The Country You’ll Want To Catch Your Next Flight To, So Says A Local Guy Who's Traveled The Globe
So, the always awesome Patty J asked me to write a travel blog about my recent trip to what was once a forbidden land, Poland.
Behind The Iron Curtain
Poland is an ancient country. I mean, old. In the 10th century, some Slavs, who were looking for a nice place to live, migrated in and started the first settlements in the region. I won’t turn it into a history lesson, but Poland has a long history and a couple of things are definitely worth mentioning. Probably, the most famous incident in Polish history for Americans was Adolf Hitler invading Poland in 1939 which was the beginning of World War II. This combined with the Nazi atrocities in World War II remain unfortunately the most famous memes about this country. After the war, the Russians and then the Soviet Union controlled Poland as the Polish People’s Republic until around 1990 when the Soviet Union was in the process of collapsing. After that, Poland became a member of NATO and today is a democracy that is ready for you to travel to and visit.
Now, I went Poland about 20 years ago for the first time and it was before the age of cell phones, credit cards, apps that translate language, all that stuff and it was wonderful but kind of challenging. I would have called it a Travel ++ in my scoring system (t++ means a destination that is not really a tourist destination and that has little language capability in English). T++ meant a lot of work to get ready with language and having to carry around a lot of cash so you could pay for everything. Today, not true. Today, I call Poland a T+ only (T+ is a destination that is not difficult, but has some minor language challenges.)
Let’s do the bad things first since there aren’t many and you are going to want to go to Poland soon. First, the language is Slavic which means that it’s based in Slavic roots and that means for most English speakers, it’s difficult. Not only does it create tongue twisters, but you can’t even really pronounce it since many of the letters are not pronounced in any way like English. Did I mention consonants? You will find that outside of hotels and big cities, not many people speak much English but, today, everywhere I went, they had English menus or translations readily available. Grocery stores, gas stations, and other small-time venues, could provide a few challenges but smile a lot and you will be fine. Dziękuję Ci (jencooyay c) means thank you, and Proszę (proshy) means please. Those two will get you a long way.
Another gripe about Poland is they adopted the European approach to bathrooms. Now, it seems that they could have maybe adopted the American approach but no, they had to stick with the Euro approach. What I mean by this is that instead of a shower with a curtain or a glass door, they go with no curtain or a half door. This means that to shower, you must do all sort of gyrations and regardless, you will get water everywhere. Why it is more efficient to build a half door on a shower instead of a whole door? I will never understand, but that’s just me.
Also, as is mostly the case in Europe, there is no air conditioning. As Paris just recorded an unbelievable 44C high (that’s about 110F), Poland had a couple of 90 degree plus days while I was there. Something that never used to happen. That can make for some sweaty nights but it’s part of the game with European travel.
That’s it, those are the negatives. So, hopefully, you want to hear the positives and get ready to book a trip to Poland.
It’s cheap. The Złoty (zwoty) is about 25 cents to the dollar and the local prices are cheap in Złotys as well. We had a very nice dinner which involved a lot of wine and drinks for four people for about 150 dollars. Regular, non-posh food and drink is very inexpensive compared to the rest of Western Europe, so you can get along quite well for very little cash. Gas and Diesel are expensive (think 4-5$ a gallon), but you can really do fine with tours, Ubers, and public transportation which is quite cheap. I am not sure how Uber drivers make a living but, for now anyway, Uber is very cheap. Cab drivers don’t speak English as a rule and if you are planning to use cabs, I would suggest you get all your addresses saved in Google maps so you can show them.
Like everywhere in the world except the United States, public transportation is available and cheap. Trains connect cities, streetcars provide intra-city transportation, and Google Maps (or your favorite) provides easy to use directions and will even show you the stops on the streetcar you need to use. Uber can easily fill in the rest. You can also use sites like Get Your Guide and Viator to book tours with transportation to sites if you don’t like the idea of using public transportation or for destinations that are difficult by public transportation. Get those apps before you go, and you can use them to book tours on the fly. (I have never had a problem with any of their bookings.)
Food. Wow. If you want to gain some weight on a trip (although you will probably walk it back off), Poland wins again. Polish food is just lovely and ranges from very simple, hearty food to complex and exciting meals. Every form of food you have ever heard of is also available in the cities from KFC to Poke. Dumplings, grains, meats, cheeses, it’s all there and did I mention, it’s cheap? Well, it’s great. Our favorite thing to have in Krakόw is something called baked groats. Sounds awful, but it’s wonderful. Meat, onions, spices, and pearled barley are baked together to make a really tasty dish. I would get those every day. Like elsewhere in Europe, everything is fresh and flavorful. Learn to say “lody” and you can get ice cream just about everywhere. Grocery stores and bodega type shops (Skleps) are around everywhere in town so you can get whatever you need. Use Google Translate if you need something specific and want to get sunblock instead of hemorrhoid cream. We had to buy mosquito spray (komar) in Krakόw because we wanted to sit outside in our garden in the evening. Again, use the internet for this.
Accommodations: Well, there are all the hotels you want of every ilk, but in the last few years, I have become addicted to Airbnb. I haven’t stayed in a hotel in a while because I love the experience of staying in a house or local neighborhood for far less than I would pay some hotel chain for a tiny room. We stayed in a house in a suburb in Krakόw that had a garden, three bedrooms, kitchen, two baths (yes, the didn’t have a shower curtain), and parking for our car. Wonderful. In Wrocław(vroshwov), we stayed in a three-bedroom condo on a restaurant and café lined street. Both cost very little and were awesome. The hosts mostly spoke English or had English guides on their listings and we didn’t have any problem.
The EU: Poland is a member of the European Union, so Americans currently don’t need visas or any sort of hassle to go there currently. Customs is well, customs, but no different than France.
Things we did: In Krakόw, there is a huge square lined with cafes and restaurants, so being me, I would just sit there all day, but I had others to think about, so we did some tourist things. I took my crew to Zakopane (in my rental Skoda Octavia car) which is a beautiful ski area down on the Slovakian border. We also went to the Wieliczka Salt Mine (Velishka) which is a huge medieval mine that has a full-size church, restaurant, wedding chapel, etc. 100 meters underground. There is also a brand-new amusement park called Energylandia in Zator (near Krakόw) which we wanted to get to but ran out of time. Exploring Krakόw alone could take days and there are many things to do in the general region. I also took my crew to Oświęcim (Auschwitz) which has two notorious prison camps from World War II. A very sobering and sad experience but a powerful one, nevertheless. Krakόw, as a city, is a bit more old-world Europe but has everything you could want from malls, restaurants, shopping, mixed into the medieval. I highly recommend it as a first Polish destination city.
We also visited Wrocław (vroshwov) which is a much more hipand happening place. I had to do a presentation at the University there so that’s always a good reason to travel somewhere you have never heard of and it proved to be a big winner with me. Wrocław had a real, insert name of happening place in NYC here, feel to it with lots of young tourists and locals hanging out in the cafes and restaurants. Bird scooters, tattoos, Bellinis at the café, it could have been San Francisco. Dining on the Oder River was especially nice. We even finally got to do the Segway tour which my daughter and I had been trying to do for about ten years and always got blocked for some reason or other. We stayed in a condo in the club district which meant there were dance clubs, cafes, restaurants, milk bars (read wine bars), you name it all in the same block. Getting around by walking or Uber was very easy so I ditched my Skoda to save on parking fees (which were really cheap though). The town is filled with small statues of Dwarves (500+) which are quite fun to search for with your kids or just fun if you notice one somewhere. They are based on the medieval dwarves who mined for gold and apparently there were originally 7 of them, hmmm, sound familiar. I don’t know if this is true, but that’s what the Segway guide said. (Wikipedia says the whole thing started in 2005 but who cares. They’re still fun to see.)
Couple of other tips: DO NOT JAYWALK. I know this is ok in NYC, but in Poland, you get big fines per light (so that can be 5 sometimes in a busy intersection). Obey the lights. Don’t turn right on red either.
In terms of driving, it’s pretty easy if you can drive in Boston or NYC. Review your European traffic signs and rules before you go and plan for your parking. There are garages which are fine, but street parking can be a real challenge if you don’t know the rules (imagine trying to park in NYC if you couldn’t read the signs and didn’t know what the symbols meant).
Get your apps in order: Using Uber, Viator, Google Maps (Waze didn’t work very well ☹), and other things you need will make your life easy in foreign lands where you don’t speak the language. I go in and save all my destinations while I am at home, so it makes for less stress. Obviously, Airbnb is an app I can’t live without as well. Another nice thing is that Yelp now has Europe which means you can find ratings and reviews as you walk around but I just suggest dropping in some places and going for it. I have never had a terrible meal there.
Internet wifi service was pretty much everywhere (use a VPN) and you can get Netflix. Cell phone coverage was awesome and I had LTE pretty much everywhere in the city and country. Check with your cell phone provider for their international plan. Mine has a 10$ per day charge and you can use your cell phone the same as at home with no additional charges. Data is always a threat if you don’t have an international plan. If you don’t want to have data and cell for whatever reason, you may want to rent or buy a local phone, but I really recommend you just get your phone up and running for international use. It’s cheaper and easier these days.
Flying to Poland is easy on LOT (the Polish national airline) via Warsaw, or via pretty much any other major carrier (we used Lufthansa from Newark). LOT is a very nice airline and I have flown on it to Poland and to Israel. If you are planning to rent a car, I would recommend either AutoEurope or just use one of your usual carriers (I used National). Be sure and buy the full coverage (I know it’s more expensive) or be really, really, certain about your coverage. An accident in a foreign country where you don’t speak the language is going to make for a bad time. NOTE: You don’t need a car, really.
On a dark note, as you travel with your handheld devices, be sure and think about back up plans. If you lose that phone… well, do you actually know anyone’s number, do you even know the number of the people you are with? Do you know the address of where you are staying? Where you parked? Is it all in your phone? You may want to write some things down and put it somewhere you can get to it just in case. I had this realization in Paris and realized if I lost my phone, I didn’t even know the name of the street where I was staying and unlike hotels, the address was NOT on the key. One easy tip in Europe, go into a restaurant near your rental and grab a card. It will have the address of the restaurant and they won’t mind you taking a card.
The other dark note on Airbnb is to do a quick check of your environment for cameras. This happened a couple of times in the news recently. I did a quick walk down of the premises using my phone to look for wifi that was NOT the in house WIFI. Don’t panic but look around and be safer.
So, would I recommend you go to Poland? Yes, and soon. Currently, it’s not a big American destination and it’s still cheap. One of the problems of the West is gentrification and rising prices and I see that happening in Poland. Probably, in 20 more years, it will be priced more like France and not as affordable. Poland is a safe, ancient, and vibrant culture that has outlasted so many wars it’s beyond belief. Why were there so many wars, well, big powers on either side doesn’t help, and neither does having a beautiful country with lots of great food. They haven’t had a war in a LONG time but when everyone starts discovering how great Poland is, the prices are going to go up.
More About Doug
Doug White is the Chair of Cybersecurity and Networking programs at Roger Williams University. He has worked in the technology industry for many years and specializes in networking, disaster, forensics, and security. He has been paid to break into buildings, talk tech people out of their usernames and passwords, steal money, and figure out horrible scenarios like “What is if a rabid shark swarm was caught up in a tornado while a core meltdown occurred? Could we still watch Netflix?” Doug has a PhD in Computer Information Systems and Quantitative Analysis from the University of Arkansas, is a Certified Computer Examiner, A Cisco Certified Network Administrator, A Certified Information Systems Security Professional, and a licensed private investigator.