- Capital: Warsaw
- Population: About 40 million
- Language: Polish (although many people know multiple)
- Currency: Zloty
- Location: Central-Eastern Europe between Germany and Belarus
If something sounds or looks interesting in Poland, do it. The odds are, you'll meet a lot of locals, as opposed to tourists, taking part in activities. And while you do, strike up a conversation with someone. More than anywhere else I've traveled, people in Poland seemed to have a great knowledge of languages. So basically, if you know English, German, Russian (and of course Polish), you should have no trouble getting around. Also, get out to the country side. there are plenty of places to go and things to do outside the cities. And when you do this, make sure to travel by Polski Bus!
Poland had always been high on my list of countries to visit. A significant portion of my family ancestry had come from there, and thanks to my grandma, my family has kept up many of the cultural traditions. Therefore, when I was doing my first major European backpacking trip, I made sure to make a stop here. Most of my stay was centered around the city of Krakow and included a trip to the mountain town of Zakopane in order to summit one of the peaks. Long story short, Poland was awesome and here's why
Most of my time in Poland was spent in the city Krakow. It is one of the oldest cities in Poland and is often considered to be the nation's cultural capital (with Warsaw being the official political capital). Krakow is pretty unique by Poland's standards not only because it's one of the countries most historic cities, but because it is one of the only major cities not to be damaged during the Second World War. Therefore nearly all its historical sites are left in tact, like the colorful old town city center with its classical architecture and Wawel Castle.
One thing particularly struck me as interesting though. Most of the city, especially that which was centered around the old town, did not shut down... at all. Whether it be bars, restaurants, cafes or shops, nearly everything seemed to be open 24/7. (Unfortunately I found this out while getting incredibly lost on my way back to the hostel after a night out). New York may claim to the the city that never sleeps, but state law has everything shut down at 4:00am. In Poland, no such foolish law exists, so the nightlife lasts well into the daylight of the next morning.
While I was there, however, there was one thing I knew I needed to see most of all: the Wisla River. Like many cities, Krakow has a source of water, and here the long blue Wisla flows its way through a little valley in the middle of the urban setting. The view is overall pretty calm and peaceful, surrounded primarily by nature with very few buildings in close proximity. And although it does not have any big reputation for being special or majestic, the Wisla has a personal connection to my family.
As legend has it (or as my Grandma has often told), her family arrived to the US in the height of prohibition. But in this, father/my great grandfather, Bronislaw, saw a business opportunity and decided to open up a "soda" bottling company in Philadelphia which he named the Wisla. Therefore, I needed to see this river. I needed to see the inspiration for my family's connection to the other side of the law. And of course, I ultimately decided to go running along it each and every morning I staying in Krakow.
Overall, it is a great city to visit and spend time in, as Krakow has a little bit of everything. Culture, green space, history, nightlife, and some wonderful architecture all mix together and make the city what it is. Not to mention, everyone seemed super nice and friendly, which is always a huge plus no matter where you are. There was one regret I had however. I never got to make it to the district Kazimierz, which is supposed to be one of the most interesting sections to see. Oh well, I guess that means I'll be coming back.
Ok, I have to be honest here. I allowed myself to visit a tourist site... and I admit, I actually enjoyed it. Normally I try to avoid the major attractions which tend to draw only visitors, in favor of wandering and trying to find something closer to the local experience. But because of certain circumstances and a promise to my Polish grandmother, I made a specific exception here. When my grandma finally got to return to the country in the 1990s, she was mesmerized by the mines. She loved the whole visit, but this in particular was her main highlight, so when I let her know I would be traveling to Poland, she had me promise to see the mines in order for her to have a family member to share the experience with.
Just prior to Poland, I had been in Budapest and had gone spelunking in the rough and wild caves below the city, so I was somewhat expecting a similar experience here. This was not the case. These mines were, instead, vast, open, well maintained and polished. The walkways were well lit, revealing the silver-gray walls, the ground was flat and level, and every space was large enough for groups of people to stand side by side rather easily. There was no need for any equipment.
Needless to say, I was a bit disappointed at first, as I usually seek things that are untamed and challenging in order to get rush. But this feeling didn't last long because what the mines lacked in rough nature, they made up for it ten-fold in amazing artwork. Lining every walkway and set up in every cavern were carvings and statues depicting moments in Polish history and folklore. And these were not just mini figures. These works were larger than life, incredibly detailed figures chiseled out of the salt stones themselves, by what mush have been highly skilled artists. Out of all of this, however, one thing stood out in particular to me. The salt chapel.
My grandma had already told me about this chapel, and from what I had already seen with the statues, I was expecting something pretty amazing. Then I walked in and it completely blew away all my expectations. Just to give some perspective, I am someone who has studied art, gone to several showings and galleries, but this was something so incredible, it was hard to believe it was real. Everything was so detailed and done with such a unique effect, it made the Sistine Chapel look like child's work. The etches in the wall even seemed to come out at you as if they were both three dimensional and alive.
I left with the whole experience greatly exceeding my expectations, even though it was a bit of a tourist draw. Also, I later found out that only about 2-3% of the whole mine is open to the public, and considering that part alone took over two hours, it completely blows my mind to think about how extensive it must all be. Oh yeah, and one more thing. All the statues are made of salt stone, so if you decide to lick one of them (I swear I only did it after I saw an Irish group do it!!), it will taste exactly like a hunk of table salt.
I've probably made it pretty obvious by now that I enjoy doing things in nature, particularly when mountains are involved. So when I heard of a mountain town just two hours south of Krakow called Zakopane, I couldn't resist. I grabbed my green sneakers, grabbed my friend Blake, headed over to the bus station, and off we went.
When we stepped off the bus, we were greeted to green trees, fresh air, but unfortunately a lot of other visitors. Too many in my opinion.. Usually I go to nature to be away from the noise and stress of the city in order to spend some time by myself, but this place seemed crowded. That said, I soon realized that this was by no means a standard tourist crowd. After about ten minutes, I began to realize something. I had only heard one language being spoken: Polish. This crowd wasn't comprised of hordes of North American and Western European tourist groups as I previously assumed. Instead, it was entirely of made of Poles, out for the day to enjoy the natural beauty of their country. Suddenly I felt more at ease as I drank a cup of coffee and headed up the slopes.
While there were several peaks to choose from, Blake and I decided on one called Mt. Giewont, which, as we were told, was particularly scenic and provided an amazing view of the surrounding country from the top. The sign at the start of the trail read 3 hours and 30 minutes to the summit. We began to ascend, first on a semi oaved road, then a dirt one, and finally a small dusty path with rocks and tree roots (just as it should be). As we went higher and higher, the swarms of people soon disappeared and nature began to take over.
Two hours had passed and the climb was not particularly difficult, but that didn't matter because the surrounding area was incredible. Tall green trees sprouted in every direction while streams of clear blue water tumbled down the rocks alongside the trail. Every so often, the canopy of leaves gave way to a clearing that revealed the side of the mountain and the sprawling country below. It was hard to imagine that just a little while ago we were surrounded by people. I, for one, gladly welcomed the change.
As we neared the final ascent to the summit, we were surprised to find a fair amount of people, including a group of nuns in Nike trainers, all waiting in line to climb up the small, narrow pathway to the peak. It was just wide enough for one person, and was a bit technical, so going fast was out of the question. In total, it took about 20 minutes until we got our turn, but it was completely worth it. The mountain stood alone and the sky was clear, allowing us to see for miles across the Polish lands. It was both a calm and exciting experience, and I decided to celebrate by eating my lunch (which consisted of a sandwich and banana) on the summit.
After we descended, it became clear to me that when I do come back to Poland, this is a place I need to revisit. I did not know it at the time, but apparently there are quite a few hostels and guest houses in the town, allowing you to stay for a few days and wake up to the fresh mountain air. It is absolutely all worth it and because of it's proximity to Krakow, it ix very easily accessible.
I don't often speak of transportation companies on this site, as I have been on so many planes, trains and busses, they all seem to blend together. And since I usually go for the cheapest option, nothing usually stands out, except for one exception: Polski Bus. Just like my other choices of transport, this one was very cheap, but unlike the others, there was something different about Polski Bus. It was something magical, or as Blake described, "If sex were to take the form of a bus, it would be Polski Bus."
What makes it so amazing? Well, let me begin. The first thing I noticed as I walked on were the large, black, gray and red seats, all spaciously spread out. And it made me gasp. Never before had I seen so much leg room. It couldn't be true. I thought it must be an illusion of some sort. Then I sat down and noticed, yes, it was true! There was so much room even Shaquille O'Neil could completely sprawl out and not worry about disturbing the person in front of him. The seat was soft and comfortable too. It was like a soothing bed placed in an upright position, and for the first time, it felt like I was traveling in luxary.
Next, I decided to check the distance of our upcoming trip (Krakow to Bratislava) in order to see how much time I got to have on this padded paradise. I pulled out my phone to see, and was delighted to see free wifi as well. Ahhh, this is this high life, I thought. Now there was only one thing left to do, recline back and enjoy the ride. I reclined my chair, expecting it to stop soon, but it didn't. It kept going back, and back, until it was nearly flat. The seat was no longer 'like' a bed. Now, it was a bed!
And to think of it, the whole trip was less than $20. Seven hours, across three countries, all while enclosed in a mini paradise for less than a haircut back home. I paid my dues with all those trips on Ryanair, Wizz Air and a countless number of slow crowded busses without air conditioning, and now, I got to have my reward.