A transformed Poland welcomes the future

Saturday, September 26th, 2009

The country has shaken off the devastation of the Second World War and 40 years of communist rule with an economic and cultural boom

Laura Locke

Warsaw’s old town was rebuilt after being obliterated in the Second World War.

“Why are you going to Poland?”

We were asked this question every time my husband and I mentioned our summer travel plans. We armed ourselves with various explanations:

“We’re checking out my husband’s ancestral roots.”

“We want to see first hand what our Polish-Canadian friends are always raving about.”

“We want a European adventure a little out of the ordinary.”

Now that we’re home after three weeks of rambling around Poland with our teenage son, we know you don’t need any excuse to pay a visit to this beautiful and friendly country, in the midst of sweeping transformation.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the elections that ended more than 40 years of communist rule in Poland. The country has emerged as one of the fastest growing economies in Europe, and this new reality was a popular topic of discussion with locals during our travels.

Two developments mentioned frequently were the proliferation of consumer goods and the increased opportunities to work and study abroad. Poland became a full member of the European Union in 2004, and is expected to switch its currency to the euro by 2012.

One of the many pleasant surprises we encountered were the low prices. Our accommodations in Poland were about a third of the cost we’ve paid in London, Paris or Rome. Excellent, inexpensive restaurants are everywhere, and even cheaper fare can be found at small cafés and “milk bars,” which offer classic Polish dishes at shoestring prices to students and budget-minded souls like us.

In the tourist areas of Poland’s two main cities, Warsaw and Krakow, English is commonly heard. When we got off the beaten track, however, communication became a little more challenging, and our guidebook with basic

Polish phrases became well thumbed. Happily, our rather pitiable language skills were always rewarded with appreciative grins. Travel tip: when you need help with translation, seek out a teenager, most of who seem to be proficient in English.

Warsaw, Poland‘s capital city, is a testament to its citizens’ perseverance and courage. Much of the city laid in ruin after the Second World War. Its rebuilding efforts are a feat worthy of the world’s admiration. It now boasts a lively cultural scene, filled with concerts, festivals and theatrical productions. A cheap entertainment option is to head to the Old Town Square, lined with tall townhouses rebuilt with fine Renaissance and Gothic elements. Renting an apartment in Warsaw’s Old Town meant we could enjoy the talents of street entertainers, while popping into the many art galleries, antique shops and cafés that line the streets.

Other highlights of Warsaw include the regal splendour of the Royal Castle and Wilanow Palace, beautiful Lazienki Park, and the Warsaw Rising Museum, a moving, state-of-the-art tribute to the city’s residents who died during the war with a focus on the tragic Warsaw Uprising in 1944.

Interesting side trips in the area include Kazimierz Dolny, a picturesque village on the banks of the Vistula River. Taking a bus through the countryside, we enjoyed a peaceful three days there, staying at a local convent. On the other side of Warsaw, three hours by train, lies the small city of Torun. Most famous as the birthplace of Nicolaus Copernicus, its medieval quarter possesses enough superb Gothic architecture to make it onto “must-see” lists. We also visited idyllic Wroclaw, with its 12 islands and countless bridges, often called the “Venice of Poland.”

The country’s second largest city, Krakow, is undoubtedly one of Poland’s — and the world’s — treasures. Left largely unscathed by the Second World War, its central Old Town is crammed with cathedrals, restaurants, museums, cobbled streets and charm. Krakow lays claim to the largest medieval town square in Europe, a magical, vibrant focal point of the city.

Overlooking the square is the imposing Church of St. Mary, known to Poles as the Mariacki. The breathtaking high altar is often acclaimed as one of the world’s greatest examples of Gothic art (Picasso called it the eighth wonder of the world). Wawel Castle and Cathedral, a short walk from the Town Square, are other Krakow gems.

It’s easy to hop on tourist buses to explore some interesting spots around Krakow, such as the fascinating salt mines of Wieliczka. Tour guides take visitors through a labyrinth of tunnels featuring huge chambers, statues, chapels and chandeliers, all hand-carved out of salt. Outings to nearby Wadowice, birthplace of pope John Paul II, and Czestochowa, site of the Jasna Gora Monastery and its revered Black Madonna, give spiritual insights into this very Catholic nation.

Forty kilometres west of Krakow lies Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest of the Nazi extermination camps. It has been preserved as a sombre memorial to the more than one million people who died there.

Poland‘s story is a roller-coaster tale, from its “golden age” in the 1500s to its disappearance as a political entity a few centuries later. Despite having to defend their freedom on many occasions from aggressive invaders, the spirited Polish people and their culture have endured. The vestiges of Poland’s communist era, however, remain visible in many places. Fortunately, the peeling, grey apartment blocks and neglected infrastructure are finally getting the attention they have needed for decades.

Now, as Poland rushes into the 21st century, its challenge is to retain the faith and traditions that helped it survive. We look ahead to Poland’s future with great optimism, curiosity and affection.

© Copyright (c) The Vancouver Sun

Comments are closed.