Where to go? What’s there to do and see? Traditional landmarks, theme parks and family roots
WARSAW - To the above headline question most of the male half of Poland’s population would reply: Euro 2012. That is the name of the European Soccer Finals being co-hosted by Poland and Ukraine this coming June. But even if you’re not a big soccer fan, 2012 is still a good year to vast the ancestral homeland to explore the country’s traditional heritage landmarks, see some entirely new attractions and possibly touch base with long-lost relations. Here are some things to consider.
NOT ANOTHER FOREIGN COUNTRY: If you have Polish roots, Poland will never be never be just another foreign country. Whether or not you are fluent in Polish, you will probably encounter some of the sights, smells, sounds and familiar facial types of your possibly long forgotten Polish-American childhood. Tongue-twisters in America, in Poland you will run into such names as Wójcik, Nowak, Kowalczyk, Szymański and Zieliński at every step of the way - on billboards, in store windows and various listings.
WITH A GROUP OR ON YOUR OWN?: An organized tour group is usually the best bet for someone coming for the first time, as it is the most hassle-free way to go. A package deal usually includes transport to and from Poland, hotel accommodation, meals, guided tours and tour organizers you can ask about things. If you are unaware of any organization, parish or travel bureau in your area organizing such a tour, contact: Polish-American Tours, 1285 Riverdale Street, West Springfield, MA 01089; phone: 1-800-388-0988; www.pattours.com. The more adventurous, especially those who have already been to Poland, may prefer to go it alone: rent a car and travel the country according to personal whim and preference rather than being held to a strict schedule. Powerful, eye-opening experience that topples many preconceived stereotypes and instills healthy ethnic pride. Observations have shown that most Pol-Ams return home more interested and eager to become more involved in their heritage than ever before.
SEND YOUR TEEN TO POLAND: That first trip to Poland makes an even greater impact on young people of formative age. They are just beginning to form their ideas and opinions and are more receptive to new sights and experiences than us older folk who are largely set in our ways. The idea of vacationing in Europe will seem far preferable to many than just hanging around the neighborhood or going to the same old lake. Check to see whether any big Pol-Am organizations are organizing summer camps in Poland. Alternatively, accompany.
WHAT’S THERE TO DO AND SEE?: Among Poland’s leading attractions are its fabulous Old Town sections, palaces, castles and cathedrals. Prime tourist sites include Kraków’s Wawel Castle and Cathedral (pictured above, left) with sits royal treasures the quaint mountain town of Zakopane, Wieliczka salt mine, Auschwitz museum, Warsaw’s Old Town and Wilanów Palace (pictured above, right) as well as venerable religious shrines (Jasna Góra, Kalwaria Zebrzydowska, Święta Lipka). Poland’s natural beauty includes its picturesque southern mountain landscapes, the forested Mazurian Lake District and the Baltic Coast with its sandy beaches, dunes and cliffs. The old rural Poland of yesteryear, from which millions of Polish peasants flocked to America in the 19th and 20th centuries, comes to life at skansens (ethnographic parks) and rural museums (muzeum wsi) across the country. Some of the most interesting are found at Ciechanowiec, Sanok, Nowogród, Lublin, Kolbuszowa, Białystok and Białowieża.
MODERN POLAND: Both visitors arriving in Poland for the first time as well as those who haven’t visited in years are surprised at how modern Poland has become. Skyscrapers have gone up in all the big cities, as have shopping malls, often more modern than those in America. (The Polish ones are often less than a decade old, so they incorporate the latest design and technology.) The down side of modernity are Poland’s big-city traffic jams. Modern tourist attractions include Warsaw’s fabulous Copernicus Science Center, where visitors can explore the mysteries of the universe and take part in scientific experiments. Another modern development has been the growth of theme parks. They include Adventure World in Grodzisk Mazowiecki, Poznań’s University Earth History Park, a prehistoric Slav and Viking skansen on Ostrów Island, Dinosaur Parks in Łeba and Inwałd and a Wild West Town in Mrągowo. Sailing, horse-riding, hiking, cave-exploring and mountaineering are available to those who fancy active lifestyles. Many Pol-Ams find the raft ride down the swift-flowing River Dunajec to be a memorable experience.
EXPLORING POLISH ROOTS: Visiting relatives in Poland can also be an unforgettable experience. In particular, those living in small towns and villages usually shower their Pol-Am cousins with that powerful, never-take-no-for-an-answer hospitality, prompting some Polonian visitors to remark: “They tried to wine and dine me to death!” Relatives you may not have known even existed may to pull out some old, faded snapshots your dad or grandma had sent them after the war. Visiting the family homestead and seeing your ancestors’ names on gravestones show that you trace your roots to a proud, 1,000-year-old nation that has survived partitions, invasions and occupations without losing its national identity. Pol-Ams who have lost contact with the families are often able to relocate them. Genealogical firms and individual genealogists can researching your family’s public records, draw up a family tree and may be able to help you track down and/or photograph or videotape ancestral homesteads and family graves: they may even be able to turn up living lost-long relatives in Poland. Leading researchers (who all speak English) include: www.polgenresearch.com, www.polishgenealogy.com.pl, www.piast.waw.pl and www.ipgs.us/iwopna/iwona.html.
A PLACE FOR YOUNGER POL-AMS: Although some Pol-Am teenagers might initially react with “Aw, what’s there to do and see in Poland anyway?”, the fact remains that younger Americans of Polish background often get more out of such a trip than those of their parents’ and grandparents’ generation. Teenagers and even young adults are still in their formative stage and new sights and experiences often make a deeper impression. Such first-hand contact is both culturally enriching as well as dispelling negative stereotypes about Poland. In a addition to all the history and culture they’ll be exposed to, younger Pol-Am visitors are usually fascinated by Poland’s lively club and pub scene (drinking age is 18!) in the bigger cities. An added attraction for many younger Pol-Ams might be to include a side trip to Rome or maybe a stopover in neighboring Germany, London or Paris on the way home.
AN INEXPENSIVE YEAR TO VISIT: Europe’s financial crisis has strengthened the US dollar, and that means you will probably get more for your American greenback in Poland than in recent years. At this writing the dollar is fetching 3.45 złotys. At that rate, a meal in an average restaurant would run from $6 to $14, a cinema ticket - $5, a pack of Marlboro cigarettes - $3.50 and a 17-ounce (half liter) bottle of beer (retail shop) - 72˘ and a daily newspaper - around $1. A medium-priced hotel will set you back $50-$60 a night and the taxi to take you there will charge only 46˘ a kilometer (.62 mile). Prices at car rentals are reasonable and start at around $29 a day, but problems start when you pull up into a gas station and have to pay around $9 a gallon for 95 octane unleaded.