The full official name is Rzeczpospolita Polska which translates to, “The Commonwealth of Poland.” It is believed that Poland (Polska) gets its name from the Polans, a tribe that inhabited the basin of the Warta River back in the eighth and ninth centuries (in today’s western Poland.) The name Polans is believed to come from the proto-Slavic word “pol’e” which meant field or plain. The name of the tribe is usually referred to as “people of the fields.” In the tenth century rulers of the most powerful dynasty, the Piasts, formed a kingdom which was called Polonia, the land of the Polans, Poland.
Where is Poland Located?
Poland is located in central Europe in both the northern and eastern hemispheres. She has a border on the Baltic Sea to the north. Poland has many neighbors which include the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad to the north, Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine to the east, Slovakia and Czech Republic to the south and Germany to the west. Poland is quite large, ninth largest in all of Europe.
Poland was aptly named as a people of the fields or plains because much of the land is exactly that. It is a low-lying country with 91% of the land 300m above sea level. Much of the Polish plain is used for agriculture. Despite it being lowlands, the country has a versatile natural environment. In the north, on the Baltic Sea, it has spectacular sandy beaches and busy harbors. Glaciers have formed lakes and low hills. In fact, small lakes dot the whole of northern Poland, especially in the region known as Masurian Lake District, where there are more than 2000 lakes. This is also the area where the only primeval forests remain in Europe. There are mountains along the southern border. The Carpathian Mountains is where the highest peak is found, called Mount Rysy. This area offers wonderful hiking in the summer and skiing in the winter.
A Brief History of Poland
The early history of Poland is akin to the game of thrones. In fact it may even be more fascinating. The history dates back to the tenth century where the first documented ruler was Mieskzo I from the Piast dynasty. He is responsible for bringing Christianity to the region. The first coronation took place in Krakow in 1025 and the Kingdom of Poland began.
There were many wars and uprisings throughout Poland’s history. There was a time during the 16th century considered to be the Golden Age. The territory of Poland greatly expanded with the forming of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. They ruled nearly one million miles of territory. Poland attracted many refugees escaping from religious persecution, as they had a policy of religious tolerance. It was during this time that the capital of Poland was relocated to Warsaw from Krakow to be more centrally located. It was sometime in the mid-17th century that the commonwealth went into decline. The Swedes invaded Poland and left the country in ruins. In the 18th century, Poland gradually fell under foreign influence. The rulers of Russia, Prussia and Austria invaded Poland and partitioned its territory. Poland was literally wiped off the map from 1795 until 1918.
Despite this oppression, the nation continued to exist as a cultural community. Poles engaged in armed resistance. They fought with Napoleon organizing the November and January uprisings, both of which failed. The outbreak of World War I gave Poland a chance to regain its freedom which she did when the second Polish Republic was established on November 11th, 1918. The freedom however did not last long. On September 1, 1939 Poland was invaded by Nazi Germany and World War II began. Six million Polish citizens died during the war. After the war ended, Poland fell under Soviet control until the fall of the Soviet Union. The first elections of the Third Polish Republic were held in 1989. At this time Poland began to transition from a communist state to a capitalist one.
Today the ethnic makeup of the nation is very different from what it was prior to World War II. Today it is almost mono-ethnic with Poles making up 97 percent of the population. Prior to 1939, Poland was a multi-ethnic country with a third being minorities. Due to the atrocities of the Soviet and German genocides, changing around the borders after the war, along with ethnic policies of the communist government, Poland’s minorities were almost completely wiped out. The Jewish community, of over 3 million, was almost completely eradicated. Today the Jewish population in Poland is estimated between 6000 and 10,000 souls. The total population of Poland today is about 38 million with 15 to 20 million Poles living elsewhere. The language they speak is Polish and considered to be one of the most difficult languages to learn.
Poland now has a new constitution which was signed in 1997. They are a member of NATO and the European Union. Perhaps Polksa has finally found her way to peace, stability and happiness.
Since the creation of the country back in 966 and through the adoption of Christianity, it is no surprise that belief in God has been a mainstay throughout time. Today the majority of Poles, 90 percent, are Roman Catholic. The balance make up other Christian religions, such as Eastern Orthodox and Protestants. There are still some small Muslim and Jewish populations as well. Today, freedom of religion is guaranteed by the constitution.
Since the country is mostly Roman Catholic, its most important holidays include: Easter, All Saints and Souls Day and Christmas. On All Saints and Souls Day, observed on November 1st and 2nd respectively, Poles reunite with family members to honor the deceased and place candles and flowers on their grave sites. Easter is a special time of year for religious observances, as well as the return of spring. City centers come alive with festivals and markets upheld by unique traditions of coloring eggs and burning a giant doll. The doll is called Marzanna and represents the incarnation of the old Slavic goddess of winter, plague and death. To protect themselves they partake in an old fashioned witch burning, followed by a drowning of the doll to ensure a timely arrival of spring and a good harvest.
Advent marks the beginning of the Christmas season. Poles often use this time to fast or at least give up a favorite food. People clean their homes and decorate for Christmas. Once again the city centers come alive with lights, Christmas markets and cheer. Christmas Eve is more important than Christmas Day in Poland. It is known as Wigilia and a time for a feast after the first star in the evening sky is seen. After dinner, gifts are exchanged and people head off to midnight mass.
Men and women’s folk costumes are brought out during the holidays and other celebrations such as Independence Day, National Day and weddings. The costumes called stoje ludowe are brightly colored with each region having a unique style. A careful observer can even tell from the type of head coverings where a woman is from and her marital status. Folk dancing and music is a treasured part of the culture.
Why Visit Poland?
Poland has six different seasons, which include the four normal ones. They also have one called “early spring” and another called “early winter.” Poland has great biological diversity with something special to offer during each season. There are 23 national parks and the most primeval forest areas are under legal protection. The bio-variety of the flora and fauna is astonishing. There are 75,000 species of plants, 39,000 micro-organisms and fungi (it is no wonder foraging for mushrooms is a favorite national pastime) and around 33,000 animal species.
The numerous lakes make for wonderful kayaking, sailing and fishing. Some of their most cherished animals are: the white tailed eagle, a symbol of Poland since the beginning, white storks, which are considered good luck if they nest on your home before they make their way to Africa in winter, bison, the largest mammal in all of Europe, which lives in the primeval forests of Bialowieza, and around 600 gray wolves that are under legal protection and live in the remote and forested areas of eastern Poland.
Poland is home to “The Black Madonna,” their holiest relic. The Black Madonna is housed in the Jasna Gora Monastery. She is famous for her darkened skin and two scars on her cheek. Many miracles have been attributed to the Black Madonna which is why thousands flock to pray in the presence of this icon. It is said that the Black Madonna came from the table used by the Holy Family or a copy of the original panel, painted by Luke, the Apostle. The dark tones of the skin are attributed to a legend that involved a fire in which the icon was the only thing left unscathed, except for the discoloration of her skin.
Poland is home to numerous UNESCO world heritage sites. They range from spectacular medieval castles to protected ancient forests, as well as the infamous Auschwitz Birkenau Camp (Nazi concentration and extermination camp.) The old towns of Krakow and Warsaw are big draws, as well as the world’s oldest salt mines. There are so many wonderful things to see and do in Poland or you can just stop and sit on a park bench to hear Chopin playing in the capital city of Warsaw.
Polish cuisine is as interesting as its past and highly influenced by her neighbors and others who invaded Poland. It also is influenced by the Roman Catholic rituals of feasting and fasting. During fasting time, meat is not eaten, so many meatless dishes and fish dishes, have become part of the Polish cuisine. Cereal grains are probably among the most important dietary staples, which include barley, buckwheat, wheat and rye. Their national drink, vodka, is made from distilled rye. Other very important agricultural staples include: potatoes, cabbage, mushrooms, beets, carrots and cucumbers. Dill pickles are famous from Poland. Sour cream is served with just about everything and the diet is heavy in dairy, butter and cheese, especially sheep’s cheese.
Meat is also important in the diet, with pork being the most consumed meat, along with chicken, beef and duck. The polish cuisine also loves pickled and smoked fish, especially herring. Of course one of their most famous foods is kielbasa, also known as Polish sausage, with each region having their own specialty.
The Poles eat their main meal of the day around 4:00 pm and it is called obiad. It usually begins with any one of their amazing, hearty soups. White and red borscht soups are ubiquitous, as are others made from mushrooms, duck blood and clear broths. Meat is often served as the main course and it could be their famous stew called bigos, also known as Polish Hunger’s stew or golabki. This has cabbage leaves stuffed with minced meat or golonka, fresh ham and is served with horseradish. We of course cannot forget the famous pierogi, which is the most well known Polish food outside of Poland. It is a dumpling filled with an array of fillings. The Poles also love sweets and dessert is often served at the end of the meal with coffee or tea. Cake is the most beloved dessert in Poland and comes in every imaginable flavor and texture, from cheesecake to pound cake, They love them all.
So let’s enjoy a Polish meal:
We set the scene with the colors of the Polish flag; red and white. Red corn poppies adorned the table, as that is the national flower. A cross represented the country’s religion, as well as a candle with the national emblem of the white eagle. A few staple agricultural ingredients completed the scene. We played Frederic Chopin softly in the background, as he is one of the most famous Poles, a composer and virtuoso pianist from the Romantic Era.
Our first course was the white borscht soup known as bialy barzcz. I fell in love! Potatoes are what make it white but it has flavors that hit every note of the palate. I especially loved the kielbasa with fresh horseradish, as well as fresh dill. This is a lovely soup that I will make often, especially on a cold winter day.
Next was the main course, a whole, roasted duck presented on a large platter with apples and potatoes. The potatoes were cooked in the duck fat during roasting and the apples were the stuffing….. need I say more.
Alongside the duck the famous pierogi was served. The famous Polish dumpling was stuffed with mushrooms, onion and sauerkraut. It was boiled, then fried in butter and served with sour cream. Simply scrumptious!
For dessert I made the cream cake called kremovka. It is now known as the papal cake because of Poland’s most famous citizen, Pope John Paul II, now Saint Pope John Paul II, said he loved it! Born as Karol Wojtkta, he and his school friends would stop at Hagenhuber’s Bakery where he would enjoy his favorite dessert. This has a creamy custard filling in between puff pastry and is sprinkled with confectioners’ sugar. A heavenly treat indeed!
After dinner we watched the movie “Schindlers List.” The movie is an eye opening saga of a very difficult time in Poland during Nazi occupation, and how just a few people can make a world of difference. If you have not seen the movie, I highly recommend it.
As we say good bye to this most unique and interesting country, I leave you with a few Polish proverbs:
Necessity is the mother of invention
When it’s your time, you have to go
What one thinks when sober, one says when drunk…
Until next time,
Do zobaczenia (“See you later” in Polish)