Brigid Pasulka lived in Krakow from 1994-1995 and returns to Poland almost every year. Her debut novel, also set in Krakow, is called A Long, Long Time Ago and Essentially True. Our book reviewer, Don George, chose it as Book of the Month for August. Here Brigid gives us her insider’s picks of top experiences in Poland, in no particular order:
- Eat at a milk bar (bar mleczny). Government-subsidized cafeterias in Communist Poland, milk bars still serve a (mostly) student and pensioner clientele. If you need help with the menu, just ask a student in line–almost all young people in cities speak some English–and don’t forget to bus your own table and tell your table-mates “Dziękuję” (jen-KOO-yeh) when you stand up to leave. In Krakow, Bar Żak on Królewska and the bar mleczny on Grodzka (called simply “Bar Mleczny”) are the most accessible but still authentic examples.
- Stay in a room in someone’s apartment. Sure, there are hotels, hostels and stand-alone apartments, but none of these will show you how people actually live better than…well, actually living with them. Thanks to the Internet, you won’t have to take your chances on whichever babcia accosts you straight off the train. These are, of course, not recommended for drunken revelers–most of the proprietors seem to be single mothers or pensioners who need their beauty sleep.
- Give a nod to Solidarity. Though many feel there is no difference anymore between the Solidarity party and the rest of the politicians, nearly everyone acknowledges that the Solidarity movement changed the face of Europe. Find a church that hosted regular protests (“Arka” in Krakow, for example), browse the iconic images in a poster gallery (Galleria Plakatu in Krakow), or even go to Wałęsa’s shipyard (stocznia) in Gdańsk.
- Go to a cabaret (kabaret). Most tourists will shy away from cabarets because they fear the barrage of consonants that is the Polish language, but going to a cabaret is the closest you can get to the Polish soul (in public, anyway), and when you listen to the folk songs and the satire, you’ll be surprised by how much you understand. Krakow’s classic cabaret is Piwnica Pod Baranami or Cellar Under the Sheep.
- Go to a café (kawiarnia) or a cellar (piwnica) near a university. The beer, coffee, or szarlotka (an addictive apple-meringue cake) is only an excuse to people-watch and soak in the unique Polish interior design aesthetic (which is perhaps best described as “attic irony”). My favorites in Krakow are Pigeon 3, Nowa Prowincja, and Bunkier.
- Ask someone’s opinion. As the saying goes, “three Poles, four opinions.” You’ll have to warm up by asking something neutral, like what you should see while you’re in Poland (to which you will receive a polite list of tourist destinations), but by the time you work up to the latest controversy, you’ll get to hear exactly what they think. Asking about Poland’s role in the E.U. or the U.S.’s image among Poles always seems to push some buttons.
- Visit a church, preferably on a Sunday. The churches were the centers of protest during the ’80s and the very presence of some of the historical plaques on the walls often represents resistance against the Communist government. Although attendance is a bit down this decade, the back-to-back services and crowded pews are still a testament to Poles’ struggles in the present and/or hope for the future.
- Drive around the countryside (and be willing to spontaneously stop). Anything is possible in the Polish countryside. I have stumbled across hermit sculptors, a wooden car, a roadside barbecue with the best trout I’ve ever eaten, and houses that look like they are straight out of Grimm’s fairy tales. If you’re lucky, you may even get invited in for gòralska herbata (tea with vodka) and a chat. Try the Tatra mountain region and the mostly wooded, eastern region of Bieszczady.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
- Flip through the television channels. You’ll be appalled by what we export (Jerry Springer, reruns of Dynasty,and a steady stream of crime/forensic programs), but you can also see the live antics of the Polish parliament, good historical retrospectives, and Communist-era comedies. One bonus–almost all foreign television programs in Poland are dubbed (by the same guy it seems), and you can usually still make out the original language underneath.
- Wander around Auschwitz-Birkinau, alone if you can. I had read shelves of books about the Holocaust, but I didn’t begin to understand what went on until I witnessed the sheer magnitude and desolation of Auschwitz-Birkinau. Walking through the barracks full of photos and artifacts, you will feel as if you are staring down the very gullet of evil, but the quiet processions of backpackers, school groups, and even survivors from across the globe will give you hope for the peace and unity of our world.
For more, check out our 48 Hours in Krakow guide.