Pulsating Poland: A South African traveller's guide to exploring this lesser-known European escape

2019-04-18 17:05 - Iga Motylska
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There’s no need for penny-pinching in Poland as the central European country has retained its own currency, making it an affordable destination for South Africans.

While Poland may have disappeared off the map the nation never ceased to exist and recently celebrated the centenary of regaining its independence.

It’s a country saturated with World War I and II history that vaunts numerous UNESCO World Heritage Sites, spectacular natural landscapes, medieval cities inhabited by mythical creatures, delectable cuisine and warm hospitality.

Mountain escape in Zakopane (Tatra National Park)

The peaks of the Tatra National Park that encircle Poland’s highest town, Zakopane, keep company with clouds, eagles and hikers. In winter the crisp snow is lined with ski tracks, while blooming crocuses turn the slopes purple in spring.

This 21-hectare UNESCO Natural World Heritage Site covers five biomes and is, without doubt, the country’s most popular mountain escape, especially as each season is uniquely picturesque.

Jingling cowbells signal horse-drawn carriages that carry visitors, bundled in sheep skin blankets, through the pine forests of Chocholowska Valley to Morksie Oko. Its aquamarine waters make it the most famous of the national park’s 100-odd mountain lakes.

The schronisko (one of eight wooden shelters found here) entices visitors with the aroma of homemade Polish cuisine, such as Zurek (fermented wheat soup cooked with hardboiled eggs and white sausage served within a hollowed-out rye bread bowl) and grzaniec (mulled beer with a dash of honey or homemade raspberry syrup).  

Once replenished visitors can go paragliding, rock climbing, take on the 22 cycling routes or tackle the 275 kilometres of hiking trails that range from easy to those that require ascending via chains, iron steps and rope ladders. Rysy, Poland’s highest peak at 2 499masl, can be summited in six hours. Alternatively, a cable car goes from Kuznice to Mount Kasprowy (1 987masl) in 10 minutes.

Winter brings with it cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, snowmobiles and smoked goat's cheese drenched in cranberry sauce that’s sold from wooden cabins at the Christmas market along Krupowki Street in town. New Years’ Eve is celebrated by roasting sausages over outdoor bon fires, vodka shots and calls of na zdrowie.

City break in Cracow

Unlike Poland’s capital, Cracow was untouched by the rain of Second World War bombs, allowing it to become one of Europe’s best-preserved medieval cities. Water-coloured gothic, Romanesque and baroque townhouse façades ring the Old Town’s City Hall Tower, Cloth Hall, intricately adorned St Mary’s Basilica and the underground Historical Museum of the City, all of which form part of the historic city centre that is a UNESCO World Heritage Centre.

Cobbled streets lined with hole-in-the-wall souvenir shops and candlelit cafés radiate outwards towards the Barbican (which was the gateway to the Old Town), surrounding city walls and planty. The city’s oldest restaurant Jama Michalika is famed for its eccentric mix-and-match décor from its emerald-upholstered furniture and Art Nouveau elements to its extensive art collection.

Beyond the historic city centre, the planty form a 4km park that necklaces the city and outlines its former fortress walls. Here lies Cracow’s best-known neighbourhood. Kazimierz – the historic Jewish quarter named after its founder King Kazimierz the Great – became immortalised in Steven Spielberg’s 1993 film Schindler’s List. Today, Synagogues, Jewish cemeteries and Stars of David stand alongside monuments, public artworks and museums (don’t miss Oskar Schindler’s museum) that memorialise those who were displaced and died during the Second World War.

Kazimierz’s bohemian atmosphere has given rise to trendy bars and cafés with Yiddish names, as well as a vibrant nightlife.

And just as Warsaw has its iconic mermaid, so Cracow has a dragon. A fire-breathing statue that celebrates the creature’s defeat, can be visited on a tour of Wawel. The royal complex, now a museum, is a symbol of national pride and has indelible architectural marks left by each generation of royals who called it home.

Wawel overlooks the country’s longest river. The Wisla’s banks are popular picnic spots while bobbing boat bars make for ideal sundowner spots. 

Baltic retreat in Gdansk

While today the seaside city of Gdansk is best known as a summer retreat along the Baltic coast, in decades past it was renowned for playing the leading role in theSolidarnosc (Solidarity) movement of the early to late 1980s, which sparked the fall of communism across Poland. History buffs should wander through the European Solidarity Centre, which is reminiscent of a ship’s hull.

The interactive exhibition displays 3D projections, artefacts, film and photographic footage, a library, as well as declassified security documents. The remains of the Lenin Shipyards, crane-lined canals and the Old Town can be seen from the free viewing terrace.

The Old Town starts at Golden Gate and ambles along Long Street (Dluga ulica) to Dlugi Targ until it reaches Green Gate. Restaurants, cafés and souvenir shops selling Baltic amber spill out onto the streets, with Neptune’s Fountain, the city’s patron, being a popular photo stop.

The nearby gothic St Mary’s Church – which was built over 159 years and is said to be Europe’s largest church – is home to a wooden 15th century astronomical clock that tracks the position of the sun and moon in relation to zodiac signs and also illustrates a calendar of the saints. Close to 400 stairs lead to the top of the 78-metre bell tower. Gdansk’s famed gargoyles – dragons, lions and sea creatures – can be spotted along the adjoining Mariacka Street.

Across the bridge, the Brovarnia along the canals of the waterfront pours their locally brewed beers – try their banana beer. While Panorama Restaurant on the 16th floor of the Zieleniak Business Centre, as its name suggests, offers panoramic views over the newer parts of this burgeoning Tri-city that also comprises of Gdynia and Sopot.

The walls of communist-era flats in Gdansk’s Zaspa residential area are a canvas for more than 60 large murals that make up Europe’s largest single collection of paintings by area.

Each mural in the Monumental Painting Collection varies in subject matter, colour scheme, style and technique. They can be explored independently with a map or as part of a free Street Art walking tour given by residents that delves into the artworks’ social, political and cultural significance. One mural pays homage to Lech Walesa, one of Solidarity’s leaders who later became Poland’s first post-communist president. He is a symbol of how far the country has come to become one of Europe’s fastest-growing economies.

How to get around Poland

Poland has an extensive, affordable and reliable public transport system, each of the above destinations can be reached by public bus (pks.pl), public train (pkp.pl), or private transportation services.

Zakopane is a two-and-a-half-hour train or two-hour bus ride from Cracow, while Gdansk is a five-hour train ride from Cracow.

BlablaCar is a trusted and widely used long-distance carpooling platform. Uber and private taxis are also available.

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