The countryside throughout Poland is lovely and relatively unspoiled. Poland has a variety of regions with beautiful landscapes and small-scale organic and traditional farms. Travellers can choose different types of activities such as bird watching, cycling or horseback riding.
Culturally, you can visit and/or experience many churches, museums, ceramic and traditional basket-making workshops, castle ruins, rural centres and many more. A journey through the Polish countryside gives you a perfect opportunity to enjoy and absorb local knowledge about its landscape and people.
Note that Catholic religious holidays are widely observed in Poland. Stores, malls, and restaurants are likely to be closed or have very limited business hours on Easter, All Saints Day, Christmas Eve and Christmas.
EasterWielkanoc, Niedziela Wielkanocna, a moveable feast that is scheduled according to the moon calendar, usually in March or April. Like Christmas, it is primarily a meaningful Christian holiday. On the Saturday before Easter, churches offer special services in anticipation of the holiday, including blessing of food; children especially like to attend these services, bringing small baskets of painted eggs and candy to be blessed. On Easter Sunday itself, practising Catholics go to the morning mass, followed by a celebratory breakfast made of foods blessed the day before. On Easter Sunday, shops, malls, and restaurants are commonly closed.
Lany Poniedziałekor Śmigus Dyngus, is the Monday after Easter, and also a holiday. It's the day of an old tradition with pagan roots: groups of kids and teens wandering around, looking to soak each other with water. Often groups of boys will try to catch groups of girls, and vice versa; but innocent passers-by are not exempt from the game, and are expected to play along. Common 'weapons' include water guns and water balloons, but children, especially outdoors and in the countryside, like to use buckets and have no mercy on passers-by. Drivers - this means keep your windows wound up or you're likely to get soaked.
The Feast of Corpus Christianother moveable feast, is celebrated on the Thursday after Trinity Sunday, or sixty days after Easter. It is celebrated across the country; in smaller locations virtually the whole village or town becomes involved in a procession, and all traffic is stopped as the procession weaves its way through the streets. Corpus Christi is a major holy day of obligation, and most stores will closed.
Constitution Dayfalls on 3 May, in remembrance of the Constitution of 3 May 1791. The document itself was a highly progressive attempt at political reform, and it was Europe's first constitution and world's second, after the US. Following the partitions, the original Constitution became a highly poignant symbol of national identity and ideals. Today, 3 May is a national holiday, often combined with the 1 May Labour Day into a larger celebration.
All Saints DayWszystkich Świętych, 1 Nov. In the afternoon people visit graves of their relatives and light candles. After dusk cemeteries glow with thousands of lights and offer a very picturesque scene. If you have the chance, be sure to visit a cemetery to witness the holiday. Many restaurants, malls, and stores will either be closed or close earlier than usual on this holiday.
National Independence DayNarodowe Święto Niepodległości is a public holiday celebrated every year on 11 November to commemorate Poland's independence in 1918, after 123 years of partitions and occupation by Austria, Prussia and Russia. As with other holidays, most businesses will be closed on this day.
Christmas EveWigilia and Christmas Boże Narodzenie, December 24th, 25th and 26th. Christmas is one of the most important holidays of the year, and its eve is definitely the year's most important feast. According to Catholic tradition, celebration of liturgical feasts starts in the evening of the preceding day a vigil, hence wigilia. In Polish folklore, this translates into a special family dinner, which traditionally calls for a twelve course meatless meal representing the twelve apostles, which is supposed to begin in the evening, after the first star can be spotted in the night sky. On Christmas Eve most stores will close around 2-3pm; on Christmas Days people will still usually stay home, and everything apart from essential services will be closed and public transport will be severely limited, on the Second Day of Christmas less so.
New Year's EveSylwester, 31 Dec. One of the party nights of the year. Consider yourself extremely lucky if you can get into even a decent club as most clubs will be packed. Most clubs will sell tickets in advance, but you'll probably have to dish out at least PLN150 and that's just for entrance and maybe a couple of drinks. If you're a little more flexible, you might be able to get into non-club parties. Otherwise, there are always the firework displays to entertain you.
The first cities in today's Poland, Kalisz and Elbląg on the Amber Trail 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 was first united as a country in the first half of the 10th century, and officially adopted Catholicism in 966. The first capital was in the city of Gniezno, but a century later the capital was moved to Cracow, where it remained for half a millennium.
Poland experienced its golden age from 14th till 16th century, under the reign of king Casimir the Great, and the Jagiellonian dynasty, whose rule extended from the Baltic to the Black and Adriatic seas. In the 16th century, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was the largest country in Europe; the country attracted significant numbers of foreign migrants, including Germans, Jews, Armenians and the Dutch, thanks to the freedom of confession guaranteed by the state and the atmosphere of religious tolerance rather exceptional in Europe at the time of the Holy Inquisition.
Under the rule of the Vasa dynasty, the capital was moved to Warsaw in 1596. During the 17th and the 18th centuries, the nobility increasingly asserted its independence of the monarchy; combined with several exhausting wars, this greatly weakened the Commonwealth. Responding to the need for reform, Poland was the 1st country in Europe and the 2nd in the world, after the US to pass a constitution. The constitution of 3 May 1791 was the key reform among many progressive but belated attempts to strengthen the country during the second half of the 18th century.
With the country in political disarray, various sections of Poland were subsequently occupied by its neighbours, Russia, Prussia and Austria, in three coordinated "partitions" of 1772 and 1793, and 1795. After the last partition and a failed uprising, Poland ceased to exist as a country for 123 years.
However, this long period of foreign domination was met with fierce resistance. During the Napoleonic Wars, a semi-autonomous Duchy of Warsaw arose, before being erased from the map again in 1813. Further uprisings ensued, such as the 29 November uprising of 1830-1831 mainly in Russian Poland, the 1848 Revolution mostly in Austrian and Prussian Poland, and 22 Jan 1863. Throughout the occupation, Poles retained their sense of national identity, and kept fighting the subjugation of the three occupying powers.
Poland returned to the map of Europe with the end of World War I, officially regaining its independence on November 11th, 1918. Soon, by 1920-21, the newly-reborn country got into territorial disputes with Czechoslovakia and, especially, the antagonistic and newly Soviet Russia with which it fought a war. This was further complicated by a hostile Weimar Germany to the west, which strongly resented the annexation of portions of its eastern Prussian territories, and the detachment of German-speaking Danzig contemporary Gdańsk as a free city.
This put Poland in a precarious position of having potential enemies facing her again from all three sides.
World War II officially began with an attack on Poland by Nazi Germany from the west and north, followed by an attack by the Soviet Union from the east. Only a few days prior to the start of WWII, the Soviet Union and Germany had signed a secret pact of non-aggression, which called for the re-division of the newly independent central and eastern European nations. Germany attacked Poland on 1 Sep 1939, and the Soviet Union attacked Poland on 17 Sep 1939, effectively starting the fourth partition, causing the recently re-established Polish Republic to cease to exist. Hitler used the issue of Danzig Gdańsk and German nationalism to try to trigger a war with Poland in much the same way he used the Sudetenland Question to conquer the Czechs.
Many of WWII's most infamous war crimes were committed on Polish territory. Much of the Holocaust took place in Poland, as Poland had the largest population of Jews of any country in the world, over three million, 90% of whom were murdered by the German Nazis. Poland’s cities had especially large Jewish populations. Before World War II Warsaw was 30% Jewish, Łódź 34%, and Lublin 35%. All six of the Nazi’s extermination camps were located in Poland; of these Auschwitz is the most well known. Much of the Jewish resistance to the Nazis was also centered in Poland, the most famous example being the Warsaw Ghetto uprising in 1943.
In addition to the Jews, Polish non-Jews were vigorously persecuted by the Nazis with 2 to 3 million non-Jewish Poles murdered by them. Polish civilians were ruthlessly rounded up, tortured, put into concentration camps, and executed. Contrary to what happened in other countries occupied by Nazi Germany, if it was discovered that a Pole hides Jews, she wasn't executed alone, but with all his/her family.
The Soviets rounded up and executed the cream of the crop of Polish leadership in the Katyń Massacre of 1940. About 22,000 Polish military and political leaders, business owners, and intelligentsia were murdered in the massacre, officially approved by the Soviet Politburo, including Stalin and Beria.
Due to WWII, Poland lost about 20% of its population, added to the fact that the Polish economy was completely ruined. Nearly all major cities were destroyed and with them the history of centuries was gone. After the war Poland was forced to become a Soviet satellite country, following the Yalta and Potsdam agreements between the Western Allies and the Soviet Union. To this day these events are viewed by many Poles as an act of betrayal by the Allies as lots of Polish soldiers fought in the British army. Poland's territory was significantly reduced and shifted westward to the Oder-Neisse Line at the expense of defeated Germany. The native Polish populations from the former Polish territories in the east, now annexed by the Soviet Union, were expelled by force and replaced the likewise expelled German populations in the west and in the north of the country. This resulted in the forced uprooting of over 10 million people and until recently had shadowed attempts at Polish-German reconciliation.
The Communist era 1945-1989 is a controversial topic. After World War II, Poland was forced to become a Socialist Republic, and to adopt a strong pro-Soviet stance. Between 1945-1953, pro-Stalinist leaders conducted periodic purges.
After the bloody Stalinist era of 1945-1953, Poland was comparatively tolerant and progressive in comparison to other Eastern Bloc countries. But strong economic growth in the post-war period alternated with serious recessions in 1956, 1970, and 1976, resulting in labour turmoil over dramatic inflation as well as shortages of goods. Ask older Poles to tell you about communism and you'll often hear stories of empty store shelves where sometimes the only thing available for purchase was vinegar. You'll hear stories about backroom deals to get meat or bread, such as people trading things at the post office just to get ham for a special dinner.
A brief reprieve from this history occurred in 1978. The then-archbishop of Cracow, Charles Wojtyla, was elected as Pope of the Roman Catholic Church, taking the name John Paul II. This had a profound impact on Poland's largely Catholic population, and to this day John Paul II is widely revered in the country.
In 1980, the anti-communist trade union "Solidarity" Polish: Solidarność became a strong force of opposition to the government, organizing labour strikes, and demanding freedom of the press and democratic representation. The communist government responded by organizing a military junta, led by general Wojciech Jaruzelski, and imposing martial law on 13 Dec 1981; it lasted until 22 Jul 1983. During this time, thousands of people were detained. Phone calls were monitored by the government, independent organizations not aligned with the Communists were deemed illegal and members were arrested, access to roads was restricted, the borders were sealed, ordinary industries were placed under military management, and workers who failed to follow orders faced the threat of a military court. Solidarity was the most famous organization to be made illegal and its members faced the possibility of losing their jobs and imprisonment.
But this internecine conflict and ensuing economic disaster greatly weakened the role of the Communist Party. Solidarity was legalized again, and soon led the country to the first free elections in 1989, in which the communist government was finally removed from power. This inspired a succession of peaceful anti-communist revolutions throughout the Warsaw Pact bloc.
Nowadays, Poland is a democratic country with a stable, robust economy, a member of NATO since 1999 and the European Union since 2004. The country's stability has been recently underscored by the fact that the tragic deaths of the President and a large number of political, business and civic leaders in a plane crash did not have an appreciable negative effect on the Polish currency or economic prospects. Poland has also successfully joined the border-less Europe agreement Schengen, with an open border to Germany, Lithuania, Czech Republic and Slovakia, and is on track to adopt the Euro currency in a few years time. Poland's dream of rejoining Europe as an independent nation at peace and in mutual respect of its neighbours has finally been achieved.