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National Geographic publishes in 19 languages around the world. Who better to point you to the best places to see in their countries than the editors of our international editions? Each month a real insider reveals five must-see destinations.
Darek Raczko “My challenges are simple,” says National Geographic Polska editor Darek Raczko. “I try to keep my staff smiling and have a private life after work. Every month we face problems, and every month we solve them. That’s just a part of the professional experience.
Raczko has built his career on trying new things, from mountain climbing to photography and journalism. He has been the chief editor of Home & World, a tourist magazine, and was slated for the role for the Polish edition of Geo. Essentially, I switched from the green to the yellow border,” he jokes. But it was serious business when he was offered his current job. “I couldn’t believe it,” he says. “My first reaction was ‘Are you kidding?’ I had always dreamed of this job. I was only 32 when we started work on this edition, so becoming the editor of such a magazine was a big move this early in my career.”
Raczko finds great reward in building relationships with the people he considers stars in writing and photography. “Now they are my partners in the creation of the magazine,” he says.
Launching his publication in October 1999, Raczko leads a staff of nine in producing content with a strong Polish orientation. “Our version of ZipUSA is called ‘Between You and Me,’” he says. “Each month we have the opportunity to show Poles the beauty of the country they live in. We provide information and views that are very different from what people imagine. Many readers think they know a place, until we show them another side.”


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Best places to see

Raczko had a tough time narrowing down to five of his favorite destinations in such a scenic country. Here’s what beat out the rest:

1. The Old Town of Kraków
“Kraków lived through almost every turn of Polish history, first as the capital and later as the country’s living monument to our history. It was the only large Polish city to come through World War II unscathed, so it retained a wealth of old architecture from different periods. That time in history was resurrected in the movie Schindler’s List, part of which was filmed in Kraków. At the heart of the old town—a UNESCO World Heritage Site—the ornamental spires of Kosciól Mariacki, or St. Mary’s Church, tower above the largest market square in Europe. Sukiennice, the medieval Cloth Hall in the center of the square, may be one of the oldest supermarkets in the world. During the 14th century it was the center of the cloth trade. Today it is still an active market and the best place to buy souvenirs.”

“I like the old town for its natural scenery, atmosphere, countless eateries, and the dozens of corners anchored by museums and old churches. Wawel Royal Castle and its cathedral stand on top of Wawel Hill overlooking the Vistula River. It was the residence of Polish rulers from the mid-11th century to the early 17th century. Today the castle functions as a museum where visitors can see such treasures as a large collection of Flemish tapestries that once belonged to King Sigismund Augustus (1548-1572) and sculptured polychromed heads from a ceiling fragment of the Audience Hall. The castle is a blend of Romanesque and Gothic architecture and is considered one of the finest examples of pre-Renaissance workmanship in Europe.”

2. Polish-Slovak Border
“Dozens of little wooden churches adorn the picturesque, hilly, landscape in the south-central part of the country, particularly in the Podhale and Beskid Niski regions. Visitors can take the 124-mile (200-kilometer) scenic drive along the Polish-Slovak border into a wonderful world of sacred art and architecture. Rich colors and iconography decorate centuries-old Greek Orthodox temples and churches such as the 15th-century Gothic church in the village of Haczów, where the interior walls are painted with portraits of the local nobility of the time.”

3. Trail of the Eagles’ Nests
“A chain of 14th-century castle ruins extends from Kraków one hundred miles (160 kilometers) northwest to Czestochowa. Built like eagles’ nests atop rock promontories, the big limestone strongholds formed a defense line on what was once the southwest frontier of Poland. Today the trail is a popular bike route among tourists. Knight brotherhoods, attracted to the history of the castles as well as their spooky solitude, participate in tournaments and reenact old battles among the ruins.”

4. Dunes of Slowinski National Park
“The park, located in the northwest corner of Poland, is a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve. That’s due in part to its shifting sand dunes, the largest moving dunes in central Europe. For more than 5,000 years sand from the Baltic Sea has washed onto the beach, dried, and blown inland. The dunes move at a rate of about 30 feet (nine meters) a year and can reach a height of 99 feet (30 meters). When you’re standing on the high white hills, it’s hard to believe that you’re in the middle of Europe rather than somewhere in Africa.”

5. Biebrza River Wetlands
“Biebrza National Park, the largest in Poland, was established along the Biebrza River in the northeast part of the country. It protects 247,000 acres (100,000 hectares) of wetlands and peatbogs, regularly draped in thick mist, the largest such area in central Europe. Thousands of rare plants and game—as well as more than 200 species of birds—thrive in the park. In the spring the abundance of birds attract bird-watchers from all over the world, eager to witness elaborate mating dances. Almost half of Poland’s 56 species of protected birds inhabit the park.”

Photographs by Dave G. Houser, Corbis (left); David Turnley, Corbis (bottom); Dareck Raczko (right)

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