Hidden pleasures of Poland
Getting there is pretty easy, with flights from Aberdeen to Gdansk in
the north of the country, Edinburgh to Warsaw Chopin or low cost carriers out
of Glasgow to Warsaw, Krakow, Katowice or Wroclaw.
Krakow makes the perfect base for a long weekend or city break. It’s a typically beguiling Mittel-Europe mix of castles and cathedrals, winding Old Town Streets, food outlets and shopping centres. There are a number of river cruise options that while away a lazy hour or two.
If you’re in a contemplative mood, then a tour of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial site will put your own troubles into perspective. You can also tour the Oscar Shindler Factory Museum, or a salt mine. In the city itself, the Basilica Mariacka, Wawel Royal Castle and the former Jewish district provide a potted overview of the city’s history.
Avoid the tourist souvenir tat and head for Kacper Ryx Historical Shop and Lunaria. Kacper Ryx sells handmade traditional crafts while Lunaria has a great selection of Polish art. Other shops worth popping into include Koza Dereza for handmade toys, many local galleries, craft and ceramic outlets and sweet shops as well as the local markets at Stary Kleparz and the Cloth Hall.
Relax after a weary day of trekking round Krakow’s attractions with a visit to Hammam Shahrazad, a traditional Turkish bathhouse where you can be massaged and pampered back to life and grab something to eat.
Just as Scottish food is not all haggis and deep fried Mars Bars, so Polish cuisine has moved on from the days when every dish featured potatoes, cabbage and sausages. Try Art for a modern take on Polish specialities. Krakow offers a cosmopolitan selection of restaurants, with everything from decent sushi and a Taiwanese noodle bar to vegetarian options. Vegans have a slightly more limited choice, but Vegano offers some unusual and very trendy dishes.
If you’re feeling more adventurous, the High Tatra mountains offer a wealth of snow sports and winter activities. It’s pretty close to Krakow and Katowice if a day’s skiing or snowboarding appeals, but if you want an all-action break then head for Zakopane, Poland’s winter sports capital. The town boasts some traditional Grand Hotels like the Stamary, alpine style chalets like the Aries Hotel and Spa and modern hotel chains, as well as a host of rental B&Bs. All can be surprisingly inexpensive.
The Tatras offer black ski runs as well as less challenging downhill routes, all terrain biking, mountaineering, canyoning, hiking and hillwalking, rafting, an aquapark and – for the very brave or very foolish – even a ski jump. You might want to check your travel insurance covers winter sports before imitating Eddie the Eagle.
If your idea of adventure doesn’t stretch to coming home in a plaster cast, you can take the town’s cable car to the summit of Mount Kasprowy Wierch, which can offer spectacular views. You can also be in two places at once as you can stand in Poland and Slovakia with one foot on either side of the border. Pop into the restaurant for some hot chocolate.
The town’s cheese museum proves surprisingly fascinating and the gift shop means to can take a taste of Poland home with you. The local area is known for its rather good oscypek sheep’s milk cheese and the guide is entertaining. Other than that, there’s a local museum, and another dedicated to Polish composer Karol Szymanowski and another where you can puzzle over the waxworks trying to work out who they might be.
Whether you’re after a bit of history, culture, shopping or winter sports, southern Poland’s full of hidden pleasures.