The green waters of the mighty Vistula River glide gently through yellow fields of grain under the pointed towers of churches and castles that have since time immemorial anchored the eastern bulwark of the Roman Catholic Church in Europe, as well as the westward advance of the ancient Slavic nation. Where east meets west aptly describes the proud Polish nation.
The name Poland derives from the Slavic word for "field." From the time that the ancestors of the "Polan" tribe arrived along the timeless shores of the Vistula, at almost the same time that Rome fell to Sciri and Goth barbarians (coincidentally, both migratory Germanic tribes that briefly settled along the river ahead of the arrival of the Poles), the word alludes to the hard-working and productive agrarian culture born from, as legend has it, a hunter named Lech.
Lech, along with brothers Czech and Rus, were said to have gone into the woods in search of prey. Czech went to Bohemia in the west, Rus to the east where his descendants created the first Russian state, and Lech to the north. Finding a nesting eagle, the bird shining white against an oak tree colored in the red of the light of the setting sun, Lech took the image as a good omen and built a castle, calling it Gniezno, the Slavic word for "nest." Around that oak tree, some 50 kilometers west of present Poznan, Mieszko later established Poland as a Christian state, and his son Boleslaw the Brave became the first crowned King of Poland.
The subsequent contributions of Poland to European history are extensive, but there is certainly more to see than distant remnants of times past. For instance, Gdansk, known during its German times as Danzig, is renowned for its seashore. Indeed, sharing the name "Tri-City" with Gdynia, and Sopot, Gdansk also shares several beautiful views of the Baltic Sea, including Stogi beach in Gdansk, the Sopot Aquapark and Molo (described as the longest wooden pier in Europe), and the Bulwar Nadmorski, or coastal promenade, in Gdynia, all connected by a convenient modern commuter train. Additionally, the town of Gdansk has a beautifully reconstructed Old Town, Sopot embraces artistic architecture with its "Crooked House," and Gdynia has its Osada Rybacka or fisherman's village, which harkens back to the days when the city was once a center of fishing along the Polish coast.
In inland Silesia, the "Pearl of the Karkonosze Mountains," Jelenia Gora, nestles amid trails and ski resorts, but the city is renowned for its annual cultural events, including the street performances of the Wandering Theater Festival, the aural delights of the Sonans Organ Music Festival, and the innovative cinematography on display every year at the Zoom-Zblizenia Film Festival. In the winter, when the snows cover the nearby forests, the Bieg Piasow cross country skiing race draws in competitors and fans, and maybe the famed mountain spirit Lyczerzepa, which only a few lucky spectators might see (to those who are good, he gives presents, while to those who ridicule him, he plays tricks). Also in winter, the Karkonosze Light Festival brightens the valley in colored images that dazzle even the most worldly of travelers. The nearby Cieplice spa operates year round, and has drawn through its history such famed visitors as early U.S. President John Quincy Adams and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.
In the northeast, the Masurian Lakes, honored in 2007 as one of the 28 finalists for selection of the "New7Wonders of Nature," features ancient trees that rise up between pristine blue lakes. Nature lovers enjoy the Bazantamia forest near Elblag, while snow skiers seek out the slopes of the Gora Chrobrego, a resort near the same town. Frombork, another Masurian Lakes town, was at one time the home of the famous astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus, who taught Europe that the Earth was not the center of the Universe. In the Gierloz hamlet near Ketrzyn, the remnants of Adolf Hitler's "Wolfsschanze," or "Wolf's Lair," still lures war buffs 65 years after the Red Army tried to demolish it. Its popularity only increased after the release of the recent release of the Hollywood film "Operation Valkyrie."
In the west of Poland, meanwhile, if Gniezno marks the birthplace of Poland, Poznan marks its baptismal location. Named for the legendary meeting point of Lech, Czech, and Rus ("poznac" means "meeting place" in Polish), the city resembles something of a college town. Microbreweries attract beer aficionados in a city with one of the liveliest nightlifes in the country. Besides historical sites, such as the ancient cathedral on Ostrow Tumski, and of course the town of Gniezno itself. There are plenty of cool experiences to enjoy in the area, such as the steam train into Wielkopolska National Park that leaves from the nearby town of Steszew.
In the south, the many festivals of Krakow help the city maintain its place as the so-called "Cultural capital of Poland." Shopping is pervasive - even the train station boasts a mall, with wifi for those who can't live without their email fix for longer than a few hours. Besides the historical castle, this important Polish city also maintains sites of importance to those searching out their Jewish ancestry. The Kazimierz District, in particular, caters to this important facet of eastern European history. Krakow also serves as the starting point for tours to Auschwitz and Berkenau, the notorious Nazi death camps, which are maintained in memory of its victims.
In the center of it all is Warsaw. Flattened by war, the Old Town has been rebuilt brick-by-brick using photos of what it used to look like before the Second World War. Like Krakow, it maintains a great number of sites of remembrance within the territory of the former Ghetto. However, the city changes with each passing year. Indeed, Nowy Swiat street keeps growing more elegant, and is mostly unrecognizable from what it looked like 10 years ago.
A new airport named for Frederic Chopin greets travelers entering Warsaw, and is the perfect place to begin exploring Poland. There are many places to see, and this is only a sample. A more complete picture requires actually going there.