Situated in the heartland of Europe, Poland has been both a bridge and a front line between eastern and western Europe. Today, free from outside interference, Poland is the place to go if you're interested in seeing how a nation picks itself up off the floor and tries to reinvent itself. It's a multifaceted country where the capital and medieval old towns are coddled by contemporary city slickers and where horse-drawn carts negotiate country lanes in areas where the 20th century appears to have got lost somewhere down the road.
FACTS FOR THE TRAVELLER
Visas: Citizens of most EU countries and the USA can enter Poland without a visa and stay for 90 days. Australians still need visas. Border laws are being liberalised so check with a Polish Embassy before you leave.
Health risks: Substandard hospital care, especially in rural areas Time: GMT/UTC plus one hour Electricity: 230 volts, 50 Hz AC Weights & measures: Metric Tourism: 8 million visitors per year
Currency: zloty (literally 'gold'), PLN
Travel cheques and credit cards widely accepted. ATMs easily available in the cities.
Though not the bargain it used to be, Poland is still a cheap country for travellers. If you are accustomed to rental cars and plush hotels, you can spend almost as much as you would in western Europe. However, if you can get by with cheap hotels, medium-priced restaurants, bus or train travel, a few beers, the odd museum and occasional taxis, you should be able to get by on around $30 a day.
However you carry it, your money will generally be safe while you're travelling in Poland. Cheques are reasonably easy to exchange wherever you go, but you'll get a slightly better rate with cash. Credit cards are becoming more useful - you can use them to pay for up-market hotels and restaurants, car rentals and long-distance transport. You can also get cash advances with the major cards.
There's obviously something about the borders of Poland 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) was a monarch of some renown, bestowing 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 Casimir 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 was a working definition of 'worst', history kicked in with WW I. 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 selves 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 WW II when Germany, and then the Soviet Union, gobbled up Poland, viciously subduing the population at large - 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 charming was the Soviet trick of sending underequipped Polish bodies to soak up Nazi ammunition, then sending in the Red Army to clean up, grab 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 (yeah thanks guys) and Poland became a site of repression and victimisation Stalin-style. Poles never embraced Stalinism (well, it wasn't so cuddly), and the communist period featured waves of strikes.
As hopes for prosperity dwindled, labour organisation increased, backed by a committed intelligentsia (supported by the Catholic Church and especially by the Dominicans). The triumphal visit of Pope John Paul II to his homeland in 1979 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 Walesa. 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 all this was proving a bit much to take: martial law was introduced in December 1981, Solidarity was suspended and its leaders interned, including Walesa. The brutalities of martial law were gradually relaxed but Solidarity was forced to operate as an underground organisation until Gorbachov-instigated perestroika filtered through to Poland.
Semi-free elections were held in 1989 and Solidarity succeeded in getting an overwhelming majority of its supporters elected to the upper house of parliament. Walesa became President in 1990 but his rule was a gradual decline from euphoria to disillusionment. There were no economic miracles, no political stability and Walesa's presidential style and his accomplishments were repeatedly questioned by practically all political parties and the majority of the electorate. Former communists Aleksander Kwasniewski and Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz tipped Walesa 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 Kwasniewski, running for the Democratic Left Alliance, recaptured political control and, to top it all off, he was then re-elected for a second presidential term in October 2000 - in the same elections, the once-revered Walesa won less than 1% of the vote.
The new Poland is garnering international credibility as it capitalises on its material strengths - it became a full NATO member in 1999 and the EU member in 2004.