Flip through any guidebook on Poland and the terms 'destruction' or 'razed to the ground' are bound to appear more times than you can count on your fingers. While this might add up to a lot of brownie points from historians, vacationers would probably give the destination a miss based on such depressing literature alone. But having visited Poland, I assure you that once there, you'll discover a Poland that is usually edited out of travel stories; one that has an intoxicating nightlife, wacky museums, beautiful coastlines and warm people.
Warsaw: My Warsaw guidebook opens on the Uprising of 1944 which saw 85 per cent of the city destroyed. But the determination of the people saw Warsaw pieced back together to its historic form. Little wonder then that the city is on the UNESCO heritage list.
As I mulled over the magnitude of destruction the city has seen at the hands of other nationals, I expected the Poles to be suspicious of foreigners. But the first Pole I interacted with, my Varsovian guide Grazyna, broke through this clichÃ©d image as she greeted me with not two, but three pecks on the cheek in what is a typical Polish custom.
Grazyna starts the tour in the heart of the city -- the Old Town. The city centre is buzzing with activity cafÃ©s inviting with the lure of a warm cuppa; bars beckoning with upbeat tunes etc. The scene is no different from any modern city-centre, except for the backdrop -- red brick roofs, quaint houses with multi-coloured facades, and cobbled pathways. It's like being in two different time periods, at once!
Some must-see sites in the Old Town include the market place where merchants gathered; here fairs too were celebrated, and the odd public execution also took place here! Yet another dominant feature is the Zygmunt's Column, one of the oldest secular monuments in Europe. Twenty-two metres in height, this column holds a statue of King Zygmunt III Wazy. It was King Wazy, who in the 16th century moved Poland's capital to Warsaw.
Even if you've checked out all the historic sites, no tour of Warsaw is complete without a glimpse of the nightlife. The city with a tragic history, today offers many hedonistic options -- theatres performances, cabarets and operas, or simply hitting the bars. I opt for the latter and Grazyna guides me to an upmarket club which, unlike Mumbai, has no curfew. I was hit by techno beats, blinking lights and one too many flavours of vodka. Having danced to catchy Polish tunes, downed cherry, raspberry and the smooth, unflavoured variety of vodka, I called it a night.
Gdansk and Sopot: If it's serene beaches you're looking for, then head to the port city of Gdansk which is a road trip away from the capital. Its fantastic location off the Baltic is mesmerising with blue waters that merge into the sky. Here you can sit back and enjoy a romantic cruise, opt for a cafÃ© with sumptuous seafood. Or if you're a history buff, check out the many plaques that point to the fact that Gdansk is where World War II began.
I chose to head to the famed Oliwa Cathedral in the suburbs. Deceptively simple on the outside, the cathedral holds within a magnificent inbuilt organ. The organ consists of 5,000 odd pipes, decorated with statues of gods and angels. The musical pipes are manually operated by keyboards and a foot board. And the melodies they create reverberate through the cathedral. It's impossible to fathom how this intricate instrument was crafted in the 18th century.
Neighbouring Gdansk is the resort town of Sopot, which, like Warsaw, is famous for its nightlife. My guide describes Sopot, 'as the hipper cousin of Gdansk.' Sopot also boasts of the longest wooden pier in Europe. At 515 metres long, it seems to stretch right into the middle of the sea.
Torun: Two hours by road from Gdansk is Torun, the birthplace of Nicholas Copernicus. Or as my local guide described him, 'A man who stopped the sun!' Because centuries ago, Copernicus proved that the Earth moved around the sun and not vice-versa.
Apart from teaching visitors about space, Torun also teaches a lot about gingerbread, a local speciality that has an entire museum in its honour. In fact, the Live Gingerbread Museum is Europe's only fully operating gingerbread factory to be established in the 16th century.
I walked into the museum to the sweet-spicy aroma of cardamom mixed with ginger. Next, I participated in a demonstration where an instructor dressed in medieval attire showed me how to make 'Torun gingerbread'. And now I have an ancient recipe that I replicate in my own desi kitchen.
As my trip comes to an end, I'm glad I discovered a Poland that rarely makes it to print -- one that takes pride in her past, yet has cast away the gloomy image for a vibrant vibe. Fact file
Getting there: Fly Lufthansa from Mumbai to Warsaw with a break of journey/stopover in Frankfurt. As Germany too falls under the Schengen visa limit, you will not need an additional visa to enter the country.
Best time to visit: May to September