Magazine article The Spectator

The Best of Companions

Magazine article The Spectator

The Best of Companions

Article excerpt

POLAND: A TRAVELLER'S GAZETTEER by Adam Zamoyski John Murray, 16.99, pp. 301, ISBN 0719557720

There are countries where it is easy to be a tourist, and countries where enjoying oneself takes a bit of extra effort. Despite my long association with Poland, I must concede that it falls into the latter camp, although not for wholly obvious reasons. It isn't simply that the communist-era hotels are not up to scratch or that food is indifferent: while sometimes true, that is no longer universally the case. These days, you can stay in country-house hotels or in refurbished farm houses if you don't like what the old state-run hotel chains have to offer, and in major cities you can even eat over-priced Italian food which is indistinguishable from over-priced Italian food anywhere else.

Effort is required, however, in order to understand what it is you are seeing, when you are not sleeping or eating. In part, this is because the destruction wrought by the war and by the subsequent half-century of de facto Russian occupation have rearranged the landscape. This is obviously true of Warsaw, which was completely destroyed, but even to enjoy a drive around the countryside, you need to have not merely the eye of an aesthete, but the imagination of an archaeologist. Follow a tree-lined cobblestone road through what appears to have once been the park of an estate, and you might well come upon a small, recently restored country house, or a long-ruined country house, or a small cluster of concrete blocks built in the place of the country house, which later became the headquarters of a collective farm. In any case, it is impossible to understand why Polish country houses look the way they do unless you understand the history of the country.

But the history of Poland is a touch different from the history of other European countries that the average, well-travelled tourist is likely to visit. As Adam Zamoyski writes in the introduction to this 'travellers' gazetteer' to Poland, `the fact remains that Poland feels somehow different from its -neighbours, and there are reasons for this.' He explains:

The area it occupies was by-passed by some of the strongest influences that shaped the rest of mediaeval Europe. The Romans stopped just short in the south, the Celts never quite made it from the west. Even the Vikings, who penetrated every country as far as Sicily in a great westward arc and at the same time moulded the early shape of what was to be Russia in the east, never penetrated significantly into Poland. …

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