The name’s Webber…and Poland is my game!
Being asked to write a recurring travel column is actually rather a daunting challenge – where the heck do I begin?
More to the point, where do I begin when, in all actuality, I’ve barely stepped beyond my own front door for the last couple of months. Big questions, no answers. This column – it’s the travel writing equivalent of first date nerves.
Not that I’d call myself a travel writer. That’s the kind of title that goes to Paul Theroux. Me, I’m just a little bloke from Bristol that likes to go away. But whilst I lack the life skills gleaned from conquering mountains or taking mescaline in the jungle, I feel I’m qualified to write about Poland through obsession alone.
An accident of sorts, it was a spiritual connection that began twenty years back when, whilst backpacking around Europe, I stopped in on Warsaw through necessity alone. Frail and queasy from various misdeeds in Amsterdam, I needed a pitstop to recover my composure. Warsaw was it.
Grim, grey and grotty, it was everything I imagined and a little bit worse. Splashing out to take lodgings in the Marriott, I woke bleary-eyed to news that three Bengal tigers had escaped from a circus and were running around the suburb of Tarchomin. Armed with mops and broomsticks, local shopkeepers were giving chase. When, finally, the police turned up, a marksman missed his aim and shot a vet by mistake.
On no account do I mean to make light of this tragic twist, but watching the whole drama unfold live on TV had a profound effect. “You don’t get that back in Bristol,” I thought at the time. That wasn’t nonchalance but intrigue – just what kind of country is this?
I’m still here, two decades on, trying to figure that very question.
Elusive as the answer is, what I have determined is that it’s worth sticking around for – and why anyone wouldn’t is a source of unexplained mystery. Through it’s very DNA, Poland finds it impossible to be boring – a point guaranteed by the eccentricity of both its history and its people. Fortunately, with foreign travel now distinctly unfashionable, many of us living here stand to rediscover that this summer that approaches.
So where am I going?
As yet that’s undecided, but what I do have is a wish list of sorts as well as a thick book of experiences that I’m looking to repeat.
Wałbrzych, for one. Mostly synonymous with economic decline, walking its streets is to star in your own inter-war film noir, and its shadowy atmosphere neatly complimented by a wider region of thick, tangled woodland bristling with haunted castles and wartime tunnels. Yes please.
For chill down time, while famous for its sleepy approach to life the elegant spa town of Nałęczów benefits from having a treehouse hotel and a close proximity to “I don’t believe that” attractions such as a Museum of Drunkenness & Cycling (in truth, a shed full of rusty bikes and empty bottles) and a statue in the middle of nowhere honouring an alien kidnapping that occurred in the 70s.
Then there’s Elbląg, a phoenix city proudly boasting the country’s newest old town – largely rebuilt this century after being pulverized in the war, it’s an unexpected joy and all the better for its short distance from under-the-radar gems such as the Gothic town of Pasłęk. It was here I found myself in January, or rather just outside in a creaky, charismatic country manor by the name of Dwór Dawidy.
Toasting myself by the fire, with just wine and a rabbit named David for company, it was an escape in the truest sense of the word: a trip flagged by misty forest walks and quiet, solo evenings spent with books about ghosts. Bliss.
It was also a reminder of how a hotel can make or break a stay.
I speak from experience with horror stories aplenty: not least, nesting down in Nowa Huta with a tub of curry resting on my pale, naked belly. Fully disrobed, and about to engage in some vindaloo action, it was only then I realized with a growing sense of panic that I was in entirely the wrong room: the handbag on the table was a giveaway, as too the pink little suitcase resting in the corner.
Never have I dressed faster, though I sometimes wonder what might have happened had the guest in question returned to her room to find a nude, handsome stranger gnawing on an onion bhaji.
That said, I’d rather a bad hotel than a boring hotel, though the latter is now a species that’s in danger of extinction. Quite when it happened I have no idea, but the country now groans under the weight of characterful hotels that sing with individuality.
Rather than the major cities, it is these retreats I’m looking forward to visiting the most.
Places like Carska, a private train station built for the last Tsar but now repurposed as an enticing hotel with voluptuous rooms set inside old fashioned train carriages; places like Jaczno, a series of timber-hewn lodges on the banks of a deep blue lake in the wild far north; and places like Osowa Sień, a rural palace run by a vivacious Canadian couple and a devoted little helper by the name of Mr. Doggo.
It is with fondness I remember sharing wine and stories long into the night, before tipsily traipsing to the village chapel by lantern light to lay a midnight wreath on the grave of a ‘good witch’. To me, therein lies the brilliance of Poland and the magic of travel.
I hope you join me.