Welcome to Travel Planning 101. Find country specific information about where you are going and what to do to prepare to get there!
- Travel highlights of the country.
- Fun facts and background information.
- History notes, facts on currency, health, holidays and transportation.
- Pre-departure tips, when to go, and visa information.
- Information on weather and electricity plugs.
- Suggestions on things to do if you have extra time to explore on your own.
Places To See
Słowiński National Park
The Słowinski National Park includes a 33km (19mi) stretch of coast and two large lakes complete with surrounding belts of peatbogs, meadows and woods. There also a couple of interesting villages. You can walk around the park, or see it by boat, bike, electric trolley or horse-drawn cart.
The shifting dunes in the park are reputedly the world's only such phenomenon on such a scale. They consist of an accumulation of sand thrown up on the beach by waves. Dried by wind and sun, the grains of sand are then blown away to form dunes which are steadily moving inland. The 'white mountain' walks at a speed of 2m (6.5ft) to 10m (33ft) a year, burying everything it meets on its way.
Established within disused army barracks in 1940, Auschwitz was initially designed to hold Polish prisoners, but was expanded into the largest centre for the extermination of European Jews. Two more camps were subsequently established: Birkenau and Monowitz. In the course of their operation, between one and 1.5 million people were killed.
Auschwitz was only partially destroyed by the fleeing Nazis, so many of the original buildings remain as a bleak document of the camp's history. A dozen of the 30 surviving prison blocks house sections of the State Museum Auschwitz-Birkenau.
The cinema in the visitors centre shows a short documentary film about the liberation of the camp by Soviet troops on 27 January 1945.
This museum is one of Kraków's jewels. The star pieces of the collection are Leonardo da Vinci's Lady with the Ermine and Rembrandt's Landscape with the Good Samaritan (1638). Also on display are Turkish weapons and artefacts, including a campaign tent from the 1683 Battle of Vienna.
Originally established in 1800, the collection has had a turbulent history - some items stolen by the Nazis were never recovered. Still, there's a lot to see, including Greek, Roman, Egyptian and Etruscan ancient art, Oriental armour, artistic handicrafts from Europe and Asia, and old European painting, mainly Italian, Dutch and Flemish.
Białowieźa National Park
Once a centre for hunting and timber-felling, Białowieża (Byah-wo-vyeh-zhah) is now Poland's oldest national park. Its significance is underlined by Unesco's unusual recognition of the reserve as both a Biosphere Reserve and a World Heritage Site.
The forest contains 120 species of birds, along with elk, wild boars and wolves. Its major drawcard is the magnificent European bison, which was once extinct outside zoos, but has been successfully reintroduced to its ancient home.
Note that the reserve does close sometimes, due to inclement weather.
Kraków came through the last war unscathed, so it has retained a wealth of old architecture from different periods. The tallest structures on Kraków's skyline are the spires of old churches, the 20th century's impact having been confined to acid rain. Yet Kraków is not a silent memorial to the past: it's a city alive with character and soul.
Apart from some well-established national or international festivals of film, theatre and music, there are plenty of small local feasts, fairs, contests, meetings and competitions, some of which involve local folklore. Add to this a lot of religious celebrations.
When to go?
A country this size has enough to make it a year-round destination, however most people visit when the weather is warmer, namely May to October. The tourist season peaks in July and August when schools and universities are on holiday and most Polish workers and employees take their annual leave. It's a time when things can get very crowded, particularly in the tourist hot spots such as the Baltic beaches, Masurian Lakes, and Carpathian Mountains. The likes of Kraków and Warsaw can also seem overrun with visitors then.
Naturally during July and August transport becomes more crowded too, and can get booked out in advance. Accommodation may be harder to find, and sometimes more expensive. Fortunately, a lot of schools, which are empty during the holidays, double as youth hostels, as do student dormitories in major cities. This roughly meets the demand for budget accommodation.
If you want to avoid the masses, the best time to come is either late spring/early summer (mid-May to June) or the turn of summer and autumn (September to October), when tourism is underway but not in full flood. These are pleasantly warm periods, ideal for general sightseeing and outdoor activities such as walking, biking, horse riding and canoeing. Many cultural events take place in both these periods. The rest of the year, from mid-autumn to mid-spring, is colder and darker. This doesn't mean that it's a bad time for visiting city sights and enjoying the cultural life as it's no less active than during the tourist season. Understandably, hiking and other outdoor activities - aside from skiing - are less prominent in this period. Most camp sites and youth hostels lock up shop at this time.
The ski season runs from December to March. The Polish mountains are spectacular, but the infrastructure (hotels and chalets, lifts and tows, cable cars, transport etc) is still not well developed. Zakopane, Poland's winter capital, and the nearby Tatra Mountains have the best ski facilities.
Travel Visa Overview
Citizens of EU countries do not need visas to visit Poland and can stay indefinitely. Citizens of the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Israel and Japan can stay in Poland for up to 90 days without a visa.
Other nationals should check current visa requirements with the Polish embassy or consulate in their home country, or on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (www.mfa.gov.pl) website.
European plug with two circular metal pins
Bites and stings
Mosquitoes are found in most parts of Europe. They are a particular pest around the region of the Great Masurian Lakes. They may not carry malaria but can cause irritation and infected bites. Use a DEET-based insect repellent.
Bed bugs lead to very itchy, lumpy bites. Spraying the mattress with crawling insect killer after changing bedding will get rid of them.
The Polish winter is reasonably harsh, particularly towards the east of the country, with January days in most places around 0°C (32°F) and a bit lower at night. Summers are mildly warm, with average July highs of 24°C (75°F) for most of the country, although it can be wet. Poland's Baltic coast trades in milder winters for cooler summers.
History and Culture
Artists in Poland today are still shaking off the legacy of Communism. During this period, Socialist Realism was the dominant style, infusing the visual arts, architecture, literature and music. Fine fiction writers such as Isaac Bashevis Singer, whose evocative works capture the spirit of Jewish Poland, put Polish literature under the spotlight. Current prominent exponents of Polish culture include writers such as Ryszard Kapuscinski and composer Henryk Górecki.
Poland's architectural styles have basically followed Western Europe over the centuries. The earliest style to enter the country was Romanesque, which dominated from the late 10th to the mid-13th centuries. Its functional, austere style generally employed round-headed arches, semicircular apses and symmetrical layouts, all in sturdy stone. The remnants of Polish Romanesque are few, but there are some precious examples, including the collegiate church at Tum.
Like most European countries, piłka nożna (soccer) stands head and shoulders above other sports in Poland. Millions play the game, at least at a social level. The country's national team is, by European standards, fairly mediocre today, but in the 70s and 80s it was a force to be reckoned with, taking third place in the World Cup competitions of 1974 and 1982. At a national league level, Wisła Kraków (www.wisla.krakow.pl) and Legia Warszawa (www.legia.com in Polish) rank among the best.
Pre-20th Centure History
There's obviously something about Poland's borders that say 'Hey, come and get it'. All of the great (and many of the lesser) European empire builders have been bingeing and purging here since the Polanie ('people of the fields') parked themselves in the 10th century. The unrelenting incursions have ceased only recently with the waning of Soviet influence.
But war and subjugation is not Poland's only story. One of Europe's cultural powerhouses, as well as its erstwhile granary, Poland has flourished under some enlightened and energetic rulers. Casimir III the Great (1333-70) bestowed one of Europe's first universities on Kraków, and an extensive network of castles and fortifications on the country at large. Through the ensuing centuries of territorial expansion and contraction, and of wealth and poverty, the infrastructures bequeathed by the monarch held firm - most of Poland's troubles blew in from outside.
Internal stability faltered in the 17th century. With the parliament crippled by a stipulation that any legislation could be vetoed by any one member, decades stumbled by without one law being passed and Poland was frustrated into dissent. While the nobles took things into their own hands, usurping political rights and ruling their vast estates as virtual suzerainties, foreign invaders systematically carved up Poland. Russia exerted the most influence but telling battles were also conducted with Tatars, Ukrainians, Cossacks, Ottomans and Swedes.
By the late 19th century, Poland was in disarray. Four million people had succumbed to war, famine and bubonic plague, and Russia, Prussia and Austria were experimenting with various ways of splitting the Polish booty. Despite steady economic recovery on paper, poverty was still very much the go in rural areas and about one fifth of Poland's 20 million people emigrated, mostly to the USA.
Just when it seemed like Poland had put together a pretty fine working definition of 'worst ever', WWI kicked in. With Poland's three occupying powers at war, most fighting took place on territories inhabited by Poles, who were often conscripted into opposing occupying armies and forced to fight one another. The loss of life and livelihood was staggering. In the confusion following the war, particularly Russia's preoccupation with the October Revolution, Poland was able to consolidate its bedraggled self into a sovereign identity and attempted to build up its nation and nationhood practically from scratch. This monumental project was going along pretty well until WWII, when first Germany and then the Soviet Union gobbled Poland up, viciously subduing the population at large - the Nazis paying particular attention to the Jews.
The Polish government in exile slipped into a de facto relationship with Stalin, a sordid alliance with little to offer Poles still in Poland. Particularly unsavoury was the Soviet trick of sending underequipped Polish bodies to soak up Nazi ammunition, then sending in the Red Army to clean up, grabbing the glory and a bit more Polish territory in the process. By 1945, Poland was ruined (again), having lost over six million of its population, half of whom were Jews. At the Yalta Conference in February 1945, Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin decided to leave Poland under Soviet control (thanks guys) and Poland became a site of Stalin-style repression and victimisation. Unsurprisingly, Poles never embraced Stalinism and the communist period featured waves of strikes.
As hopes for prosperity dwindled, labour organisation increased, backed by a committed intelligentsia. The triumphal visit of Pope John Paul II to his homeland in 1978 dramatically increased political ferment. The organisation and articulation of the labour movement became superior to that of the demoralised Communist government and, by 1980, the government was no longer in a position to use force against its opponents. Initial demands for wage rises soon took on more general political and economic overtones. Poland's workers' delegations convened under the Solidarity trade union banner, led by Lech Wałęsa. Solidarity had a dramatic effect on the whole of Polish society, garnering a membership of 10 million in its first month, a million of these coming from Communist Party ranks. After more than a generation of restraint, the Poles launched themselves into a spontaneous and chaotic sort of democracy. Although the government had ceded to the workers the right to organise and the right to strike, this was all proving a bit much to take: martial law was introduced in 1981, Solidarity was suspended and its leaders, including Wałęsa, interned. The brutalities of martial law were gradually relaxed but Solidarity was forced to operate as an underground organisation until the Gorbachev-instigated perestroika filtered through to Poland.
Semifree elections were held in 1989 and Solidarity succeeded in getting an overwhelming majority of its supporters elected to the upper house of parliament. Wałęsa became president in 1990 but his rule was a gradual decline from euphoria to disillusionment. There were no economic miracles, no political stability and Wałęsa's presidential style and his accomplishments were repeatedly questioned by practically all political parties and the majority of the electorate.
Former communists Aleksander Kwaśniewski and Włodzimierz Cimoszewicz tipped Wałęsa from the presidency in late 1995, holding office until late 1997, when Jerzy Buzek's Solidarity-led coalition took the reins. But it wasn't long before Aleksander Kwaśniewski, running for the Democratic Left Alliance, recaptured political control and, to top it off, was then re-elected for a second presidential term in October 2000 - in the same elections, the once-revered Wałęsa won less than 1% of the vote.
In recent years, Poland's political system has been marked by stability and a willingness to confront its past - in 2001 Polish citizens were allowed to view the files kept on them by the Communist secret police.
However, the new Poland is garnering international credibility as it capitalises on its material strengths - it became a full NATO member in 1999 and joined the EU in 2004. As predicted, however, there has been an exodus of young Poles in search of employment abroad since then. The country's international standing has also been boosted by its role in the US-led coalition that invaded Iraq in 2003.
Lech Kaczyński was elected president in October 2005, marking a shift to the political right. His twin brother Jarosław held the prime minister's position briefly, but alienated many with his nationalistic rhetoric and, in October 2007, lost out to the more liberal and EU-friendly Donald Tusk and his Civic Platform party.
Despite myriad reforms and coalitions, Poland is still floundering in the political and economic stakes, and looks as though it will for some years to come. But considering its tumultuous past, the country has found some stability, and is relishing its self-governance and peace.
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