Poland is a country that has one of the most diverse and interesting characters in Europe, and the area around Warsaw, the capital, is both beautiful and surprising
Since joining the European Union, Poland has seen a rise in popularity amongst travellers from western Europe, including those from the UK. Before that, it was a destination that had largely remained a mystery to all but a determined and adventurous minority of tourists. But with ample attractions, a long and interesting history, and one of the friendliest welcomes you’ll find anywhere, I’m sure it will quickly become one of the new ‘must-see’ countries.
I’d heard mixed reports about the capital, Warsaw, but some Polish workers who live near me suggested the city was worthy of a visit. More importantly, they gave me a list of places they’d recommend I see in the surrounding area, known as the Mazovia region.
I was lucky to be staying in the luxurious Polonia Palace Hotel, in the heart of the city. The large elegant building had just re-opened after being completely refurbished, and has regained an aura reminiscent of its 1920s heyday. I almost expected to go down for dinner and find a lavish costumed ball taking place.
Warsaw is a city that is a master of revival. It’s been destroyed, sacked, pillaged, and bombarded many times over the centuries, but like a phoenix seems to rise from the ashes each time. The last time, during the Second World War, the German Army almost completely flattened the city centre. With amazing determination and craftsmanship, the defiant Poles have reconstructed it to look just as it was in the 18th century. Such is the attention to detail that the work (which took almost a decade) has helped earn the Old Town UNESCO World Heritage status.
I took a walk around the walls of the Old Town to get my bearings, and stopped off at the 16th-century Barbican. The impressive semi-circular fortification has four circular towers to protect it, and what seemed like an army of painters and sketch artists capturing it from every angle.
I enjoyed wandering the streets of the old centre and, as is often the way, the pretty backstreets can be as appealing and interesting as the main thoroughfares. The Market Square is a delight, with its multi-coloured four-storey houses and enticing pavement cafés. Pleasant music was playing courtesy of a small band under a green canopy, and I enjoyed a relaxing glass of Polish wine, while I worked out my timetable for the next few days.
The next day was going to be entirely regal, as I visited the beautiful Lazienki Krolewskie Park. The Royal Baths and Palace on the Water were created for the last King of Poland. The elegant classical façade of the Palace looks out onto the serene waters of the lake, in a setting that certainly has the wow factor. Nearby, a statue of Chopin – who hailed from these parts – is serenaded by a small quintet playing music from the great composer.
Water is also a feature of the lavish Wilanow Palace, where I took a relaxing boat trip on the lake, before exploring the delights within. The building was bought by King Jan III in the 17th century, and was much extended and adorned with art and treasures. The gardens are equally stunning, and also popular with tourists. I thoroughly enjoyed my ‘royal’ day, and it put me in mind of the grand palaces of St Petersburg – although thankfully without the huge crowds.
The next day was far less grand, but no less interesting. The Modlin Fortress dates from Napoleon’s time, and is set amid a huge artificial lake about half an hour north of Warsaw. The mighty redoubt is the undoubted centrepiece, and if historians are to be believed, it’s the only building to have been personally designed by the Emperor himself. It’s a strange feeling, with the decaying, austere buildings set in such glorious surroundings. There are some wonderful views across the lake, and as well as the redoubt, the Tatar Tower and the huge barracks are worth exploring.
Another easy drive from Warsaw took me to Czersk, which was once the Mazovian capital. Set in a picturesque valley, this is one of the most historic regions of Poland. The ruins of the somewhat strange old Dukes Castle can be visited, with its imposing square gatehouse at odds with the tall round towers, but still looking menacing in their dark red stone. A little further along, on the right bank of the Vistula river, is Czerwinsk. It’s one of the region's oldest settlements, and is incredibly pretty. An abbey superseded the 12th-century convent, and today a ‘miraculous’ painting of the Mother of God still draws the faithful from far and wide.
For my last day, I headed to another far better-known pilgrimage centre, and one that quickly became my favourite stop. Plock is a city with a thousand years of history, and the former Dukes' capital. By luck, my first view of the medieval Tumskie Hill was a magnificent panorama from across the river. This ancient heart of Plock is dominated by the 12th-century Cathedral Basilica, which contains the sarcophaguses of a number of Polish sovereigns. Close by, and almost as tall, is the 14th-century Gentry Tower, and what’s left of the Dukes Castle.
There are plenty of other monuments, historic buildings and impressive churches, but for me Plock’s main attraction was just its charming timeless atmosphere, from the bright, spacious grandeur and fountains of the Market Square, to the magical mix of new and old, as modern shops huddle in ancient streets. For such an old city, it has a tremendously young and vibrant feel, and in the evening it came alive with music and laughter in the many cafes and bars.
My week had exceeded all my expectations, but the main thing I learned was that I had only scratched the surface of this region. I took away many superb memories - and a promise to myself that one day I’d return.