Travellers to Poland will be enchanted by its remarkable history of heroic resilience and tragedy, and delight in the charming character of its cities and in the natural beauty of the countryside. From romantic tales of medieval knights and battles, kings and splendid castles, to the horrors and destruction of World War II, from its determined stand against communism to today's modern outlook and booming economy, the country abounds with evidence both of a historically turbulent past and a bright future to come.
It was the country most devastated by World War II in Eastern Europe, losing about a quarter of its population and almost its entire Jewish community. The aftermath of the war greatly influenced the character of the country. Former Jewish centres in the cities and the stark concentration camps where the Nazis carried out their extermination atrocities remain as the most stirring reminders of the nation's tragedies. Cities destroyed by the war had to be rebuilt from scratch and the many meticulously restored buildings and historic old towns are testimony to the pride and determination of a strong and durable nation.
Warsaw, the capital, was almost totally destroyed by the war and now presents an unusual mix of beautifully restored historic buildings, communist-era concrete structures, and modern fashion and consumerism. The maritime city of Gdañsk, home to the historic garrison at Westerplatte and the legendary Lenin shipyards, was the stage for both the beginnings of the Second World War and the disintegration of Eastern European communism. But it is Krakow, the ancient royal capital, that draws the crowds, rivalling the elegance of cities like Prague and Vienna. Having largely escaped the destruction of the war it retains its charming medieval character: the Royal Castle, the grand Market Square, the old Jewish quarter and the nearby Nazi death camps of Auschwitz are all steeped in historical importance.
The unspoilt Baltic coastline and the splendour of the rugged mountain ranges of the Tatras will impress outdoor enthusiasts, with a variety of activities and scenery to provide a peaceful and relaxing break from the intensity of the country's history. Along with the legendary hospitality of Polish people, a sense of nationhood to which the Catholic Church is fundamental, and a strong musical and cultural sense of identity, its tourist infrastructure is flourishing and the country is experiencing a remarkable increase in the number of visitors to its shores.
The official currency is Zloty (PLN), divided into 100 groszy.
Poland is essentially a 'cash country', and it is difficult to
negotiate credit cards and travellers cheques in the cities, and
well nigh impossible in rural areas. American Express, Diners Club,
Visa and MasterCard are, however, accepted in places frequented by
tourists. ATMs are also beginning to proliferate in Polish cities,
where the sign 'Bankomat' indicates them. Money (preferably US$ or
Euros) can be exchanged in the cities and larger towns at banks,
hotels or bureaux called 'kantors', which offer the best rates.
Banks are open Monday to Friday from 9am to 5pm and some are open
on Saturday till 1pm.
|PLN 1 =||US$ 0.29||Â£ 0.19||C$ 0.29||A$ 0.28||R 2.42||EUR 0.23||NZ$ 0.36|
Note: These currency exchange rates are not updated daily and should be used as a guideline only.
There are few health risks associated with travel to Poland. Those visiting forested areas are advised to seek medical advice about inoculations for tick borne encephalitis, and tick bite prevention measures due to the presence of Lyme disease. Bird flu was first discovered in northern Poland in March 2006; there is little risk to travellers, but close contact with live birds should be avoided and all egg and poultry dishes well cooked as a precaution. It is safest to drink bottled water to avoid stomach upsets. There is a reciprocal health agreement with the UK and most EU countries, whose citizens are entitled to low-cost emergency medical treatment on presentation of a European Health Insurance Card (EHIC), but full health insurance cover is still advised. Medical facilities and standards of health care are good, but not many nurses or doctors speak English.
A passport valid for at least six months after arrival is needed for those who require a visa. Visa exempt nationals must have a passport valid for period of intended stay (other than EEA nationals). The borderless region known as the Schengen area includes the following countries: Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, The Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain and Sweden. All these countries issue a standard Schengen visa that has a multiple entry option that allows the holder to travel freely within the borders of all.
Note: Passport and visa requirements are liable to change at short notice. Travellers are advised to check their entry requirements with their embassy or consulate.
Polish National Tourist Office, Warsaw: +48 (0)22 536 7070 or www.pot.gov.pl
Foreign Embassies in Poland
As the capital of Poland, Warsaw was one of the most beautiful and sophisticated cities in central Europe until it was almost totally destroyed during the Nazi occupation of World War II. The end of the war saw most of the city reduced to rubble and ruins, and the large swathes of the population had either been killed or interred in Nazi concentration camps.
The city underwent a major regeneration following the havoc of destruction, and the buildings in the heart of the old city were meticulously restored. Most of the historic Old Town was painstakingly rebuilt from a pile of debris, restoring it to its original 17th and 18th Century appearance. The charming Old Market Square, the centre of the rebuilding process, is now a major World Heritage Site attraction.
Warsaw is divided into two distinct halves by the Vistula River, with the Old Town, the modern city centre and most of the attractions on the western side. The eastern side of the river is comprised of uninteresting residential suburbs and business districts. The post-war appearance of Warsaw is a modern urban landscape of high-rise buildings, and the years of communist rule have left an uninspiring architectural legacy of drab concrete structures and uniform prefab-style housing. Dominating the skyline is the city's major eyesore: the massive shape of the Palace of Science and Culture, Stalin's bequest to Polish citizens.
Lying in determined contrast to the concrete greyness are traces of Poland's grand past, including castles and palaces, open parklands, impressive churches and the restored streets of the historic old centre. Signs of former political austerity have been replaced by modern progression, with dreary state shops turned into fashionable boutiques, and consumerism a growing trend.
Although many people give scant regard to Warsaw as an appealing tourist destination, it is still Poland's largest city and the political, economic, scientific and cultural hub of the country. It has many museums and historical monuments, galleries and historic attractions, a variety of restaurants and open-air cafes, and an energetic nightlife. With green open spaces and classical music concerts, this modern bustling city is a far cry from the severe communist-era images of post-war Warsaw.
GdaÃ±sk is an important port, situated at the mouth of the Vistula River on the Baltic Sea, and throughout its history has been a major trading centre. It is the best known of the Tri-City complex that it forms with the modern seaport of Gdynia and the fashionable beach resort town of Sopot.
Its turbulent history includes the rule of the Teutonic Knights in the 14th century, who then lost it to Prussia, and after the first shots of World War II were fired at the nearby Polish garrison Westerplatte, it came under occupation of Nazi Germany in 1939. Like many Polish towns, GdaÃ±sk lay in ruins after the war, but it was meticulously rebuilt over a 20-year period, returning it to its former glory. The interesting architecture and beautiful painted buildings are part of the town's historic charm.
The richest architecture is visible in the historic quarter of the Main Town. Its main thoroughfare, known as the Royal Way, is spectacular. Lined with magnificent buildings featuring beautifully painted facades and entered through grand stone gateways at either end, this was the route along which the Polish Kings paraded during their visits. The most splendid faÃ§ade in town belongs to the Golden House, one of GdaÃ±sk's most impressive buildings, along with the Town Hall and Artus Court. In front of the Court, the gathering place of the old merchants, stands the Renaissance-style Neptune's Fountain. Along the waterfront with its fashionable restaurants and cafes, the huge GdaÃ±sk Crane dominates the promenade, the largest crane in medieval Europe and today housing the Maritime Museum.
Parallel to the Royal Way is GdaÃ±sk's most picturesque street, Mariacka Lane, lined with quaint 17th Century burgherhouses with decorative steps and iron railings. The gigantic St Mary's Church towers over the city and offers splendid panoramic views.
The only major city to escape the destruction of World War II, Krakow has one of the best-preserved medieval city centres in all of Europe. The Old Town is a significant UNESCO World Heritage Site and retains a wealth of architectural gems from different periods, with magnificent churches and aristocratic palaces lining the old streets, reminiscent of its glorious days when it was the abode of kings and royalty. At the heart of the city lies one of the grandest squares in Europe, the Old Market Square.
The charming Old Town is a compact area encircled by leafy parkland that forms a green belt around the historic centre. The main entrance to the old city was through the Florian Gate, set within the original city walls, now the haunt of artists and full of galleries containing their work. With a thriving cultural life, it has been home to many of the nation's greatest writers, artists and intellectuals, and is one of the main cultural centres in the country, a spirited city with personality and charisma.
Overlooking the city is Wawel Hill, topped by the striking Royal Castle and Cathedral, the seat of Polish kings for seven centuries and the symbols of Polish national history. Also important is the city's Jewish roots, and the history of one of the great Jewish centres in Europe can clearly be seen in the old ghetto area of Kazimierz, and starkly remembered in the memorial death camps of Auschwitz and Birkenau, west of Krakow.
Situated on the banks of the Vistula River, Krakow is also a modern city, the third largest in Poland, and an important university centre boasting the oldest university in Europe. The large student population creates a lively atmosphere and a vibrant nightlife. Countless cafes and outdoor restaurants surround the cobbled main square. The unique atmosphere of this medieval city has made it one of Poland's most popular tourist destinations.
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