10 places to go in Poland
by Joyce B Majewska
SOMEONE once asked me, “Eh, why you want to go to Europe ah? It’s so old!”
God bless his soul, that was precisely why I wanted to go; there are so many beautiful remnants of past civilisations in Europe.
I wanted to travel far, see the palaces and castles and romanticize about knights in shining armour riding in on their horses, rescuing beautiful princesses and battling gigantic fire-breathing dragons (I blame this on fairy tales that I read in books and watched on TV).
I wanted more than to just gawk at modern marvels, I wanted to be awed by ancient buildings that withstood the test of time. I was curious about where the people lived, how they had lived, what they wore, and even what they ate, once upon a time.
Coincidentally, years down the road, I met and married my Polish husband which has led me to many interesting stays and travels in Europe, particularly Poland.
The following places in my list of top 10 places to go are in no particular order, but are simple descriptions of the place and what stood out for me:
1. Warsaw, or Warszawa (pronounced Var-sha-va) to the locals, is the capital city of Poland. At first glance it looks like a typical modern European city with skyscrapers, traffic jams, and people filling in the walkways and streets.
In the Old Town, especially, there are entertainers performing in the main square, endless shops, restaurants, bars, big and small monuments, horse-drawn carriages, museums, art galleries, graffiti, churches, (Poland is probably the only country in the world that still builds churches, when elsewhere churches have either been converted to museums, shops or houses) and palaces.
I had the chance to visit Wilanów Palace. Built at the end of the 17th century for Polish King John III Sobieski, the original architecture of the palace is stunning and very well preserved.
The palace interior boasts a luxurious design along with displays of furnishing and other items that belonged to the King and Queen.
Amazingly, the royal palace survived both world wars while 85% of Warsaw was devastated by bombs during WWII. The city almost literally rose from the ashes since then.
The Old Town is visually stimulating with rows of adjoining buildings, each painted in separate colours like yellow, green and red. The streets are paved with stone, so I advise wearing really comfortable shoes when you have a walk in the Old Town.
Pop into the antique shops and you can see really nice, genuine century-old furniture, silverware, books and paintings. It is no wonder that in 1980, Warsaw’s Old Town was added to the UNESCO’s World Heritage list.
To be able to rebuild and reconstruct the whole city after being levelled to the ground and make it a beautiful and vibrant city, just shows the citizens’ brilliant effort and tenacity.
2. Kraków (pronounced Kra-koof), this former Polish capital is a must-see for travelers.
It is a beautiful city that takes you back to the glorious days of the Renaissance era with it’s rich art and architectural designs. The main market square or Rynek Główny in Polish, is the largest medieval town square in Europe: shoppers’ heaven!
During my short visit to Kraków, Wawel Cathedral stood out for me, not only because it has an enormous bell (Royal Sigismund Bell named after Polish King Sigismund I) that requires 12 people to swing it, or the fact that it houses many religious arts and is the burial place of Polish Kings and their families, national heroes and numerous bishops, but because Fryderyk Franciszek Chopin’s heart was buried there.
Chopin was a composer and virtuoso pianist. He migrated to France when he was 20 but he never truly forgot Poland. When he died 19 years later, his body was buried in Paris but his heart was brought back to Warsaw and then buried at Wawel Cathedral in Kraków.
Chopin gave the poetic and literal meaning to ‘Home is where the heart is.’
3. Zakopane is a mountainous area located in the south of Poland, something to be cherished, as most parts of Poland is geographically flat.
There are numerous chapels, churches, hotels, hostels and homes in this area made out of wood or logs, which is uncommon in the cities asides from old dilapidated houses and ethnographic museums.
In the winter, there are plenty of outdoor activities such as skiing, snowboarding and sleigh rides. In the summer, enjoy the breathtaking views from the mountaintops either by going hiking on any of the countless trails or by riding in a cable car. There are other things to do as well, such as visiting the museums and castles, shopping at the local shops or markets, visiting farms and even milking cows for your own fresh glass of milk.
Another unique feature in Zakopane is that you can be in two countries at once by drifting on a wooden raft down the Dunajec river that borders Poland and Slovakia.
As we were embarking on this two-hour journey, we were entertained by folk musicians dressed in traditional highlander costumes. The oarsmen were dressed in their traditional attire as well and as they manouvered along the river, they related local stories of interesting tales and legends to us.
4. Malbork Castle is the biggest Gothic castle in Europe. It was built circa end of 13th and early 14th century by the Teutonic Knights.
There are actually three separate castles inside the layers of impregnable walls that make up the fortress. Malbork Castle was conferred a World Heritage Site in 1997.
Being in Malbork transports you back to the time where every man lived by his sword. I cannot imagine myself wearing massive armour, heavy helmet while balancing a huge shield in one hand and a heavy sword in the other.
The Knights would have had it worse with having to mount a horse. Not only did they have to master fighting skills such as fencing and jousting, they would have had to be skillful equestrians as well.
I think I would have enjoyed being in an important meeting with the Knights: whenever they held a meeting in the special room, an orchestra would perform in the adjoining room, filling the surrounding walls with music so that no one outside the meeting room could eavesdrop.
Another of my favourite areas in Malbork is a room situated at the top of the castle, away from the castle’s main areas. To get there, you have climb up a flight of stairs which then leads you through a long and narrow corridor.
At the end of the corridor, a wooden door opens to a big room: the first thing you see laid out on a table are cabbages, and behind that is a tiny cubicle with a wooden seat and a hole in it.
When you peer through the hole, you will be able to see the moat below that surrounds the castle…. Nope it’s not another window, but a medieval toilet, with cabbages for toilet paper. What a wonderful invention: a toilet as well as a defense system.
5. Toruń is a city situated on the northwestern side of Poland and it is situated by the Vistula River. It is a beautiful Gothic city that was spared from the bombs during WWII. In 1997, besides Malbork, Toruń was also designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The old town has an amazing view especially at night, when the night lights are reflected on the river. There are a variety of shops and restaurants, theatres, museums, university, planetarium and much more, all located within the old city.
It is the birthplace of the famous astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus who scientifically proved that the Earth revolved around the Sun, which is why there is a street, a mall, and a gingerbread factory named after Copernicus.
You can do the touristy thing and visit Copernicus’ home which has been converted into a museum. Toruń is also famous for its gingerbread or pierniki. My favourite is the chocolate-covered gingerbread cookies, but be sure to stop by the gingerbread museum to make your own inedible gingerbread to take home as a souvenir.
I finally managed to see a legendary dragon in Toruń, albeit a tiny ceramic one. The two-metre long dragon is a tribute to the alleged separate sightings of a flying dragon in Toruń in 1746. Accounts from missing documents described the dragon as having bird and reptile features.
6. Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum was initially built to contain political prisoners during WWII, later it was expanded and became the biggest concentration camp outside of Germany.
Most of the prisoners were Jews of different nationalities. The victims were driven to their deaths either by the gas chambers, starvation, disease or as the result of being subjected to medical experiments.
Visitors to the museum can see the barbed wire surrounding the camp, the prisoners’ poor conditioned living quarters, the indiscreet washrooms, the deceivingly harmless looking gas chambers, the pictures of nameless victims and their designated numbers, mountains of their belongings such as clothes, spectacles, shoes, etc.
Before visiting this museum I was very disconnected with the meaning of war as I am fortunate and blessed enough never to have witnessed wars or tribal battles firsthand unlike my headhunting forefathers.
It is unfortunate that Poland has to bear the history of Nazi cruelty, but after visiting this museum and seeing the evidence of brutalities and the consequences of war, I was reminded of how fragile life is and how we often take our peaceful life for granted.
Incidentally, you’re not allowed to take photographs in the memorial museum.
7. The Museum of the Mazovian Countryside in Sierpc. This outdoor museum in Sierpc (pronounced sherpts) covers more than 60 hectares of land and is made up of 11 farms modeled after various dwellings in Masovia in the 19th and early 20th century. It is equipped with cottages, barns, granaries, cowsheds, and pigsties.
There are livestock such as cows, goats, sheep, ducks and chickens roaming around the property, all fenced up of course. There are also straw houses to raise and keep bees for their honey. There is also an inn, oil – mill, windmill, barns, blacksmith workshop, a manor house, a tiny chapel and a wooden church.
Basically, the museum is just an excellent example of a self-sufficient village in the 19th and early 20th century. In one of the cottages, we can see a cobbler making leather shoes and in another cottage, a classroom exhibition.
You can sample fresh bread and cheese. My favourite feature in the museum is the outdoor fridge or ice house. That is something that we will never see in Malaysia’s sweltering heat.
8. Władysławowo (pronounced vwa-duh-swa-vovo) is a popular beach destination. This long and white sand beach is located in the north by the Baltic Sea. Visitors can go sailing, wind surfing and kite flying.
Children will definitely enjoy the mini amusement park by the beach which has a short train ride, inflatable slide, carousel and many more. A bigger amusement park is located in the town centre, not too far from the port, only several minutes walk from the busy beach.
There is also an obstacle course that is not for the faint of heart or those who suffer from acrophobia (fear of heights). The highest point is about six to eight metres high.
There are endless stalls selling bikinis and swimsuits of every colour, all cut out in different designs and patterns, towels, shorts, tee-shirts, sarongs, slippers, sandals, caps, hats, sunglasses, floats, buckets, spades, balls etc.
There are plenty of good restaurants and bars near the seaside. It is probably the only place in Poland I have found that serves seafood (meaning different kinds of fish), be it smoked fish, baked fish, fried fish, grilled fish, gelled fish or pickled fish.
Władysławowo is also famous for it’s Olympic Preparation Centre.
There are indoor and outdoor tennis courts, volleyball and football grounds. Overall, Władysławowo is an activity-packed venue for sports enthusiasts. To help accommodate the thousands of beachgoers in the summer, in addition to hotels, local residents offer rooms and suites for rent. It is a home away from home.
9. Biskupin is an archeological open-air museum. It is a fortified settlement on an island that dates back to more than 2,700 years, during the Bronze Age.
The 8-metre long breakwater, high fences, tall watch tower and the 13 lined cabins are all made out of logs.
I was pleasantly surprised to see the cabins’ layout because it was somewhat similar to our longhouses which consist of separate apartments or suites for different families under one long roof. In each family suite, there is a space for livestock to provide warmth during winter.
There are workshops in the cabin itself, showing us how they used to hunt, cook and sew. There are activities such as archery, horse riding, and avoiding swinging sand bags while walking on a plank, a lot of fun when you get knocked down!
Biskupin is considered to be the cradle of Polish civilisation and a national symbol of bracing against foreign invaders.
10. So we have seen the modern city, the mountains, the beach, the 18th and 19th century countryside, the medieval castle, the bronze age settlement, why not go even further back in time, to when there were dinosaurs? Dinosaur Park is interesting as well as educational for visitors, especially children.
There are alot of life-sized sculptures depicting different dinosaurs in what would have been their natural habitats with their respective wooden placards of the dinosaurs’names and their habits.
There is also a museum with dinosaur bones found in archaeological digs, and even an Ice Age display. The park has expanded in recent years, boasting an amusement park and a 5D cinema.
The best thing about it is that you pay a flat fee and you can go on as many rides as you want. I think I enjoyed the trip as much or even more than the kids!
“Did you get a lot for souvenirs in Poland?” a friend asked me after my trip. I acquired more than just souvenirs, I gained a wonderful experience.I got to see and visit ancient places, learned a different language, sampled many delicious Polish food, listened and danced to their folk music and made new friends.
Most importantly, I learned that despite the many hardships and difficult changes the Polish faced throughout their colourful history of war and battles, they remain religiously devoted and faithful, courageous and resilient. I greatly admire their dedication in preserving their old buildings, culture and traditions. Something that we Malaysians should aspire to do as well.