Being sent to the salt mines used to carry implications of hard labour and an early death – but not anymore
The 800-year old World Heritage Site workings at Wieliczka (www.kopalnia.pl), 10-km outside Poland’s former capital city of Krakow, have been transformed into one of the country’s biggest tourist attractions – welcoming more than 1.2-million visitors a year.
300-km (190-m) of galleries that stretch down through nine levels and reach 327-metres (1,073 ft) underground lead to vast subterranean halls adorned with stunning salt carvings of princes, bishops and other famous figures from Poland’s long and turbulent history. There are three chapels and a full-size cathedral where Pope John Paul II once preached.
Be prepared for around 800 steps. There’s a tourist trail or, if you want to don a hardhat and protective clothing you can opt to scramble along the tougher miners’ route.
Very different but equally appealing is a relaxing spa stay at the nearby lavishly restored Dwor Sierakow manor house hotel, restaurant and park (www.dworsierakow.pl), lovingly run by English-born Caroline Grabowska and her Polish husband, Pavel Gasiorek.
Back in Krakow city, the tourists congregate at the massive main square – claimed to be Europe’s largest – and the former Jewish district of Kazimierz, today the city’s key nightlife area, while Wawel Hill, crowned by the cathedral and the Renaissance Royal Castle and overlooking the River Vlatava, is the spiritual hart of the nation. Over the past decade, Krakow has become one of Europe’s most popular weekend break destinations but it would take a clear week to cover all its key attractions.
Many flock there for stag and hen parties. More serious visitors will need to plan their visit to get the most out of an interest-laden city full of gems from every period of its thousand year history.
Your tick list should include the Cloth Hall arcade – Poland’s oldest commercial centre, with its folk art and souvenirs and gallery of 19 Century Polish paintings – the new science centre and the Gothic Church of the Holy Virgin, from whose lofty tower a bugle is played each hour to commemorate the time when a Tartar army tried to invade the city. The bugler – a member of the local fire brigade – abruptly ceases playing halfway through the tune, as did his forebear when struck by an arrow all those years ago.
Besides John Lennon’s fabled “10, 000 Poles in Blackburn, Lancashire”, there are now a million of the East European country’s passport holders residing in the UK – and Polish is today the host nation’s second most spoken language.
Budget airlines easyJet, Ryanair and Wizz have not been slow to capitalise on the new market opportunity this has presented and there is now a wide network of low-cost flights available linking London, Dublin, British regional and other West European centres with a comprehensive range of Polish destinations, including Warsaw, Krakow, Wroclaw, Katowice, Gdansk, Poznan and Lublin.
Cutting edge hotels
This is backed by a good choice of high standard hotels, at every price level – some of them truly cutting edge, like the stylish four-star Andel’s Hotel Lodz (www.vi-hotels.com), with its 216 double rooms, 53 suites, four maisonette rooms and a two-storey maisonette.
While locally owned, this outstanding property is operated by the Austrian-based Vienna International Hotels & Resorts organisation, one of the fast-growing stars of the designer hotel world.
Rooms are spacious, high ceilinged and full of light and come with all the amenities you’d expect from a quality hotel.
There’s a well equipped gym and also a large rooftop swimming pool with sweeping views across the city.
Besides a massive ballroom for up to 800 guests, the hotel offers seven smaller meeting rooms for corporate clients plus large breakout areas.
Don’t miss a peek at the striking Mariusz Waras’ mural that’s the talking point of the hotel’s Oscar’s bar.
Fastest expanding city
For a time, in the mid-19 Century, Lodz was expanding faster than any other city on earth, including the burgeoning industrial centres of America. Its fortune was built on cotton and textiles – earning it the nickname ‘The Polish Manchester’.
The Andel’s property is part of the huge and now completed Manufaktura project (www.en.manufactura.com), an imaginative re-development of the complex that once housed the huge textile operations established in the 19 Century by the mercurial Jewish entrepreneur, Izrael Poznanski
13 vast historic buildings and a brand new shopping mall house designer shops, restaurants, bars, a wintertime ice rink, summer-time beach, and the fascinating Museum o/f the Factory (www.muzeumfabryki.pl).
Built on a Roman/American street grid system, Lodz is at first sight a rather rundown place but just come back in five years or so! There’s already a real buzz right across town, with a raft of developments, from refurbished spaces for small businesses, especially in media and fashion, exemplified by the funky OFF Piotrkowska Centre (www.facebook.com/OFFPiotrkowska)., and loft apartments to mega projects.
A city full of students and fresh ideas, Lodz hosts fashion weeks surpassed only by those in Paris and Milan.
If you think Manufaktura is imposing, watch out for the re-development of the former industrial complex of Poznanski’s great rival Ludwik Geyer, a site that has five or more times more space.
These two men and others like them built magnificent townhouse palaces, many of which have now been restored. Also among Lodz sites worth checking are the engaging Central Museum of Textiles (www.muzeumwlokiennictwa.pl) with its displays of fashion down the years and one-of design shows and the Palmiarnia palm house (www.botaniczny.lodz.pl) in Zrodkiska, the city’s oldest park.
You can fly your group directly to the ultra-modern airport at Wroclaw (pronounced ‘Vroshwof’) or make a grand entrance by arriving on the train.
Now, the Polish state railway company’s rolling stock may be a bit decrepit but you can’t level the same charge against Wroclaw’s fastidiously restored and truly magnificent main railway station – as impressive as the London St. Pancras restoration, if on a slightly more modest scale.
Here there’s a gloriously ornate room that once served as a huge boardroom but lay empty for years. It’s now available for corporate events of up to 100 delegates seated – and further spaces are set to be re-opened..
Wroclaw has known rule under the Bohemian Crown, the Hapsburg Empire, Prussia and, until the end of World War II, Germany, before re-drawn borders made it definitively Polish. In 1945, and, then known as Breslau, it was the last city where the Nazis held out, even after Berlin had surrendered.
Fortunately, nearly all the architectural scars have healed and the city centre has regained its mediaeval grandeur.
Among a number of outstanding venues is the foyer of the Wroclaw Opera (www.opera.wroclaw.pl), known as the Crystal Room and regarded by many as the finest room in all of Poland.
Then there’s the Baroque splendour of the University’s Aula Leopoldinum (www.uni.wroc.pl), with its stucco works, sculptures, paintings and frescoes.
Make sure to visit the remarkable Hala Stulecia (Centennial Hall) (www.halastulecia.pl), opened by Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1913 as war clouds were gathering over Europe.
The space under the colossal main dome can accommodate events for up to 15,000 attendees and the complex is now included in the UNESCO World Heritage Site listings while a brand new addition is an intriguing interactive discovery centre.
Set outside the hall is a spectacular multi-media water fountain, with hundreds of water streams creating a screen for an unusual animated laser show.
Another must-see is the splendId diorama of the 1794 Battle of Raclawicka (www.panoramaraclawicka.pl) one of the pivotal events in Polish history, when the Poles for once defeated the Russian hordes, while the vast National Museum (www.mnwr.art.pl), established in1886, has a truly eclectic collection of Polish and Silesian arts and artefacts, with paintings from as far back as the 12 Century.
As it meanders through the city, the River Oder is spanned by some 100 bridges and dotted with a dozen islands, Ostrow Tumski Cathedral Island is a haven of peace, as is the nearby District of Tolerance – otherwise known as The District of Four Religions – where Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant and Jewish religious communities work together in harmony.
Poland is mainly flat but in the southeast there are the Tatra Mountains, soaring to around 6,000-ft. Here is the renowned ski resort of Zakopane, offering a range of group activities and renowned spa treatments.
There’s lots more too: the Baltic coast, the haunting Masurian Lakes and such splendid cities as Gdansk, Poznan, Torun and, of course, the modern capital of Warsaw.
Throughout the country there’s a sense of new beginnings, of vibrant rejuvenation. With the infrastructure slotting into place, lots of cheap flights and great value hotels and restaurants, it’s time to check Poland out seriously.
How to get there
Thanks to the transportation needs of ex-pat Poles wanting to travel home, there are now extensive air links provided by both low-cost (Ryanair, easyJet, Wizz) and regular airlines (BA and Poland’s national carrier, Lot).
Polish cities have abundant bus and tram services, as well as cheap inter-city bus services. Taxis are also inexpensive (and you don’t tip) but train journeys can be excrutiatingly slow if, again, easy on the pocket. There’s a wide range of inter-rail connections to other countries.
Once across the Channel, Poland can easily be reached in two days by car.
Where I stayed
Park Inn by Radisson: www.parkinn.com/hotel-krakow
Across the river and a 20-minute walk from the city centre, this is not in the most exciting of neighbourhoods but offers all the quality and amenities promised by this familiar international three-star brand,
Andel’s Hotel Lodz: www.vi-hotels.com
Unquestionably THE place to stay in Lodz right now. Four-star plus haunt of celebs and right next door to the huge and trendy Manufaktura shopping and leisure complex.
Patio Hotel: www.hotelpatio.pl
This quiet and very comfortable business hotel is just 100 yards from the main Market Square and magnificent town hall. Its restaurant is also recommended.
Hotel Belvedere: www.belvederehotel.pl
There’s an almost Tyrolean feel to this spacious 1920s flavoured hotel set just off the mountain retreat’s main street. It has 148 luxury rooms and 26 elegant suites.
What and where to eat
“A guest in the house, God in the house” reads an old Polish proverb. Hospitality and sumptuous meals are the norm, with French, Italian, German, Hungarian, Armenian, Lithuanian, Cossack, Tartar and Jewish influences in the cuisine.
Specialities include beetroot soup (borsch), bread soup, cabbage soup – it is usual to have a bowl of soup between starter and main course.
Pierogi dumplings (boiled ones resemble oversize raviolis, baked ones are more like mini Cornish pasties) come with either savoury or sweet fillings.
Poland has many different breads, all of them delicious – especially the black breads, made from rye.
Herring dishes, pork in many guises and duck are popular, as is steak tartar.
Salads are generous and fresh. Try to visit the indoor market. There’s a stall there that sells nothing but apples – in about 20 varieties, They are crisp, juicy, and all are delicious.
Wine is imported and expensive, beer less so, especially the local brands, while copious amounts of vodka are knocked back at the dinner table.
Poland has some superb sheep cheeses while desserts are calorie laden and the apple pie sold at the airport is the best I’ve ever tasted.
In a locally owned group that includes Marmalada, Miod Malina and La Campana but with its own individual charm. Great location just off the main square, and consistently good food.
Kogel Mogel: www.kogel-mogel.pl
The name comes from a particularly luscious traditional Yiddish egg nog. So how’s this for a feast?: grilled pork ribs with plum sauce; crispy bacon; knuckle of pork; grilled juniper sausage; Polish white sausage; black pudding and turkey breast all served with garlic sauce; cranberry sauce; mustard; horseradish and side dishes of risotto of grits with spring onions; roasted potatoes with herbs; green salad with vinaigrette and fried cabbage – and all that was preceded by two sorts of herring; beetroot soup and a selection of stuffed dumplings!
You better like dumplings! The menu looks vast but it’s all variations on the pierogi theme – boiled or baked and stuffed with a near infinite choice of savoury or sweet fillings. If you really can’t face all those carbs, they also offer a selection of nice salads. It’s part of a nationwide chain.
Klub 97: www.97.com.pl
Piotrowska Street is one of Europe’s longest commercial throughfares. Popular with artists and intelligentsia, this atmospheric eaterie on the busiest shopping stretch has endlessly changing décor and a choice of rooms in which to dine. The food is Polish and good.
Hotel Patio: www.hotelpatio.pl
My compliments to the chef and servers who stayed late to accommodate my tardy arrival then gave me the best meal of my trip – showcasing succulent roast duck in a bitter cherry sauce, with braised red cabbage, Superb.
New, bright, airy and stylish modern restaurant on the banks of the broad River Oder. Not surprisingly, delicious fresh fish – from river, lake and sea – stars. Try the divine roast perch.
Karkczma Lwowska: www.lwowska.com.pl
Set on Market Square (watch out for the tiny bronze gnomes dotted around the area). Walk through the bar and on up the stairs to this quirky, bric-a-brac stuffed slice of old Poland,
Dripping, gherkins and heavy but delicious home-made bread came compliments of the chef, then it was on to soused herrings with a shot of vodka and a main of stuffed cabbage. They serve their own unique brew of beer here.
For further information go to www.poland.travel Roger St. Pierre’s fact-finding mission was organised by Polish Tourist Board, Polish National Tourist Office in London.