Poland is coming into its own as a vacation destination. During the first years after the 1989 democratic revolutions in Eastern Europe, it seemed Prague and Budapest grabbed all the headlines. Now, travelers are looking for something farther afield, and with the advent of budget air carriers in Europe, travel to countries like Poland has never been cheaper or easier.
For some, a trip to Poland is an opportunity to reconnect with their Polish roots, a chance, perhaps, to sample some of their grandmother's pierogies in their natural setting. Others are attracted to the unique beauty of Kraków, which has rightfully joined Prague and Budapest as part of the trinity of must-sees in central Europe. Still others are drawn by Poland's dramatic and often tragic history. The absolute horrors of World War II, followed by the decades of Communist rule, have etched painful and moving monuments in the landscape. No country, with the possible exception of Russia, suffered as much as Poland during World War II. Millions of Poles, and nearly the entire prewar Jewish population of 1.2 million, were killed in fighting or in concentration camps. The deeply affecting and sobering thoughts on seeing the camps at Auschwitz and Birkenau, near Kraków, will last a lifetime. Nearly equally moving are the stories of the Lódz and Warsaw Jewish ghettos, or the story of the Warsaw uprising of 1944, when the city's residents rose up courageously and futilely against their Nazi oppressors.
There are many uplifting moments of history, too. In Warsaw, the entire Old Town has been rebuilt brick by brick in an emotional show of a city reclaiming its history. In Gdansk, you can visit the shipyards where Lech Waesa and his Solidarity trade union first rose to power to oppose Poland's Communist government in 1980. It was the rise of Solidarity that helped to bring down Communism in Poland, and arguably sparked the revolutions that swept the region in 1989.
And Poland is not only history. To the south, below Kraków, rise the majestic High Tatras, one of Europe's most starkly beautiful ranges. To the north, the Baltic seacoast, with its pristine beaches, stretches for miles. The northeast is covered with lakes that run to the borderlands with Lithuania and Belarus. In the east of the country, you'll find patches of some Europe's last-remaining primeval forest, and a small existing herd of indigenous bison that once covered large parts of the Continent.
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