Poland, the Best Kept Secret Destination

About three years ago I was looking for somewhere to go on vacation with my wife.  I really wanted to go back to Italy but upon looking at what it would cost for 2 weeks, I felt it rather expensive.  We have both been to Hawaii on numerous occasions, so that was not something to consider.  Then I thought about Poland.  My wife’s family, several generations ago, emigrated to the United States from Poland.  I thought it might be an interesting destination so I researched it a little.  I found that we could spend 2 weeks in Poland for about half what Italy would have cost.  My wife was, of course, excited about going.

We flew out of Logan Airport on a Friday evening and connected through Frankfurt to Warsaw.  My first impression upon arriving at the airport was that Poland would be a stark former Iron Curtain remnant of the old communist regime.  The airport seemed to say that was still true.  It was a sunny Saturday afternoon and we go a cab to where we were staying.  I had found a place that looked pretty good and was centrally located.  It is called St. Andrews Residency.

This was the start of my transformation of thought.  We were greeted by an extremely pleasant young woman who welcomed us to St. Andrews Residency and to Poland.  She took us to the top floor and showed us where we would stay.  The best way to describe our accommodations is to say it is quite similar to a one-bedroom apartment.  It had the bedroom, a separate living room, a small kitchen, and a huge bathroom.  St. Andrews itself was small and I would guess it accommodated maybe 25 people.

The entrance to St. Andrews was off a small courtyard.  Diagonally across the courtyard was a terrific little coffee shop that also served a nice continental breakfast.  It was truly European at its best.

On Sunday were started our discovery of Warsaw by heading out walking towards Old Town which was about 2 miles distant.  The walk from St. Andrews to Novy Swiat, the street leading to Old Town, was a walk through what could have been any European city.

Novy Swiat is a busy two lane road lined with coffee shops, restaurants none of which were chains, several large churches, the University of Warsaw, the Polish Capitol buildings and finally Old Town.  This street was very clean and well kept.

The area around the Royal Castle had been completely destroyed during World War II.  It has been rebuilt.  Pictures of the castle and the buildings nearby allowed reconstruction of the area so that it looks almost identically as it did prior to 1940.  The beauty of that area is unparalleled.

On Tuesday we rented a car and headed out for Krakow.  Poland does not have a single super highway like we have here in the U.S. or that you find in Western Europe.  Still, there was a single two lane highway from just outside Warsaw to Krakow.  It took us most of the day to get there.

I had found a nice hotel in the Kazimierz section of the city.  This is the old Jewish section of the city and it is also where significant portion of the movie Schindler’s List was filmed.  Unlike Warsaw, Krakow went untouched by World War II and has fully retained its old world elegance.  Upon the highest point in the city sits the castle Wawel.  This is a 16th century castle where many Polish kings resided.  Like Boston, you can see everything on foot using a guidebook.  Not far from the castle is the Old Town district and Jagiellonian University.  One of the most famous graduates of Jagiellonian was Copernicus.

Even though our visit to Krakow was still early in our trip, we had already visited many Polish churches.  Any one of those churches would be called a cathedral in the U.S.  They all seemed to be very large and lavishly decorated in their interiors.  Each church had works of art lining the walls and gilded gold everywhere.  But in the Old Town Square there is the Church of St. Mary.  Mary is the Patron Saint of Poland and this is epitomized at this church.  It is one of the larger churches in Poland.  It is a 15th century gothic edifice whose beauty is unparalleled.

On Thursday we left Krakow to return to Warsaw.  We left early, however, so we could visit the city of Chestahova.  This is a small city situated about 50 miles west of Krakow.  Its significance is that the church there hold a painting that is named “The Black Madonna.”  The Madonna’s face in this picture has darkened significantly since it was painted, and there a numerous purported miracles that have happened in its presence.  This has made visiting this church a pilgrimage for many Poles.

Back in Warsaw we continued our tours of the city seeing places such as the old Warsaw Ghetto where the Jews were held prior to their being moved to Auschwitz, about 30 miles west of Krakow.  We also visited the Park Lazienkowski in the heart of the city.  Once in this gorgeous park, the sounds of the city quickly disappear.  One of the first things you see in the park is a statue commemorating Fredric Chopin who was born in Poland.  The park is also the location of the Palace on the Water.

On our final day before we departed we visited the Wilanow Palace and Park.  The palace is also known as Villa Nova.  It is a 17th century palace where the infamous “Warsaw Pact” was signed.  But more than that, the palace itself is of particular beauty and is surrounded by many gorgeous gardens and grassy walkways.

The only bad meal we had during our entire stay in Poland was when we went to a restaurant that was trying to be American.  It’s about what you’d expect in an American fast food restaurant.  The Polish food was delicious and the service in every restaurant was always great.

We found the Polish people to be exceptionally polite and friendly.  We did not have a single negative encounter.  That is unless you count the woman in the National Museum in Warsaw who got angry with me because I was using a flash on my camera!  There were no signs saying no flash pictures but I really should have known better.

Two weeks in Poland was not nearly enough time for us to see everything we wanted to see.  I cannot recommend a trip to Poland enough.  The entire two-week trip cost us about $5000 which included everything.

It would have been easy for me to have written at least 4 times as much as I have.  I recommend that anyone interested simply look up some of the places I have mentioned on the Internet and you will see what a great country this is to visit.   I would go back to Poland in a heartbeat and it is number one of my list of places to go even now.


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