A magnificent, huge beast of a country with a complex and fascinating history that has left it with marvellous medieval architecture and a proud tradition of colourful cultural celebrations. Poland has struggled to create and retain its borders and many occupying forces have left their mark on the country’s character.
Poland became a kingdom in the early 10th century and had capital cities in Gniezno and later Kraków. The kingdom fragmented in the 12th century but reunited again in the 14th century, heralding a Golden Age, when together with Lithuania it was the largest country in Europe. The capital moved to Warsaw in 1596 but the country then suffered in wars with Russia and then Sweden. In 1795 Poland was divided amongst Russia, Prussia and Austria. After the First World War Poland re-emerged as an independent state, although the Second World War saw invasion by Germany and Russia. Post-war Poland remained a Soviet satellite within the Eastern Bloc, finally holding free elections in 1989 and becoming an independent, economically successful and important member of NATO and the European Union.
Most first-time visitors understandably head for Kraków, the country’s medieval capital which boasts the impressive, well-preserved Wawel castle and an enormous central square surrounded by old churches, a cathedral, an ornate market hall and museums. Kraków’s charm extends to the old Jewish Quarter of Kazimierz. Many people will visit the nearby sobering Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and the incredible Salt Mine at Wieliczka.
The southern area of Poland, culturally and historically rich, also offers beautiful mountains to explore. The Tatra Mountains forming the border with Slovakia have unique communities with their own way of life. Also, along the border region are many ornate castles, chateaux, palaces and country houses, often surrounded by landscaped parkland.
Polish cities contain a wealth of medieval architecture, although some have had to be intricately renovated after the destruction of the Second World War. Wrocław in the south-west has an enormous market square surrounded by elegant houses and Toruń, the home of the astronomer Copernicus, is famous for its marvellous Old Town. Great architecture, industrial heritage and history come together at the port of Gdansk on the Baltic coast which also serves as a gateway to nearby sandy beaches. Poznań, Łódź, Szczecin and Lublin amongst others have their own charm and character with great food, drink and nightlife.
Warsaw, Poland’s lively capital was once hailed as Europe’s most beautiful city but was virtually destroyed at the end of the war. The local people rebuilt the city and renovated much of the medieval heart. It is exciting to see the mix of gothic and modern architecture, to visit the excellent museums and to enjoy the restaurants and bars.
Although the cities are where much of the history and culture are to be found, Poland is predominantly countryside and huge areas of nature offer activities such as skiing, sailing, mountain hiking and climbing. The Masurian Lake District is popular with locals and visitors from abroad and Białowieża Forest in the east contains the last herds of European bison. Karkonosze National Park in the south-west and the Pieniny and Bieszczady Mountains in the south-east have many hiking trails for all abilities.
It is easy to travel to Poland now, with many airlines serving the regional airports from the UK and the range of accommodation in the cities and towns is impressive.
Put aside a week or so and come and experience Polish hospitality.