise the main gate and railway tracks into the camp grounds.
Visiting first and second World War historical sites - whether in Belgium, France, Poland or Germany - is best done in winter (providing they are open) as we feel it gives a better understanding of the harship and suffering endured in camps and on beaches when you have to face a freezing European winter. Imagine, if you can when rugged up in a thick jacket and gloves, what soldiers, prisoners and ordinary citizens endured during times of war when there was little food, little heat and little end in sight.
Moving onto more pleasant parts of Poland, driving through the south is relatively easy. Once you get outside of the cities and larger towns, the roads are relatively good (although you'll come across plenty of roadworks as EU money pours into infrastructure projects) and traffic reasonably light. A word of advice on car rental. Use one of the established agencies eg. Avis or Hertz, as we hired on the internet from an independent agent. Although cheaper, it wasn't worth the hassle as he was over an hour late to the agreed meeting place, then was on the phone every 5 minutes on the final day wanting to know how far away we were because another customer was waiting (we think he only had 1 car) and then poured over the car on return looking for damage. In fact, we did put a small dent in the undercarriage from the roadworks, but strategically stood in front of this during inspection so he didn't notice!
Driving into Zakopone, we past a magnificant looking hotel, Villa Marilor (www.hotelmarilor.com) on the way to our accommodation (no names, but it didn't look so magnificent). So instead, we did a U-turn and went to check out prices at the Villa. Although the exact cost per night is not remembered, it was reasonably inexpensive and available, so we booked a room for 3 nights. It turned out to be huge and comfortable, with excellent amenties, so no need to do it slum it too much when visiting Poland.
Zakopane is at the foot on the Tatra Mountains, just over the border from Slovakia, so has magnificent views in all directions. Particularly popular for skiing (but we weren't there in season), the town itself is a mix of old, East European buildings and wooden, ski-resort chalets. We were looking forward to catching the Funicular from the centre of town up into Mt Gubalowka one day and exploring up there as the weather was glorious. However, it was closed for servicing, so unless you head out of town to the other close-by mountains, we couldn't find another way of getting up there (except on bike or foot).
The main pedestrian street in Zakopane, ul Krupowki, is a lively street with lots of stores, cafes and street markets. In the nice weather, you can spend some time wandering along here, people watching, and scoping out places for dinner in the evening. Like other places in Poland, eating and drinking venues here are in vast supply, all fairly cheap and popular. However, like many seasonal places, you might struggle a bit for choice during the off-season as many places can be closed. Zakopane would be an excellent place to ski (we had heard the runs are good and tickets inexpensive) but is a great place to base yourself and go cycling or hiking.
A very small town, located further eastward from Zakopane along the Slovak border, and is known purely for its spa. Now this is not your luxurious, pampering style of spa found at many 5 star resorts around the world. This is a Soviet-era, medicinal type spa that is thought to improve health, often by drinking the water. Firstly, if you cannot speak Polish, you can really struggle in Krynica as English speakers are very few and far between. However, hand signs and odd-looking descriptions soon get you by and if you can find someone in one of the bigger hotels, then hang onto them. Speaking of bigger hotels, we booked one of only a few in town, and although we can put up with low-standard accommodation and appreciate that it's not Western Europe or the US, this hotel was very basic, very dirty and very bad. Add to that, it was being renovated (so is probably fantastic now!) so there was dust and tools and workman all over the place, including right next door to our room. We couldn't stay even one night and told the manager the reason why. Although not pleased, he was great about it and not only did he let us leave without paying anything, he took care of us the next day by taking us to the various treatment centres and explaining to the ladies what we wanted! A great guy and we would have struggled without his help.
The first place you are likely to visit in Krynica is the Main Pump Room. This is exactly how you would imagine it, being a large building with loads of pipes and taps that pump the natural waters from the areas around the town. It similar to a wine cellar or a beer brewery in the fact that you can try different waters. As just like wine or beer, the tastes of the water vary greatly, with some being downright disgunting (the ones with loads of sulphur smell like 'rotten egg gas').
We were keen to try out a number of different treatments and to do so, you visit a number of different buildings throughout the town. The first, and our most interesting experience, was a mud wrap. Entering what resembles a hospital ward, and a 1950s hospital at that, you are given a sheet to wrap yourself in once changed. Entering an individual room with your own personal 60-year-old Polish nurse, she indicates for you to dispose of the sheet covering you so that you are fully naked and lie in freshly laid, warmed mud that is on a bed. It has the consistency and smell of cow crap, but you dare not argue with her. She pours more of this muck over you until completed covered, then wraps you up tight to cook. And cook you do. 30 minutes later when you're nice and tender, she unpeels everything and directs you to the shower that is part of your private room. Thinking that you know the rest from here and simply need to wash would be making a huge assumption. It's all about personalised service in this place, so your 60-year-old friend is in there with you, using the hose to wash you down! Luckily, she stopped short of washing the crack of your butt, but certainly was not shy is demonstrating how and insisting you do it! A good laugh, particularly for a male. Next stop was a mineral bath, again walking to another building, but being guided by our hotel friend. In separate rooms again sat a larger-than-normal bathtub, completely made of copper. Filled with hot mineral water, you jumped in a simply had a bath. Pretty cool and relaxing. Finally, it was a 30mins massage, which was awesome. All up, the three treatments cost us no more than 10 euros each and took up most of the day.
After moving from our pre-booked hotel, we needed to find another room pretty quickly. Not far away, we got a room in a large pension with an old woman running the place (believe us, most of the people - both locals and tourists - are old) that wasn't too much better but at least sleepable. We had another night to stay and told the woman in the morning we'd stay again and paid her. However, on our travels in the car, we found a luxury four star spa resort in the mountains close by to Krynica. It was called Hotel Spa Dr Irena Eris (www.hotelspa.pl) and it was truly magnificent. We even had similar sort of treatments again (but at about four times the price). Such is the friendliness and understanding of the Polish that the lady at the pension was fine to refund our money as we cleared out.
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