CHARLIE BRITTEN OFFERS A BRIEF INFORMATION GUIDE TO POLAND
If the best things in life are free, the most interesting attractions in Poland cost nothing, or very little. The various Polish governments believe that everyone should be able to see the abomination of the death camps free of charge. Whilst this is not exactly a fun day out, Auschwitz is something everyone should experience. By and large, the grim red brick buildings are much as they were, the treads of their stone steps worn down by innumerable feet. Photographs of beautiful Jewish children follow you as you pass displays of suitcases, pots and pans and a mound of human hair.
Less than an hour away is Poland’s only tourist trap for overseas visitors – Krakow, a historic city of splendid buildings, sadly blackened through proximity to the Nowa Huta steelworks. However, as tourist traps go, it’s bustling, rather than heaving. Rynek Square is a good place from which to watch the world go by with a quiet glass of wodka. Kazimierz, the old Jewish ghetto, is well worth seeing, either on foot for free, or (if you don’t mind coughing up occasionally) from a rickshaw listening to the driver’s commentary in fluent English. Follow the main road south, slowly, through one traffic hold-up after another, and you will reach the white–peaked Tatra Mountains, the last hurrah of the Alps, which are truly stunning, but Zacopane, the former Commie playground, is only exciting if you enjoy log cabins. The local cafe chain, trading under the name of ‘Goodbye Mr Lenin’, says it all.
The Baltic Coast is where the Poles take their seaside holidays, so be aware that this area is pricier and gets booked up before touristy Krakow. With its three- and four-storey red-brick buildings with gabled roofs, Gdansk, one of the many cities dubbed ‘Venice of the North’, is reminiscent of Amsterdam, although the ultra-modern concrete and glass waterfront is starting to look like London Docklands. Do visit The ‘Roads to Freedom’ Exhibition, featuring the independent trade union Solidarity: for an admission charge of just 6 zlotys (about £1.50), it contains more ‘primary sources’ than any other museum about the Communist era – and, despite what several websites say, it isn’t closed.
The British bucket airlines operate several flights a day to Polish cities, with prices starting at £10.99 one way. Hotels vary in price, the cheapest (when we went in 2008) being £35 for rooms in Krakow. One small caveat – Polska 2012. If you want to see Poland, not watch football, avoid dates between 8 June and 1 July.
– Charlie Britten