Friend Country: Poland

Around the time Cracow became the capital, there was a dragon living on a hill over the Vistula. The city was named Cracow when this dragon, which gave the residents no peace of mind, was killed by a king called Krak. You can take in the magnificent banks of the Vistula from Wawel Castle, which stands on the hill where the dragon once lived.

Warsaw is dotted with monuments, statues and murals bearing tribute to the war years. Rynok Glowny in Cracow is one of Europe’s biggest medieval squares, where you will encounter numerous surprises from honeymoon couples on phaeton tours to pantomime artists and pigeon fanciers.

The showmen who ply the streets of Warsaw’s Old Town in period costumes place the heads of willing tourists on the block and touch the axe to their necks. This entertaining ritual was born of tourists’ desire to have their photograph taken.

Warsaw is a giant metropolis where old and new lie cheek by jowl. The historic churches in the Old Town with its colorful apartment houses are adorned with dazzling stained glass windows. From here you can easily take the metro to the city center with its skyscrapers and modern buildings.

One of the hosts of the 14th European Football Championship starting in Warsaw on June 8th, Poland is a country rich in culture and nature. Plus it has been friends with the Turks throughout history.

Developing close relations with Poland already in the 14th century, the Ottomans even opened their arms to these European friends in their time of troubles. Polonezköy, a village near Istanbul set up by Polish immigrants, is just one example of that friendship, a friendship that is getting ready to celebrate its 600th anniversary today. We start our own tour of Poland - much talked about because of the football feast in June - in the capital city, Warsaw. Founded on the banks of the Vistula River, Warsaw is actually a melancholy city that was reduced to rubble in the Second World War. Thanks to an extensive mass transportation network, you can get around easily here on a day or week ticket. One of the first buildings that will catch your eye in Warsaw is the 237-meter Palace of Culture and Science (Palac Kultury i Nauki). Visible almost all over the city, this palace is the country’s tallest and one of a handful of such buildings in Europe. A symbol of the city, the spectacular view from its terrace is the icing on the cake. It’s hard to believe that the Old Town (Stare Miasto), now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was entirely rebuilt after the war.

The monument to King Zygmunt III, who moved the capital from Cracow to Warsaw, stands on Plac Zamkowy in front of the Royal Palace. Proceeding from here into the back streets, you can see a number of architectural wonders including St. John’s Cathedral. And the famous square, Rynok Stare Miastro, in the Old Town is right on your way. This square with its mermaid sculpture, another of the city’s icons, is a drawing point for tourists with its cafes, restaurants, hotels and shops. Another place you can visit for a closer acquaintance with the capital and Polish culture is the Warsaw Uprising Museum. This museum, which chronicles the Polish people’s heroic struggle against enemy occupation, is chock full of striking artifacts. And you can access an extensive archive on Polish history, including images of the war years, newspapers and official correspondence, all via interactive multimedia at this museum with its modern concept of museology. Another surprise in store for you in Warsaw, a synthesis non-pareil of the modern and the classical, is Lazienki Park. This green area in the heart of the city was laid as the garden of the summer estate of King Stanislaw August in the 18th century. Inside the park, Ujazdowski Castle is a gallery for contemporary art work today. One of the many monuments erected in memory of the Polish-born composer Fryderyk Chopin also stands in the park.

Free classical music concerts are given every Sunday from May through September around this magnificent monument. In addition to the Chopin Museum in Warsaw, you can also visit the house where the famous composer was born at Zelazowa Wola 54 kilometers from the city. Exhibited at this venue, which vividly depicts the period in which Chopin lived, are autograph musical scores and other personal effects of the composer’s. People who have come to Poland are unanimous about one thing: One enters Poland through Warsaw, but Cracow is the place to visit. And how true it is. A city of chic, intellectual and Bohemian people, Cracow is a definite must-see. One of the most eye-catching structures in this city, a prominent center of art and culture with its historic buildings and museums, is Wawel Royal Castle on the banks of the Vistula.

The churches and chapels within it are bursting with examples of Renaissance art. And the period figures in colorful costume at the castle entrance offer a perfect opportunity for some photograph-taking and amusing moments. The famous Rynek Glowny is one of Europe’s largest squares, and one of the world’s oldest shopping centers, Sukiennice, is also located here. Mainly local handicrafts and souvenirs are sold today at this market which once dealt in produce and livestock. The Church of St. Mary stands at one corner of this square, so impressive with its medieval architecture. The melody that sounds on the hour from the steeple of this majestic temple commemorates the bugler who was killed announcing the arrival of enemy forces in the 13th century. Meanwhile the stands selling simit (Turkish bread rounds) on the square testify to a lasting Ottoman influence in Cracow, where the 600-year friendship makes itself felt at every step. As it doeschurch of all over Poland.

The restaurants on the historic squares are your best bet for sampling the local cuisine. Barszcz (beet borscht), pierogi (dumplings), bigos (a cabbage dish) and steak with mushrooms are must-tries.

There are accommodations to fit every budget in Poland. Hostels are both cheaper and more comfortable than in other European countries. An economical alternative if you go as a group is to rent a house near the historic sights.

Warsaw’s historic city walls and Barbican Gate are a must-see. The area around the Barbican, erected as the town gate in 1548, is chock full of souvenir stalls.

Turkish Airlines has Istanbul-Warsaw-Istanbul flights daily. Departure times are at 12:25 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. from Istanbul and 1:05 p.m. and 2:45 p.m. from Warsaw.  www.turkishairlines.com   

The streets of Warsaw and Cracow come alive with paintings by street artists in summer. You can buy these pencil drawings and watercolors at prices starting from 5 euros.

City of churches and monuments, Cracow is home to literally hundreds of Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque buildings. The streets opening onto Old Town Square at Cracow are always abuzz. The walls around the Barbican, the city’s main entrance gate, are reserved especially for street artists’ exhibitions.

You will come across frequent open air concerts as you tour Warsaw, birthplace of the famous piano virtuoso and composer, Chopin,

Numerous festivals and other cultural events are held in Poland throughout the year. One of them is the 67th International Chopin Competition, August 3 to 11. www.chopin.festival.pl

There are close to 100 sculptures as well as a cathedral, all made of salt, at Wielicska Salt Mine 15 kilometers from Cracow.

Did you know that besides Nobel Laureate writers Wislawa Szymborska and Czeslaw Milosz, Yugoslav writer Ivo Andric, author of The Bridge on the Drina, also lived briefly in Warsaw?

You can watch the films of Andrzej Wajda, Krzysztof Kieslowski and Roman Polanski for a closer acquaintance with Poland, home of the Lodz Film School, which has produced many famous cinematographers.