Great Masurian Lakes
The central part of Masuria has the biggest concentration of lakes in Poland, with over 15% of the area under water. The main lakes, the Sniardwy and the Mamry, are linked by rivers and canals to form an extensive system of waterways. Needless to say, the whole area has become a prime destination for yachting enthusiasts and canoeists. Towns are dotted around the lakes' perimeters, with Gizycko and Mikolajki the largest. Mikolajki is the best option for accommodation and gastronomical offerings, but most places close out of season. Cycle touring is a feasible way of seeing the lakes area, especially given the parlous state of regional public transport. Trains run nightly from Gdansk to Gizycko; otherwise you can get to the southern lakes town of Ruciane-Nida from Bialystok and Warsaw.
The royal capital for half a millennium, Kraków has witnessed and absorbed more history than any other Polish city. Moreover, it came through the last war unscathed, so it has retained a wealth of old architecture from different periods. The tallest structures on Kraków's skyline are not skyscrapers but the spires of old churches, the 20th century's impact having been confined to acid rain. Yet Kraków is not a silent memorial to bygone events: it's a city alive with character and soul.Ringed by parkland, the Old Town is compact and utterly charming. The Main Market Square is flanked by historic buildings, museums and churches. St Adalbert's Church is one of the oldest, dating back to the 10th century. If you catch an enthusiastic priest at his most generous he might open the coffins in the Church of the Reformed Franciscans enabling you to reconfigure your lunch with a gawk at some mummified bodies. One of the best museums is the Czartoryski Museum, with an impressive collection of European art, as well as Asian handicrafts and armour. Kraków was Oscar Schindler's stamping ground and there are tours tracing the steps of his story and some of Mr Spielberg's film locations.
Hardly an attraction in the normal sparkly sense, Oswiecim is a medium-sized industrial town 60km west of Kraków. The Polish name may be unfamiliar but its German rendering, Auschwitz, is tragically evocative. In 1945 the retreating Nazis destroyed part of what was their largest concentration camp, but what's left of the death factories in this quiet rural area is more than enough to show the magnitude of the holocaust. Four million people, 2.5 million of them Jews, were killed in Auschwitz and the linked complex at nearby Birkenau. Both are open to the public, and remain basically as they were when abandoned by the Nazis. The stories which live in the gas chambers, crematoria, barracks and barbed wire make this a haunted and shocking place.
The Tatras are the highest of all the Carpathians and the country's only alpine range. It's a region of towering peaks and steep rocky cliffs plunging hundreds of metres into glacial lakes. Winters are long and summers are short and not steamy enough to melt all the snow. Late spring and early autumn are the best times to visit as they straddle the happy valley of good weather and few visitors.To the north, at the foot of the Tatras, lies the Podhale region, speckled with dozens of small villages maintaining traditional highland lives. There are countless possible walking paths, picnic-size, jaunt-size, or mountain-maniac-size. One of the most spectacular walks is to the Zawrat Pass in the eastern reaches of the range. It's accessible via cable car to Mt Kasprowy Wierch, and then there are various routes along the ridge.Zakopane is the tourist hub of the Polish Tatras. It's a pleasant town, especially out of the summer and winter holiday periods and is a good base for skiing or hiking in the mountains. There is a daily train to Warsaw and several buses daily to Kraków and other regional centres.
Although founded late in Polish history (at the beginning of the 14th century), centrally located Warsaw has been Poland's capital on and off since 1611. Long a cultural and industrial centre, Warsaw was one of central Europe's most beautiful and sophisticated cities until it scooped the prize for worst-ravaged in WW II. Warsaw is essentially a postwar product in both appearance and spirit. Its handful of historic oases have been meticulously reconstructed, but most of the urban landscape is modern. This new face of Warsaw is impressive for the resolve with which it emerged, if not for its Stalinist edifices and uninspired prefab concrete suburbs.The city is divided by the Vistula River into two very different parts. The western, left-bank sector includes the city centre proper and the Old Town to the north. Almost all attractions, as well as the lion's share of tourist facilities, are on this side of the river. The right-bank part of Warsaw, the suburb of Praga, has no major sights and hardly ever sees tourists.The Old Town was rebuilt from the foundations up because after the war it was nothing but a heap of rubble. The monumental reconstruction, which took place between 1949 and 1963, aimed at restoring the appearance of the town in its best times, the 17th and 18th centuries. Every authentic architectural fragment found among the ruins was incorporated in the restoration. In 1945, the Old Town Square was just the walls of two houses sticking out of the rubble, today it is a harmonious blend of Renaissance, Baroque and Gothic elements. It's alive and atmospheric, doesn't feel contrived, and is replete with open-air cafés and art stalls. The Historical Museum of Warsaw occupies the entire northern side of the square and screens a startling documentary about the destruction and reconstruction of the city, as well as displaying its charmingly presented collections from Warsaw's earlier history.Warsaw's main north-south boulevard is the Royal Way, running from the Royal Castle to Lazienki Palace, the royal summer residence. This is one of Europe's grandest stretches of road, with churches, palaces, galleries and museums lining the route. Halfway down, point your nose east, quash your aesthetic sensibilities and bustle towards the drab and repellent exterior of the National Museum to enter a treasure house of art from ancient to contemporary, the highlight being an impressive collection of frescoes from an early Christian cathedral in Pharos, Sudan, dating from between the 8th and 12th centuries. There's also an amazing display of Coptic crosses.Warsaw offers a wide variety of ethnic cuisines and you can eat and drink late into the night. There's an extensive and swiftly growing array of restaurants all over the Old Town serving traditional Polish and international food. Student clubs along the southern portion of Royal Way offer a variety of cultural activities, including recitals, poetry, cinema, theatre, and rock, folk and jazz concerts, but weekend nights are usually reserved for discos.Cheap places to stay are scattered throughout the city, sometimes a long way from the centre, and usually lacking in style and atmosphere. There are a couple of good hostels near the university though, and private rooms are available through agencies (ask at the information centre opposite the Royal Castle). There is a small camping ground near the central bus terminal.As Poland's capital, Warsaw is a busy terminus for flights, trains and buses, both domestic and international. The main train station is centrally located, the bus station is just west of the city centre, and the airport is on the southern outskirts of the city, about 10km from the centre.
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