I don't think Poland (Polska) was ever on my hit-list, if I'm being honest. However, when you meet someone who is so passionate and patriotic about their country, its culture, natural beauty, food (especially meat) and vodka you can't resist the temptation to see the place through their eyes. And I'm glad I didn't.
My friend and I talked for four hours straight, from Stansted Express to the flight, to Krakow Airport, pissing off almost every unfortunate soul that had to be around us. We were picked up by a (very beautiful) young man in a fine Mercedes E-Class, which was a nice intro to the country. Although I wouldn't call a local experience, it almost felt necessary after Ryan Air. Apart from a pit-stop for a hotdog in a quiet petrol station, we got to Zakopane within an hour and a half, a small city right at the bottom of Poland.
We checked into a wooden cottage style house, although a little tricky to find in the middle of the night. The inside of the house was decorated with pretty crochet pieces used as curtains and lots of paper decorations placed strategically around the walls, with a nice warm and cosy feel to it. It felt a bit like a prelude to Christmas.
touching slovakia: tatra mountains
The following day, we went to Koscielisko Valley in the Western side of Tarta National Park. This was an 'easier' trek near streams, through forests and some waterfalls and a lovely secluded lake, until we decided to check out the caves. We thought this would involve strolling into a cave, taking a few photos and walking out. Instead, it involved close-to-vertical climbs and descents on soap-textured rocks, using nothing but a metal chain and a lot of arm strength.
This was real-life bouldering and I was close to tears. I still can't say if I enjoyed it or hated it (probably both). On one side, was the sense of achievement and on the other side putting myself through that freight that: "if my hands or feet slip I may fall and will die". A slight change from indoor bouldering in Harrow (you fall onto a mattress), or abseiling in Thailand or canyoneering (or canyoning) in Costa Rica where you have a harness and are clipped onto all sorts of things to make sure you will at least hang in the middle of nowhere, but you won't fall into the valley. It was certainly one of the highlights, though.
krakow: the oldest city in poland
Overall, my impression of Poland has been eye-opening and is certainly under rated or less spoken about as a tourist destination compared to many other European counterparts. The history, the religious influence, the art and architecture, natural landscapes and the vodka... I will be back for more.
The only thing that I wish I could change about this trip was Ryan Air and Stansted Airport. Neither should be on anyone's bucket list, unless you have a desire to torture yourself, confuse each other and generally not want to travel again (for a while). I will spare the details this time.