Famous for striking shipyard workers with big moustaches, vodka, unpronounceable names and getting invaded by all and sundry, Poland is hardly top of the hit list when it comes to seeing Europe. It’s like the corner of the playground where the poor kids hang out. That could all be about to change though.
There can be few countries out there that got as raw a deal as Poland did. The very centre of Europe should have meant power and affluence but being sandwiched between Germany and Russia, two of the least desirable neighbours you could ever ask for, was never going to be fun. Since the formation of the first Polish state in 966 under Mieszko I, the country’s history has been one riddled with invasions, occupations, frequent territorial reshuffles and general hardship. Even the Swedes have had a crack at conquering Poland and the fact that the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz is by far the best known attraction says it all really.
Four stagnant decades of communism behind the Iron Curtain definitely didn’t do the place any favours after an almost unimaginable level of destruction sustained during WW2 (Warsaw, for example, was completely flattened) and this is reflected in the state of the country today. Over 50% of Poland’s 312,000km2 is still agricultural while the overwhelmingly grey suburban parts consist mainly of concrete tower blocks covered in crude grafitti, connected by hideously insufficient roads and second-hand public transport systems which seem almost purposefully un-German in their unreliability. Stray out of a city centre and it gets ugly quickly.
The situation isn’t helped by massive social divisions either and the population is split down the middle between a God-fearing, moral-bound older generation and a liberal, pro-European younger generation. This has resulted in a shambolic political arena which makes the Italians look exemplary and politicians with nursery school mentality stumble from scandal to PR disaster, concerned only with childish retribution and the discussion of the most petty and inane of subjects.
Given the circumstances, it is hardly surprising that the Poles suffer from the mother of all inferiority complexes. They may love their country but they aren’t proud of it and will gleefully point out all it’s deficiencies, silently chuckling away at the idiotic foreigner who thought that it might actually be a nice place to visit. Rather comically, though, this love of self-deprecation is the one thing aside from birth that unites all Poles and two people who are diametrically opposed on every other issue will happily agree that their country is rubbish.
Thankfully, however, a level-headed tourist need not succumb to such doom and gloom. Ok, it may not be heaven on earth but Poland does have a lengthy list of merits. Warsaw, Krakow, Gdansk, Poznan and Wroclaw all have charming, well-maintained old towns and, for those travellers who prefer cows to cars, the lakelands of Masuria or the Pieniny Mountains in the south of the country are right up there with the best in terms of impressive scenery. And if that’s not enough for you then how about the largest brick castle in Europe or a mini desert? Yep, Poland has what it takes.
The country is also under major reconstruction, thanks largely to the EU’s magic wand, and the focus is very much on developing the roads and public facilities ahead of the Euro2012 football tournament. Admittedly, this makes travelling anywhere by car during the summer season a bit of a mission and you’ll spend more time sitting in traffic jams admiring the tattoos of bare-chested workies than actually moving, but give it a couple of years and Poland will be a much more attractive and well-organised place to visit. Joining the EU has also given Poland a major economic boost and experts forecast exponential growth for up to 10 years as the country makes up for lost time and poorly-exploited resources.
In between bouts of belittling their own country, the Poles also know how to party like its 1999. The Jewish Kazimierz district of Krakow is relentlessly hip and Sopot, situated just 10km from Gdansk, is the undisputed beach party capital of the Baltic riviera (as it should be known!). Add to all this the fact that the country still uses the zÅ‚oty and not the euro, so it’s still cheap for most visitors, and you’re on to a surefire winner.