An historical gem:
Poland's thousand year long history makes it a must see for world history buffs. To say that Poland has a rich (if at times heart-breaking) history would be an understatement. The country first appeared on maps of Europe in the middle of the tenth century. Since then it has been a respected European kingdom, a religious safe-haven for western Europeans during the Thirty Years' War, vanished completely after having its territories divided between Prussia, Austria and the Russian Empire, regained its sovereignty after WWI, was occupied by Germany during WWII and after being liberated a Soviet satellite state for nearly 45 years. Yet despite its turbulent past Poland today is a unified, proud, financially strong country and is widely recognised as being the European country least affect by the recent global financial crisis.An outdoorsman's paradise:
If urban exploring is not for you, or you simply feel like a few days away from the perpetual motion and accompanying hum of the city, Poland offers a remarkable variety of natural beauty. The majority of the country is located on a plain (North European Plain) which is covered by some of Europe's most pristine, virginal forests and crisscrossed by well-maintained hiking paths. The country's southern border is given shape by the Carpathian mountain range. While not particularly high mountains, the Carpathians do offer some excellent skiing locations for winter sports enthusiasts. In the north of the country lies Poland's 528 kilometer-long Baltic coastline, where a number of sea resorts can be found including Sopot, Miedzyzdroje, Kolobrzeg, Wladyslawowo, Leba and the Hel peninsula. However when speaking of Poland's water reserves one should first think of the country's lakes. Of particular interest is the Lake District, which is located in the country's north (Mazury, Pomerania, Kashubia, Lubuskie and Wielkopolska). With over 10 thousand, Poland has the second largest (after Finland) number of lakes in Europe. If that is not enough, in Silesia, travelers can find a 32 km² desert, one of only five natural deserts in Europe.Architecture:
It is fair to say that Poland hosts an absolute smorgasbord of European architecture styles, which should make visiting this country of particular interest to any architecture enthusiasts. Immerse yourself in the country's numerous examples of Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque architecture represented in its castles, churches and stately homes. Bear in mind that history has not been overly kind to Poland's architectural monuments, with a great number of buildings badly damaged or destroyed during WW2, something that is not always obvious, due to the fact that a number of historical structures have been painstakingly reconstructed or completely rebuilt. The Royal Castle of Warsaw and the Old Town of Gdansk for example were completely reconstructed after the ravages of the Second World War. For a more contemporary feel visit Keret House in Warsaw. Originally built as an art installation and housing for the writer Etgar Keret, Keret House is the narrowest house in the world measuring only 152 (4.99ft) centimetres at its widest point.Discovering Krakow's underground city:
While it is no exaggeration to say that there are a thousand things to see and do in Krakow, Poland's cultural capital, it should be mentioned that what lies beneath the city is also worth exploring. Under the cobbled street you will find a whole underground kingdom of bars, clubs, art galleries and exhibitions. Most of the underground spaces were once ground floors however, because of continuous rebuilding of houses and roads, overtime these spaces became cellars. Since Poland's entry in to the free-market, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, entrepreneurs have brought back these forgotten chambers to life.Going down the salt mines:
Somewhere near the top of a list of places difficult to associate with an exciting time out is a mine shaft. However, it is exactly a mine, or more precisely the Wieliczka Salt Mine, that is one of Poland's most awe-inspiring places to visit. Built in the 13 century, the mine was operational up until 2007, which makes it one of the world's oldest operational mines. Yet that is perhaps the least interesting fact about this 320 meter deep and 287 kilometre long monument to mankind's industrial spirit. Within this UNESCO World Heritage Site, you will find dozens of statues and four chapels carved out of rock salt by miners that used to work in these tunnels. The mine also features a conference room, a sanatorium and a lake located more than 130 meters underground. To explore the mine, travellers are offered a three kilometre tour, while that might seem long to some just remember that that is roughly only 1% of the actual length of the Wieliczka Salt Mine.
Surface area : 312684.0 km2
Population : 38518241 inhabitants
Traditional Polish souvenirs include amber jewelry, earthenware objects, embroidered fabrics and of course vodka. Shops are typically open between 6 am and 18 pm or 19 pm, Monday to Friday. Saturdays and Sundays stores usually open later and close earlier, so be sure to double check the working hours. Night shops are usually open between 8am and 8pm.
There is one crucial piece of advice you should have before you sit down for a meal in Poland - you better be able to eat a lot!
Over the last millennium Poland's cuisine has become as diverse and rich as its history and culture. It is difficult to give a specific description to the country's food, instead imagine a mix between best of Central European (German, Austrian, Italian and French), Eastern European (Russia, Ukraine, Belorussia) and Jewish cuisine. The country's national heavily rely on a lot of meat (especially pork, chicken and beef), winter vegetables and spices.
Perhaps the country's most prominent type of dish is soup, in fact it would be a challenge to find a single menu that would not offer at least one type. There are at least 300 different types of soup in Poland so it would be almost a crime not to try at least a few. Needless to say soups are seasonal dishes, so do not expect to find a summer soup in winter or vice versa. During summer months you will be offered the classic Chlodnik, a soup prepared with sour milk or fresh cream and beets. Winter is the time to treat yourself to a delish hot bowl of Kapusniak (sauerkraut soup with potatoes and bacon) or zurek (a rye flour soup with sausage).
Other traditional Polish dishes include a world famous pierogi, sweet or soup dumplings that are boiled or fried, golabki (cabbage leaves stuffed with meat, rice and onions served with a tomato sauce or crème fraiche), bigos (a traditional hunter's stew with meat and cabbage) and zrazy (thin slices of meat stuffed with vegetable).
No summary of Poland's national food would be complete without mentioning the country's most famous beverage - vodka. In Poland, vodka has been distilled since the Middle Ages, in fact the first written mention of the drink comes from a 15 century Polish manuscript. Some of the country's most famous brands have been produced for hundreds of years, most notably Zubrowka and Starka. In Poland vodka is normally drank straight (with no water or mixer) and chilled (but not with ice).
As is so often true, the qualities that one seeks to destroy in a people are the ones that come to define them best. Throughout the country's history, the Polish people were forced to hide their defining characteristics, whether it was during the country's partition between Prussia, Austria and the Russian Empire, or during WW2 or the subsequent communist rule. However today, liberated Poland can again be proud of its traditions and is able to reaffirm its national identity. With over 95% of the population Catholic, many of Poland's traditions are linked to the Catholic faith. Thus, Christmas and Easter are two of the most important times of the year for the Polish. While these two holidays prompt great national celebrations on a more personal level they usually remain intimate family affairs, with most Polish people using this time to be with their families for a few days.
Folklore is also deeply rooted in the traditions of the Polish lands. While it is usually associated with dance it should certainly not be reduced to this sole form. Far from falling into disuse, the country's folklore is maintained by many Polish citizens whatever their age or social class. This national pride in the country's cultural past has helped to make Polish folklore as alive as ever today.
Poland's folklore holds such an important place in the country's culture largely thanks to Oskar Kohlberg (1814-1890). Apart from studying ethnology, ethnomusicology and folklore, Kohlberg identified and categorized Poland's folk culture by region. His masterpiece, Lud (people in Polish) is comprised of a hundred volumes describing the customs, lifestyles, dialects, legends, proverbs and ceremonies of Poland and Western Ukraine.
In a country so rich in natural beauty, history and culture it is justifiable to want to see everything, however keep in mind that Poland is one of the ten largest countries in Europe, so seeing it all might not be as easy as that. However do not despair, even if you cannot see everything that Poland has to offer cities like Warsaw, Krakow and Gdansk provide days' worth of exploring.
Warsaw is one of Europe's most intriguing capital cities. With its strange blend of glass office buildings, grey communist-era apartment blocks and breath-taking baroque palaces, Warsaw might seem like a lot to take in at first. However, once you adjust to the amalgamation of so many different styles you see Warsaw for what it really is - a representation of the country's fascinating multi-layered history. The abundance of museums, exhibitions and the thriving night life will make you wish you came for longer.
Krakow, once Poland's medieval capital, was the country's only major city to be virtually undamaged during WW2 which allowed it to preserve its truly inspiring collection of historic monuments. In fact the sheer number of the city's monuments has led UNESCO to describe as one of the most compelling in all of Europe. Today Krakow is a university centre which adds a certain youthful tang to its cultural side by combining it with a buzzing nightlife. If you are in search of an ancient town, bursting with culture and history which is located on the coast look no further than Gdansk. Poland's main seaport, Gdansk has recently reinvented itself as a bustling tourist destination. Walking down the cobbled streets of the Old Town it is impossible to believe that the colourful 18 century merchant houses that surround you are all less than 70 years old, a reminder of not only the country's darker history but also of the phenomenal perseverance of its inhabitants.
However culture and natural beauty are not the only sides of Poland worth seeing. Not far from Krakow lies a monument not to humanity's cultural and spiritual aspirations, but to one of its darkest chapters - World War 2 and the Holocaust. The Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp was built by the occupying Nazi forces in 1940 and became the final resting place for over 1.1 million people. While undoubtedly not for everyone, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is worth visiting if only to pay your respects to its victims.
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