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Pole position

Poland’s glorious cities are already gearing up to host the 2012 European Cup competition. Roger St. Pierre takes a whistlestop tour

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Though modern Poland’s success story did not really kick-off big-time until the fall of the Berlin Wall and the break-up of the old Soviet Bloc, the European Union’s most dynamic and fast-growing newcomer has a colourful, often turbulent though too often tragic history that dates back to its birth as a nation in 966 within borders not much different from those that exist today. The dramatic waxing and waning of the country’s fortunes – in the course of the past millennium it once occupied other lands and commanded vast territories reaching to the Black Sea while at other times disappearing off the map altogether – resembles the triumphs and disasters that will befall the nations taking part in football’s European Cup competition, which Poland will co-host with next-door neighbour the Ukraine in 2012. Selection to stage this prestigious event – beating off hot favourite Italy and a joint bid from Hungary and Croatia – sets the seal on a vibrant re-birth that sees Poland today not only an EU success story but a member of NATO, the OECD and the World Trade Organisation, with a fast-growing, liberal and mainly privately-owned market economy and an expectation of joining the Eurozone sometime between 2009 and 2013. Unemployment is still around 12 per cent, the highest in the EU, but is falling fast and with this the drain of young people away to other countries, especially the UK and Ireland, is slowing while at home GDP grew an impressive 5.8 per cent in 2006, a year that also saw investment surge by 5.8 per cent – with more than US$10-million flowing in from abroad, making a total of US$100-million of foreign investment since 1990. The zloty has appreciated by 30 per cent since 2002 but nevertheless Polish exports more than doubled in the same period, while inflation now stands at just one per cent – among Europe’s lowest. All this is an important backdrop to a UEFA soccer championship that will see final round games staged in the Polish cities of Warsaw, Kraków, Poznan, Gdansk, Chorzow and Wroclaw, as well as Ukranian stadiums in Kiev, Lvov, Dnepropetrovsk and Donetsk. Visiting the Polish venues will give visitors the opportunity not just to witness some wonderful sporting moments but to gain for themselves an insight into the new Poland’s exciting social and business environment. As capital city, Warsaw’s rejuvenation has been perhaps the most dramatic of all. Virtually levelled to the ground by the Nazis as World War Two’s painful tragedy drew to an end, it historic old town was re-built almost exactly as it was before, thanks to city officials having had the foresight to secret away the city’s plans – and it was a series of paintings by the Italian old master Canaletto which enabled the original colours to be faithfully reproduced. Erected in the Soviet era and nicknamed ‘Stalin’s Wedding Cake’, the towering Palace of Culture is an amazing and ornate edifice though, not surprisingly considering who had it built, it is rather unloved by the locals who quip: “The best view of Warsaw is from the roof of the Palace of Culture because it is the only view in our city that does not include the Palace of Culture!” More than 85 per cent of Warsaw, whose population is now around 2.5-million, was destroyed by the war, to be replaced later by drab Soviet-era concrete blocks, but the city’s face is changing fast, with an impressive total of 200,000 square metres of new large investments adding a big, wide smile. The ‘Royal Route’ tourist trail through the city centre runs past grandiose mansions and royal palaces, spacious public parks and gardens and the high-fashion shops of Nowy Swiat. There’s a lively café society ambience and the city is now renowned for its nightlife. Small enough to be a town, large enough to be a city, Krakow was the former national capital (until 1596). This truly beautiful old place which, thankfully, was unscarred by the war, has enjoyed a dramatic hike in visitor numbers over the past decade, earning it the epithet of ‘The New Prague’. Standing in the massive Rynek Glowny square at one in the morning, listening to 20,000 youngsters from all over the world singing along to ‘The March of the Jewish Slaves’ from ‘Aida’ was one of the most inspiring experiences of my life. And while situated just a few kilometres from the horrors of Auschwitz, Kraków is in itself an inspiring place, a mirror of a long proud history reflecting a view into a bright future. The cobbled streets of the old Kaziemierz Jewish quarter today ring to the sounds of laughter from busy bars and intimate little restaurants where traditional kosher dishes and hearty Polish cuisine hold centre stage. Set beside the broad River Vistula, this is a city of lofty church spires, of royal palaces, an imposing castle and ornately decorated merchant houses. Not to be missed are visits to the outstanding cathedral, last resting place of Poland’s kings and queens, and Wawel Castle, the seat of the country’s rulers from the 11th to the 17th Centuries, as well as to an outstanding Japanese museum. The city’s student population numbers more than 100,000 (out of a total population of 740,000), many of these young people are studying at the Jagiellonion University, Poland’s oldest, and they ensure a lively nightlife scene. Moreover, Kraków is within easy reach of the pretty Jura uplands and imposing Tatra mountains, while just outside town you can visit the vast underground saltmines that feature a huge and exquisitely decorated underground chapel, entirely carved from salt, where Pope John Paul II once preached. If Kraków is the new Prague, then arguably Wroclaw is the next Kraków! Formerly the German city of Breslau, 60 years ago it was a smoking ruin. Dominated by canals and narrow, twisting streets, this capital of Lower Silesia has been re-built in all its mediaeval majesty and, with students representing 10 per cent of its population, is as lively as Oxford or Cambridge. Poland’s fourth largest city, with some 640,000 inhabitants, it lies on the Odra River (or the Oder as we know it) and is now a major industrial and communications centre for the south of the country. Poznan is renowned for its open spaces and nearby lakes. It’s an industrial city but at its heart is the outstanding Stary Rynek, or Old Square, with its magnificent city hall and selection of bars, restaurants and boutiques. Other attractions include Renaissance Hall, the national museum and Mickiewicz Square. Poznan’s a lively, fun town, with a young population and lots happening in bars and clubs right through to the early hours. Set in the Silesian highlands, Chorzów is a city of close on 115,000 that was the site of the famed Royal Coal Mine and Royal Iron Works. Having been part of Germany and known as Königshütte for many years after the collapse of the earlier Polish state, the city was returned to Poland in 1922, four years after the nation had regained its independence as a result of the Treaty of Versailles. The Baltic port city of Gdansk (or Danzig in English) will forever be associated with the Lech Walesa and the Solidarity! union movement that played such a crucial role in the eventual collapse of the Communist regime and today the Three Crosses Monument stands as testament to the shipyard workers who died during the December 1970 strike. Though most renowned abroad for its industry, Poles know Gdansk as one of their country’s finest treasure houses. This fascinating old city was a member of the Hanseatic League, a remarkable free-trade association of mediaeval ports across Northern Europe and Scandinavia that created enormous wealth for its participants – endowing Gdansk’s enormous legacy of wonderful and now beautifully restored mediaeval buildings. There are wonders to behold at every corner. The city gates, the Mansion of the Society of St. George, the Long Market and its Neptune’s fountain, Artus’s Court, the Central Maritime Museum and the Long Quay all vie for attention. And this is a town endowed with wonderful fish restaurants, where eel and herring are standard fare at dinner, followed perhaps by a visit to the outrageous Ewan cabaret house. In typical North European fashion, the basement of the town hall houses a worthy and highly atmospheric restaurant. It also boasts an Irish pub where Guinness flows as well as the ubiquitous vodka! As well as the UEFA host towns there are other Polish cities worth a visit. Neighbouring Gdansk are Gdynia and the spa town of Sopot while Bydgoszcz – difficult to spell but easy to say (‘Bid-gosh-t’) – and its next-door neighbour Torun are real gems, the latter endowed with encircling city walls while both have pleasant riverfronts and a wealth of picturesque old buildings.. Bydgoszcz boasts the magnificent neo-Gothic red brick church of St. Andrew Bobola, a superb late Baroque library with nearly 3,000 rare items, mainly in German, and an array of meticulously restored old half-timber warehouses strung along the languid River Brda as it flows towards the mighty River Vistula, giving access to a network of commercial waterways that reaches not only the Baltic but the North Sea. What’s more, like many of the beautiful game’s chosen host cities, Bydgoszcz is now served by low-cost (Ryanair) flights, direct from London Stansted Airport. Whichever nation walks away from the UEFA Championship in 2012 with the imposing eight kilogram sterling silver Henri Delaunay Trophy, they and their fans will also certainly count Poland and its friendly populace as winners. ENDS

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