Poland is an ancient nation that was conceived near the middle of the 10th century. Its golden age occurred in the 16th century. During the following century, the strengthening of the gentry and internal disorders weakened the nation. In a series of agreements between 1772 and 1795, Russia, Prussia, and Austria partitioned Poland amongst themselves. Poland regained its independence in 1918 only to be overrun by Germany and the Soviet Union in World War II. It became a Soviet satellite state following the war, but its government was comparatively tolerant and progressive. Labor turmoil in 1980 led to the formation of the independent trade union “Solidarity” that over time became a political force and by 1990 had swept parliamentary elections and the presidency. A “shock therapy” program during the early 1990s enabled the country to transform its economy into one of the most robust in Central Europe, but Poland still faces the lingering challenges of high unemployment, underdeveloped and dilapidated infrastructure, and a poor rural underclass. Solidarity suffered a major defeat in the 2001 parliamentary elections when it failed to elect a single deputy to the lower house of Parliament, and the new leaders of the Solidarity Trade Union subsequently pledged to reduce the Trade Union’s political role. Poland joined NATO in 1999 and the European Union in 2004. With its transformation to a democratic, market-oriented country largely completed, Poland is an increasingly active member of Euro-Atlantic organizations.
No country in Europe can have as tragic a recent history as Poland. In the 16th century the joint Kingdom of Poland-Lithuania was the largest single State in Europe, stretching from the Baltic to the Black Sea. By the end of the 18th century Poland has ceased to exist, its territory partioned between Austria, Prussia and Russia, its people oppressed. The collapse of these three occupying powers in 1918 at the end of World War I saw Poland snatch her chance, and an independent Polish Republic was created. It was not to last. In 1939 Poland was attacked by Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union, triggering World War II. Poland was again divided, occupied, and oppressed. Of all the countries affected by the war, Poland suffered the worst. By 1945 nearly 20% of the pre-War population was dead, including millions of Polish Jews, and most of Poland’s cities had been reduced to rubble. Poland’s reward for never surrendering to Nazi Germany was to lose her eastern provinces, which were incorporated into the Soviet Union, and to have a communist Government imposed by Moscow. The next 45 years saw Poland stagnate under communism, as a client state of the Soviet Union. The election of Karol Wojtyla, the archbishop of Krakow, as Pope John Paul II in 1978 and the fornation of the Solidarity movement in Gdansk in 1980 marked the beginning of the end of communist rule not only in Poland but throughout Europe. The collapse of the Iron Curtain saw Poland, after a difficult initial transition, emerge as a stable and strong democracy. Poland is now a member of NATO and the EUher future seems as secure as it ever has.
Getting There and In
Poland’s geographical position has meant that it has historically been a stepping-stone between Eastern and Central Europe. Nothing much has changed.
Many people’s first experience of Poland will be arriving at Warsaw’s Okecie Airport. It’s a compact, well organised place but it’s far too small for the amount of passengers it handles, and a major expansion is being planned. From Warsaw there are regular direct flights to most capitals and other major cities in Western and Eastern Europe.
In common with most other Eastern European national airlines LOT have undergone a thorough modernisation since the end of communism. They have traded in the old USSR-built aircraft that they were previously obliged to buy for a fleet of modern Boeings. From outside Europe Warsaw has direct flights to Chicago, New York (JFK and Newark) and Tel Aviv.
There are several other airports in Poland, all with which have at least one flight a day to and from Warsaw. Some of them also have international flights. Krakow’s John Paul II-Balice Airport is Poland’s second busiest, with flights to London, Frankfurt, Paris, Chicago, Newark and Tel Aviv, among others. Gdansk has direct flights to Copenhagen, Frankfurt, and Stockholm, Katowice has links to Dusseldorf and Frankfurt, Poznan has flights to Copenhagen, Dusseldorf and Vienna, and from Wroclaw you can get to Copenhagen, Frankfurt and Munich. (On domestic flights, apart from a Gdansk-Krakow service, all flights are to and from Warsaw only).
As of 1st May 2004 Poland is a member of the European Union (EU) which means that there are no restrictions on passport holders of other EU countries staying, living, and working in the Poland. At the airport or border they’ll just examine your passport and wave you through without stamping it, and probably without speaking to you.
Passport holders of other countries will still get their passports stamped, and may be asked to provide evidence of a return ticket or that they have sufficient funds for their stay. This is unlikely though. It’s always a good idea to contact the Polish in your home country to check that you don’t need to obtain a visa prior to your arrival. As of May 2004 Americans, Canadians, Aussies and Kiwis didn’t, but this can change.
If you’re not in the mood for flying, or aren’t travelling from as far afield, Poland also has fairly good international train links, especially to Germany. From Warsaw there are direct trains to, among others, Berlin, Bratislava, Budapest, Cologne, Dresden, Kiev, Moscow, Prague, and Vienna. Krakow has trains to Berlin, Dresden, Frankfurt and Liepzig as well as Bratislava, Budapest, Prague and Vienna. Other options include Wroclaw, from where you can go to Berlin, Dresden, Frankfurt and Prague, Szcezecin which is linked to Berlin, and Poznan which has trains to Cologne and fast express service to Berlin, which take around 3 hours. Some of these trains are over-night services; trains in Poland aren’t particularly fast, a result of the poor condition of the track in some areas, but they are pretty comfortable.