For Poland’s episode on the famous things across the globe, we asked our friend and blogger Duarte Magalhães (who lives and works in Poland) to explain “What is Poland famous for? This is his very interesting response!
Situated in Central Europe – NOT Eastern Europe, Warsaw Pact be damned –, uncomfortably stuck between two butting global powers (Germany and Russia) but also on the historical crossroads of trade and cultural exchanges between people from all corners of the continent, Poland’s location has been as much a source of suffering as a blessing.
Because if outsiders have brought destruction and misery in spades to the Land on the Vistula, they have also contributed immensely to the country’s richness in traditions and heritage, worthy of one of the largest nations in Europe.
Poland is the native land of John Paul II. It is here that drinking is (also) a religion, and that infamous town rose to prominence for the most ignominious of reasons. You know all that, but for what else is this state of 38.5M people famous for?
17 Things Poland is famous for
With up to 90% of the population identifying as Christians, and a proportion of Catholics only rivaled by Italy amongst European nations, religious faith and the Church have played a big part in the history of Poland, on occasions even as a stronghold of Polish national identity. And while the majority of believers isn’t exactly glued to Catholic TV or religious radio stations at all times, one doesn’t need to look further than routinely packed mass celebrations or the rigorous adherence to ceremonial customs on Easter, Christmas, All Saints Day (November 1st) or Corpus Christi (June) to realize the religious fervor is real.
Naturally, a staggering amount of holy places follows suit, with the Jasna Góra Monastery, in Częstochowa, home to the Black Madonna painting – a shrine to the Virgin Mary – standing out as a place of pilgrimage though the country is also well known for the tallest statue of Jesus Christ in the world, the 33-meters high Pomnik Chrystusa Króla (Christ the King), situated in Świebodzin.
Legends abound regarding the origin of pierogies and how it ended up as a staple of most cuisines in this part of Europe. Yet, no questions remain that the popular semi-circular dumplings are Poland’s most recognized dish and their preparation a favorite family pastime dating back hundreds of years.
Stuffed with savory or sweet fillings, these pieces of dough (a simple mixture of flour and warm water) are boiled in salty water (though pan-fried and baked versions are also found) and topped with fried onion or sour cream. They are served as a starter, main dish, or dessert in every kind of celebration.
The most traditional variety is the pierogi ruskie, filled with potato and cottage cheese, but you will never fall short of excuses, different recipes, or locations. Just look for the closest Pierogarnia – to try them on. Smacznego!
Auschwitz – Birkenau State Museum
Visited by more than 2 million people every year, the former Nazi Concentration – Extermination camp located in the vicinity of Oświęcim (Auschwitz) has become the primal symbol of the Holocaust’s indescribable horror.
As the largest and most efficient German concentration camp, where at least 1.1 million persons, mostly Jews, perished during World War II, this is a place brimming with memories of suffering and imprisonment, symbolized on the millions of historical artifacts displayed in the brick barracks of Auschwitz I, the first camp to receive prisoners in 1940, or the haunting sight of Camp Auschwitz II – Birkenau entrance gate, where millions reached the end of the line from 1942.
Liberated on the 27th January 1945 by the Red Army, this date is now commemorated worldwide as International Holocaust Remembrance Day, in memory of the victims of the most systematic genocide in human history.
Pope John Paul II
Born in the Southwestern city of Wadowice in 1920, Karol Józef Wojtyła would become the Archbishop of Krakow before ascending to head of the Catholic Church in 1978 as John Paul II, the first non-Italian Pope since the 16th century.
Esteemed for his many pilgrimages and travels, instigation of the massively-attended World Youth Days, proficiency in the dialogue with other religions and willingness to discuss taboo topics – such as sexuality – in spite of its conservative stances, Wojtyła survived two attempted assassinations to serve the second-longest pontificate in history until his death in April 2nd, 2005.
Regarded by many as the most popular Pope in history, John Paul II never turned an eye away from his homeland – his power and reach were a true beacon of hope during Communist times. And, never more than during his first return, in June 1979, when his calls for unity lit a flame amongst his compatriots, sparking the political and societal convulsions that would lead to the demise of the regime.
Solidarność – The solidarity movement
Founded in August 1980 by workers of the Gdańsk Shipyard, Solidarność, or the “Solidarity” movement, was the first independent union recognized in a country of the Warsaw Pact and an early sign of weakness in the communist-ruled Eastern bloc.
Led by the charismatic Lech Wałęsa and rapidly gaining traction around Poland with the support of multiple inter-factory workers committees, Solidarność’s stunning rise into the biggest grassroots civil movement in Europe, with up to 10 million members at its peak, resulted in the imposition of martial law in Poland between December 1981 and July 1983. However, the attempts to fracture the organization throughout the 1980s would prove unsuccessful, with the massive strikes of 1988 forcing the government into accepting roundtable talks with the Solidarity-led opposition and, eventually, the first partly-free elections in a Soviet-backed state.
Solidarity’s resounding electoral victory effectively marked the peaceful end of Poland’s Communist rule in the summer of 1989, and the ripple effects were soon felt throughout the continent, with the fall of the Berlin Wall, similarly non-violent regime changes in countries like Hungary, East Germany or Czechoslovakia, and the eventual dissolution of the Soviet Union.
Solidarity’s political relevance has declined significantly since the early ’90s, but the legacy of the movement is commemorated at the European Solidarity Center, opened in 2014 in Gdańsk.
Palace of Culture and Science
The inescapable landmark of Warsaw and the main relic from Communist rule, this towering, 237 meters high colossus of rock dominates the Polish capital’s skyline day and night.
Built by 3500 Soviet workmen as a “gift to the Poles” from Joseph Stalin, the PKiN (Pałac Kultury i Nauki), with its impressive blend of ruthless socialist realism, art deco architecture and Polish renaissance elements, is a wildly contorversial symbol of the renaissance from the rubble of the post-WWII.
Both hated for its historical significance – many wouldn’t mind seeing it tore down – and appreciated for the sumptuous facade and luxurious interiors, the Palace was erected with public use in mind and has been serving as the city’s major cultural hub for decades. More than 3200 rooms adorn its 42 floors, and in 123.000 m2 fit such diverse entities as cinemas, a casino, a sports complex, a nightclub, universities, theaters, a dozen bars, two museums, countless offices and an auditorium hall for 3000 people.
A popular drink across North and Eastern Europe, the first written mention of the word vodka (or wódka) seems to date back to 1405, in court documents from Sandomierz, in Southeast Poland. Meaning “little water”, the crystalline liquid evolved over the centuries, despite strong competition from beer, into the quintessential Polish beverage, unavoidable in every social gathering or festive occasion and preferably consumed neat, chilled and in one gulp.
Traditionally a medicinal spirit, distilled from potatoes or cereal grains like rye and wheat that have been fermented, vodka’s high alcohol content – usually above 37.5% ABV – means that while challenging locals for a drinking competition is not wise, don’t abstain from indulging on the multitude of blends and tastes available, from the sweet to the extra dry.
The fruit-flavored, colorful Soplica is a best seller domestically, while famous brands like Wyborowa, Sobieski, or Krupnik populate liquor stores around the world. However, the 600-year-old Żubrówka is uniquely distinctive as every bottle contains a bison grass leaf sourced from Białowieża Forest. Nevertheless, regardless of your choice, you just cannot go wrong, so…Na zdrowie.
History, history, history
The Polish state first came into fruition in the late 10th century, and it has been a wild ride since then for a nation defined by its convoluted past like few others around the World. Many have learned about the harrowing ordeals of World War II, from the millions of deaths to the near obliteration of Warsaw. Yet, such episodes comprise just a tiny fraction of Polish history. They are the last of more than 40 instances of invasions and insurrections that have shaped Poland’s borders, cities, population mix, and identity through the centuries.
A thriving empire that stretched well into Eastern Europe, and from the Baltic to the Black Sea during its heyday under the Jagiellonian dynasty as the political, ethnic and religiously progressive Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth – home to the second written constitution in the World (1791) – Poland would be completely wiped from the maps in 1795, its territory partitioned by Russia, Prussia and Austria for more than a century until an independent republic finally rose from the ashes of WWI in 1918.
Modern Poland may be barely one century old yet its people have staved off multiple attempts to suppress Polish culture and language through conflicts that determined waves of mass exiles and deportations, or lent reason to myriads of underground movements and uprisings – like the Warsaw Uprising of 1944. Never willing to surrender or submit to oppression, Poland reflects on the past and celebrates its history of resilience proudly, with no shortage of gripping monuments, memorials, or museums dedicated to it across the country.
In the likes of Gdańsk, on the shores of the Baltic Sea, the former Teutonic Order bastions of Toruń and Elbląg, or the German-influenced Wrocław and Poznań, Poland is certainly not lacking splendid illustrations of its middle age grandeur. Still, arguably, no other place can put it all together quite like Kraków. The country’s second city is synonymous with the largest medieval market square in Europe, Rynek Główny, and the stunning Old Town (Stare Miasto) that was included on the first list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites (1978).
Situated on the banks of the Vistula River, Kraków’s golden age as a member of the Hanseatic League and one of Europe’s leading trade, scientific and art centers would come to an end in 1596 when the royal family’s seat moved from Wawel Castle to Warsaw, but thousands of artworks and all the significant landmarks survived the passage of time, including the worst destruction of World War II.
Overflowing with Baroque, Gothic, Renaissance and Romanesque architecture in the Old Town, along the famed Royal Road or in the former Jewish Quarter of Kazimierz, the timeless beauty of Kraków has grown hand-in-hand with the oldest University in the country, Jagiellonian University, whose vibrant academic community adds to the city’s aura as Poland’s premium travel destination.
Long acknowledged for its intriguing (and affordable) cocktail of history, quaint medieval towns, and enchanted castles, Poland is increasingly getting noticed because of its impressive array of landscapes and natural attractions that also captivate adventurers, hikers, or beachgoers.
Covering 30% of the territory, Poland is a land of forests and national parks, including Białowieża, Europe’s last ancient forest and home to 800 free-roaming European bisons, but also a water paradise, boasting one of Europe’s great lake districts, formed by the more than 2000 bodies of water located in the Northeastern Masurian region.
A nation built on waterways, with the Oder and the iconic Wisła (Vistula) river crisscrossing northward through the North European plain, Poland is, at the same time, a country of highlanders and mountains as the place where the Carpathian range reaches some of its highest elevations, with the Tatras looming over the picturesque Zakopane village and the stunning Morskie Oko Lake.
Moreover, up north, the Baltic Coast is loaded with lagoons, cliffs, sandy beaches, popular seaside resorts and even walking dunes at the Biosphere reserve of Słowiński National Park, whereas human activity granted the country with the only desert in Central Europe, Błędów (Pustynia Błędowska).
Poland’s scenery is distinctive, contrasting, and still mostly untamed. What more could you ask for?
A very complicated language
Widely regarded as one of the most intimidating European languages, Polish is the mother tongue of the most linguistic homogenous country in Europe, with 97% of the Polish population plus the members of the diaspora adding up to some 50M native and second language speakers worldwide.
Categorized as a West-Slavic language (alongside the Czech and Slovak), the Polish uses a spiced-up Latin alphabet that features a whopping 32 letters, including 9 diacritics (ą, ć, ę, ł, ń, ó, ś, ź, ż), and abundant use of specific diagraphs (pairs of letters that represent specific sounds such as rz, cz, sz, dz) to challenge the most determined of prospective learners.
Actually, any cursory look at a Polish text reveals a disproportionate abundance of the letter Z (or ź, ż) and so many consonant clusters (four or five successive non-vowels are frequent) that would twist the most articulate of tongues, yet it is the highly inflected character of the language that claims the most victims.
With seven case endings for nouns and adjectives, complicated word declination according to gender, number and case, and recurrent disregard for the SVO (subject-verb-object) order in sentences, Polish plays the part alongside fellow headscratchers like Hungarian and Finnish.
Still, if you are up for an introduction, open a map and try to pronounce the names of Polish cities. How did you do with Szczecin, Bydgoszcz, Przemyśl, Rzeszów, and, my favorite, Łódź?
The Norwegians invented the sport and developed the telemark landing technique, but the Poles have taken responsibility for perfecting the art of throwing a proper ski jumping party. At least since the sport’s national fever exploded in the early 2000s, the exploits of Adam Małysz kicking off the prominent visions of large swaths of flag-waving, red-and-white clad fans flocking into competition venues across Europe.
And when the annual World Cup festivities make a stop for November’s season opener in Wisła, or Zakopane’s turn in late January, thousands upon thousands converge on these small mountain villages to cheer on Olympic Champion Kamil Stoch, World Champion Dawid Kubacki and all the other spandex-wearing stars flying through the air on nothing but a skinny pair of skis.
Poland is one of the world’s biggest exporters of amber products, and it can all be traced back to the northern reserves of Baltic amber (or succinite), generated some 44 million years ago from fossilized tree resin of coniferous forests. Mined or washing up in the beaches of the Baltic coast, its quality and value earned the moniker “Baltic Gold” and leveraged the development of an industry of decorative products that takes advantage of amber’s stunning range of colors, translucency, and shine.
Over the centuries the renowned Gdańsk craftsmen have shaped amber stones into gems, daily accessories, furniture or unique pieces of jewelry, contributing decisively to the city’s wealth in medieval times, and this tradition lives today in the multitude of galleries, workshops, and stores that populate Gdańsk’s Old Town, namely the bustling Mariacka street.
Polish filmmaking has been critically acclaimed worldwide for decades, in particular since the foundation of the National Film School in Łódź in 1948, where after WWII, and with a strong backing of a Communist regime looking for a propaganda tool, many of the country’s movie personalities studied.
One such example would be Roman Polanski, the French-Polish director of the Palme D’Or winning movie The Pianist (2002), who achieved unmatched status in Hollywood. The likes of Andrzej Wajda, with his poignant portraits of Poland’s changing social and political circumstances and the population’s emotional struggles in Ashes and Diamonds (1958), The Promised Land (1975) or Man of Iron (1981), Krzysztof Kieslowski, who authored the Three Colours Trilogy (1993-1994) or Agnieszka Holland, the actress turned director of “In Darkness” (2011), also contributed decisively to a storied tradition that leads straight into last decade’s international praise.
Expressed on the Oscar accolades for Ida (Best Foreign Language Film in 2014) and Cold War (2018), both directed by the Oxford-educated Paweł Pawlikowski, as well as Jan Komasa’s religious drama Corpus Christi (2019), the new guard of Polish cinema continues to spread the country’s culture and history around the world through engaging motion pictures.
Entering many of these traditional Polish cafeterias can feel like traveling back in time: the antiquated interior décor, the simple menus oftentimes scribbled on walls or blackboards, the unpretentious canteen-like customer service, and unassuming food presentation. First established in 1896 by a dairy farmer producer, Bar Mleczny (literally “milk bar”) flourished in Communist times as means of providing the masses of workers a cheap, nourishing meal out, and those characteristics have been preserved even as the dissemination of regular restaurants threatened to shut them out of business.
Revived over the last decade by government initiative, milk bars congregate working professionals, students, families, and retirees at lunchtime, and for penny-pinching, nostalgia-seeking tourists function as a crash course into Polish cuisine, moving past the early days of dairy-based content to offer a wide range of sausages, potato pancakes or dumplings, as well as the traditional Rosoł (chicken noodle soup), borscht (beetroot soup), goulash (meat stew), bigos (stewed meat with cabbage) or kotlet schabowy (breaded pork chop). Plus, with fresh, fast, home-cooked full meals – soup + main dish + kompot (a fruity, non-alcoholic beverage) – coming in at around 3.5-5€, the distinct absence of an English-friendly service feels nothing but a minor hassle.
Located on the same rock salt formation in the vicinity of Kraków, the UNESCO designated twin salt mines of Bochnia and Wieliczka were worked in parallel for more than seven hundred years. They started in the 13th century and grew into labyrinthine, richly decorated complexes of galleries and chambers that have fascinated visitors for generations.
Extending several levels and hundreds of meters underground, both mines ceased lucrative industrial production decades ago. However, the long-lasting achievements of legions of miners are still visible on the grandeur of excavated corridors and rooms, or the multitude of delicate sculptures and monuments that adorn the spaces opened to the public in both sites.
They are vivid reminders of the evolution of mining techniques and traditions since the middle ages when salt extraction revenues supplemented a large portion of the kingdom’s budget. Bochnia holds the distinction as the first to enter operation in Poland. Still, it is Wieliczka that gets the biggest crowds these days – almost two million per year – due to the stunning underground lakes and the magnificent St Kinga’s Chapel. In this ample temple, every element, from chandeliers to figures and altarpieces, is made of salt.
Polonia – The Polish diaspora
The Polish diaspora is said to comprise as many as 20M people of Polish ancestry dispersed around the globe, with Polish festivals, products, and traditions spraying the nation’s footprint in communities far away from Warsaw. Many descendants of migrants rose to prominence in various fields, from tech (Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak or Youtube CEO Susan Wojcicki) and sports (former tennis star Caroline Wozniacki, retired footballer Miroslav Klose) to television and cinema (personalities such as Larry King, Stanley Kubrick, Cate Blanchett, Steve Carell, Paul Newman, Gwyneth Paltrow, John Krasinski…).
Instigated by all the political tribulations that the homeland has suffered since the 17th century, sizable Polish communities are found not just in areas that once formed part of Poland – especially in Germany, Ukraine, Belarus, and Lithuania – but also well across the oceans, sprinkled in multi-ethnic North American hubs such as New York and Toronto, colonizing substantial parts of Chicago and Buffalo, and venturing as far as Brazil or Australia.
Furthermore, Poles are recognized for constituting the biggest minority living in the United Kingdom, with many taking advantage of labour freedom following integration into the European Union in 2004, whereas France and Paris have historically been where they have left the biggest mark, mostly on account of two of the country’s most famous emigrants: prodigious compositor/pianist Fryderyk (Frédéric) Chopin and influential physicist/chemist Maria Skłodowska – aka Marie Curie – the only person to win the Nobel Prize in two different scientific fields.
About the author
Hunkering down in Poland for the last two years, Portugal-born Duarte has prioritized life’s simple pleasures over sports writing in recent times. He can’t promise a change is on the way, but if you happened to grow fond of his wording and/or enjoy reading about hockey, football, tennis, and alike, find his blogging inventory at Wheeling a round puck.
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