Far from being grim and grey, Poland has a wealth of architectural and natural wonders, and great food too
At first glance, Poland's unofficial national dish, pierogi, does not impress.
The rustic dumpling, usually filled with meat, appears stodgy and rather pallid. But bite into it and the pillowy dough reveals a savoury centre bursting with flavours. Often, there is even a surprise within - instead of meat, the filling is cheese or even sweet juicy berries.
Likewise, the country also took me by surprise - in a good way. Since World War II, Poland has been so closely associated with the horrors of Auschwitz and the bleak realities of communism that, before I visited, I had the impression the country was grim and grey.
I could not have been more wrong.
On a 10-day whirlwind tour beginning in Krakow in the south to Warsaw in the north, I explored cities both big and small with colourful buildings, vibrant culture and burgeoning food scenes.
The people were warm and inviting, with a wry sense of humour, a can-do attitude and a fierce sense of pride in all things Polish.
Before the trip, when I told friends where I was going, the most common response was: "Huh? Why Poland? What's there to see?"
Well, for a start, there is a strong sense of history, often tumultuous, everywhere - not just in the city of Krakow, the only city in the country to survive World War II with its marvellous 12th-century architecture still standing proud.
Even in capital Warsaw, which was bitterly razed under Adolf Hitler's order towards the end of the war, the historic Old Town was painstakingly restored to its original form, with buildings reconstructed sometimes based on nothing more than old paintings.
Both cities are Unesco World Heritage Sites and rightly so, but even lesser-known places such as Zakopane, Poznan, Wroclaw, Torun and Gdansk have their unique charms and distinct personalities.
Likewise, the food is also steeped in history and tradition and rich in influences from other cultures.
Due to the country's location at the crossroads of historical trade routes between Europe and Asia, it owes some of its magnificent Polish flavours to neighbours such as Lithuania and Ukraine, as well as minorities such as the Jews and Muslims who have lived there for centuries.
A new generation of chefs has taken traditional dishes and updated them with contemporary culinary trends, but retaining Polish flavours. Agriculture still plays a large role in the economy and the superb produce from around the country takes on a starring role in the dishes.
In fact, Krakow has been named European Capital of Gastronomic Culture for this year and both Krakow and Warsaw boast a number of fine-dining restaurants which have been feted by the Michelin Guide and French restaurant guide Gault Millau.
Yet, prices remain affordable and you can have a three-course meal in a Michelin Plate restaurant for less than 100 Polish zloty (S$35).
And if you go to a milk bar - a throwback to communist-era bistros which are experiencing a revival - you can get a soup, main and drink for about $4, as well as a nostalgic trip back in time.
On my return from the trip with a belly full of pierogi, when I raved to my friends about the glorious food I had devoured, their reaction was one of utter disbelief: "You mean it's not just potatoes?"
Just as how Polish food has an undeservedly stodgy reputation, the country itself is under-rated, even though it has sights and culture to rival any European country and its tourist infrastructure is firmly in place. Roads in the cities and the highways between them are well-maintained; English is widely spoken, especially among the younger set; and there are new hotels at reasonable rates in prime locations.
Oh, and the exchange rate for the Polish zloty is extremely favourable, so your dollar goes further. Yet, even the most popular town squares are not overrun with tourists, unlike in, say, Prague or Budapest.
With all that Poland has to offer, it will not be long before it becomes the next tourism hot spot.
• Suzanne Sng is a former Straits Times journalist based in Paris as an independent editorial consultant. Her trip was hosted by Insight Vacations (insightvacations.com), with additional activities organised by Poland Tourism Organisation and flights provided by LOT Polish Airlines.
PAINFUL PAST, NOSTALGIC PRESENT
Our itinerary was planned logically to take in the cities from south to north.
Starting from Krakow, we make our way in a clock-wise direction, going through Zakopane, Wroclaw, Poznan and Torun to arrive at the northern port city of Gdansk, before heading to capital Warsaw in the middle of the country.
Here, I finally learnt to pronounce the name of the city (it rhymes with "cough", although the affable locals do not mind if you say "cow").
The only Polish city untouched by the destruction wrought by World War II - it surrendered and the Germans marched right in - there is gorgeous architecture dating back to the 12th century everywhere you turn.
As our local guide proclaimed proudly: "Everything is original."
The Old Town boasts one of the largest town squares in Europe and is a great place to people-watch from the restaurant terraces.
Krakow is also ideal for day trips. One sobering, but important and necessary, stop is the Auschwitz concentration camp, where 1.1 million people died, 90 per cent of them Jews.
Another must-do day trip is to Wieliczka Salt Mine (wieliczka-saltmine.com), a Unesco World Heritage Site with mind-boggling chambers and statues hewn from salt rock and decorated with chandeliers made from salt crystals.
To the very south of Poland is the country's winter capital, where sports such as skiing and snowboarding take place when there is snow on the ground.
Highlanders like to joke that there are only two seasons in Zakopane - winter and July. Even in June, there is often snow and it is where the Poles go to beat the heat.
The region is also known for oscypek, a smoked cheese made from unpasteurised sheep milk which tastes especially good grilled.
3. WROCLAW, POZNAN AND TORUN
Towards the west of Poland is laidback Wroclaw, also the country's fourth largest city.
It has a youthful and liberal vibe due to it being a university city with a large number of students.
A number of craft breweries have popped up and the city boasts spirited nightlife and cultural festivals.
Poznan, about two hours away by car, has a calmer vibe - with a beautiful market square and a stately town hall which dates back to the 1500s.
Another two hours away is charming Torun, the birthplace of mathematician-astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus.
A walking tour of the old town takes in mammoth red-bricked Gothic-style buildings, including a cathedral which dates back to 1260.
4. GDANSK, GDYNIA AND SOPOT
Known as Tri-City, Gdansk and the two smaller cities of Gdynia and Sopot in the north boast very different architecture and culture from the rest of Poland.
Gdansk is the country's principal seaport and has a complex history, having been under Polish, Prussian and German rule, as well as having existed as a free city.
The waterfront area has seen a huge renaissance in the past five years, with hotels, restaurants and apartments coming up in modern styles that mimic the tall, narrow traditional buildings they sit comfortably alongside. A stroll along the waterfront after dinner is a lovely way to take in the vibrant city.
Sopot and Gdynia are accessible by train in 20 to 35 minutes. While Sopot has a ritzy beach-resort feel - it is known as the Monte Carlo of the North - Gdynia has a more relaxed vibe, with small museums and hiking trails.
The city was practically levelled during World War II, but the Old Town (above) has been meticulously restored to its original form.
Elsewhere in the booming city of close to two million inhabitants, gleaming glass skyscrapers are popping up next to old communist-era blocks, while old structures such as factories and warehouses undergo urban renewal as they are turned into smart restaurants and museums.
The old and new also sit comfortably next to each other in up-and-coming areas such as Savior Square, with indie boutiques and cafes in Soviet-style buildings right next to a church built in 1901.
The city is proud of its homeboy Chopin and, if you visit in summer, make sure you catch a free concert of his music while you bask in the sun at the foot of his memorial at the Royal Lazienki Park.
TRADITIONAL MEETS MODERN EATS
Perhaps the best known Polish dish is pierogi, or dumplings with fillings of savoury meat, sweet fruit or cheese, which can be served boiled or pan-fried.
Although the exact origin of this staple is uncertain, it is popular in Central and Eastern Europe, and is considered the unofficial national dish of Poland. Unlike thin-skinned Chinese-style dumplings, these are hearty packages encased in sturdy dough that deliver comforting carbs straight to the stomach.
This is very much what the Poles eat at home weekly and can also be found in many restaurants, with upmarket restaurants coming up with refined versions.
No Polish food list is complete without a mention of potato pancakes. Flatter than the hash brown and sturdier than the rosti, the placki ziemniaczane is fried potato at its very crispy best.
Nibble from the crackling edge to its firm-yet-tender centre, with perhaps a dab of sour cream. Or go local and have it with a sprinkle of sugar and cinnamon.
Another Polish potato dish, kopytka, deserves a call-out. Similar to the Italian gnocchi, it is a boiled potato dumpling that is served either savoury with bacon and onions or sweet with butter and sugar.
There is a food truck in Warsaw which hawks a fresh take with teriyaki sauce, parmesan and chilli.
Pickled herring may seem like something you have to be dared to eat, but even a fish hater like myself found it palatable, non-fishy and even moreish.
It helps that the Poles have come up with some fancy ways to eat it. Besides pickling and slathering the fish in sour cream, innovative chefs such as those at the popular gastropub Ambasada Sledzia (Stolarska 5, 31-043 Krakow), also known as Herring Embassy, have come up with combinations such as mango, chilli and pineapple, and coconut milk, kaffir leaf and galangal which work astoundingly well with the fish.
Also try salted herring, herring in oil, herring rolls, herring with potatoes, herring tartare and even herring burgers. Wash it down with the Polish national drink, vodka.
HOT AND COLD SOUPS
Chlodnik is perhaps the most Instagram-worthy soup in Poland and that is saying a lot in a country which loves its soups - all 200 types of them.
The hot-pink cold soup is the same vivid shade as bandung but is savoury, not sweet. Refreshing and light, it is popular in summer. It is made with grated beetroot, cucumber, radish, dill and onion, with added buttermilk and/or sour cream for a luscious touch. Hard-boiled eggs are also plonked in to add pops of colour.
A hot version of beetroot soup, thinner than a Russian borscht, is also popular.
Another soup that can be found all over the country is zurek, also known as sour rye soup. The name of this humble and chunky soup may not sound appetising and neither does the way it is made - rye flour and garlic are left in water to ferment for four to five days, with the resulting liquid cooked with other ingredients such as potato and sausage.
However, the tangy taste of this soup is unique and addictive, and the sausages are homemade and excellent. Definitely a must-try.
TRADITIONAL BAKED GOODS AND SWEETS
If you have a sweet tooth, look out for the word "cukiernia" emblazoned across shopfronts as it means bakery.
Very often, the cakes and pastries are baked on site using traditional methods and ingredients, such as at Cukiernia Cichowscy (Starowislna 21, 31-038 Krakow), one of the oldest bakeries in Krakow. Savour little bites of traditional cookies which come in flavours such as hazelnut cream and rosehip jam.
The same intoxicatingly fragrant jam is often used as a filling in the Polish version of the fried doughnut, paczki, which makes for a sinful sweet treat.
A less calorific pastry to have on the go is the obwarzanek. This chewy bagel-like ring of dough studded with poppy seeds, sesame or salt is one of the oldest snacks in the world at 600 years old. Adorable blue pushcarts hawking it can be found on almost every street corner in Krakow.
Another regional snack is the elaborately decorated gingerbread from Torun. Known as pierniki, these spice-scented gingerbread cookies have been produced since the Middle Ages and are intricately piped with lace-like icing sugar, making them almost too pretty to eat.
Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.
The views, material and information presented by any third party are strictly the views of such third party. Without prejudice to any third party content or materials whatsoever are provided for information purposes and convenience only. Council For The Third Age shall not be responsible or liable for any loss or damage whatsoever arising directly or indirectly howsoever in connection with or as a result of any person accessing or acting on any information contained in such content or materials. The presentation of such information by third parties on this Council For The Third Age website does not imply and shall not be construed as any representation, warranty, endorsement or verification by Council For The Third Age in respect of such content or materials.