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Poland travel guide: everything you need to know

Planning a trip to Poland, or just want to know more? We can help! We sat down with Trafalgar Travel Director Craig Hill, self confessed Poland obsessive, to craft the ultimate Poland travel guide.

Tell us a little about the Polish culture; what are the people like, is there a predominant religion, what makes the country unique?

One of the most important parts of Polish culture are the holidays and traditions. 95% of Poles are Roman Catholic, which combined with Polands Slavic roots, are an integral part of the populations culture. Christmas and Easter are still symbols of a spiritual feast here, not just festive holidays.

The resilience of the Poles is also remarkable. No matter what history has thrown at them they have not only survived but thrived, to become one of Europe’s greatest destinations. The fact that their borders have changed so much over the centuries, that they had to survive under super powers during the last 200 years and managed to keep their culture, language, literature and art intact, is a testament to the country and the people. It’s during these times that the country flourished, even more so than in times of peace. This pride can be seen everywhere nowadays. Poland is an exceptionally proud and yet humble and warm hearted nation.

How has Poland’s history shaped the country it is today?

Poland’s story first came to the fore in 1569, with the signing of the Polish Lithuanian commonwealth. Over the next 100 years, this was to become one of the largest territories in Europe, covering 1.1 million square kilometres and combining 11 million multi ethnic people. Following the 3rd partition in 1795, Poland was then divided between Austria, Prussia and Russia, meaning the country completely disappeared from the map of Europe for 123 years. It wasn’t until 1918 that Poland was reborn and untied once again, much to the joy of the population who had always remained Polish in their hearts.

World War II came to the country on September 1st 1939, with an attack on Westerplatte, in the north of the country on the Baltic coast. The country fell after 3 weeks of fighting, with Warsaw in particular putting up a courageous fight.

The city withstood the Nazi German assault for 28 days, the longest of any European city. Following occupation, Nazi Germany then set about establishing concentration and extermination camps across Poland, several of which remain today as memorial sites. The most well known of these is of course Auschwitz, which is the German translation of the Polish town, Oswiecim.

The following years for Poland were brutal. In April and May of 1940, 22000 military officers and Intelligentsia were slaughtered in the forests of Katyn by the Russians. The Polish military were also involved in campaigns across Europe and the Middle East, which is where the the Story of Wojtec, “The bear who went to war” comes from. This heartwarming tale tells the story of a bear cub who grew up with the Polish Soldiers, became enlisted and rose to the rank of corporal, and was eventually officially recognised for his contribution to the Polish military.

The month following April 14th 1943, was one of the darkest in Polish history. World War II’s largest single revolt by Jewish people – the Warsaw Ghetto uprising – happened during this time, resulting in 57,000 people killed, captured or sent to extermination camps. Warsaw was also a key battle ground on 1st August 1944, when the Home Army rose up against the Nazis. Reassured by allies that they would receive support should they fight, instead they were let down. No military support arrived, leaving the fiercely brave and proud but poorly equipped Home Army, to fight alone. 3 days later and following the order from Hitler to “kill anything that moves”, the Wola Massacre of Warsaw, saw between 40000 and 50000 civilians massacred in a single week, and a further 150,000 killed over the following 2 months.

When peace finally came following the end of the war, the full extent of the betrayal against Poland became apparent. Their contributions to the war effort were barely acknowledged, and they then found themselves under the Soviet sphere of influence. Yet with the bad, came the good. Saint Pope John Paul II became the first non Italian Pope in 450 years, and was credited by Mikhail Gorbachov for being instrumental in ending socialism in 1989. It was at this time that Poland also saw the former leader of the Solidarity movement, Lech Walensa, become the first democratically elected president of Poland.

In the 30 years since, Poland has advanced in leaps and bounds to become one of the world’s favourite travel destinations. From the thriving capital of Warsaw, to the relaxed old town of Krakow, visitors to the country are drawn by the history, resilience and spirit of a country that has, against the odds, developed to become a bucket list destination for many.

What are a few key phrases visitors can learn?

Hello – cześć

Use this and you will fit right in with the locals.

How are you – Jak się masz

A firm favourite for English language speakers, but this saying is not so common in the Polish language. Instead, Poles are more interested in the real well being of the person they are talking to. They are not so keen on small talk or empty phrases.

Where is – Gdzie jest

A handy addition to your Poland travel guide, for everything from finding a good restaurant serving up Pierogi, apple pie or cheesecake, to discovering a local coffee shop where you can sit and relax after a day of exploring.  

Can I have – Czy mogę poprosić

Without this phrase you could go hungry (although unlikely in Poland), but with it a world of food and drink possibilities open up to you.

To your health – Na zdrowie!

There are a multitude of toasts in Poland and once you have said what you are toasting to – Na zdrowie! – it’s and down the hatch. 

Insider tip: never challenge a Pole to a drinking competition. They are Olympic champions in many sports, and Vodka is unofficially one of them.

What are the some of the must try dishes when in Poland?

Anyone can find Pierogi in its many varieties, so for this Poland travel guide I would also recommend some of the more unique dishes alongside the classics:

  • Duck Blood soup. This is one for the connoisseur, and hard to find.

  • Pierogi with potato, spinach, mushrooms and pork are always popular. For the connoisseur, try duck, lamb or wild boar specialities.

  • Pierogi as a sweet, such as Pierogi with blueberries and cream, for anyone with a sugar craving.

  • Dishes served with buckwheat and beets are plentiful and popular.

  • Crepes with cottage cheese and fresh fruit.

  • Any of the amazing variety of cold cuts and pates.

  • Breakfast can also be a real feast in Poland, featuring with lots of salads, cold and warm dishes, and a mix of sweet and savoury.

Where, in your opinion, is the most beautiful city in Poland and why?

Warsaw has a lot of unexpected charm. The Old Town has been painstakingly rebuilt and stands in stark contrast to broad modern avenues and state of the art skyscrapers. Around the festive period you’ll find the most beautiful Christmas decorations that illuminate the entire city like a fairytale, and all year round the historic gardens and parks, beautifully rebuilt palaces, churches and state buildings offer something for everyone.

In your opinion, what is the one can’t miss experience every Poland travel guide should include?

Without a doubt, that would be the Wieliczka Salt Mines. This is one of the most unique sites in the world, and was one of the first World Heritage sites to be recognised by UNESCO. Aside from this, if you’re planning to visit in the winter, the illuminations of Warsaw and the Christmas Markets in Krakow are very popular.

Where do you love to experience nature in Poland?

If we’re talking beaches, the Baltic coast and Sopot Pier both have a unique ambience. Polish beaches are famous for their width and quality of sand – something visitors will be pleasantly surprised by.

If we’re talking mountains, it has to be Zakopane and the valley. This was one of Pope John Paul II’s favourite places to visit, and millions of Poles consider it the most fascinating place in the country.

Why would you encourage visitors to go to Poland?

Poland is still an undiscovered gem; a magnificent tapestry of colour offering guests a warm welcome by locals who are eager to share its hospitality, culture and cuisine with everyone who travels here.

Trafalgar’s Best of Poland trip is a beautiful blend of what Poland has to offer. It’s an opportunity to experience so much, from meeting the locals in Zakopane, to shopping for local specialities and crafts from the 4 corners of the country, while gaining a greater understanding of the Polish people and their culture.

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