In Poland, do as the Poles do

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Thermal bath, snowmobiling, salt mine tours, kulig rides, hot chocolate and trying out local fare from oscypek to obwarzanki; ANURAG MALLICK lists out 10 quintessential Polish experiences

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Hot chocolate at Wedel’s Chocolate Lounge
Wedel is not merely the most famous Polish chocolate company; it’s a much-loved institution! Karol Wedel opened Poland’s first chocolate cafe in 1851 on Warsaw’s Szpitalna Street and 160 years later it’s still in business. Relish handmade chocolate pralines and hot beverages in bitter, milk or white with various degrees of chocolatiness at sixteen cafes across Poland.

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Take a dip in the thermal springs of Tatra mountains
On Poland’s southern border with Slovakia, nestled in the Tatra mountains, is the snowy retreat of Bukowina. It is a centuries old Polish tradition to bathe in therapeutic thermal geysers emanating from fissures in the earth that go down as deep as 2400m. The best place to experience it is at Bukovina Tatranzska Hotel, with both indoor and outdoor temperature controlled pools. Besides steam, sauna and Jacuzzi, a natural setting has been recreated with caves and caverns!

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Subterranean tour of Wieliczka salt mines
Wieliczka’s ‘Kopalnia Soli’ (salt mine) is the world’s oldest mine still in operation and perhaps the oldest corporation dating back to nearly 800 years! The conducted tour takes visitors down the shafts to various komoras (excavated chambers) where miners toiled with pulley systems. After a tragic accident burnt down the wooden church, mine workers began carving altars, statues and chandeliers out of rock salt, thus unfolding a jaw-dropping legacy of saline architecture. Visit the stunning church, dine in an underground restaurant and pick up salt memorabilia.

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Snow mobiling at Zakopane
Head south to the winter capital of Zakopane for a funicular ride to Mount Gubalowka for snowmobile rides against a backdrop of the Tatra mountains. A good place to see the mountainous Góral culture with traditional food, music, costume and wood architecture, Zakopane is a popular adventure destination. Go alpine skiing, cross-country skiing, snowboarding or ski jumping. In summer, go hiking, rock climbing and spelunking. Stroll down Krupówki Street, the town’s most popular avenue lined with stores and restaurants or take a ride in decorated horse-pulled sleighs called kuligs.

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Try Oscypek or mountain sheep cheese
Small street side stalls across Poland churn out Oscypek (mountain sheep cheese) on a hot griddle served with cranberry sauce and often a glass of mulled wine. Made of salted sheep milk as per a strict recipe, the patented smoked cheese is exclusive to Poland’s mountainous Tatra region. There are other variants like the cylindrical gotka or mountain farmer’s cheese and redykotki or cheese figurines.

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Walk through the Old Town in Krakow
Krakow’s historic Stare Miasto or old town was among the first sites chosen for UNESCO’s inaugural World Heritage List in 1978. Home to six thousand historic sites – palaces, churches, theatres and mansions in Renaissance, Baroque and Gothic styles, the central district boasts over two million works of art. The main square Rynek Główny is the largest medieval town square in Europe. Lined with kamienice (row houses) and noble residences, it has architectural gems like St. Mary’s Basilica and the Renaissance cloth hall Sukiennice, which houses the National Gallery of Art. Ride a horse-drawn carriage with pigeons flying about Kraków’s square or head to Wawel Castle overlooking the Vistula River.

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Polish off a Polish meal with highlander music
Polish cuisine evolved over centuries with influences from nearby regions of Europe. The national dish bigos, a cabbage and meat stew, was introduced by a Lithuanian Grand Duke who became King of Poland in 1386. Pierogi, an influence from Russia and Italy, are soft dumplings stuffed with meats or vegetables. Hungarian style thick soups are served in edible bread bowls. Obwarzanki or Polish bagels are a traditional Hebrew snack and a Krakówian symbol, available in poppy seed, sesame, rock salt and pizza sprinkles. Dine at the European style Belvedere at Warsaw’s Lazienki Park, try Polish cuisine at Wentzl restaurant in Krakow and for a traditional experience try Bakowo Zohylina Wyznio in Bukowina with highlander music and Polish vodka.

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Know your Kieslowski from your Polanski
For years, Polish cinema has been an artistic movement and a creative force to reckon with, whose most known faces were Andrzej Wajda, Roman Polanski and Krzysztof Kieślowski, known for his Three Colors Trilogy (Red, Blue, White). Most of Poland’s luminaries received their training at the National Film School at Łódź (pronounced Wuch, don’t ask why). Poland’s third largest city has a youthful air with academies of film, music, art and the University of Łódź.

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Pay your respects at Auschwitz-Birkenau
Once known for its large Jewish population, Poland became the site of the largest Nazi concentration camp in German-occupied Europe. Over a million people, mostly Jews from 28 countries, perished at the notorious Auschwitz camp during World War II. The gate bears the sinister motto Arbeit Macht Frei (Work makes Free) and prison blocks exhibit personal items taken from victims, photographs and documents related to the genocide. Besides death camps like Sobibor, Treblinka, Belzec and Birkenau, visit Oskar Schindler’s factory and the Krakow Ghetto in Podgorze District.

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Pray at Chopin’s enshrined heart
No one captures the national imagination as vividly as Frederic Chopin. Holy Cross Church, the largest in Warsaw, is where the composer’s heart lies enshrined. As per his wishes, Chopin’s remains were brought to Poland in 1882 and an urn containing his heart was placed inside the church pillar. After surviving several wars and many hiding places, the urn returned permanently after nearly a century. The plaque reads ‘17. X. 1945 the heart of F. Chopin returned to Warsaw’.

Author: Anurag Mallick. This is an abridged version of the article that appeared on 8 Sep 2014 in Conde Nast Traveller online. Read the full story here: http://www.cntraveller.in/story/when-poland-do-poles-do         

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