People are mesmerized with Poland because of its unique blend of "fairytale come alive" scenery, warm and passionate locals and the ever-present sense of history. The Soul of Poland tour offers a rich insight into European history in the modern Warsaw and the historic Krakow: the Teutonic Knights, the Golden Age of the Renaissance, the Art Nouveau movement, and the bleak years of communism, but this journey will also delight you with the natural beauty of its mountains and the picture-perfect countryside. You will fall in love with Poland with its atmosphere of a constant celebration, its romantic sidewalk cafes, borderland medieval castles and Renaissance palaces. You'll delight in quaint, rustic landscapes of gingerbread cottages, storks' nests and roadside shrines bedecked with fresh flowers.
More Than Just a Pretty Face
Most visitors to Poland are mesmerized by the blend of the country's unforgettable scenery and the fascinating and ever-present sense of history. Traveling through Poland offers an insider's view into many aspects of European history: the Teutonic Knights' mysteries, the Golden Age of the Renaissance, the Russian politics, and the scars of the Nazi and the Communism years. Yet today, the country brims with enthusiasm and youthful energy, the romantic sidewalk cafes adorn the leafy streets, and the atmosphere is that of a constant celebration. For North Americans, Poland is still mostly an undiscovered destination, but Europeans have been returning year after year. Of all the cities claiming to be the next Prague, Krakow comes the closest. Poland offers profound history, beautiful cities, glorious castles and elegant palaces, fairytale mountain villages and scenery that will leave you speechless. The food is superb and imaginatively presented, the shopping is truly world-class, the music is everywhere, but the country's greatest wealth is its people: kind, open-hearted, warm, and honest.
Many historians refer to Poland as the "gods' playground". Because the country is situated on a wide plain, many invaders, from Napoleon to Hitler, took advantage of Poland's strategic location. Polish lands have been invaded by Magyars, Bohemians, Tartars, Teutonic Knights, Swedes, Prussians, Russians, Austrians, French, Germans and Soviets. The first tribe, Polanie ("people of the fields"), settled here in the 8th century. The country of Poland was born in 966, when Mieszko I, Duke of the Polanie tribe, adopted Christianity and founded the Piast dynasty.
The Red Army entered the territory of Poland in January 1944, in pursuit of the Germans. The Soviets refused to recognize the legitimate Polish authorities loyal to the Polish Government-in-Exile based in London. Thus, as they progressed, they disarmed the Home Army (AK) detachments they met along the way which remained loyal to their government. This persuaded the Polish authorities to return to a concept that had been shelved earlier, of staging an uprising in the capital - Warsaw. The Commander-in-Chief of the Home Army, General Tadeusz Komorowski (pseudonym 'Bor') was to explain later: 'Fighting everywhere else, we could not remain passive on our own land.
The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising 1943
The Warsaw Ghetto was the largest of the Jewish ghettos established by Nazi Germany in occupied Poland during the World War II's Holocaust. In the three years of its existence, starvation, disease and relocations to concentration camps lowered the population of the ghetto from an about 380,000 to 70,000. The Warsaw Ghetto was the scene of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising: the first mass uprising against Nazi occupation in Europe. The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, sometimes called the Warsaw 1943 Uprising, was an insurrection in German occupied Warsaw's Ghetto against Nazi Germany during World War II.
Art and Architecture in Poland
Art and architecture are a testimony to the splendor of the past. It is common for paintings, sculpture and architecture to bear hidden meanings which mirror the economic and political circumstances of the nation. Poland never played a leading artistic role in Europe, yet many renowned foreign and native artists lived and worked here. Because for centuries Poland was the country where East met West, many visiting artists from Germany, the Orthodox East, Italy or Holland have left their mark here. The variety of influences left Poland with a large number of fascinating and valuable art treasures and in a variety of styles.
This is another fairy tale but this one is true. It begins in Milan and ends in Krakow. During his stay in Milan, Leonardo da Vinci painted the duke's mistress posing with an ermine. Leonardo met Cecilia Gallerani in Milan in 1484 while both were living in Castello Sforzesco, the Palace of Duke Lodovico Sforza. She was the Duke's mistress, a 17 year old beauty who played music and wrote poetry. Later on, both Gallerani and the duke married others. Central to this very civilized resolution of a potentially troublesome romantic liaison was that Gallerani had borne the duke a child. The painting ended up in her possession.
According to a legend, Warsaw started as a riverside settlement built by fisherman Wars and his wife Sawa - thus the Polish name Warszawa. The first fortified settlement was erected here in the 9th century, the seat of the Masovian Dukes in the 1300s, and in 1526 it became part of the Polish Crown. Because of its location between the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth's capitals of Krakow and Vilnius, Warsaw was made the capital of the Commonwealth in 1596. In the 17th and 18th centuries, the city suffered sieges, pillaging, and occupation by the Swedish, Brandenburgian, Russian, Transylvanian and Saxon forces.
The Wilanów Palace and Collection
The history of the Wilanow Palace, a wonderful Baroque royal residence, began on April 23, 1677, when a village became the property of King John Sobieski III. At the beginning, the residence built there was small. Augustyn Locci, the king’s court architect, received the task of creating only a ground floor residence of a layout typical for the buildings of the Republic of Poland. However, military successes and an increase of the importance of royalty in the coming years had a huge influence on expanding the initial project. Huge construction works were conducted in the years 1677-1696. After completion, the building comprised of elements of a nobility house, an Italian garden villa and a French palace in the style of Louis XIV.
Krakow is considered a gem of medieval and Renaissance architecture and a European cultural capital. It's a magical place where legends are mixed with reality and stories from the old times still find relevance in contemporary life. Krakow proves to be Poland's prime tourist attraction. The Old Town district is located where the medieval city was established in 1257 by Prince Boleslaw V. The well preserved original grid of streets with Europe's largest central square seems to be the last stage in the perfection of city-planning in the Middle Ages.
Salt's ability to preserve food was a foundation of civilization. It eliminated dependence on the seasonal availability of food and it allowed travel over long distances. Through the discovery of its use in food preservation it allowed for longer voyages, and it freed humans from dependence on fresh food. The merchants in the 12th century Timbuktu - the gateway to the Sahara Desert and the seat of scholars - valued salt enough to buy it for its weight in gold. This trade led to the legends of the incredibly wealthy city of Timbuktu, and fueled inflation in Europe, which was importing the salt.
Nowa Huta - The Communist Utopia
After the World War II the city of Nowa Huta was designed to be a communist utopian town. The Soviet rulers, keeping in line with the spirit of the times, designed a model communist town whose aim was the glorification of the working class. Its purpose was to become an instrument of cultural and political propaganda. The Ideal City was to be a model of ideal living and government, based on the concept of a town able to satisfy the needs of a peaceful and hardworking community. The design of the ideal city should be perfect, rational, with a regular plan. Radial streets should extend outward from a defined center of military, communal or spiritual power.
Zakopane is an Alpine mountain resort located at the foot of the Tatra Mountains. At 3,200 feet above sea level, Zakopane is the highest city in Poland. Due to this elevation, it has a cool, mountain climate. Zakopane is known for the best skiing and hiking in Poland and also enjoys a rich cultural life and authentic folklore. The earliest written records about Zakopane come from the 17th century; the Zakopiska Glade is mentioned in the earliest town documents. The development and history of the city are linked with primitive mining and metallurgy. Later, the town became associated with therapeutics and tourism.
The Tatra Mountains are part of the Carpathian Range, located in the heart of Europe. This is the second highest mountain range in Europe, east of the Alps and west of the Ural and the Caucasus Mountains. They form a natural border between Poland and Slovakia, to the south of the Polish city of Krakow, and north of the Slovak towns Poprad and Liptovsky Mikulas. The Tatras make up in the natural beauty what they lack in height and in the area they cover. In the comparison with the highest mountains of the world, Tatra Mountains are a small range. The highest Tatra peak, Gerlach (in Slovakia) is 8,737 feet high. The highest Polish peak in the Tatra Mountains is Rysy at 8,199 feet.
The Pieniny Mountains have been attracting visitors since the 18th century. Originally, the Dunajec River Gorge was an attraction reserved for the local and visiting aristocracy, but today this scenic river and the surrounding mountain range are visited by over half a million tourists every year. Part of the Western Carpathians, the Pieniny is a relatively small range with dramatic views and a rich wildlife. Its limestone peaks are lower than the Tatras, but equally lofty, their vertical faces towering above steep, wooded slopes and the spectacular Dunajec Gorge.
Gdansk - The History by the Sea
Gdansk, the capital of Pomerania, breaths history. From the ancient Nordic invasions to the crumbling of the Iron Curtain in the 1980s, the city has been in the center of many historical events throughout the thousand years of its existence. Gdansk is a far cry from the gloomy stereotypes of Eastern Europe. The Gothic-style buildings, vibrant with color, the castle-like towers, and perfectly preserved city gates give Gdansk a fairy-tale presence and stand witness to its colorful history. The city was built by Poland's first Christian king, then ruled by powerful Pomeranian Dukes bravely resisting the Viking invasions, and finally it blossomed as a cultured, rich city of the Hanseatic League.
Auschwitz Nazi Concentration Camp and Holocaust Memorial
All around the world, Auschwitz has become a symbol of terror, genocide, and the Holocaust. The camp was established by the Nazis in 1940, in the suburbs of the city of Oswiecim which, like other parts of Poland, was occupied by the Germans during the Second World War. The name of the city of Oswiecim was changed to Auschwitz, which became the name of the camp as well. Over the following years, the camp was expanded and consisted of three main parts: Auschwitz I, Auschwitz II-Birkenau, and Auschwitz III-Monowitz. It also had over 40 sub-camps. At first, Poles were imprisoned and died in the camp. Afterwards, Soviet prisoners of war, Gypsies, and prisoners of other nationalities were also incarcerated there.
Jasna Gora Sanctuary in Czestochowa is the holiest place in Poland and one of the world's most important pilgrimage destinations. The Jasna Gora (Bright Mountain in Polish) has been Central Europe's spiritual center for six centuries. Every year several million pilgrims come to pray before the miraculous picture of Our Lady of Czestochowa, the Black Madonna. The faithful believe that St. Luke the Evangelist himself painted the divine icon on a tabletop from the Holy Family's house. The heart of the sanctuary is a small, 15th-century Gothic chapel with Our Lady of Czestochowa's holy picture.
There are many legends surrounding the beginnings of Krakow, and the most beloved one is the legend of the Wawel Dragon. A long time ago, in a lovely castle on a hill above the river there lived a king, a queen, and a beautiful princess. Their lives would have passed slowly and without much excitement, as was usual in those times, if it wasn't for a dreadful dragon who made his home in a cave underneath the castle. The dragon terrorized the people in the castle and countryside and frequently stole sheep for his meals. When he grew tired of sheep, he demanded young virgins for his meals.
Some of the most popular souvenirs to buy in Poland are amber, silver, crystal, vodka, pottery (especially the popular Boleslawiec pottery), and handmade crafts, especially those made of wood. Shopping in large Polish cities is like shopping in most other cities in Europe. There are the high quality, high price boutiques and specialty shops in the center of town or the old town, along with souvenirs shops, art galleries, cafes and delicatessens. Larger cities have shopping malls in the suburbs which feature all the major European and American brands, as well as some local specialty stores. The state owned Cepelia stores sell a large variety of the local handicrafts.
For centuries the Polish kitchen has been the stage for competing influences from France and Italy, while also borrowing extensively from more exotic tables: Tartar, Armenian, Scandinavian, Lithuanian, Cossack, Hungarian, and Jewish. The traditional Polish cuisine combines the refined and elegant tastes introduced to Poland centuries ago by the French court of Henri de Valois with the wild, mysterious flavors of the Lithuanian forests, the sweet aroma of the dishes served for the Jewish Sabbath supper, and the fierce, rare taste of the sanguineous steak Tartare - originally made by the horse riders of Genghis Khan who used to place a slice of raw beef under the saddle for extra tenderness.