Like the Little Engine That Could, Poland has been quietly chugging up the hill of progress since 1989.
After being pummeled, bombed, invaded and heinously treated by neighboring Germany and Russia in WWII, and then forcibly occupied by Russia for the following 40 years, Poland shook free of communism with the collapse of the U.S.S.R. and has never looked back.
I visited Poland in June, two weeks ahead of the Trumps and one month before Prince William and Princess Kate. It’s the “in” place to go!
Chciałbym kiedyś pojechać do Polski! (I’d like to visit Poland one day!)
What was I expecting to see in this Eastern Europe country? I suppose dark cities with industrial buildings and lots of grim faces. What I did see was a complete surprise. Poland has got it going on! They have had decades of conservative financial leadership which has led to years of sustained financial growth and stability. Although part of the E.U., they rejected the euro and forced immigration policies. They have made great use of capitalism, holding on to a few useful ideas from the occupation era and mixing it with fierce individualism. College is free for achievers. The cost of living is low. The sad history, particularly of the Jews and Poles who were murdered by the Nazis, is acknowledged but has not overshadowed the future.
I have rarely seen such a bargain vacation. This is a paradise for vacationers seeking a low-impact trip to Europe. Polish beer on tap – a large – for $4. An artisan Polish cheese plate with two homemade breads, fruits and nuts is $6. Dresses by Polish designers for $50. A four-course pork chop meal $10. A visit to the Marie Curie Museum is $3. Luxury hotel rooms for $70 and clean, modest rooms for $50 – both with a huge breakfast.
The atmosphere is joyful and vibrant. Chic women and dapper men were everywhere. Style is everywhere here and these folks outdo better dressed Houstonians. Two 20-something young men dressed to the nines rushed past me to enter the bar at Warsaw's Hotel Bristol – the city's most historic and elegant hotel (not bombed during the war because the Germans liked it, too.) One had on a navy coat and tight black pants with the cuffs rolled up just above the ankle in order to display some fancy patent shoes. It was a mauve jacket for the other with black jeans and white-on-white sneakers.
As I walked the streets of Warsaw, and later of Krakow, beautifully dressed women floated by adorned by an endless variety of outfits: black, tiered tulle skirts to mid-calf; lovely organza blouses with multi-rolled necklines; black leather shorts; A-line skirts and dresses made of floral cottons; maroon silk teddies and lots of bright red lips with tightly drawn ponytails. One passerby was dressed in smoky beige flats with ivory bows to match the tie-dyed beige-and-ivory silk dress (she was 80, at least). Another senior citizen caught my eye in her bright blue and yellow sleeveless dress with amazing matching jewelry.
Everywhere were parks and outdoor cafes and baskets and pots of exuberant flowers, all enjoyed by the 12 million visitors Poland has each year.
Warsaw is the sprawling capital of Poland. Its widely varied architecture reflects the city's long, turbulent history, from Gothic churches and neoclassical palaces to Soviet-era blocks and modern skyscrapers. The city's Old Town was restored after heavy damage during WWII. Between 85 to 90 percent of the city was destroyed during the war, but the Poles have restored nearly everything. The heart of the city is Market Square, with pastel buildings and open-air cafes. Tourists, school children and locals all contribute to the lively atmosphere.
The Monument of the Warsaw Mermaid at its center is the city’s symbol. There is much to enjoy just walking through the Old Town, a UNESCO Heritage Site. Be sure to visit the Saski Garden and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, the Metropolitan Building and the Maria Skłodowska-Curie Museum. Łazienki Royal Park is stunning. In the park is the residence of the last Polish king and the best-known monument to famed composer Frederick Chopin. Young Warsaw residents gravitate to Zbawiciela Square with well-known restaurants and bars, particularly along Mokotowska Street and Mysia Street, home to boutiques of Polish designers. A must-see is Nowy Swiat, or the New World Street, which runs for a mile from the center of town to the Old Town – it's lined with bars and restaurants and little courtyards down alleyways just out of view, some of them brimming with bars. The Warsaw Uprising Museum is a surprising find. This museum not only provides information on the Nazi take-over of Warsaw, but it also shows the bravery of those who fought to resist that takeover – only to be sold out to the Russians. Lots of info and interactivity in this museum; one of the best we've seen. Also excellent was the POLIN Museum of the History of the Polish Jews, a stunningly beautiful building with a superlative collection. This fascinating museum is a must for any Jew and non-Jews will find its careful telling of the Polish Jew history compelling. The Royal Castle, destroyed during the war, has been rebuilt to recreate the original castle's 17th-century architecture and interiors. Go to the Palace of Culture and Science and take the elevator to the top. You will have 360-degree views of the city. Try to have lunch in the Kultural Kafe downstairs as it is lovely. Learn about the history of the Holocaust on a full-day trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau from Warsaw. Visitors tour the site of the former Nazi extermination camp where they see preserved wooden watchtowers and barbed fences, and behold suitcases, shoes and documents that belonged to Jewish prisoners in the site’s museum. Visit warsawtour.pl/en for complete information.
The train from Warsaw to Kraków was $20 and took a little more than two hours. Kraków is in southern Poland, near the border of the Czech Republic. Rynek Glówny (market square) is the site of the Cloth Hall, a Renaissance-era trading outpost, and St. Mary’s Basilica, a 14th-century Gothic church. The city was not bombed during the war and the Old Town is still considered the center of activity. St. Mary's Basilica is one of the most famous of Poland's churches. The Gothic structure features two striking towers, the taller of which is a magnificent Gothic spire with a gold-plated crown built in 1666. Every hour, a man plays a trumpet in each direction. He is standing guard over the city and the trumpet lets all know the city is safe. Wawel Royal Castle and Wawel Cathedral provides a great view of the city and is the burial place of many Polish kings and their families, national heroes and numerous bishops.
Kazimierz, the former Jewish section in Krakow, is an interesting walk. The area is full of vibrant restaurants and bars, street food stands, synagogues, hand-craft shops and museums. Oskar Schindler's Factory is the actual place, now a museum, that tells the story of Schindler and the Jewish prisoners of Plaszow who were the inspiration for Steven Spielberg's hit movie, "Schindler's List."
About 30 minutes from Kraków is the Wieliczka Salt Mine. Everything within its depths has been carved by hand from salt blocks. The mine has a labyrinth of tunnels. A section of the mine, some 22 chambers connected by galleries, is open to the public by guided tour, and it’s a fascinating trip.
For more information about Krakow, visit krakow.pl/english.
Dining: In Warsaw, we enjoyed the Kulturalna Cafe – a nice place for sandwiches and burgers. In Krakow, we loved Restaurant Szara Gęś w Kuchni (szarages.com). Located on the square, it is absolutely beautiful inside. Polish wines are offered along with steaks, duck and a must-have tomato soup. The prices were amazing in such an elegant environment. Lunch at the CK Dezerter Restaurant (ckdezerter.pl/webroot/eng.php) was charming. We sat in the picture window and enjoyed people watching. Great salads and soups at bargain prices. The Plac Nowy Restaurant is in Kazimierz, the former Jewish District. A lively crowd both inside and outside on the patio were enjoying pizza, burgers, gnocchi and delicious salads (placnowy1.pl/klub). We stopped numerous times at sidewalk cafes to enjoy a glass of wine with a small snack. Every meal we had was delicious and remarkably affordable.
Accommodations: Both cities have all the modern chains like Sheraton and Marriott. In Warsaw, we loved the Regent Warsaw Hotel, which was luxurious, friendly and centrally located. There was live music in the lobby in the evenings and a great restaurant for the breakfast (included) or meals any time. The hotel spa is terrific. A 90-minute massage was just $60! In Kraków, we stayed at the Golden Tulip (goldentulipkrakowcitycenter.com/pl). This is more of a tourist hotel, with small rooms. It too is centrally located, with the Main Square just a 10-minute walk through a lovely park.