Poland – I was there, but should I have gone?

The title of this post is a play on words from the intro line to one of my favourite travel shows (Travel Man by Richard Ayoade). But the answer in two words is HELL YES! Poland is awesome. I really didn’t have high expectations of the place to start with. I’d wanted to visit Auschwitz so planned some time in Poland to achieve that goal and as planning progressed slowly started to realise that there is actually an amazing mount of things to see and do. Krakow alone has three world heritage sites within 60km of the city centre (the old town centre itself is listed, and I can see why). Bike tours, food & drink tours, museums, national parks, salt mines, and architecture galore.

Incidentally Poland has recently passed a law that it’s a criminal offence to refer to Auschwitz as a “Polish Death Camp”, they want to ensure the world knows they had nothing to do with it. Given Poland was a very welcoming place for Jewish people before 1939 and they lost something like 20% of their population during the war so they are understandably touchy about it. The fact they lie between Germany and Russia does weigh heavily on their national psyche.

Most things are well signed in English and you can usually find someone who speaks English to help you. Quite often announcements are both in Polish and English. The Krakow Bus terminal seems to be a exception there but I was there before 6am. My tip, screw the bus and take an Uber, I’ve always hated busses anyway.

One other thing, don’t refer to Poland as being in “Eastern Europe” they are mildly offended by that. They are in “Central Europe”.

I kind of initially thought Poland might be some sort of post communist rust belt industrial wasteland but it’s definitely not. It super clean, has very modern infrastructure (at least in the large cities), motorways, high speed trains, shopping malls etc etc. High speed trains is something we haven’t managed to do at home.  Lots of towns around Krakow are dotted with some beautiful looking houses, as nice as anything I’ve seen in the little towns in Italy and France. Krakow has quite a large IT focus, with highly educated labor that is cheaper than Western Europe and much closer than India. In my mind 1990 was still only 5 years ago, but it close to 30 so a full generation of development has occurred and Poland is keen to catch up to Western Europe. The EU is spending a fortune on Infrastructure there.

It’s also amazing value. Most dinners cost me less than $15 including alcohol. Accomodation in a modern renovated apartment (all mod cons) in a traditional building right in the old town, seconds from all the action was $A35 a night. Uber we all over town for about $5-6 a ride

Had to kick myself once or twice looking around at restaurants for food, got used to paying 20 zloty for a main meal and would see some places for 45 and think wow that’s a bit expensive then remember that 45zloty is about $A16.50 which is still a bargin for food compared to Sydney. And this is in the main tourist hotspot. I’m sure a few streets away from the main square it will be even cheaper

You can live like kings on Australian wages here. Poland is off the beaten track a little for Australians. Not quite the pull of Spain, Italy, France, Netherlands although I did bump into a few of us. On my last day the couple sitting next to me were from Melbourne and coming back from dinner the couple in the apartment below me were from Brisbane. Although most of the Aussies I spoke to had some sort of ancestral link to Poland, not many of us were just there just because they could be.

There is a stack of things I just didn’t get the time to do, I was there for 4 full days, I think you would need closer to a full 7 or even two weeks to fully appreciate it. I think Poland is punching well below its weight in the tourist scene. It’s amazing but is overshadowed by the known big hitters. Krakow is apparently compared to Prague all the time, I’ll have to wait and see until I hit Prague in a few weeks time.

It’s easy to get to, only a 2hr flight from London and well served by trains from Berlin and Prague. I’m already thinking about returning in 2019….

I should also add of course that I met some fantastic people and made some new friends. I’ll forever treasure the experience of talking to a Polish Nanna with Google Translate on the train ride from Warsaw to Krakow and the stories of her family, cooking and mushroom picking she shared with me.

Visit it before too many of us discover it and the prices find equilibrium with Western Europe. Excluding the airfares, In Poland you can have a European Holiday for the price of Asia

A few reminders of the beauty in Krakow.

Krakow Country Bike Tour

It’s been such a wet and horrible day here in Krakow that I came very close to cancelling this bike tour. I remembered though that the primary reason I was here in Europe was to do some bike tours since I love them so much and it wasn’t cold (20c) so getting a little wet was not going to faze me. After 3 days and 20,000km I wasn’t chucking it in that easily.

Very glad I didn’t. Even though I got completely soaked to the bone, it didn’t rain the entire ride and we dried out a bit from time to time. We were rewarded with the most serene and dreamy forest ride beyond my wildest dreams it was just beautiful. If it had been dry it wouldn’t have looked anywhere near as amazing.

We stopped at a monastery at the half way point where we had coffee. I had two, a standard machine made coffee (average) plus a fantastic french press coffee, the beans taken from an Ethiopian monastery run plantation. Way way better than I was expecting.

Thanks Mike, this was a great tour ! – You can book this same tour here at Cruising Krakow

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If you have time, watch the video :-

Climbing Mound Kosciuszko 

Today I climbed Mound Kosciuszko. Note, this is not a spelling mistake, and I’m not in the Australian Snowfields. I shit you not peeps, there is a big pile of dirt here in Krakow called “Kosciuszko Mound”. The Poles constructed it in 1823 to honour Tadeusz Kościuszko. Its got a fort around it, a path all the way to the “summit” and a great view from the top (on a nice day at least). Considering its just a big dirt mound, its pretty cool. The Poles are very proud of their mound of dirt and its looked after very well.

When Strzelecki “discoverd” Mt. Kosciusko, (well, we all know it wasn’t actually lost, just never climbed by a European before the Strez did it). he thought it looked like the mound in Poland, and named it thus. I think really it was a subtle way of just taking the piss out of our “mountain”, as in European terms its not much more than a hill. Mt. Blanc in France is twice the height. I have new respect for Strzelecki !

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kościuszko_Mound

Another interesting fact, it was later discovered there was a Mountain slight higher than Mount Kos in Australia (Mount Townsend). In a total “can’t be arsed” move, rather than update all the documentation that stated Mt Kos was the second highest mountain, and have a boring as batshit named mountain as our highest peak, the government just swapped the mountain names around.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mount_Townsend

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I had actually planned and booked a mountain bike ride up in the Ojcow National Park however that was cancelled by the tour company last week. In hindsight this was a blessing in disguise as the weather here today is terrible.

I got an Uber from the central of Krakow to here, cost a grand total of $4. On the way I noticed we drove past the Krakow Branch of the Polish National Museum. They had ain interesting looking display of “Polish Design since 1989”. So once I’d finished at the mound I took another Uber back to the museum. Entry was $6.

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Some of the items on display. Its pretty obvious why the safety scissors will never catch on… A lot of stuff here was hands on. Great way to spend an hour or so on a horrible wet day. They even had a coffee pot !

After the visit here it was a short 15 minute walk back to the main square of Krakow.

 

Above and Below the Square

I didn’t have any tours booked in the afternoon, so decided I’d spend the afternoon exploring around the main square of Krakow, which apparently is the largest central town square in Europe. Smack in the centre is the old Cloth hall which has a few bars and shops around the outside and on the inside is lined with trinket and souvenir stalls.

I’d been looking at a few foods for sale that are native to Poland, and high on the list was Obwarzanek Krakowski which is a bit like a cross between a large pretzel and a bagel. I had a salted sesame one. Delicious!

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The other item was a Pączki (Polish Donut) which of course looks like its loaded with calories, but I don’t think they count when you are on holidays, so I decided take one of these back to the apartment to try later. I can confirm it was utterly delicious and if you come to Krakow you must try one. This one had a “fruit of the forest” jam on the inside.

I wandered into the Cloth Hall and picked up a couple of little light things. Krakow like to say that this Cloth Hall was the first shopping mall every invented. Its very orderly, wasn’t too crowded and everyone selling things there spoke English.

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Right underneath the main square is this massive underground display called Rynek Underground. A number of items were discovered when digging on the main square, so the government took the bold decision to excavate the entire square down a few meters to see what else they could find. They found stacks of artefacts and building remains and its all on display right under your feet on the main square. Surprisingly its not well advertised at all. If I hadn’t see it on Atlas Obscura and been told about it, I could have visited Krakow and completely missed it. The entry is on the side of the Cloth Hall on the corner closest to Florinska street. To get a ticket you have to purchase one from the ticket office on the opposite side of the Cloth Hall. This ticket office tells tickets to other attractions as well. Below is a photo of the entrance.

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Here a few photos of what it looks like underground. Its massive, and its all hidden. You would never know this is right under the main square. It also has some funky looking bars under here. On a cold night this would be a fantastic place to hang out with friends.

 

Here are some photos of the square when it was being excavated for the archeological dig in 2005.

Remains of an old road, the foundations holding up the Cloth Hall and one of the funky lounge areas of the bar. Not sure you can get to the bar without purchasing museum entry, but as its only AUD$6 thats not a drama.

Later in the evening I wasn’t really hungry (re: Donut and Obwarzanek) I’d eaten earlier and had no inspiration for dinner and didn’t really feel like siting in a restaurant so thought I’d see if there were any take out options. Just wandering past the square a little I stumbled upon a street market, so got some dumplings and a steak. Fantastic !

After dinner wandered up to the Florianska gate, the only fully intact section of the old fortification wall around the old town in Krakow. Photo on the left is the main square, on the right the gate.