Think about Poland - what images does it conjure up? WWII, Auschwitz, Communism?
Poland in 2016 has slowly but surely emerged out of these historical shadows, and has firmly taken its place in the European Union. And because it has yet to embrace the Euro, travelling through Poland is like doing Europe on the cheap (1 Złoty = 17 INR, a steal compared to the pricey Euro)!
I just spent 10 days travelling around the country, getting a glimpse of its pretty cities, its breath-taking countryside, and its unique cuisine. While detailed features and blog posts will take some time, here are 30 photos (and videos) that will make you want to visit Poland now!
Plac Zamkowy or Warsaw's Castle Square is flanked on one side by the Royal Castle (the sandstone coloured building on the right), the former residence of Polish kings. The column in the centre honours King Sigismund III Vasa, and was erected in 1644. Most of the square was devastated in WWII; the castle and the pretty townhouses on the left are largely reconstructed buildings.
I experienced gorgeous, sunny days for the most part of my travels through Poland. One fine morning I took a private boat cruise of the Vistula River that runs through the city, giving a lovely overview of the Old Town and the various bridges that cross the river.
Like Plac Zamkowy, Warsaw's Old Town market square was almost completely destroyed and rebuilt after WWII. This makes it the newest 'old town' in the world! Today it's a place for many touristy restaurants, cafes and shops. In the centre of the square stands the Warsaw Mermaid, a bronze mermaid statue that has been the symbol of the city since 1855. The mermaid has been a part of the city's coat of arms since at least the 14th century. She holds a raised sword and shield, and is said to have promised to protect the city.
My very first taste of Polish cuisine was in the posh Belvedere restaurant in the middle of the sprawling Łazienki Park. The restaurant serves a modern rendition of traditional Polish meals and its favourite ingredients. Pork is a big part of Polish cooking, and this artistic plate presented pork on a bed of buckwheat and sunflower seeds. The rest of the meal was equally stunning & delicious.
The classic pierogi, perhaps the most well-known of Polish foods. These are like ravioli or dumplings - flour pockets stuffed with a variety of fillings, and then boiled. I took a class with Polish Your Cooking and learnt to make three types of pierogi - the traditional Ruskie with potato & cottage cheese in it, another with meat and onions, and the summer favourite stuffed with berries (I used raspberries and blueberries). Both the savoury and sweet pierogi are served with dollops of sour cream, and the savoury ones also have a additional garnish of fried bacon bits and parsley.
Some more Polish foods - Placki or deep fried potato pancakes served with a mushroom sauce, and Barsczcz (or what we know as borscht), which is beetroot soup; while it's usually served hot, in summer you can enjoy the chilled variation. I sampled both of these dishes at Polka Restaurant, which is run by the celebrity chef Magda Gessler (a Polish Nigella Lawson, apparently!). Krakow
Onwards from Warsaw to Krakow with some reading and writing for company. Not to mention this gorgeous view!
The first stop in Krakow was obviously the main Market Square, the largest, medieval market square in Europe. Unlike Warsaw, Krakow escaped being bombed during WWII, so the buildings you see in the above video are original. The square is always jam packed with people, both tourists and locals, and since I visited just before World Youth Day, there was a healthy sprinkling of students and pilgrims from all over the world.
Krakow's coffee culture may not rival Vienna's (read about Vienna's coffeehouses here), but the city is dotted with lovely cafes, both historic and modern. This is Cafe Noworolski, one of the oldest cafes in the market square. I loved its elegant and ornate interiors, and the classy piano. I had some excellent coffee and the cheesecake wasn't half bad either.
Cafe Camelot is a quirky cafe-bar in a street just off the market square. It's full of wonderfully weird elements like this giant pink parrot chandelier. I tried the mead here, but didn't particularly enjoy it; bring me a shot of nalewka (fruit infused alcohol) instead!
I stumbled upon Cytat Cafe while traipsing around Kazimierz, the former Jewish quarter of the city, now a hipster hangout. The pretty flowerpots and the bookstand table lured me in, and the coffee was superb too.
Kazimierz is dotted with all sorts of restaurants, cafes and bars, both Polish and international. I picked up a delish pita sandwich from Hamsa (above) for my train journey from Krakow to Wroclaw.
A hipster district cannot be without its graffiti! Kazimierz lives up to the expectation with such gems on every street :)
Plac Nowy (New Square) in Kazimierz hosts a weekly flea market every Saturday morning. I wandered about the stalls filled with weird curios (antique & otherwise), handmade accessories, as well as fresh produce. I love summer in Europe for the bounty of fruits she brings with her...
Krakow's old town has many of these winding, cobbled streets. Ulica Kanonicza (connecting the market square with Wawel Castle) was my favourite, perhaps because of the quaint and musty Bona, bookstore plus cafe.
Not far from Krakow, in the town of Wieliczka is a now-defunct, subterranean salt mine. It was opened in the 13th century and continuously produced salt till 2007! I went on a guided tour of the mine, walking through labyrinthine tunnels and past several chapels filled with salt sculptures. The most stunning part of the mine is St Kinga's Chapel, which is a massive room carved out of salt with some impressive sculptures depicting the life and times of Christ, including a rather fabulous rendition of da Vinci's Last Supper. Zakopane
What the Alps are to Switzerland, the Tatras (Tatry in Polish) are to Poland. These mountains form a natural border between Poland and Slovakia, and are the highest mountain range in the Carpathian Mountains. I took the cable car up Kasprowy Wierch, a popular ski area, for a panoramic view of the Tatras.
The Tatras are a favourite with the Poles for all sorts of adventurous activities. Even if you're not an adrenaline junkie, an easy walk to the lake Morskie Oko (Eye of the Sea) will give you a glimpse of the natural beauty in Poland. The lake is inside Tatra National Park, and you can either walk the 9 km from the park entrance, or take a horse carriage ride up to a certain point and then walk for about 30 minutes. Either way, it's well worth the effort for that view!
Another attraction in the Tatras is the picturesque town of Zakopane. It's here that I discovered the delicious mountain cheese, Oscypek. I met Andrzej the shepherd and cheesemaker who makes the cheese in this little hut in a meadow in the mountains (yes, it's as idyllic as it sounds). The cheese is made from sheep's milk (sometimes cow's milk is also added), and is smoked for several days in special decorative moulds. Wroclaw
I spent the most number of days in Wroclaw (pronounced vrots-waff, don't ask me why), just exploring the city and taking it easy. I came to love Etno Cafe, where I spent my mornings, either at the Rotunda branch in the city (located in a former newspaper kiosk on Swidnicka street) or on Ul. Wiezienna (in what was till recently Franz Kawka cafe). The Rwandan-origin coffee I had was strong, with a hint of chocolate notes, and went beautifully with the banana-caramel cheesecake that I demolished for breakfast on day 1!
Wroclaw is the city of dwarves, and these little guys are everywhere in the city. There are more than 400 of them, and they started popping up in 2001, as a tribute to the Orange Alternative Movement, a resistance movement against the communist government (more about it in a later post). I spotted this dwarf in the University quarter of Wroclaw, appropriately enough...
Wroclaw was the German town Breslau before WWII, and bore some heavy shelling, from both sides. After the war, the city lay in ruins, and with a shift in borders, Breslau became the Polish city of Wroclaw. The old town here was bombed too, and is today largely rebuilt. The 13th-century Gothic Old Town Hall miraculously escaped most of the bombing and was only partially damaged. Today it is one of the main landmarks of the city.
While the market square is a tourist magnet (with overpriced and underwhelming restaurants), the tiny streets branching out from the square are jammed with interesting cafes, restaurants and shops. Wander down Ul. Wiezienna or the parallel Odrzanska and you will find many eateries worth your time (and złotys). I recommend Kurna Chata and Chatka przy Jatkach (both on Odrzanska) for traditional Polish meals.
Walk down Ul. Jatki, the oldest medieval street in Wroclaw. This was where the slaughterhouses were located in medieval times; today you can find some cool galleries and design shops here.
Another place I'd highly recommend is Hala Targowa, the market hall of Wroclaw. A daily fruit and vegetable market is held here (except on Sundays), plus the market houses butchers, florists, cafes and grocers. As you can see, I'm obsessed with summer stone fruits - these juicy nectarines are my absolute favourites!
In Wroclaw I took a fab food tour with Wroclaw Food Tour - 4 restaurants in the old town, and a smorgasbord of Polish cuisine. What I loved was that tour showcased the various influences that shaped Polish cuisine, from Slavic to Jewish.
The last stop on the food tour was the very atmospheric, more-than-100-years-old Mleczarnia Cafe in the former Jewish district of Wroclaw. I loved this place with its old-world charm - it was like stepping back in time, straight into a Polish grandma's parlour!
Speaking of cafes, E. Wedel's chocolate shop in the market square is a good place to pick up your cocoa gifts for back home, and of course to indulge in a cup of thick, dark hot chocolate!
On my last day in the city, I took a free walking tour of Wroclaw's Old Town (details here), which included the Cathedral Island on the other side of the Odra River
This was my favourite vantage point of the island - at the beginning of Tumski Bridge, one of the 100-odd bridges across the river, from where you can see the soaring steeples of various churches, including the Gothic towers of the city's cathedral.
Did this photo-essay inspire you to consider adding Poland to your next Europe itinerary? Leave a message below and tell us which place caught your fancy.
Disclosure - My travel and stay in Poland (except in Wroclaw) was courtesy the Polish Tourist Office.