Witkacy, the cult artist
One of the pleasures of roaming Poland's new museums and galleries is in discovering all those avant-gardists, rebels and outsiders who together make the nation's culture so compelling. One painter who pops up almost everywhere is Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz or Witkacy (1885-1939), whose colour-charged, woozy portraits were usually painted while under the influence of alcohol and narcotics – a record of the artist's intake was dutifully scrawled onto a corner of each canvas.
Also an absurdist playwright, unorthodox novelist and social non-conformist, Witkacy is arguably the greatest cult artist Poland has ever produced. Two places in particular make worthy targets of a Witkacy pilgrimage; the Willa Oksza art gallery in Witkacy's home town of Zakopane; and the town museum in Słupsk, which boasts the biggest collection of Witkacy paintings in the country.
The resurrection of the red-brick city
While post-industrial regeneration in northern England or the German Ruhr has been something of a game changer for the tourist industry in Western Europe, similar developments in Poland have gone relatively unreported. The Polish mill town of Łódź possesses one of the finest ensembles of imperious factory architecture anywhere on the continent, much of it repurposed to serve as hotels, shopping districts or cultural quarters.
Over the past ten years the city has transformed itself from a don't visit to a must-visit, with hordes of Polish school kids visiting attractions like the EC1 Planetarium and Science Centre, housed in a former power station. The nation's hipsters meanwhile are making a bee-line for OFF Piotrkowska, a gritty former manufacturing complex now colonised by bars, clubs, design shops and beard-trimming barbers.
EC1 Planetarium and Science Centre, Lodz, Poland © Mariola Anna S / Shutterstock
In many ways the Holocaust is the enduring symbol of the European twentieth century, a period that saw mass killings of innocent civilians on an unprecedented scale. And Auschwitz-Birkenau is the most enduring symbol of the Holocaust – not only because it recorded a higher number of victims, from a wider range of European countries, than any other Nazi killing site; but also because it provides us with the evidence of how the machinery of terror, torture and murder actually worked. Unlike at Treblinka, for example, the Nazis didn't get round to totally destroying the camp before they left, and didn't succeed in murdering all the witnesses – the Auschwitz Museum was set up by camp survivors, and survivor testimony continues to inform its work today.
An estimated 1.1 million people died at Auschwitz-Birkenau: Poles, Roma, Soviet POWS, and above all Jews. Commemorating them all is not just a holiday day-trip option, but also a profound human need.
Auschwitz-Birkenau former concentration camp, Poland © Bussi Adriano / Shutterstock
Top image: Bieszczady mountains, Poland © David Varga / Shutterstock