Jewish heritage tours, religious pilgrimages, and culinary arts are just a few of the travel products on the market; add farm stays, castles, and giant pottery barns to the mix. Families are beginning to see Poland as an affordable, kid-friendly getaway. Zbigniew Wegiel, American Travel Abroad’s chief executive, notes a marked increase of repeat visitors, and independent travelers who are no longer boarding buses but taking to the road.
Poland is easy to get to as there are frequent nonstop flights from New York, Chicago, and Toronto with LOT Polish Airlines or through many European gateways with major European carriers flying to 10 international airports in Poland. The country is rich in culture, its parks are breathtaking, its Baltic coastline is serene, its high-quality crafts are worth taking home, and English is widely spoken. Poland’s infrastructure is well maintained, and efficient.
This year is a great time to visit Poland: Krakow is hosting World Youth Day (WYD) from July 25-31, which is expected to attract some 30-40,000 young Americans, according to the Polish National Tourist Office in Hoboken, N.J., that will feature a visit from Pope Francis. And in Lower Silesia, the young, energetic city of Wroclaw is wearing the Culture Capitals of Europe crown, which it is sharing with San Sebastian in Spain this year.
The third reason to visit Poland and Europe in 2016 is that the exchange rate for the Polish Zloty to US dollar promises to remain favorable for Americans throughout the year, which means travelers can plan with assurance of staying within their budgets.Classic Itineraries
To be fair, a handful of tried and true itineraries appear in many tour operator’s brochures. But the reason these tours are such crowd pleasers is because they reflect a rich array of experiences. And because people are traveling more independently, this classic tour program offers great flexibility for unscheduled, spontaneous stops. and side-trips to Poland’s many castles, holy places and nature preserves. Another summertime favorite, according to AMTA, takes tourists on routes along the scenic, historic Baltic coast, including Gdansk, Gdynia, and Sopot.
From the capital, visitors often take a sidetrip to Auschwitz; once in Krakow, they tour its stunning UNESCO sites, as well as the Kazimierz district and a day in the Salt Mines. Many extend their stays to Czestochowa and the Shrine to the Black Madonna at the Jasna Gora Monastery; and continue to that southern, rustic belle, Zakopane in the Tatra Mountains. For tourists, who want to delve deeper, AMTA offers chances to see Warsaw’s National Opera, take behind-the-scenes tours at the monastery in Czestochowa or tours to towns with former Jewish settlements.
World Youth Day
Pope John Paul II left a legacy for the youth with the institution of World Youth Day (WYD) in 1986, which coincided that year with the United Nations’s International Year of Youth. Pope Francis has faithfully continued the tradition this year in Krakow.
Two American companies - AMTA and 206 Tours - are marketing group packages for the event. Agents can book these programs through the operators or assist their local churches to organize groups and steer them to the two operators, both of whom pay agent commissions.
AMTA’s land-only pre-WYD five-day program starting at $625 per person, which can be tacked on to the fuller 12-day program that costs $2,249 per person, the latter including visits to the Wieliczka Salt Mines and Zakopane. Call 800-228-0877 in New York, or in Chicago, 800-342-5315. www.amta.com
At 206 Tours, the company is working with its local Diocese of Rockville Center, it is open to working with agents and groups from everywhere. Their basic nine-day program will cost $2,500 for land or for land/air bookings $3,849, at what is essentially high season. Group rates are based on 20-100 passengers and 206 Tours will accept bookings from any avenue. 800-206-TOUR (8687); www.206tours.com
2016 Also Belongs to Wroclaw
Wroclaw (pronounced Vrotslav), the capital of Lower Silesia, is three hours’ drive northwest of Krakow. This Culture Capital of Europe has been priming itself for this moment for years.
Poland’s tourism and cultural scions are hoping for an “Awakening,” the name of the largest and most spectacular processions in Wroclaw’s history. The Opening Ceremony took place in what else? a tram depot in this visually pleasant city of students, artists, musicians and public art that surprises and piques at every corner.
Wroclaw’s architecture is colorful and spans medieval times to present; its more than 100 bridges and canals are criss-crossed by the conflation of the five rivers giving it an extra touch of romance.
People should stay long enough to take a sidetrip to Lower Silesia’s Wroclaw. Or, since it was once under Czech and German rule, it could also be combined with Prague, Berlin or Dresden as it is positioned close to the current borders.
From farm holidays to city sightseeing to arts and culture jaunts, Shabbish dinners in welcoming community centers and finally, a developing appreciation of Polish cuisine, Poland is in the thick of delicious transformations.
There’s really never a bad time to visit Wroclaw, even in the cold gray winter. Parks and canal-side walks, and the Market Square is just as resplendent with a veil of snow and illuminated Christmas trees.
Big Cities, Big Sights
Some may be surprised to know that both Warsaw and Krakow have beaches that are easily accessible and both cities are very family-friendly.
Warsaw is home to a zoo, the Copernicus Centre, and a Planetarium, as well as a botanical garden, several bowling alleys (no kidding) and that beach. Among the top vantage points from which to view the city are the roof gardens at the University of Warsaw Library to the Orange Balloon station Near Swietokrzyski Bridge, where you can hover above the city and Gnojna Góra, once a landfill or dump, now a terraced park from which to view the entire city across the Vistula River; the bell tower at Saint Anna’s Church, or the 30th floor of the Palace of Culture and Science, the tower of the Warsaw Rising Museum.
The Praga is among one of Warsaw’s neighborhoods that has been transformed from a post-industrial district to a cool part of town with a plethora of re-use projects now housing a hub of art studios, galleries, alternative theaters, underground clubs and new restaurants.
Krakow’s Kazimierz district has likely been the Cinderella among its very special places: When I first visited Kazimierz in the late 80s, this was an abandoned and edgy corner of the city, in fact you would be advised NOT to walk there on a wintry night so with translator in tow, I walked through this dark and frankly spooky place. The only other soul who was around was a woman named Maria who swept the Remuh Synagogue’s cemetery each night with a broom made of twigs. Back then she would not say why she felt this commitment to the cemetery. Today, of course, Kazimierz is bursting with life.
Boutiques, inns, spas, bookstores, cafes and 24/7 nightlife have transformed the stretch from Miodowa ulica, or street, to Szeroka into one of the hottest neighborhoods in the city. It is also site of the 21st Summer Jazz Festival through the end of July, the Festival of Jewish Culture (June 24-July 3), The Judaica Foundation Center for Jewish Culture (www.krakow-info.com) and the Jewish Community Center (www.jcckrakow.org), headed by New Yorker, Jonathan Ornstein should travelers be seeking a Shabbat dinner or schmooze (for adults only). Opened in 2008, Ornstein feels that there are many misconceptions about Polish anti-Semitism and that Poland appreciates Polish Jewish culture. For more information, visit www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZcIarTDJbVs
Collette Travel has recently entered the religious pilgrimage market to Poland and while it is not engaged in WYD this year, it does have a separate brochure for its selections that feature a nine-day program. Its Warsaw segment includes a mass at 3/9 Zytnia Street Church, home to the Congregation of the Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy, where Saint Faustina entered the convent. And enroute to Czestochowa, the escorted program stops in Niepokalanow to visit one of the largest Franciscan monasteries in the world (founded by Saint Maximillian Kolbe). 855-355-8687; www.gocollette.com
Entering its 9th year in operation, Poland Culinary Vacations’ Sarna Rose says while pierogi are by far the most popular item students want to learn how to cook, “Every region has its own foods, drinks and culinary traditions,” she says. Frequently booked by two and three generations from North America, Rose says she has booked clients from as far as away as Australia. The company offers one-day programs but also longer programs that combine culture and culinary experiences. The company works with and pays agents commissions. 888-703-8130; www.polandculinaryvacations.com
For more information, visit the Polish National Tourist Office, 201-420-9910; www.poland.travel/en-us