Travel: Poland's possibilities
There's more than pierogi, but that's pretty good, too
Posted: January 9, 2013
Anyone looking for a quick getaway vacation need look no further than Poland, the Czech Republic's colorful northeastern neighbor. Visitors can take advantage of the sights, sounds and tastes of the still largely unexplored country, bursting at the seams with ancient history and treasures waiting to be uncovered.
A must-see for anyone visiting Poland is Warsaw, made the new capital after King Sigismund III Vasa moved the court there from Kraków in 1596. As a tribute to him, there is a large column in the center of the city's Old Town Square, with King Sigismund standing guard on top.
By far the largest city in Poland, Warsaw is located in the heart of the country, along the Vistula River, and its history dates to the 13th century. Though leveled and destroyed throughout history - especially during World War II - Warsaw has rebuilt and renewed itself again and again. Today, Old Town Square, meticulously rebuilt after its demolition during World War II, stands as a testament to its former glory: As many bricks and aspects of the city's ancient architecture as possible were reused during reconstruction. Along with its many modern upgrades - including a colorful, animated water fountain show set to music best seen at night -Old Town Square is one of the most dynamic destinations of the Polish capital.
The square also houses Polka, the restaurant owned by Magda Gessler, both celebrity and celebrity chef. Located on Świętojańska street, the restaurant's homey setting is the perfect place to sample traditional Polish dishes. The adventurous should not skip the pickled herring, homemade żurek soup, pierogi, and, of course, the many salads containing sauerkraut, cucumbers, beets and other vegetables and delights that Poles hold dear to their hearts.
Not far from Old Town Square, in the direction of the Royal Palace, one finds an imposing black statue of Adam Mickiewicz, perhaps one of the best-known and most-beloved Polish poets. Though he also authored dramas, translations and other pieces, it is his poetry, namely his national epic, Pan Tadeusz, for which he is most recognized. Nearly every Pole has at least first few lines of the epic poem memorized.
Notice a mermaid in your midst? The mythical creature is the symbol of Warsaw, as evidenced by the many representative statues throughout the city, as well as on its coat of arms. Legend has it that two of Triton's daughters set out into the seas and oceans - one stayed in Denmark and can now be seen sitting on at the entrance to the port of Copenhagen, while the other found her way to Warsaw through the Vistula River. A bronze mermaid sculpture from 1855, complete with requisite sword and shield in hand, can be found in Warsaw's Old Town Market Place, while another sits by the riverbank. If sculptures and monuments are of particular intrigue, sightseers can walk from the Old Town into the New Town, where a solemn-looking Nicolaus Copernicus sits guard, or down to Aleja Solidarności, where a massive sculpture of the goddess Nike stretching her arms out commemorates the soldiers and civilians who lost their lives fighting for Warsaw's freedom in World War II.
A bird's-eye look at Warsaw is a unique view of the city and can be achieved at the Palace of Culture and Science located at pl. Defilad 1, with an entrance from Emilii Plater street. This massive, imposing structure - the tallest in the country - is one of Warsaw's greatest conundrums: Many abhor it, as it was a gift to Poland from the Soviet Union in the 1950s, yet it has truly become one of the city's most recognizable (or unavoidable) landmarks. Despite the conflicting feelings (one may hear the building referred to as "Stalin's syringe") the Palace is home to cinemas, theaters, museums, offices, bookshops and, of course, an unbeatable panoramic view.
Even if sports aren't the focus of the trip, from the top of the Palace of Culture and Science one should be sure to take a look at one of Warsaw's newest additions, its 58,500-seat National Stadium, built specially for the 2012 European Football Championship, located directly across the Vistula River.
The joys of Kraków
For those with more time to spend in Poland, its former capital is also well worth a visit. A few hours by train or even fewer hours by plane, Kraków is filled with ancient history and treasures and, unlike Warsaw, it was more or less untouched by the destruction of World War II. Kraków's version of Old Town Square holds a large market hall, inside of which endless stalls offer a wealth of treats and treasures to bring home, as well as palm readers and fortune tellers - many of whom seem as ancient as the city itself - dotting its outer walls, ready to foresee the future.
Pay attention once the hour strikes for the trumpeter of Kraków in the tall tower of St. Mary's Church in the Square. As legend has it, centuries ago, a trumpeter stationed in the tower of the church alerted the town to an attacking army of Tartars with his trumpet's song. His signal was cut short when one of the enemy's arrows pierced his throat. Now, every hour, the same signal is trumpeted from the tower, breaking off at the supposed moment it historically did, to commemorate the trumpeter's sacrifice for his city. A few złoty (Poland has yet to convert to the euro) and some healthy lungs can get you up the tower to watch the trumpeter up close in action.
A short walk from the Square is Kazimierz, Kraków's Jewish Quarter, whose history traces back as early as 1335 and whose peeling, pastel-colored buildings speak to its antiquity. There, visitors can find the oldest synagogue building in Poland, built in the 1400s, as well as the settings of several scenes from Steven Spielberg's 1993 movie, Schindler's List. Though the action of the film historically didn't take place in Kazimierz, Kraków is the location of one of Schindler's factories. Also nearby is the unmissable Wieliczka salt mine, one of the world's oldest still in operation, located a mere 378 steps underground. Inside, visitors can find breathtaking salt sculptures, chapels and a lake, as well as an entire cathedral carved out of rock salt by miners. Those interested can find access to the mine at its promotion office, located at 12a Wislna street.
For a first-time visitor, Poland may seem overwhelming, especially with its near-unpronouncable language and its somewhat esoteric culture. However, the best way to experience it is with an open mind and a smile: Often the narrowest alleyways can produce the best, if most unexpected milk bars and pierogarnias in the whole country. And, remember, vodka is a universal language, not merely an apt souvenir to bring home.
Kasia Pilat can be reached at