Rising in the East

Visitors are finding Poland fascinating, friendly and affordable

By: Allen Salkin

Okay, maybe Poland doesn’t seem like a sexy destination. But that could change. Before even mentioning the many events slated for 2005 and the numerous attractions, let’s get to the bottom line: Poland hasn’t adopted the euro yet, so prices have not skyrocketed as they have in many other popular European nations.

What this means is that good hotel rooms in summer go for only 120 zlotys a night or $40. Dinner in a top restaurant in Gdansk is around $20 per person. Sound like something your exchange-rate-conscious clients might be interested in? Read on.

“Poland for U.S. travelers is interesting because of its cultural heritage,” said Jan Rudomina, U.S. director of the Polish National Tourist Office. “What’s unique is the mix of Western and Eastern European culture.”

On top of the Poland to-do list is the city of Krakow and its environs. The city is rich with palaces, castles and universities, including the one where Copernicus studied. The city also has the largest medieval central market square in Europe.

Krakow is also home to the cathedral where Pope John Paul II was a bishop before he was elected pope.

From June 26 through July 4, the 15th Jewish Culture Festival takes place in Krakow’s Kazimierz Quarter. Performers from Ashkenazi and Sephardic cultures entertain with modern and traditional music, plays, exhibitions and workshops in Hasidic dance and song, Hebrew calligraphy and cooking.

Outside the city are two of Poland’s most noteworthy locations; one of them Auschwitz, the World War II death camp is conceivably one of the most important historical sites in the world. The site, 40 miles west of Krakow, is open to visitors.

Twenty miles east lie the 13th-century salt mines in Wieliczka, where tourists can visit underground statues, chapels and restaurants all sculpted in salt. The 1,000-year-old port city of Gdansk, with historic architecture reminiscent of Amsterdam, is on Poland’s Baltic coast. This is where the Solidarity movement was born and was home to its leader Lech Walesa.

From July 20 through Aug. 22, Gdansk is home to St. Dominic’s Fair, a tradition dating back to the 13th century and featuring feasts, concerts and a wide array of cultural events. More than 1,000 artists, merchants and collectors set up stands along streets in the town center.

Nearby is the seaside resort of Sopot where the beautiful dunes and beaches have been enticing vacationers since the late 19th century.

Travel within Poland can be done in style by train. The two-hour, 40-minute rail journey between Warsaw and Krakow costs only about $30 per person, first class. From within Europe, many of the new discount carriers offer flights from major capitals to many Polish destinations for as little as $30 each way.

Rudomina said Poland would not adopt the euro anytime soon, which will undoubtedly make the country increasingly attractive as a destination.

“We have much lower prices than any Western European country,” he said. “But the standard of service in hotels and transportation is the same as in Western Europe.”