One of Europe's most underrated countries, Poland offers a huge amount for travellers of all stripes - from the wild scenery of its mountainous south, with its great skiing and hiking, to the stunning Old Towns of Cracow, Zamość and Gdańsk and the wilderness of the Białowieża National Park and the Great Masurian Lakes in the country's north.
Modernising and changing fast, the Polish capital, Warsaw, was almost totally destroyed during WWII, when it was home to Europe's most notorious ghetto. Today the city is a combination of Soviet and contemporary, with a painstakingly recreated Old Town and an upbeat, progressive population. Yet most tourists head straight for the country's biggest draw, Cracow, the country's royal capital and a stunningly preserved architectural marvel that has somehow managed to survive the many wars that have seen Poland used as a battleground. Its scores of notable churches, monasteries and abbeys make it a jewellery box of Gothic and Renaissance, and a walk through Cracow’s Old Town, included on UNESCO's World Heritage List since 1978, is like a walk back in time.
Poland is a nation with a proud cultural heritage, in all spheres. The former textile city of Łódź has its famous film school, alma mater to directors Roman Polański and Krzysztof Kieślowski. Toruń boasts of being the hometown of astronomer Nicholas Copernicus, and Warsaw claims Marie Curie and Frederick Chopin as natives. The country's biggest port and northern boomtown, Gdańsk, is best known as the birthplace of Lech Wałęsa's Solidarity movement, which was founded in 1980 and eventually lead the country out of communism and into democracy in 1989.
Poland's scenic beauty is as varied as it is extraordinary. The Baltic coast has some excellent sandy beaches, as well as the Słowiński National Park with its ethereal forests, bogs and sand dunes. In the country's northeast are the Great Masurian Lakes, a playground for boat enthusiasts of all kinds with its hundreds of pristine lakes broken up by dense forest. The Cracow-Wielun Upland with its limestone areas, caves and medieval castles is another highlight, while perhaps most beautiful area of all is around the Carpathian Mountains in the far south. They make up the highest and largest mountain range in central Europe and form Poland's most scenic and rugged region. Their forests and snowy mountains are a magnet for hikers, skiers and cyclists. And because of its remoteness and relative inaccessibility over the centuries, this `forgotten corner' has been able to preserve its strong regional culture – as well as a growing population of 120 or so brown bears.
Polish cuisine may not compete on the world stage with the likes of, say, French or Chinese, but it does have its moments. Polish food is hearty and filling, rich in meat and game. Thick soups and sauces proliferate, and potatoes and dumplings are abundant accompaniments; favourite seasonings include marjoram, dill and caraway seeds. As for drink, Poland produces no wine but many decent beers. It truly comes to the fore, however, in the ubiquitous wódka (vodka).