Poland: Krakow and the Tatra Mountains
Delight in the unique blend of "fairytale come alive" scenery, warm and passionate locals and the ever-present sense of history. Visit Renaissance palaces and medieval castles, attend Chopin's piano recital and Klezmer music concert, enjoy world-class art, the underground salt mine and the communism utopia tour, the spectacular Tatra Mountains, colorful Highlander culture and excellent cuisine.
More Than Just a Pretty Face
Most visitors to Poland are mesmerized by the blend of the country's unforgettable scenery and the fascinating and ever-present sense of history. Traveling through Poland offers an insider's view into many aspects of European history: the Teutonic Knights' mysteries, the Golden Age of the Renaissance, the Russian politics, and the scars of the Nazi and the Communism years. Yet today, the country brims with enthusiasm and youthful energy; the romantic sidewalk cafes adorn the leafy streets and the atmosphere is that of a constant celebration.
For North Americans, Poland is still mostly an undiscovered destination, but Europeans have been returning year after year. Of all the cities claiming to be the next Prague, Krakow is for real. Make sure you visit this golden city before the prices climb too high and before the crowds take over. Poland offers profound history, beautiful cities, glorious castles and elegant palaces, fairytale mountain villages and scenery that will leave you speechless. The food is superb and imaginatively presented, the shopping is truly world-class, the music is everywhere, but the country's greatest wealth is its people: kind, open-hearted, warm and honest.
Many historians refer to Poland as the "gods' playground". Because the country is situated on a wide plain, many invaders, from Napoleon to Hitler, took advantage of Poland's strategic location. Polish lands have been invaded by Magyars, Bohemians, Tartars, Teutonic Knights, Swedes, Prussians, Russians, Austrians, French, Germans and Soviets.
There are many legends surrounding the beginnings of Krakow, and the most beloved one is the legend of the Wawel Dragon. A long time ago, in a lovely castle on a hill above the river there lived a king, a queen and a beautiful princess. Their lives would have passed slowly and without much excitement, as was usual in those times, if it wasn't for a dreadful dragon who decided to make his home in a cave underneath the castle.
Art and architecture are a testimony to the splendor of the past. It is common for paintings, sculpture and architecture to bear hidden meanings which mirror the economic and political circumstances of the nation.
Krakow is considered a gem of medieval and Renaissance architecture and a European cultural capital. It's a magical place where legends are mixed with reality, and stories from the old times still find relevance in contemporary life.
What does salt have to do with computers? No, don't sprinkle it on your keyboard, but instead consider the importance that salt has played since the beginning of time. Salt's ability to preserve food was a foundation of civilization. It eliminated dependence on the seasonal availability of food and it allowed travel over long distances. Just as computer chips, it paved the way for new discoveries and new possibilities.
This is another fairy tale but this one is true. It begins in Milan and ends in Krakow. During his stay in Milan, Leonardo da Vinci painted the duke's mistress posing with an ermine. Leonardo met Cecilia Gallerani in Milan in 1484 while both were living in Castello Sforzesco, the Palace of Duke Lodovico Sforza. She was the Duke's mistress, a 17 year old beauty who played music and wrote poetry.
Most visitors to Krakow notice the inescapable Renaissance flair of the Old Town and it seems natural in that part of the city. But the Renaissance architectural inspiration can also be found in much less expected places, like the Communist Utopia town of Nowa Huta. Sixty years ago the city was under communist occupation.
The Tatra Mountains are part of the Carpathian Range, located in the heart of Europe. This is the second highest mountain range in Europe, east of the Alps and west of the Ural and the Caucasus Mountains.
Zakopane is an Alpine mountain resort located at the foot of the Tatra Mountains. At 3,200 feet above sea level, Zakopane is the highest located city in Poland. Due to this elevation, it has a cool, mountain climate.
The Pieniny Mountains have been attracting visitors since the 18th century. Originally, the Dunajec River Gorge was an attraction reserved for the local and visiting aristocracy, but today this scenic river and the surrounding mountain range is visited by over half a million tourists every year.
For centuries the Polish kitchen has been the stage for competing influences from France and Italy, while it also borrowed extensively from more exotic tables: Tartar, Armenian, Scandinavian, Lithuanian, Cossack, Hungarian and Jewish.
Amber is a typically Polish gift. Although it is not a precious stone, its value is equal to many gems. It is a fossilized resin of ancient pine trees dating back between 40 million to 250 million years and occurs as translucent nuggets in earthy hues ranging from pale yellow to reddish brown.
Gdansk, the capital of Pomerania, breaths history. From the ancient Nordic invasions to the crumbling of the Iron Curtain in the 1980s, the city has been in the center of many historical events throughout the thousand years of its existence. Gdansk is a far cry from the gloomy stereotypes of Eastern Europe. The Gothic-style buildings, vibrant with color, the castle-like towers and perfectly preserved city gates give Gdansk a fairy-tale presence and stand witness to its colorful history.
Hanseatic League of the Northern Seas
Despite its 1000 years of turbulent history, the city of Gdansk remains amazingly beautiful. Although built as a stronghold as early as 980 A.D. and thriving as the starting point of the Amber Road in the Middle Ages, the city grew into power when in 1358 it became one of the principal cities of the Hanseatic League (along with Lubeck, Brugge, London and Riga), a medieval alliance of trading guilds which monopolized Baltic trade and protected the merchant ships from piracy and raids. Like other Hanseatic centers, Gdansk became a city republic with self-government, a large and prosperous seaport and a lively community.
One of the highlights of Gdansk is visiting Europe's largest medieval castle in the town of Malbork, near Gdansk. The imposing brick structure was built by the Teutonic Knights and it offers a fascinating insight into the medieval politics of the Catholic Church.
In Gdansk, amber is everywhere. The city seems to be adorned with tons of glistening amber jewelry, displayed on wooden carts in the streets and in the shop windows of exclusive boutiques. Rows of earrings, glass cases full of necklaces and unique brooches overwhelm the senses.
According to a legend, Warsaw started as a riverside settlement built by fisherman Wars and his wife Sawa - thus the Polish name Warszawa. The first fortified settlement was erected here in the 9th century, it was the seat of the Masovian Dukes in the 1300s, and in 1526 it became part of the Polish Crown.
The past has not been kind to Warsaw, and Poland's capital's focus is on the future. One of the fastest growing European cities, Warsaw is taking full advantage of the unique opportunities presented to it: the investment boom is visible everywhere, the glass, futuristic office buildings house hundreds of businesses, research institutions and international organizations, scores of new ones are going up, and the demand is still enormous.
The symbol of Warsaw, the city straddling the Vistula River and far from the sea, is a mermaid. It adorns many statues throughout the city and the city's coat of arms. This imagery has been in use since at least year 1390 when it consisted of a crude form of a sea monster with a female upper body holding a sword in its claws.
Jasna Gora Sanctuary in Czestochowa is the holiest place in Poland and one of the world's most important pilgrimage destinations. The Jasna Gora (Bright Mountain in Polish) has been Central Europe's spiritual center for six centuries.