Alright. So you made it to Poland, and you’ve hit the ATM. You’ve got a fistful of złoty.
What the heck is a złoty?
How much is it worth?
What should you spend it on?
First things first: The Polski złoty (PLN) is the currency of Poland. One hundred groszy (grosh-ey) make one złoty (zwoh-tey). There are 10 złotych (zwoh-tih; this is why Polish is hard), 20 złotych, 50 złotych, 100 złotych, and 200 złotych notes, and a bajillion coins. There are 1 grosz (grosh) coins, 2 grosze (grosh-eh) coins, 5 groszy coins, 10 groszy coins, 20 groszy coins, 50 groszy coins, 1 złoty coins, 2 złote (zwoh-teh) coins, and 5 złotych coins. In all honesty, you’re more likely to have a fistful of groszy than a fistful of złoty.
Second things second: The złoty is worth 27 cents on the American dollar. That means, for every 1 dollar you have, you have 3.76 złoty (as of September 2015). If you get paid in USD, this is great fun. If you get paid in PLN, not so much.
Prices of foodstuffs in Poland are generally comparable to the prices in the States. However, everything else is more expensive. For example, if you go into an H&M store, a shirt that costs $4 USD costs almost 15 złoty. Well, that’s just the exchange rate! say you. Well, says I, some of us get paid in złoty, not in USD.
Anyway, on to the fun part: What Polish souvenirs should you spend your fistful of złoty on?
Let’s face it, no trip is complete without a magnet or a pen or a t-shirt that says “Mom went to Poland and all I got was this stupid t-shirt.” Personally, I prefer those little shot glasses with the name of the city painted on the side. The more eccentric, the better. I already have a shelf full of them from my trips around Poland. Even so, everywhere you go, there’s a different brand of touristy, gimmicky stuff. In Kraków, they have stuffed-animal versions of dragons everywhere (there’s a legend that a dragon lived under Wawel Hill). There are also ornate, brightly-stained, inlaid wooden things everywhere – boxes, plates, chess sets, you name it, they’ve got it. In Wrocław, everything had gnomes on it. You could buy magnets with gnomes, t-shirts with gnomes, little statues of gnomes, pens with gnomes hanging off the end for dear life. Everywhere you go in Poland, you can buy a picture of Pope St. John Paul II. Which leads me to my next point.
Hey, did you know that there was a Polish pope? If you didn’t, you’ve got some reading to do, preferable before you come to Poland. The Poles are rather fond of John Paul II, especially in Kraków, where he held the position of archbishop and participated in underground resistance movements against the communist regime (yes, he was a little rabble-rouser). In, quite literally, every shop you go into, there is something with his face on it. Whether it be a picture, a statue, a plate, or a four-foot-tall bedazzled bust, you can take him home with you. Honestly, if you like John Paul II, or Jan Paweł II, as the Poles call him, there’s an entire country where you will be welcome and can find appropriate home decor.
The Baltic Coast is simply rife with amber, which has been, historically, a major market in Poland. Back in the day, Kraków became a major trading post simply because it was along the amber trading route. The tradition holds true today: In Kraków, as well as other major cities, you can find amber for very reasonable prices. There’s everything from dragons carved out of amber to modest pieces of jewelry to statement jewelry to foot-tall statues carved out of amber. These last will be the most expensive, but you can also find very pretty jewelry for cheap (again, if you’re pulling from a bank account filled with USD). There are shops that specialize in amber jewelry, but my mother and I enjoyed the amber stalls in the Sukiennice in Kraków (the old trading post that dates back to medieval Kraków – one of the best spots for Polish souvenirs!). I’m not sure if that’s the cheapest or the best amber jewelry, but it was very atmospheric; buying amber in one of the traditional trading spots in Kraków was good fun.
You should also be aware that there are different kinds of amber: white, brown (the reddish-color that most of us think of when we think of amber), yellow, and green. Oh, the combinations you can make with those colors! Note: The white amber is the rarest variety, and is consequently the most expensive.
Poland has its own brand of pottery, the most famous manufacturer of which is the city of Bolesławiec (bohl-eh-swav-ee-ets). In every town you go to, you can find a store that sells nothing but this pottery. Most souvenir shops have some of this pottery, too, although it’s generally a smaller selection. Polish pottery is known for being both brightly colored and extremely durable. It’s not odd to see a shopkeeper rifling through a basket of ceramic trinkets to find the right color combination for a customer. This almost gave my mother a heart attack, but the lady just looked at her and said, “Oh, it’s very strong. Very strong.”
While it’s not completely shatter-proof, it does stand up to everyday wear and tear with aplomb. You can find tea cups, tea pots, coffee mugs, muffin tins, baking dishes, complete service sets, and all manner of trinkets in this style of pottery. My mother scored a very impressive – and massive – serving platter with a lid shaped like a chicken.
As far as prices go for the pottery, it’s very reasonable in the motherland, making it one of the best Polish souvenirs you can get. Pieces range anywhere from 10 złoty for an ornament bulb to 500 złoty for a chicken-shaped serving platter. The same pieces would probably cost double in the United States – at least, the numbers would be double. Remember the exchange rate (a 500 złoty chicken serving platter is, right now, about $135 in Poland; it would probably cost upwards of $800 in the US).
Textiles were once a major industry in this part of Europe. Everywhere you go in Poland, you can find beautiful bolts of cloth, as well as lace and embroidered pieces. Many of the cloth products are handmade, hand-painted, hand-dyed, or hand-embroidered (if you’re in a straight-up souvenir shop, this won’t be the case, but it’s not too hard to find a cloth or clothing store). Again, these products come at reasonable prices, especially considering that embroidering by hand is a pain in the butt (take it from someone who never got past the basic cross-stitch sketched out on a pillowcase). If you’re into traditional Polish costumes, then these cloth shops are the places to go. You can find handmade, hand-embroidered traditional Polish costumery for about 100 złoty and up (depending on how elaborate the stitching is).
If you’re willing to carry it home, buy it here. There are art studios everywhere, selling both prints and originals of artwork, generally from local artists. By Florian’s Gate in Kraków, there’s a fifty-yard section of the old city wall taken up by artists displaying their work for sale. The art is really good, too. I’m rather picky when it comes to my taste in paintings, but I’ve seen pieces in Kraków and Warsaw that I would be more than happy to hang on my living room wall. Just know that, if you’re buying original artwork, and if it’s over a certain amount, you need to have proper sales documentation in order to get it back through customs. Small pieces should be fine, but I would consult customs regulations before buying, just to be on the safe side.
If we’re being honest, Polish vodka is the best. You might as well buy it here, where you can both find it and pay for it with złoty. Any alkohole (al-koh-hol-ay) will be able to fix you up. Also, let’s face it – if you bring bottles of vodka home as your friends’ Polish souvenirs, you’ll be the coolest kid at the party. Na zdrowie!
Last, but not least, food:
Of all the Polish souvenirs, this one you definitely cannot bring home with you. I have a friend who told me a very funny story about having kiełbasa confiscated at customs. However, never was there a złoty wasted when spent on a piping-hot plate of pierogi ruskie and a beer after a long day of amber shopping.
Far be it from me to tell you how to spend your fistful of złoty, but these Polish souvenirs are some of my humble suggestions. Just remember, unless it’s a plate of pierogi, you’re going to have to carry it home. You might have to sacrifice fashion for the sake of using that space that would normally have an extra pair of shoes for carrying your amber-carved bust of JPII home.