Grey and impoverished, a downtrodden land inhabited by dour cynics. This was my perception of Poland prior to going there.

I had been asking fellow travelers for years about Poland and all had unequivocally recommended Cracow (it's actually Krakow, but that's how I started writing it, so...). So, Cracow it was: Poland's third largest city of under one million inhabitants and also its best preserved (unlike Warsaw, Cracow wasn't annhilated by bombings during World War II).

I took a direct flight from Amsterdam to Cracow on SkyEurope, a low-budget airline specialising in Eastern European destinations. Upon landing I was overjoyed at the sight before me: a decidedly crisp, sunny, warmish Cracow cutely covered in a thin snow layer. I checked into Bling Bling hostel (there are too many hostels to count) and began contacting the Polish hosts who had replied to me from 'Hospitality Club,' an online global network of culturally curious travelers seeking and/or offering free accommodation in their targeted destinations, in the houses of willing listed locals.

Within mere hours I had written up pages of names with corresponding dates and places in which I would meet local Cracowians. I happily marched forth, penetrating Cracow's walls and thus into its old town to meet Isabele, and partake in a healthful drinking session of hot spiced beer. Hot beer is but one leftover of medieval times, when beer was a staple drink often boiled to decontaminate deadly bacteria. Today in Poland you can get it with a wide variety of spices and sweet additives. The most popular is with honey and cloves in lemon slices.

Unlike classic tourists who take it upon themselves to study each inch of every single museum, I deliberately avoid them, unless in the company of locals who insist on dragging me along to see one. In the latter case I am happy to oblige because there is nothing quite so quintessential as being treated to a complimentary personalized tour by an enthusiastic local. On this occasion a couple of young philosophical students, Sabina and Gosia, brought me to Krak castle, located in the heart of Krakow on Wawel hill.

The town owes its name to Poland's 7th century Prince Krak, who by legend settled on Wawel hill over the Vistula river after defeating a dragon. Here on Wawel hill, as in all Polish castles, you'll get a taste of how the Polish royalty lived some seven centuries ago, before it was invaded and occupied over hundreds of years by Russians, Swedish, Austrians and Germans. Today of course, thanks to Lech Walesa's early 1980s solidarity revolution, Poland is a proud member of NATO and the European Union, but long before this it could already boast of great achievements in science (Copernicus, who defied the church in proclaiming the earth to be round, not flat), music (Chopin, to name one), film (Roman Polanski or Krzystof Kieslowski) and art (the 19th century painter Matejko.)

On another occasion I was escorted by Anika to the National Museum (Muzeum Narodowe) where I got an eye full of 20th century Polish art, the most riveting of which I found to be the modern artist Katarzyna Kozyra, who has on display a poignant video of herself being treated for cancer in the nude except for a black ribbon around her neck. The Salt Mines in the nearby town of Wieliczka are also well worth a visit, easily reached by tram from downtown Cracow in half an hour. Here I was treated to an evening of classical music by the Wieliczka Salt Mine orchestra, which gives regular concerts.

Be sure to hang out in Cracow's Jewish quarter, Kazimierz, now a hip cafe sanctuary in Cracow. Because most Jews were exterminated by the Nazis, today there is little visible evidence of things Jewish save the Jewish museum and the old synagogue. Naturally, being in southern Poland a visit to the infamous German Nazi death camp Auschwitz-Birkenau is a must. It is a two hour bus ride from Cracow.

You may have seen it in Spielberg's Schindler's List and countless other movies and documentaries, yet being there in person hits so much harder. Before entering, be sure to brace yourself, this place is not for the meek. Put simply, there is nothing in human history to compare with the concentration of finely orchestrated and premeditated horrific bestiality that took place in death camps such as Auschwitz-Birkenau, during the dozen years of Hitler's reign. Here you'll learn in detail the grim misdeeds performed by a few thousand humans on millions of other humans, a hellish nightmare senseless beyond comprehension. I purposely didn't linger here all day, unlike the large tourist-guided groups that take forever to get through each room.

Because I was having such a grand time with Polish women in Cracow, going to nightclubs nightly such as the dankly atmospheric, multi-themed and multi-floor Lubo-Dubo on Wielopole street, my plans to sweep through all of Poland were quashed. Instead my only hiatus from Cracow besides Auschwitz was a day of skiing in Poland's premiere ski resort town, Zakopane. Zakopane is in the Tatras, the highest range of the Carpathian mountains, a two hour bus ride south of Cracow. I travelled with Gosia and Ola and in Zakopane we were met by Martin, with whom we stayed. To any serious skier, I can highly recommend Zakopane. Don't forget to enjoy a warm red wine apres-ski!

Happily, subsequent to my initial skepticism, I can now say that few getaways can compare with the hedonistic splendour of my recent fun-filled week in Poland. Aside from its ethereal medieval architectural charms, I was tickled pink by dozens of superbly
friendly Poles who solidly entertained me each day of my stay.

If Krakow is not enough for you and you're looking for more fun stuff to do in Poland, you can check out things to do in Katowice.