(First of two parts)
Poland is the hidden gem of Europe, just waiting to be discovered by travelers with an appetite for breathtaking scenery, rich history, comfort food, and reasonable, un-touristy prices. And the pandemic is officially over in the country! At the beginning of April, Poles were no longer required to wear masks (except for in hospitals), and no COVID testing is required to enter the country.
This we discovered on a study tour sponsored by the Polish Embassy in Manila, whose Ambassador Jaroslaw Szczepankiewicz, Minister Counselor/head of the Political & Economic Section Anna Krzak-Danel and Second Secretary/Vice Consul Tomasz Danel have been busy strengthening ties between Poland and the Philippines ever since the Polish Embassy reopened in January 2018 (it operated previously from 1981-’82, and 1991-’93).
Even with the war raging in neighboring Ukraine, our trip pushed through, because as a NATO country Poland is extremely safe and protected from Russia. Any incursions on their borders would result in swift repercussions from their NATO allies.
Meeting our personal guide Patrycjusz “Pat” Piechowski made me feel even safer. The 6’5”-tall interpreter spent three weeks with ABC News covering the war from the Polish-Ukrainian border and, with his towering physique, coupled with his encyclopedic knowledge of history and current events, we couldn’t have had a better guide to lead us through Poland.
Right now Poland is the best place from which to witness history happening. If you’re interested in the Russia-Ukraine war there’s no safer spot to get close to the action than the Poland-Ukraine border, about a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Krakow. At the border you’ll see (but can’t go in) the reception center where Ukrainian refugees are registered when they enter the country, as well as Medyka, the border village where NGOs from all over the world have set up tents to provide assistance to refugees, from hot food to sleeping bags to baby needs.
In nearby Przemyśl (pronounced “Pshemish”) there’s Ukrainian House, an old theater that’s been converted to a shelter with beds, a kids’ playroom, and kitchen where refugees can sleep for a few nights while waiting for more permanent housing. It’s staffed and maintained by Polish-Ukrainian volunteers who do everything possible to make their countrymen feel at home.
Krakow is so beautiful and historic. Warsaw may be Poland’s most famous city, but did you know that Krakow in the south was Poland’s first capital? Pat told us you need at least four days to enjoy all the beautiful sights there.
Stroll down the Royal Way, which starts at the Barbican by St. Mary’s Basilica — where a trumpeter plays in all four directions every hour on the hour — and you’ll end up at the city’s crown jewel: Wawel Royal Castle, the first UNESCO World Heritage Site in the world. Built at the behest of King Casimir III the Great, it consists of medieval, renaissance and baroque structures situated around an Italian-style main courtyard. One of the largest castles in Poland, it contains King Sigismund’s impressive tapestry, art and porcelain collections and a beautiful rooftop garden with a maze.
Next to it is Wawel Cathedral, where nearly all the former kings (and one queen) of Poland and their families rest. Once you’ve admired the Romanesque/Gothic/Renaissance interior, walk to Krakow Old Town and Market Square, where you can shop at the Cloth Hall of Sukiennice for souvenirs and amber jewelry, a Polish specialty. There’s also a weekly flea market at Hala Targowa where you can hunt for antiques, records, toys, old books and war memorabilia.
Another must-visit in Krakow is the Museum of Jagiellonian University. Founded by King Casimir the Great in 1364, it’s the oldest and the most prestigious college in Poland, counting alumni like Copernicus and Pope John Paul II, who studied Polish literature there.
Krakow’s former Jewish district of Kazimierz is also Poland’s party capital: after years of decline, this Jewish quarter was transformed into a hotbed of trendy eating and drinking spots that preserve the original atmosphere.
Even with the war raging in neighboring Ukraine, our trip pushed through, because as a NATO country, Poland is extremely safe and protected from Russia. Any incursions on their borders would result in swift repercussions from their NATO allies.
Warsaw is a vibrant hub of culture and commerce. Poland’s capital city since 1611, Warsaw (or Warszawa in Polish — they pronounce their “W’s” as “V’s” and “sz” as “sh”), located along the banks of the Vistula River, was impacted by two breeds of totalitarianism — Nazi and Soviet— and one Socialist Realist remnant of the Soviet era is the imposing Palace of Culture and Science, the tallest building in Poland at 230 meters.
Warsaw’s main attraction is Old Town and Market Square: almost completely destroyed during WWII, it was completely rebuilt in its original architectural styles.
In Old Town Market Square stands the statue of sword- and shield-wielding mermaid Syrenka, said to have lived in the Vistula River and defended the settlement of Warsz, the city’s legendary founder. Thus, since the Middle Ages she has been represented on Warsaw’s coat of arms.
Other interesting stops are Royal Lazienki Park with its Palace on the Island, the Copernicus Science Centre and the Warsaw Uprising Museum, which commemorates the Polish resistance’s Aug. 1, 1944 revolt against Nazi occupation.
Where to eat: Polka Restaurant in Old Town, run by celebrity chef Magda Gessler, a judge on Polish MasterChef, and serving traditional Polish cuisine like pierogi in quaint surroundings.
Cud Miod, a steakhouse that has many vegetarian options, is also a good place to try Polish beer, ale and wine.
The glory of Gdansk. Once a fortified settlement, Gdansk was the largest and wealthiest city in Poland from the 15th century onwards. The special status of “Free City” applied between 1920 and 1939, when Hitler incorporated it into the Third Reich.
When Russia’s Red Army liberated the city from Nazi rule, they had no qualms about incinerating it, so the “Old Gdansk” we see today is a breathtaking reconstruction of Gdansk’s glorious past.
Notable structures include The Crane, a port lift dating from the 15th century, the churches of St. Mary and St. Catherine, Old Town Hall, and the Mannerist houses of the preachers and abbots of Pelplin.
For WWII buffs the Museum of the Second World War (in Polish, Muzeum II Wojny Swiatowej https://muzeum1939.pl/en ) is one of the best and largest in the world, covering every aspect of the war over almost 5,000 square meters of floor space.
Gdansk’s new housing estates became the cradle of 1970s shipyard workers’ protests that gave rise to Lech Walesa’s Solidarnosc (Solidarity) movement in 1980. Another wonderful museum dedicated to this is the European Solidarity Center (ECS).
Where to eat: Gdanski Bowke Restaurant, a riverside resto with an ambience true to Gdansk 200 years ago. They serve traditional Polish dishes like Zur sourdough soup, homemade pierogi, Goldwasser-filled liqueur chocolates and unpasteurized Gdansk beer. It was a cold night so they even made mulled wine for me.
Where to stay: Hotel Holiday Inn – This hotel was notable for me because of its excellent location steps away from the Old Town riverfront where all the restaurants and cafés are located.
The business opportunities. In Polish parliament Zbigniew Chmielowiec and Piotr Uruski formed a Polish-Filipino Parliamentary group this year to represent Filipinos. “We know that the Philippines is a tiger in developing economy like Poland is,” they said. “Even if it’s far away it’s worth investing in.”
In four years Poland saw 400 percent growth in exports and imports of vehicles, live animals, medical and electronic equipment to the Philippines, from US$60 million to $220 million.
They’re very interested in our agricultural sector and Filipino entrepreneurs. “Poland is one of the biggest producers of apples, which Filipinos love,” Chmielowiec said. “We know a farmer with a 1,000-acre apple orchard who’d be very interested.”
There are also job opportunities for Pinoys, particularly in Poland’s medical sector.
At Poland’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Barbara Szymanowska, director of the Department of Asia and Pacific, agreed: “There’s increasing interest of Filipinos who want to work in Poland — a chance to cooperate.”
In turn, she notes, “There are a number of Polish citizens already working in the Philippines, and (more) are eager and open to travel there.”
Szymanowska cited exchanges like Poland donating 500,000 Astra Zeneca vaccines to the Philippines, and our National Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana recently buying 36 Blackhawk choppers from Poland.
But our biggest investment is the BCT Baltic Container Terminal in Gdynia, operated by Ricky Razon’s ICTSI. With a current annual cargo-handling capacity amounting to one million TEUs (Twenty Equipment Units), it’s one of the largest terminals in the Baltic region and the leading container terminal in Poland.
Meanwhile, Poland is eager to promote its brands in the Philippines via the Manila office of its Polish Investment & Trade Agency (headed by Bartek Wasiewski), particularly in cosmetics. Inglot, the brand J.Lo put on the radar, is actually Polish. Another beauty brand, Ziaja, is already popular in Korea and Singapore and has great potential here, according to Tomasz Szymczak, Export Centre director of PITA. “Our total exports of cosmetics all over the world are $2.2 billion, so there’s a really big chance to increase this export to the Philippines,” he said.
Poland is also looking to export furniture, green technologies, med tech and food like beef and poultry.
(To be continued)
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