POLES GOT SOUL
Gaby Graser discovers the unexpected pleasures of Warsaw and Cracow
The strongest economy in Eastern Europe is also a delightful place to visit: Poland has been a lightning rod for invasions, wars, occupations, partitions and renaissances.
But over the past 25 years, the capital Warsaw has morphed from being a dreary centre of communism to a buzzing metropolis.
My flight from Paris was full of Frenchmen with laptops and spreadsheets — they’ve descended on Poland, their new frontier, and business is booming.
HONEYBEES & BOOKS
Spring was around the corner. Our hotel in Smolna Street, the Chopin B&B, was eco-modern. They grow their own veggies, keep bees for guests’ breakfast honey, provide bicycles for the energetic (with maps), and roast their own coffee in the breakfast room.
The haunting elegance of Eastern European art on every wall complemented the small libraries in the rooms and on the landings.
Books — in many languages — are big in Poland, as is music. Every night at 7.30pm, someone played Chopin, Rachmaninoff or Beethoven in the downstairs piano salon. Wine and pastries were served for guests and to anyone who wandered in from outside. The pianists ranged from 19-yearold Polish prodigies to a 70-plus, bearded Israeli man. What talented people!
In a top-of-the-range bus from Warsaw to Cracow, we whizzed through miles and miles of industrial and farm lands.
Technical colleges abound in virtually every town. Tech-wise, Poland is giving Germany a run for its money.
THE CALL OF CRACOW
Cracow must be one of Europe’s best-kept secrets. Its churches soar into the skyline and its museums and monuments are exotic and breathtaking. Get there before the country’s beauty is trampled by the tourist boots.
We visited friends in the Cracow countryside for lunch in a glorious old house, where warm, Polish bread, sausages and cold meats of infinite variety (no polony) and excellent cheeses were devoured.
We took coffee at a nearby farm, where the retired owner tends vineyards, an apple orchard and prolific vegetable and flower gardens.
In his chandelier-lit cellar, we tasted his cider champagne with a mushroom pâté from his kitchen. Bliss! This was not the Poland I had imagined.
At a farewell night out, we trawled Warsaw’s main street, where young people in the latest fashions strolled up and down, seeing and being seen.
The coffee and gateau at a Marlene Dietrich-style café would put the French gourmet food company Fauchon to shame.
Frank Sinatra provided a fitting backdrop to the louche patrons, with their furs, scarves and coats casually hanging from an old, polished coat stand.
RISING AT LAST
The Poles have moved on from their country’s tragic history.
Surrounded by six countries, Poland was invaded in 1655 by Swedish and Transylvanian armies, then carved up by Russia, Prussia and Austria.
The country gained its independence in 1918, only to be invaded by Germany in 1939. We visited the Old Quarter and the Jewish Ghetto, where those searing scenes we have seen in the movies came to life.
Eighty-four percent of Warsaw’s buildings were flattened during WW2. The rebuilding took place under communism, Poland’s next scourge. But the country has risen again, and everybody is looking to the future.
Poland is one of the European Union’s star protégées and one can only admire the brave and talented people of this exciting and beautiful country. ● S.
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URBAN HEART The Old Town of Cracow, Poland, emanates from a market square dating back to the 13th century.
HOUSE IN THE COUNTRY The writer had a glorious lunch on a farm in the Cracow countryside.