Poland is an ancient nation that was conceived near the middle of the 10th century. Its golden age occurred in the 16th century. During the following century, the strengthening of the gentry and internal disorders weakened the nation. In a series of agreements between 1772 and 1795, Russia, Prussia, and Austria partitioned Poland amongst themselves. Poland regained its independence in 1918 only to be overrun by Germany and the Soviet Union in World War II. It became a Soviet satellite state following the war, but its government was comparatively tolerant and progressive. Labor turmoil in 1980 led to the formation of the independent trade union “Solidarity” that over time became a political force and by 1990 had swept parliamentary elections and the presidency. A “shock therapy” program during the early 1990s enabled the country to transform its economy into one of the most robust in Central Europe, but Poland still faces the lingering challenges of high unemployment, underdeveloped and dilapidated infrastructure, and a poor rural underclass. Solidarity suffered a major defeat in the 2001 parliamentary elections when it failed to elect a single deputy to the lower house of Parliament, and the new leaders of the Solidarity Trade Union subsequently pledged to reduce the Trade Union’s political role. Poland joined NATO in 1999 and the European Union in 2004. With its transformation to a democratic, market-oriented country largely completed, Poland is an increasingly active member of Euro-Atlantic organizations.
No country in Europe can have as tragic a recent history as Poland. In the 16th century the joint Kingdom of Poland-Lithuania was the largest single State in Europe, stretching from the Baltic to the Black Sea. By the end of the 18th century Poland has ceased to exist, its territory partioned between Austria, Prussia and Russia, its people oppressed. The collapse of these three occupying powers in 1918 at the end of World War I saw Poland snatch her chance, and an independent Polish Republic was created. It was not to last. In 1939 Poland was attacked by Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union, triggering World War II. Poland was again divided, occupied, and oppressed. Of all the countries affected by the war, Poland suffered the worst. By 1945 nearly 20% of the pre-War population was dead, including millions of Polish Jews, and most of Poland’s cities had been reduced to rubble. Poland’s reward for never surrendering to Nazi Germany was to lose her eastern provinces, which were incorporated into the Soviet Union, and to have a communist Government imposed by Moscow. The next 45 years saw Poland stagnate under communism, as a client state of the Soviet Union. The election of Karol Wojtyla, the archbishop of Krakow, as Pope John Paul II in 1978 and the fornation of the Solidarity movement in Gdansk in 1980 marked the beginning of the end of communist rule not only in Poland but throughout Europe. The collapse of the Iron Curtain saw Poland, after a difficult initial transition, emerge as a stable and strong democracy. Poland is now a member of NATO and the EUher future seems as secure as it ever has.
Getting There and In
Poland’s geographical position has meant that it has historically been a stepping-stone between Eastern and Central Europe. Nothing much has changed.
Many people’s first experience of Poland will be arriving at Warsaw’s Okecie Airport. It’s a compact, well organised place but it’s far too small for the amount of passengers it handles, and a major expansion is being planned. From Warsaw there are regular direct flights to most capitals and other major cities in Western and Eastern Europe.
In common with most other Eastern European national airlines LOT have undergone a thorough modernisation since the end of communism. They have traded in the old USSR-built aircraft that they were previously obliged to buy for a fleet of modern Boeings. From outside Europe Warsaw has direct flights to Chicago, New York (JFK and Newark) and Tel Aviv.
There are several other airports in Poland, all with which have at least one flight a day to and from Warsaw. Some of them also have international flights. Krakow’s John Paul II-Balice Airport is Poland’s second busiest, with flights to London, Frankfurt, Paris, Chicago, Newark and Tel Aviv, among others. Gdansk has direct flights to Copenhagen, Frankfurt, and Stockholm, Katowice has links to Dusseldorf and Frankfurt, Poznan has flights to Copenhagen, Dusseldorf and Vienna, and from Wroclaw you can get to Copenhagen, Frankfurt and Munich. (On domestic flights, apart from a Gdansk-Krakow service, all flights are to and from Warsaw only).
As of 1st May 2004 Poland is a member of the European Union (EU) which means that there are no restrictions on passport holders of other EU countries staying, living, and working in the Poland. At the airport or border they’ll just examine your passport and wave you through without stamping it, and probably without speaking to you.
Passport holders of other countries will still get their passports stamped, and may be asked to provide evidence of a return ticket or that they have sufficient funds for their stay. This is unlikely though. It’s always a good idea to contact the Polish in your home country to check that you don’t need to obtain a visa prior to your arrival. As of May 2004 Americans, Canadians, Aussies and Kiwis didn’t, but this can change.
If you’re not in the mood for flying, or aren’t travelling from as far afield, Poland also has fairly good international train links, especially to Germany. From Warsaw there are direct trains to, among others, Berlin, Bratislava, Budapest, Cologne, Dresden, Kiev, Moscow, Prague, and Vienna. Krakow has trains to Berlin, Dresden, Frankfurt and Liepzig as well as Bratislava, Budapest, Prague and Vienna. Other options include Wroclaw, from where you can go to Berlin, Dresden, Frankfurt and Prague, Szcezecin which is linked to Berlin, and Poznan which has trains to Cologne and fast express service to Berlin, which take around 3 hours. Some of these trains are over-night services; trains in Poland aren’t particularly fast, a result of the poor condition of the track in some areas, but they are pretty comfortable.
Food and Drink
Polish cuisine does not have a particularly enviable reputation, an inaccurate picture fuelled mainly by 1970s and 80s stereotypes when under the communists one of Europe’s most fertile countries suffered from food shortages. The truth is that Poland’s position between Eastern and Western Europe, and influences from her neighbours make Polish food far more cosmopolitan and varied than you might imagine. Yes, the Poles are big pork eaters, but they’re also into fish (especially fresh water, like trout or carp), duck, and most other types of game. And yes, potatoes and similar root vegetables are popular, but they’re used imaginatively; in winter try a hot beetroot broth (barszcz) to warm you up, in summer a cold beetroot and sour cream soup (chlodnik) will cool you down; the Poles take their soups seriously. Other Polish specialities include dumplings (pierogi) which can be stuffed with cheese, mushrooms, meat, a combination of all three, or fruit. Mushrooms are also extremely popular in Poland (Poland’s vast forests have many varieties of edible mushrooms). Deserts include pancakes, cheesecake, and ice cream.
Vegetarians should have no problems in Poland. As well as fish courses most restaurants in large towns will have separate vegetarian sections, usually some combination of dumplings, pasta and cheese. Most towns also have at least one “milk-bar”, a cafeteria serving very cheap mostly vegetarian food. Cheap bastards will also find these useful.
If you want a change from Polish food most large towns have a fairly varied restaurant scene. Pizza is popular, and Chinese and Mexican places are also fairly widespread. They probably aren’t particularly authentic, but they’ll do the job if you want a night off pork. The major cities will have the same range of international cuisine as you’ll find in most major western European cities..
The two main alcoholic drinks in Poland are beer and vodka.
Polish beer (piwo) is fine, mostly Czech-style pilsners. Common brands include Zywiec (which you can get in the UK, if you look in the right off licences), EB, and Hevelius. Darker beers are available, but not common, and in some cities you’ll find pubs that brew and serve their own beer. Polish beer tends to be pretty strong (about 5% alcohol seems to be average) but it’s mostly pure (ie not pumped full of chemicals) so serious hangovers are rare. Nearly all pubs, bars and restaurants now serve beer on draught, and a pint will cost you round about 80p to £1. Imported beers are also available, but tend to be more expensive and served bottled rather than on draught. That said, draught Heineken and (inevitably) Guinness seem to be fairly widespread.
Despite the popularity of beer, vodka (wodka) is undoubtedly Poland’s national drink, in fact vodka probably originates in Poland (although the Russians would dispute that). Polish vodka is best drunk neat (unlike many western brands Polish vodka has a distinctive flavour, and I don’t mean like Finlandia Cranberry) and cold (for best results it should ideally be stored in the freezer). Popular Polish brands include Wyborowa and Chopin. Specially flavoured brands of vodka are also available. Zubrowka, for example, is flavoured with bison grass (and actually comes with a stem of grass in the bottle, similar to those Mexican tequilas that come with a worm in the bottle, only more humane and suitable for vegetarians) which gives it a herby, grassy taste. Goldwasser has a sweet, liquorice like taste, and comes with flecks of real gold in it. The Scotsman bought a couple of bottles of mead-flavoured vodka and recommends those. Fruit flavoured vodkas (which are like Finlandia Cranberry) are also common. Vodka in Poland is pretty cheap; I picked up a bottle of Goldwasser at Warsaw airport for less than £5; prices in supermarkets and shops are about the same.
Imported spirits are widely available in most bars and hotels for about the same price as you’d pay back home, meaning they’re slightly expensive by Polish prices. Quite why anyone would want to go to Poland and pay for a shot of, say, Jack Daniels or Beefeater Gin when they could have a couple of shots of Polish vodka for the same price is beyond me though.
Poland does not produce any wine of its own, and outside posh hotels and restaurants wine is not commonly served.
By the way, “na zdrowie” means “cheers”, “do dna” is “bottoms up”.
Various Useful Facts
Funnily enough, they speak Polish in Poland. It looks, and is, phenomenally complicated but happily it’s closely related to other Slavic languages (like Czech, or Slovenian), with common phrases either being very similar or identical. Useful phrases include dva piwa prosze (“2 beers please”), na zdrowie! (“cheers”), moj pryzyjaciel jest chory (“my friend is sick”), czy jest pani zamezna (“are you married?”), chce sie skontaktowac z moja ambasada (“I want to contact my embassy”).
Most large hotels will have someone who speaks some English, and English seems to be widely understood in shops and bars. Other common second languages are German (especially in the west of the country) and Russian (although most Poles would prefer to forget that they were taught Russian at schools and so don’t like to use the language). Booking train and coach tickets can be a bit of a problem as staff at railway and bus stations don’t speak much if any English but we got by by writing down where we wanted to go and the time and date of the train on a bit of paper. Some large museums have exhibits detailed in English, and the Jewish museums and sights have Yiddish captions too.
The Polish currency is the zloty; it’s freely convertible and relatively stable (when we were there, September 2002, it was about 6 and a quarter to the pound). You’ll have no trouble changing money in Poland; exchanges (“Kantors”) are everywhere. They don’t charge a commission but their rates of exchange vary considerably so shop around. In addition the same kantor will have different exchange rates at different times, for example those that open throughout the night or on Sundays will charge worse rates at these times. The worst rate we saw was in the departures lounge at Warsaw airport; much better to spend any left-over zlotys on cheap vodka! You can also change cash at most banks; the queues will be longer than the kantors, and the rates will also vary. The fact that the zloty is freely convertible has all but eliminated the once thriving black-market in currency exchange. If you’re approached by someone on the streets offering to change money it means you’re about to get ripped off, so don’t bother. All that said, the easiest, most convenient, and probably the most economical way of changing money is to get it through a cash machine (ATM). These are now widespread throughout most towns and cities in Poland and you can get cash advances on credit cards or using a Cirrus card. Most hotels, restaurants and large shops accept credit cards or Maestro cards.
Krakow is changing fast, including an ongoing transformation of Oskar Schindler’s old factory (near the Kazimierz Jewish quarter) into a museum. The main office building will host an exhibit about the non-Jews who aided Holocaust victims, while the old factory buildings will become an art gallery. Also in Krakow, the Gallery of 19th-century Polish Art will likely return to Cloth Hall on the Main Market Square, and three new stained-glass windows based on century-old designs by Polish Art Nouveau headliner Stanislaw Wyspianski are now displayed in the newly opened Wyspianski Pavilion.
Renovations at the Auschwitz Concentration Camp Museum continue. The plan is to spread the existing exhibit through more buildings — mostly on the ground floors — to allow easier movement through this poignant memorial.
Warsaw is improving its infrastructure. The Royal Way thoroughfare through the most historic stretch of town — until recently a congested mess of potholed asphalt — is being replaced with wide, beautifully landscaped sidewalks. Once gloomy and urban, downtown Warsaw is fast becoming an appealing place to hang out.
In Gdansk, the wonderful “Roads to Freedom” museum (about Lech Walesa and the Solidarity movement in the 1980s) has moved to a temporary location not far from is original home in the shipyard where the protests took place. That part of the shipyard will be renovated into a super-modern zone of shops and homes, with the museum moving back in a few years. Other parts of the city are also undergoing a long-overdue redevelopment, in preparation for the Euro Cup soccer championship coming here in 2012.
- Escape2Poland – Offers information about cheap flights, cities, hotels, travel insurances, car renting and trips to Auschwitz camp.
- Lonely Planet – Poland – Comprehensive facts and advice for traveling along with background material on the culture and history of the country.
- U.S. Department of State – Poland Consular Information Sheet – Offers travel information including Background Notes, entry and exit requirements, safety and security, crime, health and transport.
- World Travel Guide – Poland – Tourist and business travel information with facts on climate, visa, health, passport, currency and customs requirements.