Country Guide to Poland

Gdansk

Medieval core of Gdansk

OVERVIEW

When I mention in passing conversation that I have travelled to Poland, I often see raised eyebrows and field curious questions. For most Americans, and even Western Europeans, Poland is a country of unbearable pain and suffering thanks to a turbulent history of war, occupation, and Communism. Poles must never smile, for they have nothing to smile about as they labor long hours in factories, still bearing the weight of 50 years of Communist oppression.

This is a completely false image of a beautiful country full of hard-working, stalwart people who have indeed experienced hardship through two world wars and decades behind the Iron Curtain, but still find reasons to laugh and smile. I came to Poland bracing for a culture shock, but it was not a culture shock of a depressed, gray country, but of a country nurturing medieval gems and a lively capital city, educated young people bursting with energy, and older Poles breaking into a genuine smile when I stumbled over a Polish greeting. Sure, Poland has its fair share of gritty industrial towns, but get out into the countryside and you will discover the beauty of her rolling farmlands dotted with medieval castles and churches, the surprisingly hospitable white sands of the Baltic Sea in summer, and the last refuge of European bison in the Białowieski National Park.

Poland has given the world to a surprising amount of culture and knowledge, as locals will enthusiastically remind you. She is birthplace to astronomer Copernicus, composer Fryderyk Chopin, whose heart literally resides in Warsaw, Nobel Prize winner Marie Skłodowska Curie, best known for helping her husband discover radioactivity, and Karol Wojtyła, known to the world as Pope John Paul II. Share a beer with the locals, wander the medieval streets of Krakow, or visit the birthplace of Solidarity and you will find a place for the Polish people in your heart. They are a resolute people, having endured a tragic and chaotic 20th century, and take pride in their heritage as once being one of Europe’s most powerful kingdoms.

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HISTORY

Much of what you probably know of Poland is tragic – gobbled up continuously by its powerful neighbors Germany and Russia. The 20th century has been especially hard on Poland, with Germany invading Poland to start World War II, the Nazis sending the majority of the country’s Jewish population to Auschwitz, and the Soviets installing a Communist government that lasted until 1989. However, while Poland’s history has always been turbulent, people here take pride in her Golden Age, when Poland was a powerful kingdom, a period in history most Americans are completely unaware of.

Malbork Castle

In the Middle Ages, Poland joined with neighboring Lithuania in 1386 to become one of Europe’s strongest kingdoms. In many ways, the Polish kingdom was ahead of its time, allowing more religious tolerance within its borders than the rest of Europe and attracting many of Europe’s Jews eager to escape rampant anti-Semitism. Poland’s Golden Age occurred at the same time Michelangelo was painting the Sistine Chapel in Rome, allowing musicians, artists, scientists and philosophers to flourish, including Copernicus, who not only was born in northern Poland, but attended the prestigious Jagiellonian University in Krakow. Copernicus is best known for his work in astronomy, arguing that the Earth was in a heliocentric universe, in which the Earth revolved around the sun. It was a heretical idea at the time when the Catholic Church believed everything revolved around the Earth.

Sadly, this Golden Age in Poland did not last and after a number of wars, plagues, and famines, Poland’s neighbors began to carve up chunks of her kingdom From 1772 to 1795, Sweden, Prussia, Austria, and Russia all ganged up on Poland and partitioned the kingdom. Poland ceased to exist. However, during the years of occupation, the Poles continued to cling to their national identity, taking immense pride in their history and rebelling often against whoever happened to be the occupying force.

With the end of World War I, Poland suddenly came back to life as her own nation-state. As the Allies discussed and debated the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, US President Woodrow Wilson advocated for the self-determination of nations, including Poland. However, it was not smooth-sailing for a nation so long divided under various foreign rulers. Unstable government allowed Marshal Józef Piłsudski to stage a military coup in 1926. He is a controversial figure – loved by the Poles as a symbol of Polish independence and loathed by the Lithuanians and others for annexing their land.

Auschwitz

For most Americans, what we know of Poland is from her struggle under Nazi occupation during World War II and Soviet control as part of the Communist bloc of Eastern Europe. In 1939, as part of a secret pact, Germany and Soviet Russia attacked Poland, sparking the beginning of World War II. Poland emerged from the war completely devastated – her cities smashed by bombs and intense city fighting, her people terrorized by the Gestapo and the trains carrying millions of Poland’s Jewish population to Auschwitz, and the Soviets firmly in control of the country by 1945. By all estimates, at the end of the war, 1 in 6 Poles were dead.

Life continued under Communism in the Soviet sphere of influence for decades of suppressed civil rights and stunted economic growth as the local Communist government, squarely under the thumb of the Soviets, focused on mass industrialism to the detriment of the living standards of the population. The legacy of Communism in Poland is one of shortages, soaring food prices, censorship, and pollution. As they had throughout their long history of occupation, the Polish people periodically protested and resisted, most famously in 1956 when workers in Poznań rioted during a food shortage, leading to clashes with the Polish army and over 100 dead.

Solidarity's 21 Points

The beginning of the end of Communism in Eastern Europe fittingly started in Poland, in the shipyards of the Baltic city Gdansk in 1980. Under the leadership of Lech Wałesa, the Solidarity movement spread throughout the country – at one point 1 in 4 Poles were members before the group was outlawed by the government and pushed underground. Even hometown hero Pope John Paul II, once archbishop of Krakow, got involved, publically condemning the heavy-hand of Communism. After a decade of resistance and strikes within, and international pressure from outside, the Communist government crumbled in 1990. Poland held her first free election in decades, electing the beloved Lech Wałesa as her first President.

The transition for Poland from Communism to joining the European Union in 2004 has not been easy. She has experienced upheaval as Poland transitions to a free-market society. Poverty, unemployment and low wages have been chronic. However, Poland has weathered the recent recession better than other European countries, having mostly avoided the risky banking practices that have plagued Greece, Ireland, Iceland, and even Britain.

PRACTICAL INFORMATION

Currency – złoty. Check a currency converter for the latest exchange rates. Poland may switch to the euro in upcoming years.

Government – Republic, with a democratically elected President and a Prime Minister appointed by the President and approved by the Sejm. Parliament consists of two houses – the Sejm and Senat.

Population – (2009) ~ 38.5 million

Language – Polish, a Slavic language

Krakow's Main Market Square - a great place for a picnic

Polish Food & Drink

While markets carry a variety of fruits and vegetables, don’t expect a varied dining out experience. The emphasis in Polish cooking tends to be on meats, sausage, and potatoes. Produce often comes in the form of cabbage dishes, especially sauerkraut, which is extremely good for you, but I grew tired of if after awhile. To mix it up, balance restaurant meals with self-tailored picnics you assembly yourself at the same grocery stores the locals shop at. Here you will find the fruits, such as apples and bananas, as well as a huge assortment of freshly baked breads, cheeses, and drinkable yogurts. Take your picnic to a scenic park or whip up pasta in a hostel kitchen paired with a fruit salad for a healthy change of pace.

Pierogi

Make sure to try a traditional specialty called pierogi. I fell in love with these delectable little dumplings, filled with a wide variety of meats, cheese, and fruits. Be adventurous and sample combinations. I am especially fond of freshly cooked pierogi stuffed with creamy cheeses. These dishes are usually cheap, a great budget option.

Another local delicacy is barszcz, a Polish beet soup known in Russia as borscht. I was hesitant to try the smooth red soup, as a homemade borscht nightmare in my childhood had scarred me, but the Polish specialty is fabulous – smooth, tasty, and comforting on a blustery autumn day.

A night on the town is extremely inexpensive by American standards. Find a cozy pub and the local brews on tap will typically run you only 7 to 8 złotys for a half liter, about $2 US. To put this in perspective, a half liter is twice the size of one beer served in American bars. Popular Polish beers on tap are Żywiec and Okocim. If you want to amuse the locals, try to pronounce Żywiec – it’s surprisingly difficult.

Just like in most of Europe, you will need to ask for the bill, as the wait staff will assume you are spending a leisurely evening out. It is considered rude for your waiter to drop off the bill unasked. As credit card fraud can still be a problem in much of Eastern Europe, I always pay for my meals with cash. Tipping can be confusing for us Americans – many locals do not tip, although more touristy places expect 8-10%. When in doubt, I tip 10%. Always check your bill for a service charge – if it is included, you do not need to tip.

When looking for good food at great prices, always follow the locals. This can be hard to do in touristy Krakow, but elsewhere I look for places without English menus. If an establishment advertises they have English menus and you’re in a touristy location, walk past – they more than likely serve average food at higher prices.

Milk bar in Krakow

A fantastic deal for budget travelers, a local institution called a Bar Mleczny (or “milk bar”) is worth trying for filling, tasty food. Milk bars are holdovers from Communism, when the state funded inexpensive cafeterias for the local workers. These establishments are a great way to try Polish food without spending a lot. Expect to spend around $5 for your entire meal.

To navigate the milk bar, be prepared to encounter a monolingual staff that only speaks Polish. It is cafeteria style, so observe the locals and copy what they do. Usually you will point to the dish you want displayed in the glass case and they will cook up a fresh dish for you. Carry all of your food on a tray to the cashier, pay, then find a table. Bring a sense of humor and your patience; when all else fails, use gestures to communicate. I had an entire conversation with a milk bar employee entirely in hand gestures.

Public transportation is easy and extensive in cities

Getting Around

Poland, compared to other European countries, is massive and its train system is slower than the high-speed bullets of Western Europe, so plan accordingly. Allow plenty of time to travel between cities as you gaze out the window at the passing farms and villages. It takes at least a day to travel between Krakow and most other major Polish cities, such as Gdansk and Warsaw. However, Krakow is well connected to the rest of Europe, with trains to Budapest, Vienna, Prague, and Berlin.

A typical couchette

If you don’t mind sleeping to the rocking motion of a train and want to save time, take advantage of the night trains. I took a several night trains, sleeping through the long hours of travel and waking up to a new city to explore. The night trains between Budapest and Krakow, Krakow and Gdansk, and Warsaw and Prague are especially useful. If you want to sleep in comfort, a night train is probably not the best option in Poland – the trains are older and tired, the ride bumpy and noisy. However, for budget travelers, the couchettes are a great deal. These are bunks that fold down in each compartment for the price of a hostel room. Each couchette compartment usually holds 6 bunks, three on each side. If you have the option, request a bottom bunk for more comfort or the top bunk for more security.

If you are concerned about theft while sleeping on the night train, there is an attendant in each couchette car. Still, be cautious and wear a money belt with your money and passport while you sleep. Lock or tie your bag to your bunk or use it as a pillow to discourage theft.

You usually do not need to make a reservation ahead of time for your train travel throughout Poland. I often showed up to the station and purchased my ticket for the next train. However, for night trains and popular routes between Krakow and the rest of Central Europe, buy your ticket at least a couple days ahead to ensure your spot. I bought all my night train tickets for Poland at my first city on my itinerary, which happened to be Venice, Italy.

Couchettes and train compartments in Poland are similar to the rest of Eastern Europe – usually worn and faded, but still functional. Bring a sense of adventure and a smile and try to make friends in your compartment. Most compartments seat six and washroom facilities are at the end of the car.

Rail passes, so popular for American tourists in the rest of Europe, are a waste of money in Poland, as very few rail passes are valid on Polish rail. Point-to-point tickets are cheaper anyway.

Do not expect the station attendants to speak English – most older Poles learned German and Russian instead of English. To communicate when buying my train tickets, I just wrote down the destination I wanted to go to and the train number if I already knew it. The attendant would then write down my train options and times. If I was buying a ticket for a different day, I also included the date. Packing a little pad of paper for this purpose is smart.

While Polish rail has a website, it can be confusing for English speakers to navigate. Check out the fantastic German rail website instead, as Deutsche Bahn includes rail schedules for most of Europe. www.bahn.com.

When boarding your train, make sure to check the destination for your car, especially on night trains. Train attendants can help point you in the right direction, but next to each door there is also a sign listing the major destinations. This is critical to check, as trains often have cars going to multiple destinations throughout Europe and cars will be disconnected at junctions to be joined with another train. On my night train from Warsaw to Prague, the train had couchettes for Berlin, Vienna, and Prague. Always check the destination of your car or you may find yourself in the wrong city.

If you are in a town or city with a couple hours between trains, you can put your luggage in a locker or with an attendant at the left baggage desk for a small fee. This allows you to explore the town without the weight of your luggage. Just be sure to check the hours the left baggage desk is open before you set out.

Restrooms

Signage for public restrooms is especially confusing for visitors in Poland. I experienced my own blunder by accidentally going into the men’s restroom. Avoid my mistake by paying attention to the symbols on the door. Men’s restrooms are usually marked with a triangle; women’s with a circle.

Like many European countries, be prepared to pay to use public restrooms. It’s not usually much, a couple of złotys, and there is usually an attendant. I took advantage of free restrooms in restaurants or back in my hostel.

Language Barriers

Of all the places I visited in Eastern Europe, Poland was the trickiest to navigate as an English speaker, especially as I headed further north away from Krakow. While many young people are learning English, older Poles grew up under German and Soviet occupation, and Russian was taught in schools under Communism. Many Poles refuse to speak Russian, even if they know it; German is more useful, especially in the north. I was able to communicate with shopkeepers in Gdansk with my rusty German. It was not grammatically pretty, but it did the job.

Make an effort to learn a few key Polish words and phrases. Locals will appreciate your effort and even just a hello in Polish will unlock the friendliness and generosity of the Polish people. Obviously, postal clerks and train station attendants will be just as grim and grouchy as our own post offices and bus stations, but shopkeepers, waiters, and other locals you encounter will become noticeably friendlier.

Useful Polish Words & Phrases

Woda (voh-dah) – water                     kawa (kah-vah) – coffee         piwo (pee-voh) – beer

Miasto – town             plac – square               ulica – road                 most – bridge

Hello – Dzień dobry (jehn doh-bree)              Yes – Tak                    No – Nie (nyeh)

Please/You’re welcome – Proszę (pro-sheh)               Thank you – Dziękuje (jehn-koo-yeh)

Goodbye – Do widzenia (doh veed-zay-nyah)          How much? – Ile? (ee-leh)

Where is…? – Gdzie jest? (gdzeh yehst)                    ask for the bill – rachunek (rah-khoo-nehk)

Cheers! – Na zdrowie (nah zdroh-vyeh)

ADVICE FOR FIBROMITES

Poland can be exhausting to explore without proper research. Like much of Europe, hostels and guesthouses are often older buildings with steep stairs and no elevators – always ask about the layout if you cannot handle stairs or request a room on the main floor. If you do decide to tackle stairs, consider bringing luggage that is light and easy to carry. I traipsed around Europe with only a carry-on size backpack – super light and easy to navigate around train stations, cobblestone streets and up hostel stairs. Others may prefer a convertible backpack with wheels for maximum comfort and versatility. Remember, the lighter you pack, the easier getting around will be.

If you are hostelling, always ask if they have real beds or bunk beds. I found that I often slept better in a real bed. If bunk beds are unavoidable, try to snag a bottom bunk. If all this talk of hostelling sounds exhausting, then you probably should allow yourself to spend a little more money and find a more comfortable hotel.

Take advantage of public transportation when you can. Many Polish cities have a network of trams and buses. When walking around the historic centers of medieval cities, take time to rest – sit in a coffee shop or sample a fresh pastry on a bench.

Poland is bursting with gorgeous churches and cathedrals. One of my favorite ways to rest is to slip into a church pew and take in my surroundings. Whether you pray, meditate, people-watch, or jot notes in your journal, you’ll leave refreshed and your feet and muscles will thank you. Just be mindful of others around you – remain respectfully silent and only visit outside of services.

Most train stations in Poland are within walking distance of the Old Town or city center. One notable exception is Warsaw – if a half hour of walking with your luggage sounds painful and exhausting, hop a bus or be willing to fork out the money for a taxi.

Train travel in Poland is slower than much of Europe and the distances between cities are greater. Keep this in mind when planning your travel – always carry bottled water and healthy snacks, and wear comfortable walking shoes and clothing. You can get up out of your compartment and walk the length of the car to stretch your legs. Most luggage storage on trains is in metal racks above the seats; if you need help lifting your luggage, don’t be afraid to ask others in your compartment. Also be prepared for the big step to get up into the train from the platform. The conductors usually set out a step-stool – be mindful to keep your balance and hold on to the railing to lift yourself up.

If you need to carefully monitor your diet, try to arrange lodging that provides you access to a kitchen. A number of small family-run hotels, as well as independent hostels with private rooms among their dorms, are good options. Cooking for yourself gives you more control over your health. If you despair at the lack of fresh fruit or salad in restaurants, just head to the local grocery store or market.

Baltic Sea on a cold October afternoon

TO BE CONTINUED

I have fallen in love with Poland – medieval churches, graffitied industrial towns, and all. Krakow is a medieval treasure that sits deservedly on the established tourist path. My taste of cosmopolitan Warsaw was too brief, only a sampling of this resolute city’s tragic yet proud history. For those who want to discover a side of Poland most foreigners miss, head north to the Baltic Sea for gorgeous beaches in the brief summer and a stunning medieval Old Town in Gdansk. There is still so much I want to explore – Białowieski National Park, the last primeval forest of Europe and home to rare European bison; Toruń, the medieval town that was birthplace to renowned genius Copernicus; and the Carpathian Mountains, a wonderland of hiking and skiing. One day I will again stand on a pier jutting out into the Baltic and close my eyes as the frosty wind tangles my hair to the soundtrack of seabirds.

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