Poland. Hmmm. An interesting destination. All right, I will be blunt, a destination that really holds no great alluring attractions to the casual observer. For a European country, it is big (the sixth largest in the European Union both in population and area) but it has no obvious draw like Spain's Cordoba, Italy's Pisa or even France's Nice. Comparing it to other countries from the former Communist Block (we Brits have lumped the area together with great inaccuracy) Poland does not have a beautiful capital like Czech Republic or Hungary, nor does its countryside stand out like the Transylvania region of Romania and it does it have a beautiful coastline like Slovenia's Adriatic. So a good question to ask is why I bothered to travel there.
(Rzepin station in Poland - my first view of the country. Ugh)
Well, it was cheap. I needed to use my holiday time up. And quite simply I needed a holiday.
Plus, it is not the first country that comes to people's minds when going on holiday It is relatively unexplored. None of the friends I have grown up with have ever ventured there.
All right. Let us start. If you want to understand a country, then a little research is necessary. A little research into Poland reveals a lot of history, much of it turbulent.
(Wroclaw after WWII)
I will be blunt, Poland should not even be on the map today. It lost a fifth of its population in WWII (think about it - 1, 2, 3, 4 dead, 1, 2, 3, 4 dead - you get the message pretty f-ed up). Its borders have been changed so many times during its turbulent history, hemmed in between Russia, Germany and the old Austro-Hungarian empires, with the nearby fun of the Turkish to boot.
Oh, and they had communism, which pretty much stripped a soul out of the place. No other European country got dicked over more in the past 200 years. And really only since 1989 has the country risen from the ashes to reconstruct itself.
The evidence is all around you when looking at Poland today. It is surprisingly devoid of people. For its size, Poland is not crowded unlike other European nations - a legacy of the brutality it suffered during WWII and a result of the massive border changes that took place afterwords. It does not have a big city even by Central/Eastern European standards (Bucharest and Budapest are far bigger than Warsaw). And despite the size of the population, it is not a big cultural exporter of anything - a legacy of the Communist era. Compare this to Italy, a country of comparable size, that has managed to export its food, films and fashion worldwide over the past fifty years, despite also being ravaged during WWII.
(The empty Polish Countryside)
So, my one big hint for visiting Poland, is to show a little sensitivity. There are big taboo subjects in the country. The whole of the Second World War, including the horrors of the Holocaust left a deep scar on the country. The Soviet regime was also unpleasant, and Poland (quite rightly) sees itself betrayed by the allies after WWII as it was sent into the Communist sphere of influence, despite having the fourth biggest allied force in the conflict.
Be polite. Unfortunately, the many Brits who have visited Poland have left a poor impression on its people. Welcome to the infamous stag do. The poor people of Krakow...
But enough doom and gloom. 1989 came and Poland has not looked back. A savvy and resourceful people, they have displayed a new confidence and they have a very international outlook. As I have mentioned previously (and more frivolously) people my age do speak a lot of English, and are well travelled. Due to their joining of the EU, the Polish can be found all over Europe, and many people in the UK will know through work at least one Polish person (and I know quite a few).
There is also a lot of charm, as Poland retains a lot of its old self as well. It is surprisingly civilised (compare a Friday night in a Polish town to a Friday night in a British one) and you will meet a lot of great people with one hell of a wicked sense of humor. Yes, that's right, the Polish do have a sense of humour. You see, the anti-communist propaganda was pretty good at telling us many things about the former Eastern block...
Poland is going through a Renaissance, almost unnoticed by the rest of the world. Poland is one hell of a fun place to go, its restored towns providing a breath of fresh air compared to the crowded (and overpriced) streets of other New EU cities. The art and history on display provides a fascinating insight into a people who have been repressed for a very long time. The energy found in the country has spread and on arriving there, you will find a country which, yes, does have deep scars. But you will also find a country moving forward, despite the massive baggage of history that it carries. Join me this week as I take you on a little journey, through the Polish countryside, and on my latest holiday, an adventure through country number 33!