Thursday, July 9, 2015

A trip to Poland

Just before the summer I spent a week in Poland on assignment for a media company which promotes the country as a tourist and investment destination. It wasn't a junket in the traditional sense; I wasn't part of a group led from place to place while being kept well fed and watered. Instead, several months back I was asked to devise an itinerary which interested me. The company checked and amended it, so it didn't overlap with the plans of other writers they've invited to Poland. (To date, more than two dozen have taken part in this programme, from as far afield as Brazil and Japan). Once the plan was hammered out, I flew in and travelled around by myself, spending one night in Warsaw, three in Krakow and two in Zakopane.

Within hours of my arrival I was impressed by Poland as a vacation destination. Everything seems well organised and most people under the age of 40 speak English well. Prices are far more reasonable than those in the UK. Accommodation is significantly cheaper than in Taiwan (I'd say 30 to 60% less pricey, depending on the place). Public transport is a little more expensive, yet still excellent value compared to the UK. Eating out wasn't ruinous. And as you might expect in Eastern Europe, alcohol was pretty cheap.

In Warsaw (which I wasn't writing about) I stayed less than 100m from where I took the photo, top left. The shorter, older skyscraper is the Stalin-funded 1950s Palace of Culture. I explored Warsaw's old city, which was rebuilt from scratch after World War II, and spent a morning in the engrossing yet sobering Warsaw Uprising Museum. 

Then it was off to Krakow, which is to Poland what Tainan is to Taiwan – a former capital (between the 11th and 16th centuries) and still a centre of arts, scholarship and culture. Like Tainan it has an abundance of antique buildings, but quite unlike Tainan – where architectural treasures are somewhat scattered – these are clustered in a distinct 'old town' in the heart of the urban area. The Historic Centre of Krakow is deservedly a UNESCO World Heritage Site which rewards patient, random exploration. While in the city I made two excursions beyond the old heart of Krakow: One to the old Jewish quarter, and another to Benedictine Abbey of Tyniec (pictured above). The latter involved taking trams to the edge of the city, then hiking upstream along the Vistula River for around two hours. But the exertion was certainly worth it: The views along the river and from the abbey once you're there are lovely.

Zakopane (final image) struck me as a Polish version of Alishan: A mountain resort that in itself is a bit tacky and suffering from piecemeal over-development, but which is surrounded by impressive mountains. Like many Taiwanese tourist towns, it even has an 'old street' which isn't especially old, but which is a good place to watch people and find something to eat. For me, the highlight was undoubtedly the opportunity to do some short hikes, through temperate forests and up on to nearby ridges from where I could enjoy the scenery. I'd love to go back to Poland!

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