It was in March 2006 when I got the first major exposure of Poland, that too in Czech Republic when I attended the ASTA IDE(International Destination Expo) which was organized in Prague and that gave me an opportunity to know about Poland whilst qualifying as a Poland Destination specialist after attending a workshop organized by Jan Rudomina, Director of National Polish Tourist Office, North America.
I also happened to meet a few tour operators from Poland who mentioned to me about a Bollywood movie being shot in Poland. Later in the same year, Compact Travels was the first company in India to introduce a stand alone programme for Poland which included visits to the 3 capitals:- Warsaw- the present capital, Krakow- the former capital and the cultural capital, Zakopane- the winter capital.
It was in Zakopane that a part of the Bollywood movie Fanaa was shot. Although not many leisure travellers were going from India to Poland, we were successful in sending a few people and all of them came back with great experiences of the wonderful country and the hospitality extended to them by the Polish people during their visit.
In 2007, I was invited for a FAM tour in September and I was looking forward to visiting a country of great diversity. I booked my tickets on Austrian which has one of the best connections out of India to Warsaw and Krakow via Vienna. It was on a Sunday that I arrived at 0935 hours at Warsaw Okecie airport after taking the connecting flight from Vienna. On arrival in Warsaw,we checked in at the Sofitel Victoria, which incidentally was the first 5 star hotel built in this historic city which was destroyed during World War II. The hotel enjoys a perfect location with fabulous views of the Saxon Gardens and the National Opera and is a short walk from the Old Town which we would be visiting during the latter part of the day.
After having some fine Polish cuisine at the Canaletto Restaurant at the hotel, we had our first halt at the Wilanow Palace and Park. The Wilanow Park and the facades of the Palace are located in the south of Warsaw. The Palace and Park has special significance as it was never destroyed during World War II and it is 350 years old. It is also the residence of King Jan III Sobieski of Poland who used to spend his summers at Wilanow Palace with his wife and 11 children. When the King died it was purchased by the aristocrats and the owners were forced by the Nazis to leave the Palace in 1944.
When the communists arrived, they nationalized the residence and today it is one of the most famous museums in Warsaw . As we went about seeing the magnificent architecture and interiors of the Wilanow Palace our guide gave us a brief background as to how the city was destroyed during WWII, The Old Town and the Royal Castle were reconstructed and found their way on the UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site.
The city of Warsaw is a thrilling and busy city with a hectic and vibrant life. Warsaw today is not only the centre of business and administration but also of science, culture and arts. Several students come to study in Warsaw as they have several private and public schools and you will find young people all around the city as the city is also well known for its Operas, theatres, cinemas, museums and art galleries. This bustling and cosmopolitan city is dynamic and as you move across the new city you see the imposing Palace of Culture and Science which is right in the centre of Warsaw from where you can get a great panoramic view of the city from the terrace of its 30th floor including a view of the Vistula river which cuts across the city. This imposing 234 metres building is a true example of architecture which you would find in the Soviet Union.
The Wilanow Castle itself is approximately 6 kilometres from the city centre and is also known as the Little Versailles as the wife of the King Jan III Sobieski who used to stay here during summers in the mid-17th century was from France. The lavish interiors with period furnitures, portraits and sculptures along with suits of armour are worth visiting. Interestingly, in the middle of the 16th Century the capital of Poland was the city of Krakow and the capital of Lithuania was the city of Vilnius, which continues to be the capital of Lithuania even today and they were united to form the the Polish Lithuanian commonwealth and the second largest state in Europe after Russia.
In the middle of these two beautiful cities was the old provincial town called Warsaw which was appointed as the seat of the Parliament comprising of 170 deputies and 142 senators. The senators were nominated by the King for life and so they built palaces in Warsaw and today you will find some of these palaces along the King’s Route and that’s where we were heading next to see the residence of the Kings of Poland which was the Royal Castle in the Old Town.
We started by visiting the area of the Royal Lazienki Park or the Royal Baths which comprises of 76 hectares or roughly 142 acres and is regarded as one of the most impressive garden complexes in Europe. Within the park is the stunningly beautiful Palace (Palac na Wuspie) which was commissioned by the last King of Poland- King Stanislaw August Poniatowski as his summer residence. Another highlight is the monument of Frederic Chopin. There are lots of beautiful places to visit within the park such as the restaurant, especially in the winter time as it is a green house. In fact the Lazienki Park is the largest park in Warsaw and links the Royal Castle on the Royal Route with Wilanow to the south. It took the name Lazienki which stand for Baths from a bathing pavilion that was located there. Stanislaw August’s Palace on the lake is called a Palace on the Water and was established in the 17th Century.
Our next halt was at the Old Town . The Old Town is full of historic merchant houses, churches and the Barbican- a former entrance gate to the city. The Old Town centre comprises of the Old Town Market square with a statue of the city’s symbol Syrenka, the Mermaid in its very heart. In fact, the Syrenka is part of the Coat of Arms of Warsaw which consists of the Mermaid in a red field.
The Warsaw arms has been rendered as a mermaid with a sword and a shield in hand representing Melusina, the fresh water mermaid from the Vistula river. Within the Old Town, you can also see the house of Madam Curie, the famous physicist and chemist, a pioneer in the field of radioactivity, who was born in Warsaw. She was born in Warsaw in 1867 and later went to Paris to study Physics and Mathematics and later in life she won a Noble prize- the only one from Poland to in fact receive two Noble prizes and one of two Polish ladies to receive this honour.
As we walked along the Old Town we saw numerous art galleries and outdoor cafes with hoards of tourist even in September. We were told that the place gets busy as the sun sets and you also find several painters including portrait painters in the Old Town. A good way to visit the town is in a droshky which is a horse drawn carriage. Not too far away from the Square is the Royal Castle situated in the Castle Square and close by you can see the 22 meter column of King Zygmunt III Vaza who in the 16th Century moved the Capital of Poland from Krakow to Warsaw. One of the famous streets in the Old Town is Krakowskie Przedmiescie which means Krakow suburb and is one of the most prestigious and impressive street of Poland’s capital.
On this street you will find the Presidential Palace, Warsaw University as well as Polish Academy of Sciences which also has the statue of Nicolaus Copernicus in front of it. The immediate extension to this street is ulica Nowy Swiat, which denotes New World Street one of the busiest commercial streets in the city comprising of shops, galleries and cafes, dominated by 19th Century neo-classical residential houses.
Our tour came to an end and we headed to one of the many Indian restaurants that you can find in Warsaw, known as India Curry- which serves some fine Indian cuisine and is one of the popular restaurants even amongst the locals. We were told that besides serving some fine Indian cuisine, the restaurant also conducts cooking classes for those interested in learning about the spices that go into making Indian food.
The next day was a long day indeed, one of the longest of our tours as we were to head to Kazimierz Dolny and later to the Baranow Sandomierski Castle and finally to the spa town of Krynica Zdroj- one long day ahead for us. Like many cosmopolitan cities, Warsaw too has its problems of peak traffic and being a Monday morning we left a little beyond schedule in the direction of Kazimierz Dolny, a small town located in the Lublin province and on the East of Poland, located on the bank of the Vistula River- the main river of Poland. Although well known for its grain trade in the first part of the 17th Century, the town today still preserves its Renaissance influence and is a very popular holiday destination especially for artists due to its picturesque location and also a popular getaway especially during summer.
Located around 130 kilometres South East of Warsaw, the town is on the way to the Baltic and lies on the right bank of the Vistula River. It comprises of 7300 inhabitants and the town boasts of rich history, picturesque medieval houses, wonderful architecture and fine climate and is a popular tourist attraction frequented not only by the Poles but also by nationalities from neighbouring countries as well. In the town centre, there are fine renaissance buildings, and from the ruins of the castles and the hill of three crosses, one can enjoy a panoramic view of this wonderfully landscaped town. Before our visit to the town we had the opportunity of having some fine Polish cuisine at Stara Laznia Hotel which is 200 metres from the Main square. The restaurant specializes in traditional Polish cuisine and also is a historic hotel as it was built in 1921 as a public bath and now is converted into a hotel comprising of 6 fully equipped rooms.
Our next halt was the Baranow Sandomierski Castle which is an ideal place to visit whilst planning a tour to Kazimierz Dolny. Located in the middle section of the Vistula River, the castle, also known as Little Wawel, was a former seat of the Leszcynski family and was built in the late 16th and early 17th centuries and modelled after the Wawel Castle in Krakow. The castle was designed by Santi Gucci and comprises of a rectangular shaped building of three floors ornated in the four corners with distinctive cupolas.
Although we arrived at dawn and pretty exhausted after a long day getting out of Warsaw and thru Kazimierz Dolny, our eyes lit up seeing the magnificent architecture of this wonderful castle which is now converted to a hotel and is an excellent location if you wish to be pampered in luxury. It is approximately a two hour drive from Kazimierz Dolny and from here one can visit the Baltowski Jurassic Park, the Wieliczka Salt Mine as well as many other interesting sites. After spending an hour at the Castle, we headed for the night to Krynica Zdroj and the famous Dr Irena Eris Spa Hotel, almost a 3 hour drive from the Baranow Castle where we would be spending the night and on the following day doing a tour of the region of Krynica before heading to the winter capital of Poland.
It was the second day of our trip and we already had covered quite a distance from Warsaw which is in the Mazovian region to Malopolska or the Lesser Poland region into the city of Krynica Zdroj which is approximately 400 kilometres south of Warsaw and 140 kilometres south east from Krakow- the Cultural Capital. After one of the longest days of the tour, we arrived at the four star Hotel Spa Dr Irena Eris located at Krynica Zdroj which is a place to spend atleast a couple of nights.
Krynica-Zdroj is a region comprising of 13000 inhabitants and is one of the biggest spa towns in Poland besides being a winter sports centre as well. In fact the region is known as the Pearl of the Polish Spas and the town has also hosted the World Ice Hockey Championship way back in 1931. For over a decade, the mountain range of Jaworzyna Krynicka has become a major attraction especially after the gondola lift was installed here in 1997 which takes you on top of the mountain to give you a very picturesque view of Krynica. Equipped with modern skiing facilities, the mountains are a perfect setting for cross country skiing in winters and mountain biking as well as hiking during summers.
As we were extremely hungry and we had arrived at the hotel almost nearing midnight, we headed straight for the restaurant known as “Sixth Sense” for a late night buffet comprising of a wide range of salads, soup along with a variety of vegetarian and non-vegetarian cuisine with some fine dessert to end a very long day. The Sixth Sense restaurant serves a wide range of Greek, Italian, Hungarian and Old Polish cuisine especially on the weekends and the sumptuous food indeed was a great way to end our day! We were looking forward to the morning to explore more of this beautiful region.After breakfast and a quick site inspection, we headed for the Jaworzyna Krynicka ski station which was in close proximity to our hotel to take the gondola lift up the mountain
During our site inspection of the hotel property, we got to know a few interesting facts not only about the property but also of the region. Krynica Zdroj has over 200 years of tradition and is one of the premier spa areas due to its favourable bioclimate, natural landscape, richness of highly mineralized water as well as centuries old tradition of offering healing solutions to health problems.Traditionally, Polish health spas date back to the 13th Century and the spas are not only for those with health problems but also for those seeking peace and relaxation and the tranquility that one gets to experience in this very picturesque region of natural beauty. Krynica Zdroj is an ideal location for health resorts as it is famous for its medical mineral water springs. The vicinity offers picturesque landscapes of the Beskid Sadecki Range. In winter, it is a haven for ski lovers as there is snow all around and ski tracks with different severities for amateur skiers. The Hotel Spa run by Dr Irena Eris is one of the premier properties of the region and belongs to the International Spa Association
Besides wellness programmes ranging from a weekend to a week long programme, the Spa Hotel also offers yoga programmes, slimming programmes and programmes for “mums-to-be” as well as “just married” programmes for honeymooners at great value starting as low as EUR 1250 per couple (which is a mere 625 Euros per person) and you get a great deal comprising of 5 nights accommodation on a full board basis with complimentary glass of wine during dinners, spa and beauty treatments, massages, unlimited access to all amenities at the hotel, cable car ride on top of the mountain range and transfer from the railway station to the Hotel as well. Besides the “Sixth Sense” restaurant, the property has the Lachowka Chalet where you can enjoy a barbecue along with traditional music from the Polish mountains. Then there is the Lamus Club which provides a relaxing evening with live music on Saturday evenings and you can enjoy some fine cuisine with vintage alcohol and elaborate cocktails till the wee hours of midnight. “By the fireplace” pub is the ideal place to relax after a work out or a trek or hike in summer or after skiing in the mountains during winter.
The hotel also houses a 3 storey Dr Irena Eris Skin Care Institute comprising of 19 treatment rooms including beauty parlours, massage rooms with a complete menu of massages, a dermatologist surgery and a solarium as well. The Spa Hotel is truly the ideal place to pamper yourself in luxury without paying an exorbitant price which you would pay for similar category of luxury resorts in Western Europe.
It was very difficult for us to leave this lovely resort as we were all keen on experiencing a spa treatment however there was lots in store for us on day 3 of Pulsating Poland. We checked out after a healthy breakfast to take the cable car up the Jaworzyna Krynicka Station which is located at an altitude of 1114 metres.As it was end of summer, we had some excellent weather with ambient temperatures ranging around 15°C with lots of greenery around. The best way to go up and get a scenic view is by the cable car, although active holidaymakers can follow a bike trail criss crossing the mountain range or do a hike which will take you up in a couple of hours. Once you are on top of Jaworzyna Krynicka range, you can enjoy some warm beer with honey at the bar on top of the mountain and along with it have some fine polish pastries without feeling guilty, especially if you are burning a few calories after a hike or trek along the mountain range. Interestingly, at the gondola station as well as on top of the range there were statues of various species of dinosaurs, probably indicating that the place was waiting to be discovered from the times of the Jurassic period.
The view from up above is stunning and on a clear day you can get a panoramic view of the Beskidy, Pieniny as well as the Tatra Mountains. After spending 20 odd minutes clicking pictures, we took the cable car back down to head to our next destination- Hotel Klimek which is in another picturesque region of the Beskid Sadecki Range known as Muszyna Zlockie. As we were driving from Krynica to Muszyna, the drive was very scenic as Krynica is located in the south-eastern part of the Beskid Sadecki range and is surrounded by forested mountains in a protected zone which is at an altitude ranging between 550 and 725 metres. The region is surrounded by the remains of the former Carpathian Primeval Forest.
Muszyna is located at the river junctions of Poprad, Muszynka and Sczawniczk Hotel Klimek is a modern luxurious four star hotel which was opened in 2005 and has won a few awards for being one of the finest property of the region. Hotel Klimek is yet another fantastic spa resort with quaint surroundings where you can spend five to six days. This family friendly resort is equipped with a restaurant where we had some fine Polish and European cuisine with ample vegetarian options. Besides, a restaurant and a pub, the property has a club room, a billiard room, a fitness club, a bowling alley, a salt grotto, a tennis court, a children’s playground, an open-air grill, wide range of spa services and the highlight especially for the family is the aqua-park within the property comprising of swimming pool equipped with cascades and hydro-massage, air geyser, slide, children’s pool, dry and wet sauna, Jacuzzi, needle bath and a saline graduation tower as well.
The highlight for us undoubtedly was the Salt Cave where we took a power nap for about 30 odd minutes before heading to the Mall in Krynica. The Salt Cave is the latest and an original method of using marine salt from the Dead Sea for rehabilitation, prevention and health care. The cavern has a unique microclimate and the air is filled with mineral and microelements. You can simply shut your eyes and relax in deckchairs with soft soothing music playing in the background which relieves stress and rejuvenates you after a short session comprising of a unique color therapy system along with a combination of warm light which stimulates you for the rest of the day. The salt cave has curative effects and ideal for those who come for prolonged sessions of treatments.
Our next stop was the Mall in Krynica which is a row of shops where you get local goods of the region . The region of Muszyna comprises of about 5000 inhabitants and is very close to the Slovakia border and from the 14th century onwards has been an important trade and communication route connecting Hungary with Poland. Later in the 20th century it became a spa town due to the curative properties of the springs at that time.
Our last stop was at the town centre of Krynica Zdroj which is having an architecture from the 19th Century that stays in harmony with the surrounding nature- an ideal place for healing processes. The main sanatoria, the pump room and the spa houses are located around the Dietla Boulevards and the entire atmosphere is unique. We did do some mineral water tasting at one of the halls. The natural water had the essence of the various minerals which cures a wide variety of ailments.
It was nearing 5 pm and we left for the e winter capital Zakopane which is approximately 2 hours west from Krynica at a distance of 81 odd kilometers along the Slovakia border. Zakopane happens to be the place where the famous Bollywood movie Fanaa was partially shot and more about Zakopane and to know where Aamir Khan and the crew stayed during the film shoot of Fanaa, you will read about it in the next issue of Opportunities Today