All About Poland
The capital of medieval Poland was the university city of Kraków, perennially popular among visitors for its liveliness, the amber jewelry at the central market, and the well-preserved buildings, churches, and Jewish sights of its Old Town. (Just outside Kraków, hit the labyrinthian Wieliczka salt mines, carved into airy underground chapels and sculpture galleries.) In 1596, the Polish capital moved to Warsaw, today a wonderful jumble of grim Soviet-era buildings, modern skyscrapers, and a baroque Old Town carefully reconstructed after World War II.
Poland, World War II, and the Iron Curtain
Poland is a vast Slavic nation with no naturally defensible borders, That is part of why, after a long medieval period of rule under its own kings, since the 18th century Poland has repeatedly been squeezed—and parts frequently conquered—by its more powerful neighbors: the Prussians (later Germans) to the west, and the Russians (later Soviets) to the east. Nazi Germany officially launched World War II with a 1939 attack at Gdansk—a Baltic port city that has since restored its 17th century, Hanseatic look (for beach action, head just up the coast to trendy Sopot). The Nazis soon overran Poland and embarked on five years of bloody reprisals against rebels and resistance fighters, in the process levelling Poland’s major cities and establishing in the countryside many of the most notorious concentration camps—including Auschwitz-Birkenau and Treblinka.
By the time the war was over, more than a quarter of the Polish population had perished, including more than three million Polish Jews. Poland then fell under the Iron Curtain until 1989 when the Solidarity movement—which, like World War II, started at the Gdansk docks—produced Poland’s first free elections and spelled the beginning of the end for the Soviet empire.
The Rest of Poland
Most visitors stick to Krakow and Warsaw—plus a sober, disturbing, difficult, but ultimately worthwhile visit to the Nazi death camps—leaving the rest of Poland ripe for discovery. Just inland from Gdansk, in Malbork, is the mighty Marienburg Castle from which the medieval Teutonic Knights ran their own small Monastic State of crusaders charged with Christianizing the Prussians. The knights also founded Toruń, a pretty medieval University town where Copernicus was born. The intriguing Silesia region in western Poland has Poznan—a lovely restored medieval city on the Berlin-Warsaw rail line—and Wrocław, filled with Flemish and Germanic-style houses and churches. In the south, by the Slovak border, rise the gorgeous Tatra Mountains for hiking and skiing.
When to Go to Poland: Autumn is best all around for weather, crowd levels, and cultural events; spring second-best (though a bit rainy). Summer can run a bit hot, and certainly more crowded. Unless you’re skiing, winter can disappoint with long dark nights, cold weather, and many secondary spots shut down tightly.
Events and Holidays in Poland:
|The third largest Beer Festival in Europe promotes unique beers from small and medium-sized breweries from Poland and across Europe.|
|Jazz na Starówce is a free, International Open Air Jazz Festival held in the Old Town of Warsaw, in which both international stars and newer players perform throughout the summer.|
|The Polish "Woodstock" is the largest open-air concert festival in Europe, drawing up to 300,000 music-lovers to rock out to European and international acts while camping for three days in Kostrzyn, near the Germany border.|
|The Polish city of Gdynia hosts this World Cultures Festival with traditional and folk-steeped contemporary musicians from across Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Americas.|
|Descendents of Vikings, Slavs, Balts, Magyars, Ruthenians, and other medieval people that make up modern Poland gather at the Festiwal Słowian i Wikingów on Ostrów Island near Wolin to recreate the worlds of their ancestors with camp villages, crafts, food, and—naturally—re-enacted battles in full chainmail and costumes.|
|The Old Town of Gdansk has celebrated this fair for some 800 years, with concerts—classical and folk, gypsy and Slavic—street performers, handicrafts, parades, fireworks, sweet cakes, and other traditional foods.|
|Andrzejki is the night before St. Andrew's Day, a magical evening on which unmarried women can divine their future husbands through the portents of melted wax or the shadows cast by burning paper.|
|Watch Docs is an international film festival in Warsaw dedicated to documentaries focusing on human rights and other social issues, with many side events such as workshops and panel discussions.|