Among KrakowShutterstock/Bartiomiej K. Kwieciszewski

By Christine Potter

Poland, say those in the know, is underrated as a vacation destination. The former Soviet bloc country offers much to see and do from all kinds of sporty outdoor activities to action-packed city nightlife.

Beaches are beautiful along the Baltic coast, where spa resorts dot the shores. In the north, boaters and anglers head for Poland’s Great Malsurian Lakes area.

In the cities, clubbing reaches its apex in Warsaw, Krakow, Wrowclaw and Gdansk. Don’t be surprised to see clubs stay open until the last guest leaves. Cosy bars and taverns become social centres, and many include live music as part of the atmosphere.

It’s well known that Poland has experienced more than its share of the dark side. Warsaw, its capital, was home to Europe’s most notorious ghetto, and Auschwitz-Birkenau was the largest of the Nazi concentration camps, just 50 kilometres from Krakow. It’s now a UNESCO site, and a museum depicting all its horrors was founded in 1946.

Today, however, Krakow is a thriving metropolis and a jewel box of a town, recognized by UNESCO for its heritage treasures. As the Polish capital for more than 500 years, it enjoys a legacy of beautifully preserved medieval architecture that earned a Cultural Capital of Europe title in 2000. Among the jewels are the city’s splendid old walls, bastions and gates, and – overlooking the Vistula River – the Renaissance-style Royal Castle (Wawel) – one of Europe’s loveliest royal homes.

This is Poland’s third largest city and the nation’s top tourist draw, buzzing with visitors even in the shoulder seasons. Street performers, pavement cafes and thrumming dance clubs mix and mingle, while below ground, a network of cellars is home to modern cafes, bars, restaurants and showrooms.

Krakow is also renowned for its Jewish Culture Festival, one of the largest events of its kind, running since 1988. Films, performances, presentations and exhibitions are part of the celebrations, this year from June 24 to July 3.

Wieliczka salt minesShutterstock/Piotr MarcinskiTen kilometres distant is the Wieliczka salt mines, operating since medieval times. (The mines were first documented in 1044.)  Sending you to the salt mines is no threat – a visit is a worthwhile experience.
The working mine stretches to a depth of 327 metres over 300 kilometres but visitors see 3.5 kilometres leading through some 20 chambers and chapels. One of these is the beautiful St. Kinga chapel, 101 metres below ground. An underground museum tells the mine’s story.

Unlike Krakow, Warsaw was almost completely destroyed in the Second World War. The Old Town has since been painstakingly recreated and was nominated a UNESCO Heritage site in 1980; Modern Warsaw has a thriving cultural scene, a lively nightlife (among the best in Eastern Europe) and many attractions. Connecting the Old and the New towns is the Royal Route, with palaces (war survivors) and royal gardens. Green spaces abound and summer sees free classical concerts in the leaf-shaded parks.

Warsaw’s Royal RouteShutterstock/WDG PhotoFor a panoramic view of the city, ride to the top of the Palace of Science and Culture, Warsaw’s tallest building. The History Museum pleases information gatherers, especially those interested in war memorabilia. Museums are many and varied, but one that deserves special mention is the Erotic Museum, opened in February this year.

“Don’t call it a sex museum,” urges Dariusz Kedziora, the curator. “It’s erotica. There’s a huge difference.” You won’t find old porn films, but you will find things like 11th-century Indian sculptures depicting scenes from the Kama Sutra. Said one observer; “I guess they must have been really fit. And flexible.”

Warsaw and Krakow top the list of Poland’s five most visited cities. The other three are Wroclaw, Gdansk, and Poznan.

Gothic-style St. Mary’s ChurchShutterstock/Andrea SeemannOn the shores of the Baltic Sea, Gdansk (also known as Danzig) is Poland’s largest port. It’s famous as the launching pad of Lech Walesa’s Solidarity movement which, just nine years after its founding, helped to lead the country out of communism and into democracy in 1989.

The port has been an important trading centre for centuries, and many monuments from the Middle Ages – some recreated after war damage – can be found along Ulica Dluga (Long Street) and Dlugi Targ (Long Market), both part of the King’s Way. The 14th-century Town Hall, at 82 metres high, is known for its ornamental clock, and Gothic-style St. Mary’s Church is Europe’s largest brick church.

Wroclaw, on the Oder River, is Poland’s version of Venice. The lively university town has maybe a hundred bridges spanning its streams, canals, and the river. Cathedral Island, once the city’s core, is home to a Gothic cathedral dating from the 13th century, and Rynek, the former market square, shows the decorative facades of medieval merchant houses.

Another university city is Poznan, once renowned for its market. On the Warta River, Poznan too has a cathedral on a river island – an imposing 10th-century red-brick edifice containing the tombs of Poland’s first rulers. Another attraction is the Renaissance-style town hall with a clock tower featuring two carved goats that appear at noon each day. They’ve become the city’s symbol.

While Canadians hardly need suggestions for winter activities, Poland’s alpine winter experience offers a European twist at bargain prices. The Tatras, bordering Slovakia, are the highest of the Carpathian Mountains and top choice for winter sports. Zakopane is the winter sports capital, with quaint gingerbread-style cottages and residents who can still be seen in colourful, traditional costume. They’re also known for their eccentric singing techniques and phenomenal capacity for vodka, and for challenging each other (and unsuspecting visitors) to “lift-the-wooden-table-with-your-teeth” contests. Visitors never win.

Winter, too, is the time for ubiquitous horse-drawn sleigh rides. Nothing tops off a day’s sport in the snow better than a traditional warmed beer or heated honey vodka.

Best Buys
Baltic amber (made into jewelry or by the chunk) is a splendid souvenir, especially from the Gdansk region. Glass and enamelware, hand-woven rugs, and silverware are also worth buying. The nationwide Cepelia stores stock local handicrafts.

Shops are normally closed on Sundays, with early closing (1 or 4 p.m.) on Saturdays, except for supermarkets and department stores.

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