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Southern Poland: meat, mountains and horse-drawn carriages

Jonathan Schofield and the first Manchester Confidential travel article: we’re going places

Written by . Published on September 8th 2008.


Southern Poland: meat, mountains and horse-drawn carriages

Other languages and the way they read have me in childish stitches. I hope English does the same for Johnny Foreigner. Polish is naturally hilarious. It might even be better than Dutch.

With every restaurant you get live ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ music and staff forced to wear heavy woollen trousers even in hot weather. Thus visitors get a cosy rustic atmosphere, and the staff get a nasty rash and a day in the European Court of Humans Rights.

Thus the main park in Cracow is called Planty Park and the word for self-service is samoobsluga. Booze shops are titled simply Alkohole. The currency is the zloty which is much better than the dreary culture-levelling Euro.

Another interesting name is that of the founder of Cracow, King Krak, who apparently followed King Smack and preceded Prince Charlie. There are King Krak dolls for sale in the city. Careful at Customs if you purchase one, a throw away sentence or two might get you into trouble: “Yes, you can buy Krak everywhere. Mine’s in the hand-luggage, I'm going to give it to the children on the plane. Stop ‘em from getting bored.”


Cracow: Rynek Glowny

Language included Poland is a superb holiday destination. A fact many Brits seem to doubt. When I told people where we were going, it was funny to watch the recoil. It was as if I’d said: “I’m taking the kids to Grimsby, to de-barnacle tugs and introduce them to the joys of corporal punishment.”

This reaction is largely down to a very modern British psychosis: a frame of mind which states if it’s a European holiday in August, then the only option is the Mediterranean. Which is dull. It’s also down to plain ignorance, or fears about Poland being backward and lacking amenities.

These are unfounded. For instance, the Cracow area and south to the Tatra mountains is a region fully geared up for visitors but in an engagingly Polish way. In other words it hasn’t yet succumbed to the international blandishments of global tourism like the Med has. This also means with every restaurant you get live ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ music and staff forced to wear heavy woollen trousers even in hot weather. Visitors get a cosy rustic atmosphere, and the staff get a nasty rash and a day in the European Court of Humans Rights.


Gubalowka: a 3000ft high prom without the seaside

The food is good too, much more than the legendary borsch. The kids love it, especially, if you keep it simple and stick to the letter S – sausages, (mu)shrooms, stews and soups. It’s half the price of eating out in the UK. Best for me was, as one menu put it, ‘the knuckle joints of piggy animal, very fat’. Veggies be warned: the food is all about the meat.

But also in Poland you get good art, culture, loads of outdoor activities and plenty of history. Too much history maybe. This includes forty miles or so south west of Cracow, the Nazi death camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau.

But then there are two ways to do holidays. One is the superficial - just treat a country as an amusement park with funny voices and different geographical backdrops - the other involves taking it deeper.

You have to do the latter in Poland, especially when a visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau can’t really be avoided.


Resort town Zakopane from above

Let’s compare histories for a moment. Britain was last successfully invaded a 1000 years ago. The last major land battle, and that a minor one compared to Continental scraps, was Culloden in 1745. In the same period Poland’s been invaded by nineteen armies (or more, I lost count). Mostly these have been Russian and German armies, ravaging and torturing. During World War II, out of a population of thirty million, six million were killed (from the 3m Jews only 80-90,000 survived).


Any port in a storm

This hyper-turbulent history informs the art, architecture and much else. It may also explain the way Poles embrace Roman Catholicism.

It’s odd to see in 2008 congregations spilling out of every church and tannoy systems rigged up to spread the word. Everywhere there’s the image of the late Pope, the Polish John Paul II, including T-shirts with JP’s image. Teenagers seem to buy them more than Kurt Cobain T-shirts. Smells like Holy Teen Spirit.

Cracow, itself, is a smart town of well-kept streets and traffic jams caused by an unending procession of horse drawn carriages. It was previously the capital and also the royal seat and looks it. It is a grand yet walk-able place, and the main square, Rynek Glowny, is amongst the best in Europe, perfect for promenading or drinking beer.


Young rafter in traditional costume

The old royal castle, the Wawel, is worth visiting but you should also take in a few of the Art Nouveau buildings. The stained glass windows, for instance, by Stanilaw Wyspianski from around 1900 in the Franciscan Church, are a triumph. The best place to spend the evening is the old Jewish quarter in Kazimierz especially around Skeroka Street with its restaurants and bars – UK hen and stag parties now discovering cheap flights to Cracow are usually too pissed to find it.

We spent most of our time a couple of hours south from Cracow, 800ft above the resort town of Zakopane, and 3000ft above sea level, on Gubalowka hill. This gives a view of the Tatra mountains, a superb, jagged range climbing almost 9000ft and ideal for trekking, mountaineering and skiing in winter.


Flesh, lovely flesh

Gubalowka is great fun. From 10am-7pm, the half mile long central ridge is a continuous, old-fashioned seaside prom, without a beach. Behind the stalls are ropewalk assault courses, arcade games, go-karting and a gravity toboggan run. The last is genius, a 900 metre descent down a metal tube, on wheeled bin-lids travelling at improbable speeds. What’s refreshing is the relaxed attitude to health and safety. The HSE kill-joys haven’t caught up with Poland yet.

Before we went, Stefan Najduch , my local baker, a no-nonsense fella, calmed any fears about going to Polska. He’s the owner of the Barbakan deli, named after a Cracow fortification. “The kids will love it,” he said. “Cracow is beautiful and the Tatras spectacular. Now can I interest in today’s batch of sour-dough, it’s very good?”

He was right and not just about the sour dough. We’ll return to Poland.

The Fundamental truth: You can fly to Cracow for a long weekend in September return from Liverpool Airport with Ryanair from £98.48, with EasyJet from £124.98 and from Manchester with Czeairlines from £254 return. The chalet in Gubalowka, near Zakopane was £650, Sat to Sat. We stayed in the Hotel Rezydent for £189 for two double rooms per night – but it was crap so don’t bother, good hotel accommodation seems Cracow’s Achilles’ heel. Mid-range meals for two shouldn’t cost more than £25 with a beer or two. Decent wine is more expensive than in the UK.

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