“Photography takes an instant out of time, altering life by holding it still.“Dorothea Lange
Dorothea Lange’s words often cross the mind as one travels through the southern region of Poland, where folklore and history take you back a thousand years. Here, history is embedded in every corner. Beauty etched in each turn. And somewhere between the folds lies a magical, mystical and mythical experience of alternative Europe. Where 21st century city chic co-exists with medieval magic. And an unspoilt countryside of rivers, lakes, mountains and trails tease you to explore and discover.
Poland is a region of contrast. Urban centres like Kraków and Tarnów weave an enchanting tale of monarchy and showcase a rich cultural heritage with its castles, fortresses, cathedrals and synagogues. The war museums and memorials at Oświęcim are poignant reminders of the holocaust and chill you to the bone. A visit to the royal salt mines in Bochnia and Wieliczka can leave you in absolute awe. And if you look beyond cities, you will find a wealthy luxurious hangover around Zakopane’s ski slopes and chalets, and solitude in the pristine beauty around Maków Podhalański.
Kraków is immensely popular with young travellers and is fast gaining an edge over cities like Prague, Bratislava and Budapest for its ‘alternative European experience’. It is a melting pot for tourists from all over the world, has a thriving nightlife, and is relatively cheaper than the rest of Europe.
Adjoining Kraków are the famous royal salt mines of Wieliczka and further east lies the Bochnia salt mines. Both are in the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and feature a fascinating maze of underground tunnels and walkways at multiple levels, running into hundreds of miles. There are statues & chandeliers carved out of salt, underground chapels, art galleries, museums, cafes & restaurants. Salt has been mined here from the 13th to the 20th century and the site has now turned into a stunning venue for underground music concerts, opera & choir performances, grand balls and exhibitions.
The relatively smaller town of Tarnów is about 80 kms east of Kraków and offers as much in terms of history and heritage. Home to several museums, art galleries and eclectic eateries, it is a city worth exploring.
About 50 kms south of Kraków and a little off the beaten track lies Maków Podhalański, a small hamlet along the Skawa river with a population of less than 6,000. If Tatras is in your agenda, you could stop over here for a day. Don’t expect fancy tourist trappings, as this is more of a sanatorium resort with a few vacation homes and uncorrupted natural landscapes. If horse riding into thick woods is your thing, or even ice skating, hiking, kayaking or canoeing, then Maków can be a good break from the usual.
The most stunning landscapes however are around Zakopane. Just a few miles away from the Slovakian border, it is a resort town for the rich & famous nestled at the base of the beautiful Tatra mountains. Known as the Polish Alps, it is a winter ski resort with the mountains forming a natural border between Poland and Slovakia. Depending on the time of the year, Zakopane can be a completely different experience. Summers are about hiking trails, horse and carriages rides, segway tours and bike trips, while in winters one can indulge in skiing, snowmobile rides, sleigh rides and treks. The cable ride to Mt. Kasprowy is an attraction and so is Krupówki Street, the lively walkway sprinkled with restaurants and cafes. The souvenirs and varieties of cheese available at the local market are irresistible and you are quite likely to come back with a fair bit of excess baggage.
The remarkable thing about Poland is its post-war resurrection and the eagerness amongst its people to embrace the future with optimism and hope. The people are friendly, vibes are positive, intercity travel is a breeze, and tourism infrastructure is well established. Millennials particularly have a modern & progressive outlook, and celebrate their cultural legacy with pride. The painstaking renovations and restoration of its architecture, revival of the arts, music and culinary experiences, all work together to take you on a historic journey in a modern context. It is a refreshing revelation and that’s what perhaps makes Poland one of the hottest travel destinations of 2017.