TO BEGIN with, the soup. Served cold – this was a day when temperatures had topped 30C – it was an inspired blend of broad beans, chanterelles and herring.
If it had been dished up in a Michelin-starred restaurant in France you would not have been disappointed. But this was Poland.
Tell friends you are travelling there and they don’t quite know how to react. “Hm – interesting,” responded a colleague. Perhaps the image lurks of a dour east European country which had no time to rise from wartime heroism and tragedy before being slapped back down by Stalin.
It’s not a beach destination, though Sopot on the Baltic, known as the summer capital, is an elegant seaside resort. Though the Tatra mountains provide drama in the far south, Poland’s landscapes are generally flat or gently rolling. And when it comes to city breaks, only Krakow has made it on to most travellers’ shortlists. None of this should dissuade you from going.
Some understanding of Poland is essential to a grasp of 20th-century history. In Warsaw we made for a surviving section of the wall that once segregated Jews in one of two ghettos, before they were transported to the death camps. Around one third of the capital’s pre-war population was Jewish. A 91-year-old man leaned over a nearby garden railing. He had appointed himself unofficial caretaker of this small stretch of brickwork because, like countless numbers of his countrymen, he had spent time in a Soviet gulag and understood suffering.
Later we turned down Chlodny Street, which divided the ghettos, en route for the Museum of the Warsaw Uprising, a state-of-the art tribute to a doomed act of defiance. There were two uprisings in the city, one by the ghetto Jews, the other by underground fighters hoping to hasten liberation from the Nazis in the summer of 1944. The museum commemorates the latter. Perhaps its most affecting exhibit is a rolling sequence of black and white film of the fighting, shot by rebel propagandists. Fighters take cover behind barricades, teenage couriers scurry, women stir a cooking pot in the rubble, a couple wed amid the mayhem, the groom with one arm in a sling.
Argument has raged over the uprising. Was it foolhardy? Inevitable? Certainly it was betrayed. From the viewing terrace of the Palace of Culture, that hulking Soviet power statement described wryly as ‘Stalin’s gift’, you can look out across the Vistula river and imagine the Red Army, sitting restless, yet ordered not to enter the city and go to the insurgents’ aid, waiting until they had surrendered and their strongholds been razed by the Germans.
Those few weeks are seen by some as the start of the Cold War, whose conclusion is celebrated further north, in Gdansk. Like Warsaw’s Old Town, this once wealthy trading port was blown to smithereens at the end of the Second Word War and painstakingly recreated in all its glorious detail. Now its pedestrianised Long Market is busy with tourists, lined with cafés and shops selling the amber for which it is famous. At the Roads to Freedom exhibition, close to the gates of what was once called the Lenin Shipyard, there are grainier images. The yard was the birthplace of Solidarity in 1980 and the workplace of Lech Walesa, one of the movement’s instigators and its eventual leader.
As its name indicates, the exhibition chronicles Poland’s emancipation. Communist paranoia is remembered in the form of a phone box, where callers were warned their conversations would be earwigged. Austerity is illustrated by a mock-up shop with gaping spaces between the few essentials on its shelves and a curious device designed to enable customers to tell whether eggs were sufficiently fresh.
And the revolt that spelled the end of the regime is recalled in detail – by bullet holes in a protester’s jacket and the workers’ famous 21 demands, handwritten and posted at the shipyard gates in 1980.
Reminders of Europe’s 20th-century traumas are never far away in Poland. Even down south in the Tatra mountains holiday resort of Zakopane, the old cemetery contains the graves of an Olympic oarsman killed in the uprising and a ski jumper who refused to teach his technique to the occupying Germans, choosing instead to smuggle men and materials across the high mountains to and from what was then Czechoslovakia.
But don’t let all that blind you to the country’s more distant past. Take a trip from Gdansk to the massive red brick ramparts of Malbork Castle, stronghold of the Teutonic knights. On no account miss the Wielicza mine, near Krakow, one of the first Unesco World Heritage sites, where salt was mined from the 13th century until a couple of decades ago. You will be amazed at the subterranean chapel, built by a group of devout miners, whose floor tiles, chandelier crystals, altarpiece and religious reliefs are all carved from salt.
And leave time simply to watch the Poles at play on the thronged streets of Sopot or Zakopane, drinking and eating at outside tables, queuing for placki – potato pancakes stuffed with goulash – to eat on the hoof. Wander along Nowy Swiat in Warsaw, a boulevard lined with busy restaurants, cafes and bars, where the city’s youth sets off on a monthly roller blade marathon around the capital, and you get the sense of a nation released.
That sense comes across even more strongly in Warsaw’s gleaming new Terraces shopping centre, where our local guide’s father, who lived through food shortages, still lingers for hours, taking in the consumer revolution.
If the description of the soup starter was ammunition to persuade sceptical friends, so was the most memorable main course – roast goose on a bed of wild mushrooms, eaten amid a ‘forest’ of tree trunks painted with strawberry motifs at AleGloria, a Warsaw restaurant opened by star chef Magda Gessler.
It’s no use pretending most Poles can afford such cooking yet. But if you still imagine Poland through the black and white images of old news bulletins, consider that Gessler recently began presenting a Polish TV version of Masterchef and you will surely acknowledge you are way behind the times.
• Easyjet and Ryanair fly direct to Krakow from Edinburgh and Glasgow from around £190. Intercity rail tickets can be booked at www.bilet.intercity.pl.
There are fast trains between Krakow and Warsaw (three hours) but travel on some routes, including between the capital and Gdansk, which is being upgraded, can be slow.
Luxury hotels are relatively cheap in Poland. Our bill for two people for three nights with an extensive buffet breakfast at the five-star Weston Warsaw was just over £340. The Polish National Tourist Office (www.poland.travel/en-gb).