Poland may quite possibly be the most underappreciated country in Central Europe. Hardly the dark backwater the Western press depicted it under Communist rule, Poland has been a member of the the European Union since 2004. It uses its own currency (zloty), and Fortune 500 companies flock in hiring a mine of educated natives. It borders seven countries and while preserving, renewing and restoring its cultural wealth - from its 14 UNESCO sites to castles, manorhouses, and agritourism accommodations, Poland’s tourism infrastructure is expansive and welcoming.
Last year tourism brought in $25 billion, or about five percent of Poland’s GDP according to the World Economic Forum. Jobs in this sector are also on the rise at a rate of just under five percent. LOT Polish Airlines has managed to get that Dreamliner into the air from the U.S.
Poland is a sleeping beauty that needs a louder trumpet call to attract more U.S. visitors. Maybe that legendary fellow at the highest tower of St. Mary’s Cathedral who played the Hejnal Mariacki (“Hey-now Mahr-yahts-kee”) to warn of the impending Mongol invasion in 1241 could alert the world to the new Poland.
Any guide will rattle off the quick and tragic history of Poland, which is a place that some tried to obliterate during its 1,000-year-plus existence (it was “baptized” in 966 AD when it adopted Christianity). Poland might be the most fought over country in Central Europe.Nowhere is the historical tug-of-war more evident than in Lower Silesia’s capital of Wroclaw: since medieval times, it has been tossed from Bohemia, to Poland, to Bohemia, Austro-Hungary, Prussia, Germany, Czech, and Germany before coming back to Poland as a result of the Yalta Treaty in 1945.
Culturally, Poland has its Fryderyk Chopin, Jan Paderewski, Kosciuszko and other names that have traveled across the Atlantic into a collective consciousness - Martha Stewart, Andy Warhol, Lech Walesa, Pope John Paul, Loretta Swit, Roman Polanski and Nobel-prize winning poets, Wislawa Szymborska, and Czeslaw Milosz.
American travel routes stick to Warsaw, Krakow, Auschwitz, Zakopane or Czestochowa. If visitor tastes kept pace with tourism, that route could expand to include Wroclaw (pronounced Vrotslav) in time for its reign as Cultural Capital of Europe in 2016. As capital of Lower Silesia, it is a jumping off point for UNESCO’s wooden Churches of Peace in Jawor and Swidnica; Europe’s remaining primeval forest (Bialowieza) and desert (Bledow); for castle stays; spa visits; and tours of the premier poettery in Boleslawiec, 80% of which is sold in the U.S.
Three-night stays can accommodate daytrips: the Wieliczka Salt Mine, 10 miles east of Krakow now has a new visitors center, and the four-star Hotel Grand Sal at Wieliczka
(www.grandsal.pl) debuted in 2009. Add a westward trip to the Guido Coal Mine (http://pol-and.eu/EN/Guido.html) in Zabrze (pronounced Shabcha) for a ride into a 19th century underworld through shafts cut in solid rock. Both feature underground dining, special event spaces; and weddings are popular at Wieliczka’s chapel carved out of salt.
Part of a 10-country group of European Union nations developing Industrial Tourism, Poland’s Dorota Kosinska says, “This is a way to preserve our industrial past and to learn from it; conference centers keep them relevant.”
Hotel investments have been quick and varied. As Poland’s business hub, Warsaw boasts a roster of international brands: Sheraton (six in Poland), Best Western, Golden Tulip, Hampton by Hilton Hotels are under construction, Hyatt, InterContinental plans to open 30 new properties, Marriott, Novotel, Radisson Blu, Sofitel, and pre-war classics like The Hotel Bristol. The Warsaw Sheraton has a prime location [and an elaborate breakfast buffet] within the embassy district
Agents may recall the Orbis Hotels’ properties, some of which have been refurbished as three-star properties in the best parts of town like the Hotel Wyspiansky facing Planty Park in Krakow, a five-minute walk to Rynek Glowny (www.hotelwyspianski.pl).
Homegrown properties include elaborate restoration projects such as the Zamek Kliczków, a castle in Osiecznica near Wroclaw, in Lower Silesia, a member of the Historical Conference Centers of Europe (www.kliczkow.com.pl).
The Hotel Tumski, its sister property in Wroclaw features barge dining on the river close to Cathedral Island and the Botanic Gardens (www.hotel-tumski.com.pl).
Big Cities, Big Draws
Gateway to Poland, Warsaw has big-city energy appeal, its UNESCO Old Town, its Royal Route, Lazienki Park, and Chopin’s buried heart at Holy Cross Church. Add newer attractions: two museums and vantage viewing points.
Next year marks the 70th Anniversary of the valiant 63-day struggle to liberate Warsaw from German occupation, so plan a visit to The Warsaw Rising Museum. Housed in a former tram power station in the Wola district, this interactive treatment of the historic events is among the best in Europe. Its Belle epoque cafe’s dessert menu is not to be missed. (www.1944.pl/en)
Adjacent to the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes in the heart of Jewish Warsaw stands the stunning Museum of the History of the Polish Jews. Designed by the Finnish studio of Lahdelma and Mahlamaki, the $200 million project that was primarily funded by the city of Warsaw, attempts to resurrect, and reconnect with Poland’s rich Jewish history
Warsaw can be fun: fly above the city from the Orange Balloon station; view the city across the Vistula River from Gnojna Gora, a landfill that is now a terraced park; the bell tower at St. Anna’s Church; or from the 30th floor of the Palace of Culture and Science.
Pockets of Warsaw like Wola and Praga have gone from edgy to hip and magical places for hot dining spots like Warszawa Wschodnia Restaurant on ul. Minska, Building 46. The Mateusz Gessler-owned venture is one of a cluster of reclaimed industrial buildings (www.gessler.sohofactory.pl).
Singer Joe Cocker recently discovered the homey dining spot of Folk Gospoda on ul. Walicow in Warsaw’s Old Town as did poet Czeslaw Milosz. Prices are affordable for soup and a main course you will pay 20 zloty, under $10 (www.folkgospoda.pl)
Don’t miss Krakow’s classics: Wawel Royal Castle, and the Barbican, not unlike fortified outposts in Carcassone, France or the Tower of London. Inside St. Florian’s gate is Jama Michalika, the 19th century elegant cafe, the most famous in town
Change is everywhere: at its most visited UNESCO site, the Sukiennice, or Cloth Hall on the Rynek Glowny, Europe’s largest square, stalls still line the marketplace but a cafe is now perched on the balcony for a lofty view of the Square, and the updated Sukiennice Museum features 19th century
Vying for not-to-be-missed, is the Rynek Underground, the sight of an archeaological dig under the Sukiennice that has morphed into a hi-tech museum that opened in a blaze of publicity in 2010. In the Footsteps of Krakow’s European Identity is a journey in time (www.podziemiarynku.com).
Once forlorn and neglected, Kazimierz, the former Jewish Ghetto, has been resurrected thanks to a new generation eager to stake its claim. Shops hang pre-WWII style signs, inns, spas and 24/7 nightlife have transformed Kazimierz. The Remuh Synagogue’s cemetery is still plaintive. Oskar Schindler’s fabled factory is now a compelling museum (www.oskarschindlersfactory.com).
For a taste of Polish cuisine in a medieval setting, consider the Pod Aniolami or “under the angels.” Downstairs is a monastic-like, candle-lit haven that brims with the clutter of the excavations - from love cups to swords and food vessels, candelabras and bee chasers. A secret ingredient that protects diners from disease is added to the pierogi, says proprietor Jacek Lodzinski. They were exceptional as was the trout and the salmon (www.podaniolami.pl).
Kogel Mogel, the name of a simple, homemade dessert that elicits sighs from Poles - as their moms made this when they had nothing in the pantry, delivers a great dining experience with its menu of Polish food elevated to restaurant status. Try “maczanka krakowska,” translation: pork, bread, onions, which rarely shows up on menus. Don’t forget the kogel mogel.
Culture’s Many Forms
Poland’s cultural heartbeat stretches to Wroclaw, a three hour-drive northwest of Krakow. Soon to reign as Cultural Capital of Europe in 2016; it will host the 2014 FIVB Men’s Volleyball World Championship and the World Games in 2017. At presstime, Wroclaw’s Global Forum brought 350 top policy-makers and business leaders to explore the region’s impact as an actor in Europe, and the 27th International Society for the Performing Arts focused on how artists have played a key role in the process of political change in Poland.
Wroclaw, once known as Breslau under the Germans, is at the confluence of five rivers, the crossroads of two trade routes, and is a university town. Passenger vessels ferry along the Oder river passing small islands within the heart of the city. Its Old Town center is vigilantly cared for, as is the behemoth Centennial Hall, a UNESCO site designed by Max Berg in 1911, which is a modern exhibition and conference center. Just behind the Hall is The Wroclaw Fountain, illuminated by 800 computer-programmed colored lights choreographed to music. When frozen in winter, the Wroclaw Fountain becomes a 51,000 square foot ice skating rink. The Poles are a skilled and practical people who know how to enjoy a thing of beauty.Visit www.poland.travel/en-us