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Must see locations, events and places to travel and enjoy in Poland.
Must see locations, events and places to travel and enjoy in Poland.
To say Gdansk’s past was eventful would be understating it; even by Polish standards. If its locals were sportspeople, they’d be tug of war champions. For the 20th century in this port city was very much that. It was annexed as Danzig by the Allies in 1920 following the First World War. Continue reading
Fans of elk should head to Poland’s Biebrza Marshes — a vast tract of wetlands on the country’s eastern frontier. Responsible Travel offers tours of the reserve in winter — the best time to spot elk stomping the snowy ground, as well as gnawing beavers and paddling otters. By night, listen out for the howls of wolf packs (they’re also big fans of elk).
MAKE IT HAPPEN
A grand example of Baroque architecture, the original Royal Castle (Zamek Krolewski) was planned on the site of a Mazovian fortress when Zygmunt III Vasa decided to move Poland’s capital from Cracow to Warsaw in 1596. It was designed in the early-Baroque manner by the Italian architects Giovanni Trevano, Giacomo Rodondo, and Matteo Castelli between 1598 and 1619. Successive rulers remodeled the castle many times. Following its destruction in World War II, the castle was rebuilt between 1971 and 1984, and many of the original furnishings were returned. This massive undertaking was funded largely by donations from the Polish people.
The Royal Castle’s fascinating interior is the result of its dual role as a royal residence and as the seat of the Sejm (parliament). A tour of the castle visits lavish royal apartments as well as the Deputies’ Chamber and the Senate. Rooms have been meticulously reconstructed in the style of the 18th century, and many of the furnishings and objets d‘art are original to the castle. These include statues, paintings, and even fragments of woodwork and stucco that were rescued from the building and hidden during World War II. The Canaletto Room displays the 18th-century paintings of Warsaw by an Italian artist that were used as source material for the rebuilding of the castle.
Among the many permanent exhibitions in the castle, two galleries are of particular interest. The Gallery of Decorative Arts is a showcase for 17th-18th century ceramics, glass, furniture, textiles, bronzes, silverware, and jewelry. Around 200 pieces are on display, including an Etruscan vase saved from the original castle. In the Lanckoronski Gallery there are paintings from the former royal gallery of King Stanistaw August Poniatowski, donated by the Lanckoronski family in 1994. The collection includes works by Rembrandt, Teniers the Younger, and Anton von Maron.
Born in 1732, King Stanislaw August Poniatowski (r. 1764-95) was the son of the palatine of Mazovia. He spent his early life in St. Petersburg, where he was introduced to the future empress, Catherine the Great, who took him as her lover. Russia was eager to add Poland to its empire and, perhaps to this end, Catherine promised the Polish crown to Poniatowski. When he fell out of favor and was sent back to Warsaw, she engineered his election as king of Poland in 1764. He introduced economic reforms, promoted the arts and sciences, and presided over the adoption of the Constitution of May 3, 1791. But Poniatowski was unable to repel his mighty neighbors: by 1795 Poland had lost its statehood and the king was forced to abdicate.
Decorated in 16th-century style with colored marble and trompe l’oeil painting, this room also features 22 magnificent portraits of Polish kings by Marcello Bacciarelli.
This tower, 200 ft (60m) high, was built in 1619. It is crowned by a cupola with a spire . It is also known as the Clock Tower (Zegarowa), since a clock was installed in 1622.
Crown Princes‘ Rooms
Historical paintings by Jan Matejko are displayed in a gallery in these former royal apartments.
The Constitution of May 3 was formally adopted here in 1791. The coats of arms of all the administrative regions and territories of the Republic are depicted on the walls and a royal throne is also on show.
The walls of this room are decorated with 23 scenes of Warsaw by Bernardo Bellotto (1720-80), a Venetian painter who was known in Poland by the name of his famous uncle.
Great Assembly Hall
Decorated with 17 pairs of golden columns, the hall is one of the castle’s most elaborate rooms . It was used for state occasions, banquets and balls.
The finest piece in this beautiful room is the Neo-Classical sculpture of Chronos by Jakub Monaldi.
This second-floor gallery contains two paintings by Rembrandt – Portrait of a Young Woman and Scholar at his Desk.
King Stanislaw’s bedroom, dressing room and study were located here.
Apartment of Prince Stanislaw Poniatowski
The Constitution of May 3 was an experiment in democratic reform the first of its kind in Europe. Members of Poland’s parliament had to swear an oath of allegiance to it in St John’s Cathedral.
Early 1300s: The dukes of Mazovia build a fortress on the site of the Royal Castle.
1598: Construction begins on the Baroque addition.
1939-44: The Royal Castle is destroyed in World War II.
1980: The Old Town and castle become a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
1984: The restored Royal Castle opens to the public.
Resilient is the word that best describes Poland. The illustrious history of Poland is marred by instances of colonisation, siege and war, most notably, World War II, which saw the genocide of more than three million Polish Jews during the Holocaust. Post WWII, Poland struggled under Joseph Stalins communist rule and even martial law that lasted eight years before Poland freed itself for independence. The rebuilding of Poland’s identity after that was swift but paid off. Today, Poland fascinates with its diverse landscapes, strong Jewish history, and warmth and kindness in its people developed through surviving such adversities in life.
We travel to two capitals of Poland, with the first being Kraków, the former capital of Poland. Kraków is the second largest and one of the oldest cities in Poland and is situated along the Vistula River. Today, the quiet city is the centre for history and culture in Poland, offering a myriad of ancient attractions, museums and neighbourhoods that will require at least a few days of exploration to properly soak in.
We meet with our guide, Marta, bright and early at the Main Market Square. Here, she points out the Church of the Virgin Mary and gives us a crash course in Poland’s history, while teaching us how to identify the various architectural styles in the church – its mainly gothic but baroque elements hastily thrown together give it an overwhelmingly majestic but chaotic order so favoured by the Polish of that era. We step back outside and wait for the bugle player to play his tune to mark the new hour.
His ditty is cut awkwardly near the end – an homage to a mythical trumpeter who was shot in the neck while warning the city of invaders. Elsewhere in the Main Market Square, we visit the Sukiennice that Marta claims is the oldest shopping mall in existence. The medieval era “mall” is a sheltered space where rows of shops peddle touristy souvenirs up and down its aisles. This is one of the best places to pick up amber, naturally fossilised tree resin that Poland is extremely well known for, as the shop owners are required to provide government-approved certificates with each purchase.
SEE A CONCERT IN SZCZECIN
The new philharmonic building in Szczecin is absolutely stunning and is the place to watch a musical performance. With a glass exterior, this modern building is a contrast to its more traditional surroundings. Inside, the Szczecin Philharmonic building is a wide, open, white, minimalist space complemented by skylights letting in beautiful natural light.
STAND AT TWILIGHT AT THE MAIN SQUARE IN ZAMOSC
Zamosc is a renaissance city in the south east part of the country. It is named after Jan Zamoyski, one of the wealthiest and the most enlightened magnate of 16th century Poland. He realised the importance of a defensible place near the Ukrainian border, and commissioned the Italian architect Bernardo Morando to work with him on a project. The result was the remarkable city with the merchant houses, colonnaded arcades and the Main Market Square, one of the best city squares in Europe.
SPEND A NIGHT IN A SALT MINE SPA
The Royal Salt Mines in Wieliczka is one of the first places in the world to be included in the UNESCO World Heritage list. It’s got these weird sculptures carved in salt, chapels that were made for the salt miners, and spa treatments and therapies in saline chambers —you can even spend a night in one. You can take a boat ride in the underground lake here. They have a really unusual music, dance and performance festival in the summer called the World Art Underground. The mine also hosts weddings, movie shoots, etc.
WITNESS THE CLASSIC GOLDEN POLISH AUTUMN
The Tatras in Poland are home to the rare and protected Edelweiss—summer fields of golden wheat and barley divided by rows of poppy. In autumn, they have something called The Golden Polish Autumn—the colours of the trees, the scent of falling leaves, and sunlight create a rare picture.
STAND AMIDST HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS OF BUTTERFLIES
The butterflies in Pieniny are a spectacular sight. Hundreds of thousands of them can be seen here during spring-summer, swirling in clouds of colours, patterns, and geometry.
Oskar Schindler’s Factory
This impressive museum covers the Nazi occupation of Kraków in WWII. It’s housed in the former enamel factory of Oskar Schindler, the industrialist who famously saved the lives of members of his Jewish labour force during the Holocaust. Interactive exhibits tell the city’s moving story.
Museum of Pharmacy
The Jagiellonian University Medical School’s Museum of Pharmacy is one of the largest museums of its kind in Europe and arguably the best. Accommodated in a beautiful historic townhouse worth the visit alone, it features a 22,000-piece collection, including old lab equipment, rare medical instruments and recreations of vintage pharmacy interiors.
From the northern end of the Cloth Hall you can enter this fascinating attraction beneath Kraków’s central market square: an underground route through medieval stalls and other long-forgotten chambers. The whole experience is enhanced by holograms and audiovisual wizardry. It’s worth pre-booking an entry time at a local tourist office.
As Poland’s political and cultural heart in the 16th century, Wawel Castle is a national symbol. Within the Italian-inspired palace are the impressive State Rooms and Royal Private Apartments. There’s also a display of Leonardo da Vinci’s captivating painting, Lady with an Ermine.
Wieliczka Salt Mine
Some nine miles southeast of Kraków, the town of Wieliczka (vyeh-leech-kah) is famous for its deep salt mine. It’s an eerie world of pits and chambers, and much within its depths has been carved by hand from salt blocks, including chapels with chandeliers, altarpieces and figures; the complex even contains underground lakes.
The oldest-surviving university building in Poland is one of the best examples of 15th-century Gothic architecture in the city, with a magnificent arcaded courtyard. Visit is by guided tour only (every 20 minutes). You’ll see astronomical instruments used by Copernicus and a fascinating alchemy room.
Head fort his below-ground microbrewery with its cavernous drinking hall and restaurant serving meaty dishes. The amber fluid is brewed on the spot to an old Austro-Hungarian recipe, then poured straight from the tanks into patrons’ glasses. Beware the CK Dunkel brew, which is 7% alcohol.
For coffee and cake, try this genteel haven hidden around a bend in a street just north of the Old Town’s main square. Its cosy rooms are cluttered with lace-covered candle-lit tables, and a quirky collection of wooden figurines featuring spiritual or folkloric scenes. It’s also a great choice for breakfasts and brunches.
A favourite haunt of writers and artists back in the day, this is the eaterie that time forgot, with its elaborate old-fashioned décor, featuring chandeliers, lace tablecloths, age-worn carpets and sepia portraits. The menu includes a range of Polish dishes, including a very good zurek staropolski – sour barley soup with white sausage.
BA, easyJet, Jet2 and Ryanair fly to Kraków from UK airports including Belfast, Birmingham, Edinburgh, Heathrow, Manchester and Stansted. Kraków’s John Paul II International Airport is located eight miles west of the centre. A regular train service runs to Kraków Głowny station. A taxi to the city centre should cost about £14. Most attractions are in the Old Town or within easy walking distance from there, so you may not need the efficient network of buses or trams very often. The Kraków Card offers free use of public transport as well as entry to many museums.
WHERE TO STAY
Hotel Alef is an affordable place within the shadow of Wawel Hill. It offers 35 charming rooms, furnished with antiques and paintings, plus there’s a rustic restaurant.
White and cream seem to be the colours of choice at U Pana Cogito, a friendly 14-room hotel in a lovely mansion and annexe, across the river southwest of the centre.
Elegance, and, well, grandeur, are all embodied in the 19th-century Grand Hotel. The 64 rooms and suites feature high ceilings and shiny hardwood floors, and many have antique furnishings and fine artwork and tapestries.
The King of Pretzels
Start the winter’s morning with the hefty local take on pretzels or bagels:
Obwarzanek (ob-va-zhan-ek) is a street snack that is made by entwining two strands of dough before baking, ending up somewhat larger and denser than the average German pretzel.
Traditionally encrusted with poppy seeds, sesame seeds or salt, obwarzanki may have been baked as far back as the 14th century. Cracovians still happily purchase them in large numbers as a quick bite on the way to work or study – in fact 150,000 are baked everyday.
Note that they’re better in the morning than the afternoon, a promising sign perhaps that they contain little in the way of artificial preservatives. Kraków-style obwarzanki won EU protected product status in 2010.
Frédéric Chopin was born to a French father and Polish mother in this tiny village west of Warsaw in 1810. He lived in Poland for his first twenty years, acquiring a reputation mostly as a pianist before leaving for Paris and international fame.
Although he was buried in Paris, music lovers find the journey to his Polish birthplace (now a museum) and the shady park that surrounds it a poignant pilgrimage. Schedule your day trip from Warsaw for a summer Sunday morning beginning in May for concerts by virtuoso pianists who perform in the parlor where Chopin created his early waltzes, polonaises, mazurkas, and nocturnes. The rapt audience is seated on the terrace in front of the house. With the strains of Chopin still in the air, head for Kampinos National Park.
The well-marked green trail originates in the town of Zelazowa Wola and makes its way through thick forests and flower-strewn meadows – a setting that most likely fueled Chopin’s creative fires. If you choose not to leave the urban confines of Warsaw, check the schedule of summer Chopin concerts that take place in the city’s wonderful Park Lazienki near the impressive Frédéric Chopin Memorial, unveiled in 1926.
The majestic complex of Gothic and Renaissance buildings that make up Wawel Hill – the Royal Palace and Cathedral – preside over the city from a high rocky hill above the Vistula River. This was the Polish royal residence for more than 500 years, until the end of the 16th century, when Warsaw became Poland’s capital.
Wawel Hill is a symbol of the Polish kingdom: though it was ransacked by the Nazis when they used it as their local headquarters during WWII, room after room is still filled with rare, enormous tapestries (the largest collection of its kind in Europe), gilded and painted ceiling scenes, and lavish Baroque furniture. You’ll likely be surrounded by groups of reverent Polish schoolchildren being instructed about their glorious past, when Kraków – totius Poloniae urbs celeberrima, “the most celebrated Polish city” – was the envy of Europe.
The famous 1364 cathedral, called “the sanctuary of the nation,” was the seat formerly held by Archbishop Karol Wojtyla from 1963 until his election as Pope John Paul II in 1978. For centuries the Polish kings were crowned and buried here; heroes and martyrs were also entombed here, amid its endless chapels and artworks.
Unlike Warsaw, Kraków was spared destruction during WWII and its grand history and remarkable concentration of architecture are evident everywhere. From the castle (and, particularly, the cathedral’s Sigismund Tower) you can see much of the Old Town (Stare Miasto), about 4 square miles of preserved streets and centuries-old buildings and monuments that are some of Europe’s most graceful and authentic.
Kraków remained in a dismal Rip Van Winkle sleep during forty-four years of Communism. When it awoke in the early 1900s, a new vitality quickly resuscitated its core, the Rynek Glowny, the largest and most authentic medieval market square on the continent.
All roads lead to it, and all of Kraków sooner or later passes, shops, or congregates here. Ringed by Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque facades that belie its 1257 origin, the center is dominated by the Sukiennice, an arcaded pale yellow “cloth hall” (a clearinghouse and marketplace for textiles) built in the 14th century and updated during the Renaissance. It still serves as a commercial hub, its bottom floor taken over by stalls selling kitsch items relating to Pope John Paul II (once archbishop of Kraków), folk art, and Eastern European crafts.
In the square’s northeast corner is St. Mary’s, one of the most magnificent Gothic churches in Europe, founded in 1222 and rebuilt in 1355. Every Polish child knows the story behind the bell tower’s trumpeteer, who sounds each hour with a simple broken-off solo, reenacting the fate of the 13th-century hero who received an arrow in his throat mid-note while warning of a Tatar invasion.
Within Old Town’s traffic-free district and just two blocks from the square is arguably the city’s finest historical hotel, the Hotel Francuski, first opened in 1912. Though fully refurbished, it still offers old-world charm and original Art Nouveau atmosphere and decor.
Also on the square is the historic restaurant Wierzvnek, the best place to enjoy courtly European service and traditional Polish specialties. Said to be the oldest operating restaurant in all of Europe, its history goes back to 1364, when innkeeper Mikolaj Wierzynek created a banquet served on gold and silver plates for the guests of King Casimir the Great, including Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV.
Wierzynek restaurant has hosted every visiting head of state ever since. Experience 500 years of history at the elegant café downstairs or the venerable upstairs salon, where seasonal game, mountain trout, and mushroom-sauced delights are served amid decorative reminders of the establishment’s storied past.