Being the largest country in Central Europe, Poland is a cornerstone country that begs to be explored by those backpacking through this part of the continent. For over 1,000 years, Poland has maintained a unique cultural and national identity due to its policy of openness to other religions and cultures during the 14th to 16th centuries, yet it has also picked up characteristics from its neighbours, having been occupied by at times by the Germanic nations to the west, and the Slavic/Russian empires to the east.
All of this has given rise to a country filled with medieval architectural styles, and while a portion of this heritage suffered damage during the World Wars of the 20th century, much of it escaped bombardment, or has been lovingly restored to its former glory. The fact that Poland has rebounded to become a vibrant nation in the present is nothing less than impressive, as the Second World War was not kind to this territory, as 90% of its three million Jews were wiped out, and as a whole, 20% of Poland’s population were murdered or killed during the war, an unimaginable loss of human life that any nation would struggle to come back from.
But come back they have, all while having to endure being pinned under the iron fist of the Soviets for 40+ years following the ending of hostilities. Today, Poland offers charming city squares where one can enjoy a cheap pint of beer while watching the newly affluent city folk stroll by, while those looking for a countryside escape will find plenty of peaceful farmland, serene forests, and towering mountains to explore.
If you’re looking for an inspiring example of a nation coming back from centuries of being oppressed and beaten down by enemies, only to end up a strong, sovereign and beautiful country in the present day, then Poland should occupy a prime position in your Euro trip itinerary.
Currency: Polish Złoty
What To Do
Of all the urban areas to explore in Poland, make sure that you make time for Krakow, as its main city square and the surrounding old town has been enrolled as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for the density of cultural attractions that it contains within its borders. The sheer volume of castles, palaces, defensive walls, museums, squares, churches and other cultural attractions is so great, that one could spend a week here and still fail at seeing all that this place has to offer. If you are in a rush, we recommend checking out Wawel Castle (considered to be a national treasure by Poles), Rynek Glowny (the largest medieval era marketplace/square in the world), andPałac Biskupow Krakowskich (the home of Pope John Paul II). While there is much more to experience in Krakow than the three previously mentioned attractions, this will give you the biggest payoff for your time if it is at a premium during your trip to Poland.
Moving just outside Krakow’s city limits, the UNESCO-recognized Wieliczka salt mineshould be your next stop. Having churned out table salt for centuries, this facility opened in the 1400’s, and only ceased operations in 2007, producing the world famous seasoning for almost 600 years. This place is of interest to more than just industry geeks, as it contains a wide variety of sculptures carved over the ages, in addition to chapels and an entire cathedral, all hewn from the salt rock by miners that also signed their paycheques. A wellness centre is also contained within the former mine, so those seeking a little TLC at this point in their travels will be accommodated nicely here.
Moving north to the capital of Warsaw, there are many attractions here that will keep the dedicated cultural traveller occupied, but in your scurrying about, do ensure that you tour the Royal Castle. Being home to Polish kings and queens during the days of the monarchy, Royal Castle also had its fair share of devastation wreaked upon it, owing to incursions from the Germans, Swedish, and Russians throughout history.
Every time it had been razed though, the Poles set to work rebuilding it anew, and today, it stands in defiance to the long history of foreign aggressors that attempted to subjugate the Polish nation and its cultural identity. Of note to the modern day visitor is the huge 60 metre high clock tower, and its exquisite art collection, to say nothing of the opulent rooms contained within.
Not all of the historical sites in Poland are bright and cheery, as the infamous Auschwitz concentration camp lies within Polish borders. Founded by the Nazis in the Second World War, it served as the end of the line for much of Poland’s and Europe’s Jewish population, as it was where perpetuated the evil objectives of the Final Solution, executing millions of innocent men, women and children in pursuit of the Nazi’s “ideal society”.
Today, the barracks, one gas chamber that the Nazis didn’t have time to dismantle before fleeing the advancing Soviet army, and a pond where the ashes of the slaughtered were dumped are among the sobering remainders of one of the darkest places on the planet ever to exist. A film in the main building will set the tone for your sombre visit here, but be advised that the imagery shown is far too graphic for children.
Connecting with nature may be the antidote you need to cheer yourself back up after visiting Auschwitz. A great place to start would be Bialowieza National Park, as it contains the last remains of a grand forest that used to cover the entirety of Europe before organized civilization over a thousand years ago began its eventual destruction. As a result of this last untouched tract of woodland, the European Bison have remained intact in what little remains of their traditional habitat. The herd here numbers about 800, and they graze, rest and hide amidst many virgin stands of trees that manage to dwarf them, as many of these old stalwarts stand well over 100 feet high, and boast a circumference of over seven metres in the largest cases.
Those seeking a mountain getaway will want to seek out the High Tatras, which located close to Poland’s border with Slovakia. Two places within the Polish portion of the Tatras that warrant attention include Rysy, which is the highest peak that can be scrambled by travelers without the aid of a mountain guide. Experienced climbers will love this area though, as it grants abundant opportunities to scale its many limestone walls.
Lovers of lakes should spend time at Morskie Oko, as it is a deeply coloured lake that is a two hour horse cart ride from the closest road. Despite this, it is well visited in summer time, but traveling in the shoulder season will allow you to enjoy the alpine serenity of your surroundings to a greater effect … just be sure to bring an umbrella, as rain is a frequent occurrence here during the warmer months of the year!
What To Eat
A Polish meal will often begin with Flaki, a tripe soup made from the stomach of cows. While this may seem unsettling to some, and it is a bit of an acquired taste for the uninitiated, it is a widely accepted starter through much of the country. Along with the tripe, other cuts of beef, carrots, and various spices are employed in bringing this distinctive soup to life.
A common main course within Poland, but little known elsewhere in the world, Bigos is a meat and cabbage stew that is also commonly known as hunter’s stew. White cabbage, sauerkraut, various meats/sausages, honey, tomatoes and mushrooms comprise the dish, whose richness has been rhapsodized through history by Polish writers, and so much is made, that some is kept after, and more ingredients are added in subsequent weeks, giving the nickname, “the perpetual stew”.
While Poles love their sweets, perhaps no pastry is as widely celebrated as Paczki is. Most commonly prepared and consumed on Shrove Tuesday (the day before Lent), this glazed and jelly-filled doughnut isn’t just enjoyed in Poland, but in many expatriate communities throughout the world as well on this day. The secret ingredient when preparing the dough? Just a hint of grain alcohol to defend against oil penetrating deep into the dough during the frying process, granting the Paczki its characteristic taste and mouth feel.