The Polished Old Country

Text & photograph by Kristin Gifford

When Americans think of Poland, three things often come to mind: the cold, disparaging Polack jokes, and Communism. Yes, it’s cold in the winter, but that’s where the similarities between the stereotypical Poland and the real Poland ends. For one thing, Poland is now part of the European Union, but because Poland still retains its own currency, travelers can keep the zloty as a uniquely Polish souvenir. Along with a former Eastern Bloc country’s affordable state-controlled prices, Poland also offers the more upscale tourist experiences ushered in by the country’s entry into the EU.

In other words, Poland offers the best of both worlds, a fact that thoroughly permeates Polish culture. Vast amounts of people are now learning English to such an extent that tourists often feel that is it easier to get by there with no second-language skills than in France or Spain. Most Poles, known for their uncommonly friendly nature, will willingly talk to you in English to practice, and if they can’t, they are more than happy to mime their way through a transaction. The locals are duly impressed if you simply learn to say “please” and “thank you.”

There is a sense of authentic experience, not just manufactured charm, when wandering through the streets of Krakow and Gdansk, two cities of note. Taking a train from one city to another, you won’t find many other travelers. Instead, you’ll find packed carriages full of Poles young and old. Sitting across from you, an impeccable young businessman from Warsaw texts on his cell phone while next to you two older, Soviet-era women dressed in outdated browns and grays share sandwiches from home and chatter away. One moment, you’re sitting in a cafe listening to the literati converse in multiple languages with anecdotes in English peppered throughout. The next, you’ve met a Polish youth who can’t speak a word of English but wishes to share his chivalrous intentions by dancing with you in the middle of the street before relinquishing your hand with a kiss.

The city of Krakow became the unofficial home to the country’s revolutionaries and intellectuals after Warsaw burned to the ground in World War II. It has a sophisticated European charm but is small enough to make walking everywhere a possibility. Here you’ll find the Kazimierz district, an old Jewish neighborhood and ghetto now populated by artists, students, cafes and bars. The Old City is more touristy, but is still bound to prove interesting with nuns passing by on buses and kids skating on famous tourist-friendly monuments. Auschwitz, only a short day-trip away from Krakow, offers the morbid concentration camp jolt that any trip to Europe worth its salt contains.

Once called Danzig while under German control, Gdansk is once again a thoroughly Polish city. Its location as a port town on the Baltic Sea makes for easy ferry rides to and from Sweden, Finland and the Baltic states, which contributes to Gdansk’s cosmopolitan feel. It’s also home to the world’s largest brick church, St. Mary’s Basilica, which boasts a beautiful clock tower that is wholly original in every sense of the word (one urban myth claims the clockmaker’s eyes were gouged out after he completed it so that he couldn’t make another elsewhere). Check out the Gazeta Rock Cafe, where you can drink local beer while surrounded by photos of Polish rock icons that you’ve never heard of. After a trip to this fascinating and fun country, Poland will forever bring to mind vodka (the country’s specialty, mixed with apple juice), friendliness and charm.