Polish Pleasures

Poland becomes Europe’s exotic new experience

By: Susan James

With its admission to the EU, its rapidly evolving tourist scene and the elevation of the first Polish pope in history, Poland has become Europe’s hot new travel destination. The life and death of Pope John Paul II has added a million tourists a year to the rapidly growing number of visitors. Poland’s capital, Warsaw, and the port of Gdansk, well-known from the Solidarity Movement, as well as the ancient city of Poznan are popular destinations. But for an unbeatable combination of history, culture and modern trendiness, the southwestern crescent of the country, which includes the restored trading city of Wroclaw, the ancient town of Krakow and the mountain resort of Zakopane, is the place to go.

Wroclaw is one of Poland’s oldest cities, its two main squares, palisaded by the houses of Renaissance fur merchants, has been totally rebuilt since World War II. Known as the “Polish Venice,” the city covers 12 islands connected by 112 bridges. In addition, Wroclaw remains a trading town, and shops abound along the main streets of Old Town.

Across the Oder River from the Old Town is the even older town of Ostrow Tumski or Cathedral Island, where settlement has been traced back to the 7th century.

Two hours south by train lies Poland’s cultural capital, Krakow. Undamaged by war, it is a city of superb Baroque buildings and medieval architectural fantasies. At Krakow’s heart lies the Rynek, or Market Square, anchored by the irregular rooflines of the Sukiennice, or Cloth Hall, once the guildhall of the cloth merchants. Now an indoor market, the hall is lined with stalls selling carved wood, embroidery and amber. In the Market Square stands the High Gothic St. Mary’s Church with its signature twin towers. Inside is displayed the largest Gothic altarpiece in Europe. Dating from the mid-15th century and carved superbly by Wit Stwosz, it depicts episodes from the life of the Virgin Mary.

Krakow’s Rynek Glowny was once the haunt of church and trade, while at the other end of town waits the former seat of Poland’s royalty, Wawel Castle. Parts of the castle complex are over 1,000 years old, and it’s here that Poland’s kings and queens lie buried in bronze and granite splendor in the Royal Cathedral. Just beyond lies the old Jewish quarter of Kazimierz. Meticulously restored, it has become the city center for artists and Krakow’s nightlife. Yet beneath all the hubbub, it echoes with ghosts, and it’s difficult to forget that Auschwitz is only an hour away.

About 40 miles south of Krakow is the Railroad Museum Park in Chabowka. One of the largest railway museums in Europe with 100 trains and 40 steam engines, Chabowka supplied Stephen Spielberg with the steam engine he used in “Schindler’s List.” A half-hour further on lies Zakopane, the gateway to the Tatras Mountains, with hiking in the summer and skiing in the winter. A trip up a nearby peak on the Gubalowka cable railway to watch the clouds drift over the Tatras is memorable. Whatever the season or interest, Poland is Europe’s exotic new experience.


Holiday Inn, Wroclaw
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Hotel Amadeus, Krakow
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Hotel Wyspianski, Krakow
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Hotel Belvedere, Zakopane