Highlights of a visit to Poland. Cities, villages, forests and castles.
Since its liberation, Auschwitz has become a powerful, historical symbol of the Holocaust. Situated in Oswiecim, 68 kms west of Kraków, a museum now exists on the site of the camp. Auschwitz concentration camp was first constructed to hold Polish political prisoners, who arrived in May 1940. The first mass killings of prisoners took place in September 1941 and Auschwitz–Birkenau became a major site of the Nazi Final Solution to the Jewish Question. From early 1942 until late 1944, transport trains delivered Jews to the camp's gas chambers from all over German-occupied Europe.
Białowieża National Park, with an area of about 105 square kilometres, is one of the largest remaining parts of the immense primeval forest that once stretched across the European Plain. The forest is home to 800 European bison, the continent’s largest land animal. Guided tours into the strictly protected areas of the park can be arranged on foot, bicycle or by horse-drawn carriage. Among the attractions are bird watching with local ornithologists and watching the bison in their natural environment. In the Białowieża Glade, there are buildings once owned by the Tsars of Russia.
Gdańsk (or Danzig in German) on the Baltic Coast is Poland’s main port. Historically, the wealthy city, a member of the powerful Hanseatic League, existed between the Prussian and Polish states and this caused much conflict. When the city was rebuilding after World War two the choice was for French, Dutch and Italian designs to eliminate reminders of German influence. The most charming aspect is Long Street and Long Market lined with reconstructed 17th century colourful facades. Gdańsk offers a huge variety of international and local cuisines in its many restaurants and not far from the city are several excellent sandy beaches.
Kraków (pronounced Krakof) is one of Poland’s oldest cities and a capital of many of Poland’s earliest forms. It was an important trading centre and it still a hub of cultural, academic, artistic and economic activity. Krakow is a particularly beautiful city, with an Old Town centred around the largest medieval square in Europe, the Rynek Główny. One of the first UNESCO protected World Heritage sites, Krakow’s beauty is enhanced by architecture from the Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque eras, including Wawel Cathedral and the Royal Castle on the Vistula River. The city’s fascinating history and culture is documented in 28 museums and many parks and gardens provide pleasant places to relax.
Łódź (pronounced Woodge) developed in the 18th century due to the cloth industry and many ornate mansions testify to the wealth of that time. The city was successful during the communist era, but suffered a decline after 1989. Łódź is internationally known for its National Film School, which produced actors and directors, including Roman Polanski. Piotrkowska Street runs north to south for over five kilometres. This makes it one of the longest commercial streets in the world, containing many restaurants, bars and cafes. Most of the building façades, many of which date back to the 19th century, have been successfully renovated.
Szczecin (or Stettin in German) is a large seaport on Poland’s western border. The city has a most complicated history, being, at one time or another, part of Saxony, Denmark, Sweden, Prussia, Germany and finally Poland. The Ducal Castle, begun in 1346 is a predominant landmark. In the late 19th century Szczecin became an industrial town, vastly increasing in size and population. The city’s layout resembles Paris in its many parks and avenues, due to being rebuilt in the 1880s by Georges-Eugène Haussmann, who designed much of the French capital. A local fast food is Pasztecik szczeciński, a deep-fried dough stuffed with meat or vegetables.
Famous for its gingerbread (pierniki), Toruń is a delightful, walled, gothic town on the Vistula River in North-Western Poland. Originally a castle built by the Teutonic Order in the mid-13th century to subdue Prussia, it soon developed a commercial role as part of the Hanseatic League. In the Old and New Town, the many imposing public and private buildings from the 14th and 15th centuries (among them the house where the world-famous astronomer, Nicholas Copernicus, was born) are evidence of Toruń's importance. Take time to bake your own traditional gingerbread at the Gingerbread Museum.
Warsaw, the Polish capital, is a large, sprawling city with a jumble of architectural styles. Although much of the city was destroyed during World War Two and the Soviet era created drab apartments and functional administration buildings, in recent years many colourful Gothic and Renaissance buildings have restored and rebuilt giving the Old Town a renewed charm. There are excellent museums to unravel Warsaw’s complex history and culture, including the tragedy of the Jewish Ghetto. Backstreets often harbour genuine craftsmen’s workshops to explore. The lively capital is naturally a hub of excellent cafes and restaurants and provides wonderful entertainment options.
The Wieliczka Salt Mine is just 14 kms form the centre of Kraków. Opened in the 13th century, the mine produced table salt continuously until 2007. The mine reaches a depth of 327 metres and is over 287 kilometres long. The mine includes an underground lake and exhibits on the history of salt mining, as well as a 3.5-kilometre tour (less than 2% of the mine's passages). Of interest are the many statues and four chapels carved out of the salt by miners, as well as newer carvings made by artists. During World War II, the shafts were used by the occupying Germans for war work.
Wrocław is an elegant city, with a large central market square surrounded by colourful facades of baroque houses. The city lies on the Oder Rivera and oldest section was built on an island between two branches of the river. The 13th century Market Square (Rynek) features the Old Town Hall and St. Elisabeth's Church with a tall tower and an observation deck. Wrocław is also home to the Racławice Panorama, a huge circular painting of a patriotic battle produced in 1894. Due to its position, Wrocław has been part of Poland, Prussia, Bohemia and Germany and carries the cultural influences of all these. With its charming architecture, pretty parks, museums, cafes and pubs, Wrocław is a very pleasant place to visit.
Zakopane is situated at the foot of the Tatra Mountains, on the border with Slovakia. The town is a centre of Góral (Highland) culture, which has its own unique food, architecture and music. In winter, it is a popular skiing resort, whilst in summer the mountains and forests are great for hiking and mountaineering. The town developed from a small village to a mining centre and then to a health resort in the 19th century. The main street, Krupówki, is lined with shops, restaurants and markets and the town has a lively nightlife in season. Some of the main attractions are the lovely wooden villas and its history of artists and musicians.