Perfectly Picturesque Poland: why you should plan a visit!

Old Town Torun
View from Malbork Castle
We've been wanting to go to Poland for years. Maggie, our two-time exchange student is from Torun, Poland, and she's asked us to visit her about a zillion times. Somehow, with kids, schedules and work, it never happened until last week. Now we are smitten, and are already scheming our next trip to this magical country, so steeped in history, culture and beauty.


We landed in Gdansk (pronounced: G'dinesk), which is located on the Baltic Sea, and with Maggie, our great tour guide, we visited the trio of Gdansk, Sopot and Gdynia, as well as Malbork, Torun and Ciechocinek (pronounced: cha HO chee neck), all of which I can't wait to show you! 

But first, here are 6 wonderful reasons to visit Poland:
1. Beautiful and varied landscape
2. Rich in history and culture
3. Cities are not crowded and have great architecture
4. Great food (and drink)
5. Spas
6. Friendly people 

1. Poland has a beautiful and varied landscape. (Understatement of the year!)
The first thing I noticed when we landed was just how GREEN Poland is, and how much land is unpopulated.  Did you know that 90% of Poland is covered by farmland and forests?  Poland also boasts has 800km of coastline, 3 major mountain ranges, 10,000 lakes and an actual desert!

When we arrived (in June), there were beautiful wildflowers everywhere!

We hit a beach...

Saw beautiful forests with very cool trees.
Visited the country....


And saw a moose walking through the farmland. I do think that in his search for food (carrots?) he had wandered a bit far from the forest.


Poland is located in the center of Europe, and is bordered by 7 countries  (Germany, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania and a province of Russia). It's also larger than Germany and Italy--who'd have guessed?

2. Poland is rich in history and culture. I have to admit that before coming here, my knowledge of Poland was somewhat lacking.Perhaps you are in the same boat, so here is a history of Poland in 8 easy points:
1. The Polish state was officially created in the 900's, by the Piasts, who ruled until the 14th century.
2. Poland had strong ties with Lithuania and became the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1569.
3. The nation saw a steady decline until 1795, when it was divided up by Russia, Prussia and Austria following a series of wars.
4. There was no independent Poland until after WW1, when the 3 above countries were weakened by war and the Second Polish Republic was established.
5. Between 1939-1945, Poland was occupied by the German Nazis, millions of Polish citizens were executed, and Warsaw was 85% destroyed during Hitler's retreat.
6. After the war, Poland became a communist satellite state of the Soviet Union. Many Polish people migrated out of Poland, to the USA and neighboring countries. In fact, after Warsaw, New York and Chicago have the 2nd and 3rd ranked Polish populations.
7. 1989 was the year of Solidarity and the end of communist rule.
8. 2019 is the 30th year anniversary of the end of communism!

What does all this mean to visitors? Well, let me tell you. It means many Polish cities are OLD. And lucky for them, because of the Nazi's occupation of Poland, many cities were unaffected by bombs. This means that most towns have what they call an "Old Town,"  spelled CHARM in capital letters!
(Weird fact: Even in Warsaw, which was 85% destroyed during Hitler's retreat, there is an Old Town. It was rebuilt after the war, using photographs to make it look as it did in the 1300's!)

And Poland has a rich and varied culture. Besides food (we'll cover that later), Poland was the birthplace of Copernicus, Madame Curie and Chopin!

Poland is the world's largest exporter of Amber. There are many shops that sell this beautiful gem, and the prices are reasonable!
Polish amber supplier
Poland is a very religious country. 93% of the population is Catholic. There is even a Torun-based Catholic radio station called "Radio Maryja" that boasts worldwide listenership of over 1 million people a day.*   As of 2018, all of the shops are closed 3 Sundays per month (in 2020, all Sundays), ostensibly so that the Polish people can visit their families and attend church.

(*The originator of this radio station, Father Rydzyk is very controversial in the press and within the Catholic Church, due to the political nature of many of his broadcasts and because he stated that two of his personal autos were donated to him by the homeless, thus prompting a slew of bumper stickers that say, "This car was donated by the homeless")

3.The beautiful cities we visited were not filled with tourists!  (yippy yaaay!) 
Pirate ship along the Gdansk canal

Gdansk, Sopot and Gdynia, often called the Polish Riviera, form the Tri-Cities area of Pomerania, situated on the shores of the Baltic Sea. 

Gdansk (g'dinesk with a long i ): Gdansk is the capital and largest city in Pomerania, boasting a population of @ 500,000 citizens and a modern airport. What you might not realize is that the first clash of WW2 was fought here, or that Gdansk is the birthplace of the Solidarity Movement. Also of note is the St Dominic's Fair held every year around August (in 2019: July 30 through August 20), which is one of the largest outdoor fairs in Europe)
Top sights include: Old town, St. Mary's Church, The Museum of Solidarity, the Amber Street, a walk along the Motlawa River, Neptune's Fountain, Copernicus's house, the ferris wheel on Granary Island.
Neptune's statue and Artus Court
St. Mary's Church and Basilica
Ferris Wheel at the Granary
Long Lane
Gdansk Town Hall and Neptune statue
Copernicus's house
Gdansk canal at Motlawa River
Gdansk Train Station
Cool Gdansk Architecture
promenade along the river bank
Great wall decorations in Gdansk
Classic architecture of Gdansk
Sopot (so pot) My personal favorite of the tri-cities because of its small town feel and charm, Sopot is a "spa town" (more on that later) catering to tourists, and is has only 40,000 residents. The main attractions are: the beach, the wooden pier which is the longest in Europe, the Monciak pedestrian street (also called Monte Cassino), St George's church. While visiting, you can take a pirate ship cruise from the pier, visit the Bromide fountain, the "Crooked House", Latarnia Morska (the church you see from the beach), or you can visit Spatif, a quirky upstairs bar on Monciak which caters to celebrities and artists.
Sopot Pier, the longest in the world
Fun on the pier
Restaurant at the end of the Sopot Pier
Sopot Beach
the Crooked House of Sopot
Monte Cassino (Monciak) pedestrian street
Church of St. George
Hotel and Latarnia Morsla on the left
Restaurant on pedestrian street
Sopot Casino

Gdynia (g' DIN ya) This modernist port city is home to 250,000 residents, and is known for its shipping and maritime trade. Of all the places we visited, this town was not my cup of tea, but would be fabulous if you have an interest in ships, or have young children. Ship lovers will enjoy the ORP Btyskawica Ship Museum, Dar Pomorza ship museum, and the Torpedo launch station. Families with children will enjoy the Gdynia Aquarium, the Centrum Nauki Esperyment (hands on science museum), the free funicular tram ride, Kosciuszki Square fountains, the Ortowo Pier with "pirate ship", the Gdynia Beach, and the Nature Preserve. 
Pirate ship at Gdnyia Pier
 Gdynia port town
Gdynia Aquarium
Gdnyia bridge

Malbork (mal-bork) This town of 40,000 residents boasts the largest castle in Europe, and the WORLD'S LARGEST BRICK CASTLE! So, yes, there are other things to do in this town (like visit the train station or walk across the bridge of the River Nogat and enjoy some food or beer in one of the many riverside restaurants), but I can say without much fear that 100% of the visitors to this town are here for the castle. It might have been the highlight of my whole trip, so definitely do not miss it. 

This UNESCO World Heritage castle was built in the 13th century by the Knights of the Teutonic Order (not to be confused with Knights Templar, although they KTO was modeled after the KT). 

You can purchase your ticket online for about $45, and it comes with a great audio guide, so I do not think there is a need to book a private tour. The tour of the castle will last about 3 hours. Make sure to visit the tower, and you can eat at one of the restaurants in the castle, or on the grounds outside the wall (which is what we did). I'd recommend going early, as it got quite crowded by 1pm. 














Torun (TOR un) This town of 200,000 residents is one of the oldest towns in Poland, and is the birthplace of Copernicus. This once-royal city and elite trading port was founded in the 8th century and expanded in the 13th century by the Teutonic Knights. The Old Town is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and is considered to be one of the best preserved and most beautiful medieval towns in Europe and one of the few which were not bombed in WW2. In 2007, Torun's Old Town was named one of the 7 wonders of Poland, and contains the largest number of preserved Gothic houses. 

Places to visit while you are here are: The Old Town, Town Hall and Clock Tower, Planetarium, Leaning Tower of Torun, Museum of Gingerbread, Copernicus's house, The Teutonic Knights Castle and ruins, the cathedral, zoo and botanical garden, and the Speedway Racing Track. If you cross the bridge to the other side of the Vistula River, the view of the town at night is gorgeous.


Maggie was born and raised in Torun, so we definitely got the insider tour here! She explained that most everyone lives in apartment block flats which they own, unless they live in the countryside. 



There is so much building going on in this town, with money coming from New Member EU funding. It was nice to spend time in this town and get to see how much progress has been made in just 30 years since Communist rule. We can only imagine what it will be like in another few years!

Torun Church in Old Town Square
Bridge over Vistula River
Arch Entry to Old Town
Nicholas Copernicus University
Old Town Hall 
Legend of Boy violinist leading frogs from Torun. Touch frogs for good luck!
The old town prison, in the center of town
Children's Theatre, with gigantic wardrobe entrance
Torun's famous Gingerbread cookies
Far Eastern Art Museum and Arch
Torun Bronze Donkey
Torun Planetarium Show, well worth it!
Teutonic Knights Castle and medieval ruins
Old Town pedestrian street at night
Old Town Torun at night
Cosmopolis Singing Fountain
Ciechocinek (cha HO chee neck) This town is a picture-perfect postcard, and very different from the other towns we visited, because it is a Spa Town, a government sponsored concept very fascinating and surprising to me. 

I'll tell you more about it later, but here are some things you can do in this adorable town:  walk up and around the Salt Evaporation Towers, visit the Spa Park and Grzybek Fountain, ride in a horse drawn carriage, have a spa treatment, or enjoy a beer, meal and polka dancing in one of the 5 o'clock clubs.





4. Great food and drink
I would probably sum up my experience with Polish food in 2 words: Comfort food. For sure, you will find the traditional sausage, potatoes, cabbage and pork, but  Poland has benefitted from its central location and many neighbors, so has ended up with the best recipes of all its neighbors. I try to follow a gluten and dairy free diet, so I was a bit more limited in my food choices, but everything I tried was exceptional, and felt like my grandmother made it especially for me!

OK, as good as the food is, I can't pass up the opportunity to tell you that (at least some) Polish people put catsup and Mayonaise on everything, including pizza. 

pizza with the mandatory mayonnaise and catsup!

5. Spas (called Sanitoriums in Polish)
The Polish concept of Spa Towns is fascinating and also somewhat strange to me. 

So what does this mean? If you are a tourist, it means that there are a lot of  places you can get a massage or partake in a hot mineral bath. But if you are a Polish resident, and if your doctor says you have an ailment, then every 2 years, you can apply for a 3 week, expense-paid spa vacation, and have various daily treatments.  What????  Nice perk! 


The Polish government has designated 41 towns as Spa Resort Towns, including Sopot and Ciechocinek. In order to have this designation, a town must prove significant health benefits from natural means (ie, a mineral spring). 

Sounds pretty good to me! But in reality, most people do not take advantage of this perk until they are retired, because they would have to take off from work, or leave their families at home....so the spa towns are filled with retirees. 

The spas towns have a reputations for having fun entertainment, like the "5'o'clock clubs", which offer bands and dancing in the late afternoon. 

The "vacationers" expect to meet new friends, and often new romantic partners. Apparently there is a song in which a spa town visitor bemoans, "It's been two weeks at the spa and I'm still alone."  


6. Friendly people
Poland is a country of friendly people. When you arrive, you will be received warmly, as Polish people take pride in being hospitable hosts. There is even a saying, " A guest at home is God at home." Polish people are interested in other cultures, and at the same time are very proud of their own nationality and customs. 


Hope you enjoyed this visit to Poland! 

I'm looking forward to visiting other parts on my next trip. Have you been to Poland? and do you have a favorite city? 

Do widzenia (do-veed-tzen-ya),
 Goodbye from Jeff, Maggie and Jean!


PS: Don't take Euros to Poland-- Even though they are part of the European Union, Poland still uses Zloty as currency. 

Comments

  1. Love it, love it, love it!!!

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    1. Maggie, thank you for showing us your beautiful country!!!

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  2. Thanks for the photos and commentary Jean. So inspiring!

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  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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  4. Thanks for a great discription of a polish vacation. It sounds wonderful and far more interesting than we would have thought. - also the spa town concept sounds like fun.

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