Traveling to Poland?Here is a list of readings in English that I have prepared for friends who have asked what they might read to brush up on Polish culture before visiting Poland. In addition I have highlighted a few of my favorite spots and a places that might not be in the guidebooks. I haven't revised this page in several years, so many things are new in Poland, and some street and place names are now different, but most of what is contained here still applies. If anyone has any corrections or additional suggestions for this list, please e-mail me.
Images in this file are from a map of eighteenth-century Poland, possibly printed around 1820 according to the bookseller I bought it from, but possibly thirty or forty years older than that judging by comparisons to similar maps printed in books.
- The most readable, contemporary history of Poland is Norman Davies' God's Playground. It is a bit romanticized and historians always nab Davies for minor factual errors, but the feeling is lively and the book has sparked much positive interest in Poland. For dry accuracy, see the Cambridge History of Poland. Pan Tadeusz by Adam Mickiewicz (read the MacKenzie translation) is the great Polish Romantic epic. The eponymous hero is actually quite marginal, and the real story is the ethos of the old gentleman farmer class or "szlachta." If you just want to skim, pay attention to the sections on mushroom hunting and the short passage on bigos (the latter begins line 826 in the original or p. 98 in the 1964 ed. of the MacKenzie trans.). For a general discussion of modern Polish art and architecture, see Andrzej K. Olszewski, Dzieje sztuki polskiej (1890-1980) (A History of Polish Art) (Warsaw: Interpress, 1988), at least for the pictures and captions. There may be an English, French or German translation. Try to buy city maps before you get there. If you can't, scour bookstores in every city you are in. You are more likely to find a Cracow map in Warsaw or some small town than in Cracow itself. This is typical. For tales urban life under Communism, read A Minor Apocalypse or The Polish Complex by Tadeusz Konwicki. To understand where many Poles seek their moral voice, read "Pan Cogito" which is largely contained in Report from the Besieged City by poet Zbigniew Herbert. If you wonder where women are in all this, there is a good anthology of Polish women's poetry (with a similarly descriptive title) recently published by UNESCO. My personal favorite is Wislawa Szymborska (many of her poems are translated inadequately in an anthology called Sounds, Feelings and Thoughts). For recent East European essays and literature, look at the last few years of Cross Currents, an annual out of Ann Arbor, Michigan.
On a practical note, the price of dollar in Polish zloty has been more or less stable over the past few years, but look at the Polish Home Page for a newspaper called CASH, which should have the current price. You can change money in banks or at private operations which say "Kantor" over them. There is no more black market. I usually used the "Kantor" places. I am told that there are many new private establishments as well.
- Destroyed during the war, the Old Town (Stare Miasto) square (Rynek) was rebuilt in a remarkable feat of restoration, in part from photographs but largely from drawings, which every Varsovian knows and, I believe, were made by Giovanni Bellotto toward the end of the 17th century. The best literary description of 19th century Warsaw is in The Doll by Boleslaw Prus. The David Welsh translation flattens the Dickensian realism of the Polish, but look at least at Wokulski's meandering through the slum, about 100 pages in. Contemporary Warsaw is focused on the train station--The Palace of Culture (a gift of Stalin and quite literally the icing on the cake of Soviet architecture), new Marriot Hotel, LOT airline terminal, glass and steel office buildings, all but the first for people with foreign currency. One pleasant establishment in this area is the Akwarium, which is the best jazz club in Poland. Friends tell me much has been added in the last few years, and crime has become thick. Polish friends report that there is a serious "rob-the-foreigners attitude," and it's strongest in Warsaw.
- Not much to see, but a big industrial center at the turn of the century. If you get there, check out the Museum of Contemporary Art, and if you can the Film School. The Film School (PWSFTT--Leon Schiller State Higher School of Film, Television and Theater) owns a former industrialist's "Palace" which is an anthology of fin de siecle European kitch, commonly imported by wealthy textile magnates. It appears in many Polish films, but the best views are in The Promised Land by Andrzej Wajda, which deals with the period of industrialization.
- Guidebooks will tell you all the main sights, like the Market Square (Rynek Glowny), Cloth Hall (Sukiennice--Be sure to catch the enormous Romantic canvases of Jan Matejko in the museum upstairs), Church of St. Mary with it's altar carved by Wiet Stoss (Wit Stwosz in Polish) during his 13 year stay in Cracow. Of particular interest are the Wyspianski windows, reminiscent of Blake, in the Franciscan church on the Plac Wszystkich Swietych ("All Saints Square," formerly the Plac Wiosny Ludow--Square of the Spring of the Peoples). Just around the corner on ul. Grodzka I would catch the Church of the Apostles, with its statues of the apostles in front. One street over on ul. Kanonicza is the Cricotage, gallery of dramatist and artist, Tadeusz Kantor, who died in 1991. Walk to the end of Grodzka, away from the square, and you are at the Wawel Castle. The armory can be skipped, but take the tour for the tapestries and the throne room which has carved heads coming out of the cieling, symbolizing the nobles who elected the king and served as a check on his power.
Modern architecture is manifest primarily in churches, and perhaps some new structures in Warsaw, that I haven't seen, not to mention the new houses of the new rich. Students of architecture do most of their work in interior design for obvious economic reasons, though that is changing as it becomes increasingly possible to concentrate wealth. A new cylindrical church was being built in Cracow when I was last there in 1989, and may be finished or near completion down ul. Koniewa (likely renamed).
You should also visit the old Jewish quarter of Cracow, known as Kazimierz. The Old Synagogue offers a pleasant contrast of simplicity and light to the ornate styles of the rest of the city. I have heard that, thanks to the effort and contributions of Jerzy Kosinski, other structures in the Jewish quarter have been renovated, and are well worth seeing.
The key places to eat in Cracow are: the renaissance Wierzynek (make reservations or bribes if you don't have time) on the Main Square; Jama Michalika is the Modernist ("Young Poland") cafe on ul. Florianska; for traditional Polish mead, go to Pasieka on the Little Market Square (Maly Rynek). If you want to bring stuff back, I recommend posters at the Galeria Plakatu on ul. Stolarska, across from the U.S. consulate or graphics at the Galeria Inny Swiat (Other World Gallery) on ul. Florianska (leaf through the drawers). For jazz, check out the Klub pod Jaszczurami (Under the Sign of the Salamanders) on the Rynek Glowny.
- If you get to Zakopane, you can see many log houses and a church built in the Highlands (Goral) style, adapted by the modernist painter, architecht and critic Stanislaw Witkiewicz as the "Witkiewicz" style. A real jewel of folk architecture is the Goral Church in Rabka, which is now a museum of southern Polish folk art and is entirely covered (including the onion spire) in wooden shingles. Zakopane also has one of the most interesting contemporary theaters in Poland, the Witkacy theater, under the direction of Andrzej Dziuk. "Witkacy," or Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz, was the son of Stanislaw Witkiewicz, also a painter, dramatist, philosopher and novelist. His most important work is the novel, Insatiability, which should be out in a second edition from Northwestern University Press by the spring of 1996.
- One major city I haven't spent much time in, but before I do I will be digging into works by Gdansk's two best known writers, Pawel Huelle, whose novel Who was David Weizer? and a collection of stories have recently been translated into English, and for the German perspective, Gunter Grass.
27 October 1997