Europe

Poland is a fascinating country.

Warsaw at night | Photo credit: Andy Doyle

Known most recently for the Solidarity movement and its leader Lech Walesa, Polish Pope John Paul II and the beginning of the Second World War, Poland has, for centuries, intrigued visitors.

When you visit, there is no doubt you will be captivated by this proud country with a grand history, marvellous landscapes, difficult language and its own local peculiarities.

But before you contemplate visiting, here are some facts that perhaps you did not know …

  • The first cities in today’s Poland, Kalisz and Elbląg on the Amber Route to the Baltic Sea, were mentioned by Roman writers in the first century AD, but the first Polish settlement in Biskupin dates even further back to the 7th century BC.
  • Poland is the ninth largest country in Europe.
  • In Poland one’s name day is considered more important than one’s birthday.
  • Poland boasts 17 Nobel Prize winners, including four Peace Prizes and five in Literature.
  • Ninety percent of Poles have completed at least secondary education.
  • Marie Curie (Maria Sklodowska 1867-1934), is the first and only Nobel laureate in two different sciences and was first female professor at the Sorbonne University.
  • Polish born astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus was the first person to propose that the earth was not the center of the universe.
  • Another Polish astronomer, Johannes Hevelius (1611-1687) published the earliest exact maps of the moon.
  • Saint John’s Kupala is a popular holiday in which people jump over fires, a tradition that predates Christianity.
  • During Wianki people go to the riverbanks and float wreaths with candles on them on the water. If it floats to a woman on the other side, she’ll find love. If it circles three times, she’ll be unlucky with her love life.
  • There is a Pope channel on TV.

For centuries, Poland has been a bridge between the East and West. Set in the heart of Europe, Poland is a multifaceted country where many cities and towns intermingle the contemporary and past.

During the past decades, Poland has developed into a modern, vibrant and progressive state, yet at the same time the country and it’s people maintain its traditional culture. Simply stated, Poland can be a captivating destination so plan on first doing some research, and spending as much time as possible in the country!

Poland is currently experiencing an increasing trend in its number of visitors. Ever since Poland joined the European Union, international travellers have rapidly rediscovered the country’s rich cultural heritage, stunning historic sites and the diverse array of countryside landscapes.

The most visited urban destinations are Warsaw, Kraków, Wrocław, Poznań, Lublin and Toruń; in addition to these is the historic site of the Auschwitz concentration camp near Oświęcim. Popular areas of natural beauty include northeast Poland’s Masurian Lake District and Białowieża Forest.

The Republic of Poland is located in Central Europe. It is bordered by Germany to the west; the Czech Republic and Slovakia to the south; Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine to the east; Russia and the Baltic Sea to the north.

The population, some 39 million strong, occupy an area of 312,000 square kilometres. Poland’s landscape is very diversified. The Carpathian and the Sudety Mountains stretch in the south. Lowlands and uplands occupy the central part of the country. The northern part of Poland, comprising Pomeranian and Masurian Lakelands, is gently undulating, relatively well forested and covered by hundreds of lakes; still further to the north are the sandy beaches of the Baltic Sea coast. Poland’s national emblem is a white eagle with a golden crown on a red background.

Its capital and the largest city is Warsaw, which has a population of over 1,700,000 and is located upon the longest Polish river, the Vistula. Major Polish cities include Cracow, Gdańsk, Katowice, Łódź, Poznań, Szczecin, and Wrocław.

Poland, officially the Republic of Poland, is situated in Central Europe bordered by Germany to the west; the Czech Republic and Slovakia to the south; Ukraine, Belarus and Lithuania to the east; and the Baltic Sea and Kaliningrad Oblast, a Russian exclave, to the north.

A Dramatic History …

Old city of Zamosc | Photo credit: Ava Weintraub

Whether it’s dramatic history, rich culture, outstanding hospitality or perhaps even family roots you’re looking for, few places can compare to Poland.

The establishment of a Polish state is often identified with the adoption of Christianity by its ruler Mieszko I in 966, over the territory similar to that of present-day Poland. The Kingdom of Poland was formed in 1025.

Despite the vast destruction the country experienced during World War II, Poland managed to preserve much of its cultural wealth.

Polish cities and towns reflect the spectrum of European history, culture and panache.

Most of the major cities boast lovely old centres and a range of splendid buildings, some of them UNESCO World Heritage sites.

Many old quarters were heavily damaged or even destroyed during WWII, but were meticulously rebuilt after the war, using original bricks and ornaments where possible. The capital, Warsaw, has one of the best old centres and its many sites include the ancient city walls, palaces, churches and squares. The old city of Kraków is considered the country’s cultural capital. Once an Hanseatic League-town, the port city of Gdańsk boasts many impressive buildings from that time. Wrocław, the former capital of Silesia, is still less well-known but can definitely compete when it comes to impressive architecture, Centennial Hall being the example. Its picturesque location on the river Oder and countless bridges make this city a lovely place. The old town of Zamość was planned after Italian theories of the “ideal town” and named “a unique example of a Renaissance town in Central Europe” by UNESCO. The stunning medieval city of Toruń features some original gothic architecture, as it is one of the few Polish cities to have escaped devastation in WWII. Other interesting cities include Poznań and Lublin.

The Polish countryside is lovely and at times even gorgeous, and you can visit countless historic villages, castles, churches and other monuments.

With 23 national parks and a number of landscape parks spread across the country, natural attractions are never too far away. Białowieża National Park, on the Belarus border, is a World Heritage site. It’s the only place where European Bisons still live in the wild. If you’re fit and up for an adventure, you can take the Eagle’s Path (Orla Perć) in the Tatra Mountains, where you’ll also find Poland’s highest peak. Pieniński National Park boasts the stunning Dunajec River Gorge, and Karkonoski National Park is home to some fabulous waterfalls. The mountainous Bieszczady National Park has great hiking opportunities and lots of wild life. The Masurian Landscape Park, in the Masurian Lake District with its 2000 lakes, is beautiful. The two national parks on Poland’s coast are also quite popular: Wolin National Park is located on an island in the north-west, Słowiński National Park boasts of some of the largest sand dunes in Europe.

Warsaw

Le Meridien Bristol Hotel, Warsaw | Photo credit: Flickr user francescomucio

The origins of Warsaw date to end of the 13th, or perhaps the beginning of the 14th century.

After World War II, Warsaw became the capital of one of the satellite countries of the Soviet Bloc. From 1946 on, great efforts were made to rebuild the city. Apart from restoring the historical parts of Warsaw, new social-realist architecture was introduced to Warsaw. The population of Warsaw and its area grew intensely as new housing estates were created in the 1970s.

The communist rule fell in 1989 and since then Warsaw has experienced an economic, cultural and architectural resurgence.

Situated on both sides of the Vistula River (The Vistula is the longest and the most important river in Poland, at 1047 km in length), Warsaw is almost in the heart of Poland.

The river divides the city into two parts distinct in character. The more up-market western bank of the Vistula is where the majority of Warsaw’s businesses, banks, theatres and cinemas can be found. The poorer eastern side, known as Praga, is quickly losing its neglected appearance with a growing number of modern shopping centres, office buildings and blocks of flats.

Warsaw is a world in itself, with an eastern European flavour. Do not miss the beautiful Old Town, the Royal Route, the Chopin museum, several magnificent palaces and the former Jewish ghetto.

As any other European capital, Warsaw is a city of often striking contrasts. When visiting, it is beneficial to engage a local guide service.

Kraków

Krakow city and old town | Photo credit: Mark Eslick

The first written record of Kraków was made by a Jewish merchant from Cordoba, who visited the already established city in 965. The legend is that the founder of the city was called Krak, and he ruled until a terrible dragon appeared and moved into the cave under the slopes of Wawel hill. The beast was eventually defeated by a clever cobbler, Szewczyk Dratewka. Today, the figure of the dragon still stands in front of its cave, while a still visible mound commemorates the first ruler.

After the war Kraków became the centre of a non-communist and Catholic movement. Since 1989 Kraków has been undergoing intense renovations and is now considered to be one of the most beautiful and interesting cities in Poland. Krakow, with a population of over 755,000 people, is Poland’s second largest city.

The attraction is not just the splendid architecture and the treasures of art – reminders of the times when Kraków was a royal capital city – but also the unique ambience of the former Jewish district and the masterpieces of Polish Art Nouveau. However old and beautiful it is, Kraków is not limited to its monuments and museums. Thanks to an amazing density and variety of bars, pubs, clubs and restaurants, Kraków sparkles with life.

Although it ceased to be a capital city in 1596, it still plays the role of cultural centre for Poland. Fortunately, it escaped World War II with no major fighting or bombing, and it remains almost unscathed even after fifty years of communist rule while concrete blocks of flats were built outside the city centre.

Kraków is also an important academic city, famed for its ancient university of consistent and continuing repute. The city is known as the most popular tourist destination in Poland, with the former royal Wawel castle being rated among its major attractions.

Your day will not be complete however, until you have sample Polish fare!

Polish cuisine has influenced the cuisines of its surrounding countries. For centuries the Polish kitchen has competed with France and Italy. It is rich in meat, especially chicken and pork, and winter vegetables (cabbage in the dish bigos), and spices, as well as different kinds of pasta; the most notable being the pierogi.

Generally speaking, Polish cuisine is hearty. The preparation of traditional cuisine generally is time intensive.

Bigos | Photo credit: Mike Krzeszak

It is worth noting that most regions of Poland have their own local gastronomic traditions and distinctive flavours. Notable foods in Polish cuisine include kiełbasa, barszcz, żurek, pierogi, flaczki (tripe soup), gołąbki, oscypek, kotlet schabowy, bigos, various potato dishes, a fast food sandwich (zapiekanka) and many more. Traditional Polish desserts include pączki, faworki, gingerbread, babka and others.

So, while preparing for your trip to this most historical and captivating of European lands, here is some additional information that perhaps you did not know …

The family is the centre of the social structure. One’s obligation is to the family first and foremost. Extended families are still the norm and form an individual’s social network.

Poles draw a line between their inner circle and outsiders. Family members are naturally part of the inner circle along with close friends, usually “family friends”. Poles will interact differently with their inner circle and outsiders.

Meeting and Greeting

Greetings are generally reserved yet courteous. When greeting someone a good handshake, direct eye contact, a smile and the appropriate greeting for that time of day will suffice. Good morning/afternoon is “dzien dobry” and good evening is “dobry wieczor”.

Do not use first names until invited to. Moving from the use of formal to the informal names is such an important step that there is a ritual to acknowledge the changed status and your inclusion in their ‘inner circle’.

At parties or other social gatherings, your hosts will introduce you, usually starting with the women and then moving on to the men.

Gift Giving Etiquette

The usual times for present giving are birthdays, name days (birth date of the saint after whom they are named), and Christmas.

Do not give gifts that are overly expensive; this may embarrass the recipient.

If invited to a Pole’s home for dinner, bring wine, flowers, pastries or sweets for the hostess. If you are giving flowers, bring an odd number. Do not give yellow chrysanthemums as they are used for funerals. Do not give red or white flowers, especially carnations and lilies.

If you are invited to a Pole’s house:

Be punctual.

Dress conservatively.

You may be expected to take off your shoes.

Do not ask for a tour of the house.

Offer to help the hostess with the preparation or clearing up after a meal is served. This is good manners. This will more often than not be turned down out of politeness.

Wait for the hostess to invite you to start eating.

Take small amounts of food initially so you can accept second helpings. Try a bit of everything.

Expect frequent toasting throughout the meal. The host offers the first toast.

You should reciprocate with your own toast later in the meal.

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