The World’s Greatest Kept Secret, Krakow and Zakapane, Poland

As a former flight attendant, I’ve visited all European countries except Albania and Poland. Poland is Europe’s 5th largest nation. Aside for Lech Walesa, Copernicus, the Pope and a decade of Polish jokes I never ever understood, I knew absolutely nothing of this land. Nonetheless, my interest peaked because it will soon be hot on the tourist trail and due to the fact my Chicago husband’s family is from here. He accompanied me with a sense of delight in discovering his roots. I went to grow to be educated and enriched by one thing new. We flew from Atlanta by way of JFK and Warsaw to Krakow for a mere 4 days. No rest for the weary with a head spinning itinerary. I favor to go to cities in the off season to mingle with the locals. It offers a more authentic and intimate atmosphere.

On airport arrival, we’re cheerfully greeted by Pavel who will be our driver throughout. He holds a welcome sign “Suza Davis”. I say, “Hi, I am Suzy from Atlanta.” I chuckled when he responded, “Yes, downstairs of USA.” We checked into Hotel Amadeus, a 16th century posh inn in the heart throb of town center. Prince Charles once bedded in our area, I am told.

We set out to hunt for dinner. The illuminated Old Town was spectacular and filled with so a lot of young individuals, it created me really feel elderly. 150,000 students reside in this university town. Krakow is Europe’s premier party scene exactly where they keep out until the birds sing. This historic district holds highest concentration of bars and restaurants in the world. We all of a sudden found Pierogi Garden, home of the freshest Polish dumplings. They were stuffed with sauerkraut, lamb, beef, berries, chocolate and even peanut butter. There have been 6 types of soups, all with beets which I abhor. Right after a dozen dumplings, I had a melted ewe’s milk cheese pancake which was beyond scrumptious.

Poland experienced countless invasions throughout its history. Right after becoming ravaged by the Germans and then the Russians, it ultimately accomplished independence in 1989 with the collapse of Soviet communism. Krakow was wired for destruction near the finish of WWII by the Germans. They planned to blow it up as soon as the Russians took more than, thankfully the war ended hours just before the strategy was carried out.

These days it remains 1 of the handful of cities remaining in its original form. With a population now of 780,000, it has morphed into a trendy international capital. Vibrant and modern however somehow retains its traditional culture with regal architecture. It is in Krakow exactly where one particular finds the spirit of the new Poland.

On day 2, we have been greeted by Anna who was strikingly lovely. We started in the web of cobbled streets in Old Town that was meant for walking. It was a maze of museums, chapels, galleries, cafes and hole in the wall pubs. Even in winter there was entertainment with street dancers, mimes, accordion players and on one particular corner, I watched a knight in armor break-dancing.

We entered Market Square, Europe’s biggest medieval square exactly where little has changed considering that 1257. It is crowned by the Bell Tower exactly where a bugler plays at the top of the hour. It drives the residents crazy at evening. A have to see is Cloth Hall exactly where fishmongers, cloth merchants and bakers have sold their wares given that the 14th century. Now it is a fabulous arcade of handicraft stalls.

We walked to the nicely preserved Jewish Quarter which is now edgy with artistic character. Poland as soon as held Europe’s biggest concentration of Jews at three.five million. Poland’s kings for the duration of the middle ages noted they have been becoming expelled elsewhere and invited them in to augment the economy. Right here they thrived till the holocaust and forced communism right after WWII. There are now only 180 left. We viewed the ghettos exactly where Spielberg’s famed film was filmed and looked across the river to see Schindler’s factory.

Rick Steves writes that one must go to a milk bar right here. Anna escorts us to one particular of these government subsidized cafes for the operating class. They are a holdover from Poland’s communist previous. Almost everything is astonishingly low cost. I ordered a bowl of homemade soup and cheesecake for $ 2.

We then visited Wawel Castle, a 12th century masterpiece and defining icon of the city’s pride. There had been no queues as we walked its corridors of history. This was the residence of kings for 500 years. Anna explains its legend of the fire breathing dragon named Smok here who ate virgins for breakfast.

This was bolstered by the discovery of strange massive bones in the 1400’s. (The bones are in fact whale bones as this region on Europe was after below water eons ago.) The dragon therefore became the symbol of the city and is omnipresent in souvenir shops. Anna then nudges us inside different gorgeous churches, for me always as boring as paint by numbers, nonetheless they were exquisite. I ask if there are any Protestants here. She replied matter of factly, “Yes,1.”

The afternoon was spent on restaurant and hotel inspections. I loved the formal greetings and it is always educational. I understand about regional cuisine and accommodations in the very best location for the ideal price tag. All hotels had been totally booked. Jews and Catholics go to year round on religious pilgrimages or come for roots tours.

Krakow was not too long ago rated in the prime 10 European destinations. I now see why. Americans continue to rave more than Prague which I now find passe with inflated costs and decrease standards of service. It is turn out to be as expensive as Rome. Ultimately, Krakow may possibly do the same when Poland converts to the Euro in 2012. For now one can splurge with inexpensive costs. Europeans flock here for 50-70% savings. Germans and Danes in particular come for dental and optometry requirements. Medical tourism including plastic surgery is booming. I met an Austrian flight attendant who fly’s in month-to-month for spa treatments at half price.

At night we dined at Wierzynek Restaurant, the world’s oldest that has served princes to vacationers because 1364. It was scrumptious peasant cuisine (organic) of wild boar, roast ribs and heaping mounds of potatoes. I ask them to teach me some Polish, a Slavic language that is as not possible as a mouthful of alphabet soup. The word toilet has five syllables.

On the third day, we awoke to a gray, cold and wet day which gave us the suitable ambiance for what we would see. Pavel drove us 60 km to Auschwitz. We were greeted by Yuri, our brilliant private guide whose sole passion was to enlighten us on the unthinkable tragedies that took place here from 1940-45. I after visited Dachau, but this was the biggest of concentration camps. This death factory killed 1.4 million men and women of 27 nationalities. Most have been Jews. The other folks have been gypsies, Soviets, Poles, gays, political dissidents and much more.

We entered the gate reading, “Work will set you free of charge.” Inside was a effective reminder as we viewed the crematoriums, starvation cells, kilos of hair, endless eye glasses and a pond nonetheless gray from ashes 60 years ago. Most sobering to me was the children’s section. It held a sea of tiny shoes, dolls and meticulous German documentation of 230,000 little ones who suffered and died right here.

We had been driven to the extended camp of Birkenau (Auschwitz II), with its wooden barracks constructed to residence 100,000 but ultimately held 200,000+. With each other in silence, the 3 of us walked a half mile to see the ruins of the gas chambers and memorial monument. At the end of our tour, Yuri mentioned goodbye to us with this profound statement, “I’ve guided numerous holocaust survivors who visited right here like vacationers. They told me at the end that I am not in a position to present 1% of how bad it truly was.” This was the most emotional touching site my eyes ever beheld.

Late afternoon we visited the popular Wieliczka Salt Mine. This mysterious and vast underground city 3 miles lengthy has extracted salt for 800 years. The Planet Heritage Website draws a million visitors per year and it appears as although they all arrived right now.

Our guide Justina seemed to have an obsession with salt, but it was merely the enjoy of her job as guide. She mentioned to comply with her down 836 measures which was a greater work out than a Stairmaster. Caves bore me, but this site will remain etched in my thoughts forever. Think about underground chapels, ornate sculptures, chandleries and life size figures carved totally from salt or a restaurant and a post workplace 380′ under street level. It was spectacular. For centuries miners and horses spent their lives here. They remained healthful in this wealthy micro-climate. It has to do with magnesium ions, what ever these are? These days folks come to the healing chambers of the therapy complicated for isolation in all-natural air purity.

Day 4. I continually search the globe for special things or places to present to fellow travelers. Nowadays I identified it in Zakapane. For years now, a friend of mine insisted I pay a visit to this mountain resort with the funny name I could never ever don’t forget. We drove to the pure air of the Tatra Mountains with Eva, our expert guide that day. She said this adventure destination of 60,000 residents swells to 200,000 almost year round. In summer season they come for mineral spas and Alpine hiking. In winter they come to ski. That week Zakapane hosted the International Ski Jumping Competitors.

Here was a charming town of artists and Giorake, an ethnic group of mountain highlanders. These wandering shepherds trace back to the 15th century. They really like to dress in their colorful clothes for vacationers. They reside on cheese or something smothered in cheese. We visited a cheese industry the size of Switzerland. As far as my eyes could see, there were sheep and goat cheeses artistically sculpted into every single shape conceivable. We also toured the Aqua Park with an Olympic sized mineral hot spring mineral pool and rode cable automobiles higher into the mountains for breathtaking scenery.

It was a most productive and enjoyable day tour. I identified a regional tour business that arranges fun activities for groups such as horse sledding by means of the forest, dog sledding and the new “snow rafting” in rubber rafts sloshing toboggan-style down the mountain. At the massive outdoor market with countless ethnic stalls, I bought a striking leather and fur coat for $ 260 that fashionably looked six instances its price.

There’s so a lot I didn’t get to see on this short go to. On my next return, I will do the new “Crazy Communism Tour.” Outdoors Krakow is Nowa Huta, after a serious socialist suburb of forced industrialization. Massive steelworks factories overtook the rich farm land. Physician and professors had been sent here to operate. Miles of concrete tenement blocks had been erected to property them.

On tour you can find out encounter firsthand Stalin’s present to Krakow by riding in a classic East German Trabant automobile out to Nowa Huta. A dinner of salted bread, pickles and vodka is incorporated, followed by dancing at a retro 70’s era disco.

Below the yoke of communism, the Poles refused to give up their religion. Stalin said, “Implementing communism right here is like saddling a bull.” Faced against such a determined spirit in the folks, he gave up. I”m amazed at all the obstacles this stoic nation has overcome.

If you have been there and purchased the t-shirt of London, Paris, Madrid or Athens, I encourage you to check out undiscovered components of Europe. Krakow is destined to turn into the next Prague. It oozes with history, friendly faces, hearty cuisine, and it won’t break your pocketbook. If you can go to the new Poland, please never tell anyone about Zakapane, one of the world’s ideal kept secrets.

Suzy Davis President and founder of

Adventures For Singles
. She practically
invented the concept of singles travel. She has traveled the globe for 30 years,
initially as a flight attendant and now with her firm leading groups of single travelers to the four corners of the