Fairytale castles, forest retreats and historic cities - TFN’s top travel tips for 2022
Despite diabolical forecasts warning of its impending collapse, Poland’s travel sector has continued to impress with the diversity of its offer. But with the final curtain drawn on 2021, TFN's Alex Webber takes a look at the year that awaits and those unmissable places that demand your attention.
A Man’s Home Is His Castle
I love castles, but I love staying in them even more. With that in mind, there isn’t much that has excited me more than the imminent opening of a hotel inside Zamek w Przegorzałach. Slated to welcome its first guests in spring, we’re promised a 37-room project a stone’s throw from Kraków.
Steeped in historical curiosity, it was originally completed during the wartime on the behest of a leading Nazi by the name of Otto Wächter. Peering out ominously from a wooded, craggy outcrop, it was intended to serve as an SS sanatorium. Later, in peacetime, it was turned over to house a smorgasbord of cultural and educational institutions.
Finally, however, it’s true potential is set to be realized courtesy of the ZR Hotele group, and their plans envisage the creation of a state-of-the-art spa and hotel complex fitted out in a design-forward style.
The morsels that have so far been drip-fed by the press & marketing department have already done much to make this one of the most eagerly awaited launches of 2022. Me, I can’t bloody wait.
City of the Year!
I used to have something of an issue with Katowice, to the point that I really wouldn’t have minded had the whole place been flattened by an accidental blast – and I get the idea that the rest of Poland would have joined me in celebration.
Now though, the worm has turned. In much the same way that Łódź has reversed its fortunes, so has Katowice only in a manner that’s been a little more modest in terms of self-promotion.
My favourite city of 2021, I found myself there a total of nine times this year, with each visit serving to out-do the last.
Along the way, credits were earned for a city centre composed of teetering Art Nouveau tenements; a never-ending sprawl of mural art; an engaging cultural zone underpinned by the fabulous Silesian Museum; and a motherlode of crazy post-war architecture that makes you wonder just how much LSD was consumed throughout the 60s and 70s.
And then, there’s the small matter of my top pub in Poland: on that front, let the trumpets toot for the Biała Małpa (a.k.a. The Monkey Bar), a warming craft beer den set in a chipped-looking courtyard.
But what really pushes Katowice that extra yard is the opportunities it lends to explore even further: use it as a springboard from which to hit the redbrick workers commune of Nikiszowiec, or to uncover the unsung glories of old towns in Gliwice and Tarnowskie Góry.
Take The Slow Lane
Poland was already in the process of embracing the concept of ‘slow travel’ well before covid, but there can be no doubt, the arrival of Bat Flu accelerated the growth of this sector by the power of ten.
Personally, I’m counting the days till I visit the Bookworm Cabin, a pint-sized retreat set in a forest outside Warsaw. Much-hyped since its inception, nowhere else has caught the zeitgeist in quite the same way.
But whilst forest cabins are cresting in popularity, so too are glamping sites. By in large, most of these look like they’ve been designed with a visit from Gwyneth Paltrow in mind, so for me I’m more attracted by the rough and raw look of a place called Vegan House.
Nestled in the rugged bosom of the Kłodzko Valley, the eco-minded mission of this glamp-site is complemented by cozy-looking bubble tents fitted with double beds, armchairs and wood-burning stoves.
For something posher, meanwhile, I’ve also enjoyed the increasing spread of folwarks (farms-barns) that are making themselves known. I discovered Folwark Wąsowo last year while staying next door in a creepy Neo-Gothic palace that could have doubled as an asylum.
The neighbouring folwark, though, could not have been more different with its modern-minded style thoughtfully in tune with the underlying rustic nature of this beautiful project.
Try The Tri-City
By recommending the Tri-City I’m aware that I’m stating the bleeding obvious. Nonetheless, such has been the pace of its transformation that it would verge on the criminal to exclude it from this rundown.
Now, back when I first arrived to Poland with a one-way ticket at the start of the millennium I would have described the conurbation as such: Gdańsk – hugely pretty but also pretty boring for anything but sightseeing; Sopot – a seedy resort whose best days had passed; and Gdynia – the place no-one visited.
All three have undergone huge changes, with Sopot evolving into a smart, sophisticated town geared up for more than just its annual influx of shouting summer drunks.
Gdańsk, meanwhile, has grown into an A-Class destination whose handsome Hanseatic architecture is now twinned with a dynamic food and drink scene, superb museums and a dynamic mood best expressed by the magnificently rebuilt Granary Island.
Once resembling little more than a blackened pile of bricks leftover from the war, today it’s a hive of activity that feels cultured, creative, affluent and attractive.
And then, Gdynia. Having lost its lustre for many years, recent times have seen the city’s inter-war modernist architecture lovingly scrubbed to reveal a town that’s a joy to behold.
Young in its outlook it might be, but beyond its Instagrammable coffee stops and buzzing craft dens, it’s the quieter edges that make it truly unique.
Down dipping residential streets lined with prim 1930s villas, adventurers find steep ravines hiding wartime bunkers, or charming sandy beaches with palm-sized wooden piers poking out into the rolling blue ocean. Hijacked by the occasional wild boar, it’s in these moments of silence that you appreciate the greatness of Gdynia.
A Tale of Two Cities
To much local delight, Tarnów found itself named in November by CNN Travel as being one of Europe’s 15 “most beautiful towns”. Definitely, it’s charms are copious.
Alighting at its breath-taking Secessionist era railway station, the town unfolds into a warren of charming antique streets.
Though particularly rich on Jewish history, nonetheless the highlight arrives with the Rynek, a perfectly formed square whose arcaded burgher houses stare onto a Renaissance town hall crowned with a hand-cranked clock.
But while Tarnów has character in abundance, it still lacks basic touristic essentials: you know, like a hotel you’d actually happily bed down in.
Rzeszów, on the other hand, has things that will cause you to linger for longer than a daytrip – a generously-sized Old Town; a giant, phallic monument; a thriving food and drink scene; and weird wacky attractions such as the Museum of Bedtime Cartoons (really).
And in the form of the folkish-contemporary Bristol Hotel, it’s got one of my favourite check-ins in the whole of Poland. Add to that a slow, chilled out vibe and a gorgeous Rynek every bit as intricate as those found in Kraków or Wrocław, and you get a city of some merit.
Separated by a journey time of 45-minutes by rail, flipping between these two cities is my idea of a weekend to remember.
Once left hollow and bedraggled, over the past few years I’ve loved seeing Poland’s palaces reborn as highly personalized stays offering boutique escapes. In this regard, it’s the palace at Piszkowice that tops my bucket list for 2022, and everything I’ve seen underscores its appeal.
Dating from the Baroque era, its mansard roof peeps over the surrounding forests, whilst inside it looks a cool and quirky take on the joys of chateau life.
Saliently, it comes highly endorsed by the owners of the palace at Osowa Sień: “Ah Pałac Piszkowice... what's not to love? This privately-owned guest house oozes warmth, charm, and fantasy,” they tell me.
“Perched on top of an escarpment, it offers stunning views of the Kłodzko Valley; not to mention landscape architecture that has been masterfully fussed over – alone, this reveals the personality and vision of the current owners albeit with a view to its elegant past.
“Once indoors, the magic reveals itself through the gem-tone sofas and armchairs beckoning you to stay awhile and talk the night away; fireside.”
To say I’m sold would be to flirt with understatement.
The Ultimate Howl-iday
And yes, that brings me to my traditional yearly appraisal of the Palace at Osowa Sień.
I’ve lost count as to how many times I’ve recommended this 19th century jewel, so I shan’t add much more about its zen-like sense of calm or the enchanting, easy majesty that it effortlessly exudes. What I will say, however, is that as a devoted and doting dog daddy there’s no place in Poland that I prefer to visit with my be(a)st friend in tow.
Offering specially tailored packages for dog-owners, perks on arrival include a jar of organic doggy biscuits, fluffy towels and pretty bowls. With twelve acres of gardens outside, and lots of room to roam around inside, it’s the ideal destination for a holidog break.
And as the day sets into dusk, snuggle in front of the fireplace under the beady, observant eye of the Head of Guest Services: otherwise known as Mr. Doggo, this friendly, four-legged chap guarantees that you and your dog will feel immediately at home.