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POLAND

for Conde Nast Traveler Magazine

by Stephan Wilkinson

"THERE ARE PEOPLE even in England and France who think near Warsaw the bear walks," said my friend Jan, an engineer at an aircraft factory near Warsaw. "And I think your country knows of Poland only Pulaski, Copernicus, Kosciuszko." Certainly we know Polanski, Walesa and John Paul as well, but I did wonder if I'd find bears outside Jan's factory, for I was coming to Poland with a cargo of misapprehension and misinformation.

"You're taking a brand-new Saab? A convertible? Whose idea of a joke is that?" asked one well-meaning advisor. "Lock it up inside a garage every time you leave it, or it'll be stolen from you immediately," he said. "Sold in Russia, and you'll never see it again."

"Watch out for highwaymen," said another experienced traveler. "It's quite common for roadside brigands to feign car trouble, then steal your car when you stop to help them. There was even an armed robbery of a tourist bus at a bogus roadblock awhile ago."

"Gas stations are few and far between, and don't ever let your tank get less than half full or you may run out," was a further warning. "Unleaded gas? Hard to find."

"We have no zlotys," said the woman at the currency exchange in Berlin. "You can only buy them in Poland. And be sure to spend whatever you buy, because you won't be able to change them back for any currency of value." Swell.

Day one, Berlin to Zielona Gora (138 miles)

So the wretched, brand-new Holiday Inn a few hundred yards short of the border crossing from Germany into Poland at Frankfurt am Oder is looking pretty good, a cube of gaudy Western masonry that beckons from a stark, gray autobahn wasteland even though it is only lunchtime. "Last real food before Poland," it whispers. "Last working telephones between the Oder and the Sea of Japan," it seduces. "Last soft beds from here to Siberia...cable TV...room service...ice machines..." We whistle past.

The change is almost instant. Within a few miles, the ancient, bumpy autobahn and worker blocks of what was once East Germany are behind, and we're on a smooth two-lane sliding beneath the overarching trees, a leafy, untrafficked boulevard frequented by little more than roadside mushroom-sellers. They importune with toadstools as big as tablelamps as we plunge on toward Zielona Gora, a small city that once produced Poland's only wine.

Even the city guide we find in our hotel room there admits that the combination of climate and soil was "never quite right," and there is no longer any such thing as Polish wine. This is a nation of beer and vodka drinkers, of course, not oenophiles. In one of the few restaurants we'll see that has an actual wine list, Thunderbird is proudly offered and expensive.

The hangers-on in the dim, 25-watt lobby of the Hotel Polan are amused when I try to change a 5,000-zloty bill at the desk, so I can pay the car-park attendant next door. It is worth 22 cents, and what I need is in fact a 100,000-zloty note. It will be several days before my cohort and I stop doing the exchange arithmetic at each meal. "Did that lunch actually cost $2, or was it $20? Did we spend $50 yesterday, or was it $500?" Susan says, "Any country where you overestimate prices by a factor of 10 can't be all bad."

Day two, Zielona Gora to Wroclaw (170 miles)

As we leave Zielona Gora, a bus crammed with teenagers on the way to school lists toward us as the girls spot the 140-mph topless Saab and jam the windows. One blows me a kiss. Sex appeal in Poland, reassuringly, is based on having the fastest car in town.

Polish roads are proving to be among the loveliest, smoothest, best-maintained, least-trafficked and best-marked in Europe, and with the Saab's speed and power, we're able to burn past the occasional truck, bus, Polish Fiat, horsecart or bicycle in an instant. This is a new-for-'95 V6 900 cabriolet, and though second and third gears of the five-speed manual gearbox are not ideally spaced--second is a little too low--there's plenty of third-gear torque in the new GM-designed 2.5-liter engine.

When General Motors Europe and the original Saab-Scania formed a new joint-venture car company in 1990, GM decreed that American buyers demanded at least a six--that it simply wouldn't do for a quasi-luxury car to offer only Saab's traditional four-pots. An Opel V6 engine was provided to GM's new Saab "division," and though some Saab insiders continue to insist that the four is a better engine, I think they're wrong. The four (actually the 2.3-liter Saab 9000 engine, mounted sideways in the new 900 rather than longitudinally in the fashion of previous 900 engines) is to me a flaccid powertrain with a rubbery shifter, unbalanced clutch forces and a disjointed feeling. With the V6, the new 900 becomes the most Germanic Saab ever.

Heading due south on pure back roads, we're bound for Jelenia Gora, near the Czech border and in the shadow of the Sudety Mountains. It isn't much of a shadow, since the highest only goes to 5,200 feet, but the road is superb. There are loaves of fog in the valleys, spiky alpine evergreens tufting the hilltops, vistas of tiny farms and villages, high-speed avenues between trees with red-banded trunks eight and 10 feet around--Polish guardrails. If the road were in Northern California it would be famous. Here, it's Route 297.

Entering Wroclaw on a broad esplanade, there's a sudden reminder of where we are: two olive-green Soviet T-34 tanks on a plinth, mute defenders of a faith the Poles were first to question.

Day three, Wroclaw to Czestochowa (222 miles)

So much for car thieves: I inadvertently leave the Saab unlocked all night in front of the hotel in Wroclaw, an act that would at the very least get my radio ripped loose in Manhattan. Nobody touches it. ("No, there's not much theft anymore, especially of a car as conspicuous as yours," one Pole tells me. "Everybody who can afford an expensive stolen car already has one.")

In Klodzko, 85 miles south of Wroclaw, we come upon a particularly Polish form of adventure travel: the "underground tourist route," a feature of several towns and villages. Medieval storage cellars deep under the city have been unearthed, laced together and dimly lit to create one of those essentially pointless but unusual experiences of which idle tourism is composed: we walk through we know not what--a brick-walled labyrinth--for no good reason, to end up we know not where. But we're amused because we've never done it before.

Czestochowa is famed for the Polish Lourdes, what some rate as the fifth busiest religious shrine on earth, the fortress monastery of Jasna Gora. It squats on the summit of a large, heavily-treed park, looking a bit like a combination of a copper-roofed Versailles and the Kremlin topped by the Provincetown Monument. At the core of Jasna Gora is a chapel holding a painting known as the Black Madonna. When her skin pigment was turned dark brown by what was probably 14th-century air pollution, it was considered a miracle, and pilgrims have made the journey here ever since.

Fearing as always that an electronic atheist detector will buzz and I'll be turned away, we enter as mass is being said, the Black Madonna revealed from behind its silver screen. The walls are a flea market of plaintive offerings, from plastic pins and necklaces to crutches, artifical limbs and orthopedic devices, and it is painful to watch the supplicants, so gripped by belief. Some are in tears. We are intruders, and walk back into the park. The trees are full of blackbirds that rise and fall in noisy, hysterical unison like a shaken blanket.

Day four, Czestochowa to Cracow via Auschwitz (130 miles)

I have no idea what the enormous industrial and mining complex of Katowice, south of Czestochowa, looks like, but guide-books make it sound like 1950s Pittsburgh and the open-hearth furnaces of Bethlehem relocated to the Meadowlands, so we make a wide swing around it. Yet it is still like driving in the lee of a garbage fire, for this is one of the most unremittingly polluted parts of the globe. Those who insist we're adding to the world's environmental woes by choosing to motor through Poland should understand that the air coming out of the Saab's tailpipe is, quite literally, cleaner than the atmosphere being sucked into the intake manifold. We are driving around purifying Poland's air.

But it does net me a radar speeding ticket: 300,000 zlotys, or $13.33--roughly a long-distance New York State Thruway toll. "Yeah, but wait till you get back home and find it on your license," my accomplice laugh. So do the two policemen, when I hold up the ticket, a row of pulpy Polish green stamps, and said, "souvenir."

Auschwitz-Birkenau was, of course, the Nazis' single greatest killing field, but numbers in the tens of thousands mean less than do the bare hundreds of mug shots of newly admitted prisoners that line the walls of the old barracks. Row upon row of photographs of healthy, newly shorn people in prison stripes; faces a few of which show fear, but most of them contempt for the photographer, fury at the indignity. A few, shockingly, seem simply to be trying to pose and smile for the best possible picture. The dimensions of evil weren't yet understood.

Cracow is Poland's glory, its only world-class city. Warsaw is far larger and more superficially cosmopolitan, but Cracow is so ancient, so essentially Polish that it has to rate as one of the truly great old cities of Europe. Of course, it helps that Cracow was undamaged by World War II, while Warsaw was leveled. Though the exacting reconstruction of Warsaw's old town, essentially a gift of the Soviets, is a remarkable achievement, the replica 17th- and 18th-century houses around the Warsaw rynek--the old square--seem life-size versions of the pottery architecture sold at Connecticut craft fairs.

Stay at the elegant Hotel Francuski, near the 14th century Florian Gate in Cracow--the best suite in this five-star cost us all of $150--and you may have a marble-and-brass bath bigger than most entire Polish hotel rooms. You'll be a short walk from the classic rynek and its cafes, and a slightly longer one from what may be the single site in Poland that can be ranked with Europe's greatest antiquities, the Wawel, Cracow's magnificent hilltop fortress/palace/cathedral museum. Everywhere there are hints of how florid and grand the royal quarters must once have been: comically vivid ceilings, parchment wall covering, Turkish tenting that is the flimsy, filmy remains of one of the many waves of eastern invaders that swept across Poland. The cathedral is at the same time primitive and grand: at the entrance hang mastedon bones for good luck.

Outside Cracow, in Weilickza, is Poland's ultimate underground tourist route: a 700-year-old salt mine that stretches like a human ant farm over 125 miles of tunnels, some to a depth of over 1,000 feet. Perhaps the hours spent with the Saab's top down move us to seek subterranean relief, but this three-hour journey through a small part of it tells me, like the fourth-grader's classic book report, more about salt than I wanted to know.

Day five, Cracow to Lublin (202 miles)

"Is much being done about air pollution?" my codriver asks our acquaintance Wit Blaszczak, who we stop to see in Mielec. "Air pollution?" He's a bit baffled, though the monuments of Cracow, 65 miles west, are melting daily in the acid rain. "Our air is very clean. There is some problem in the coal-mining region"--where the air is to thick to breathe but too thin to plow--"but here, no." We're surrounded by a miasma of diesel stench, which must seem to him like the breath of life.

Wit, a marketing manager for a Polish airplane manufacturer, has seen the best and worst of Poland's post-Revolution upheavals. "Ten years ago, we had to stand in line for everything," he recalls. "The shops were empty. Now the shops are full, but there is no money to buy things. Before, we had a lot of work and a lot of money." His own company had 22,000 workers when it was making Antonovs for the Soviets. Now it has 8,000 and is trying to manufacture golf carts, ambulance bodies, fire engines, frames for health-club machines, doors for Boeing 757s...anything the West might buy. (At another huge factory we visit, an executive says, "We are now a common-stock company, though all the stock is owned by the government. If you would like to buy 40 percent of it...please.")

As we go farther and farther east--Lublin is only 45 miles from the Russian border--tractors are replaced by narrow horse-drawn wagons, and everywhere in the fields are age-old images of men walking behind bent draft animals. Yet there is a pervasive feeling of some kind of minimal prosperity here. The workers in the factories have been laid off, and the national unemployment rate is said to be 16 percent, but the farmers till their potatoes and reap their yellow fields of sunflower and harvest their rows of corn. Flocks of domestic ducks gabble in the fields, and here and there are black-and-white cows waiting to pose for Woody Jackson tee shirts.

Poland is a country in need of a coat of paint, and it's getting it. Highway crews are repaving everywhere--traffic is light enough that roadwork creates only the slightest delay--and old women are sweeping out gutters in village ryneks. There is construction underway in every large town, and most of the best hotels have been recently renovated. (And yes, there are Western-style gas stations everywhere, and plenty of unleaded.)

I came to Poland somehow expecting a third-world country that had struggled to second-world status but found instead a nation on the verge of full Western European industrialization, development and perhaps even prosperity.

Day six, Lublin to Warsaw, 125 miles

Traveling in Poland is not a matter of notching daily five-star cathedrals, grand chateaux and timeless cities that resonate with history, for this will never be the Loire Valley or Tuscany or the South of England. Instead, it is a series of small delights--a surprising little town here, a Medieval ruin there, a minor palace round the bend. They'll be unsanitized, unvelvet-roped and ungroomed, but you'll probably have them all to yourself.

Yesterday it was ancient Sandomierz, appearing out of nowhere with its checkerboard-paved, strongly sloping rynek, fort-like little town hall in the center, and all around the controversy of Jerzy Kosinski, who lived here as a boy and either experienced the wartime horrors of The Painted Bird or made them up.

Today it is Kazimierz Dolny. It is raining, but one of the many joys of travel by car is that even the worst weather creates of the cockpit a little self-contained world of conversation and musing, of option and choice: go here, stop there, skip that. As always, we've shunned the obvious route for an untrafficked backroad, a tiny two-lane to Warsaw along the Vistula, and we come suddenly upon Kazimierz Dolny. The unusually hilly little town--Poland is the billiard table of Europe, across which warring nation-balls have caromed for centuries--was once a riverport and is today a Polish Carmel. It has become an odd combination of fashionable artists' retreat, tourist kitsch and wealthy exurb of Warsaw.

As Warsaw nears, traffic slows, and finally we are creeping at quite literally a trot, in a line of cars, trucks and buses unable to pass a farmer driving a horse-drawn cart. "Name me one other major world capital and city of nearly two million where you can get stuck behind a horse," Susan asks.

Traveling in Poland is a bit like coming to Germany or Spain was in the early 1960s: still a bit of a challenge, though a quite civilized one (let's not overstate the adventure). The food is a challenge, most gracefully described as "nourishing." The best hotels are thoroughly European, but the lesser ones can provide surprises. It often takes more than speaking loud baby-talk English to make yourself understood, though pidgen German helps in the western provinces. But you'll never run into your daughter's social studies teacher at every sidewalk cafe.

Right now, the only travelers seem to be Germans who use western Poland as a big Wal-Mart (since the prices are so low), bureaucrats and professionals attending bargain-priced "world congresses," and the occasional Americans returning to their roots. The Poles still find it hard to imagine Americans bothering to come here if they aren't of Polish descent. In the industrial centers, you'll also glimpse American and German entrepreneurs flocking to the flame of an entire nation in need of video-cassette-rental outlets, car-wash stalls and Big Gulp dispensers. It is a nation, as well, that is selling its factories for the price of a retiree franchise in the U.S. Offering them, in fact, even to mere travel writers.

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