Difference between revisions of "Poland"
Revision as of 02:24, 3 August 2014
Poland (Polish: Polska), is one of the larger countries in Central Europe. It has a long Baltic Sea coastline and is bordered by Belarus, the Czech Republic, Germany, Lithuania, Russia (the Kaliningrad Oblast exclave), Slovakia, and Ukraine.
The first cities in today's Poland, Kalisz and Elbląg on the Amber Trail to the Baltic Sea, were mentioned by Roman writers in the first century AD, but the first Polish settlement in Biskupin dates even further back to the 7th century BC.
Poland was first united as a country in the first half of the 10th century, and officially adopted Catholicism in 966. The first capital was in the city of Gniezno, but a century later the capital was moved to Kraków, where it remained for half a millennium.
Poland experienced its golden age from 14th till 16th century, under the reign of king Casimir the Great, and the Jagiellonian dynasty, whose rule extended from the Baltic to the Black and Adriatic seas. In the 16th century, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was the largest country in Europe; the country attracted significant numbers of foreign migrants, including Germans, Jews, Armenians and the Dutch, thanks to the freedom of confession guaranteed by the state and the atmosphere of religious tolerance (rather exceptional in Europe at the time of the Holy Inquisition).
Under the rule of the Vasa dynasty, the capital was moved to Warsaw in 1596. During the 17th and the 18th centuries, the nobility increasingly asserted its independence of the monarchy; combined with several exhausting wars, this greatly weakened the Commonwealth. Responding to the need for reform, Poland was the 1st country in Europe (and the 2nd in the world, after the US) to pass a constitution. The constitution of 3 May 1791 was the key reform among many progressive but belated attempts to strengthen the country during the second half of the 18th century.
With the country in political disarray, various sections of Poland were subsequently occupied by its neighbours, Russia, Prussia and Austria, in three coordinated "partitions" of 1772 and 1793, and 1795. After the last partition and a failed uprising, Poland ceased to exist as a country for 123 years.
However, this long period of foreign domination was met with fierce resistance. During the Napoleonic Wars, a semi-autonomous Duchy of Warsaw arose, before being erased from the map again in 1813. Further uprisings ensued, such as the 29 November uprising of 1830-1831 (mainly in Russian Poland), the 1848 Revolution (mostly in Austrian and Prussian Poland), and 22 Jan 1863. Throughout the occupation, Poles retained their sense of national identity, and kept fighting the subjugation of the three occupying powers.
Poland returned to the map of Europe with the end of World War I, officially regaining its independence on November 11th, 1918. Soon, by 1920-21, the newly-reborn country got into territorial disputes with Czechoslovakia and, especially, the antagonistic and newly Soviet Russia with which it fought a war. This was further complicated by a hostile Weimar Germany to the west, which strongly resented the annexation of portions of its eastern Prussian territories, and the detachment of German-speaking Danzig (contemporary Gdańsk) as a free city.
This put Poland in a precarious position of having potential enemies facing her again from all three sides.
World War II
World War II officially began with a coordinated attack on Poland's borders by the Soviet Union from the east and Nazi Germany from the west and north. Only a few days prior to the start of WWII, the Soviet Union and Germany had signed a secret pact of non-aggression, which called for the re-division of the newly independent central and eastern European nations. Germany attacked Poland on 1 Sep 1939, and the Soviet Union attacked Poland on 17 Sep 1939, effectively starting the fourth partition, causing the recently re-established Polish Republic to cease to exist. Hitler used the issue of Danzig (Gdańsk) and German nationalism to try to trigger a war with Poland in much the same way he used the Sudetenland Question to conquer the Czechs.
Many of WWII's most infamous war crimes were committed on Polish territory. Much of the Holocaust took place in Poland, as Poland had the largest population of Jews of any country in the world, over three million, 90% of whom were murdered by the Nazis. Poland’s cities had especially large Jewish populations. Before World War II Warsaw was 30% Jewish, Lodz 34%, and Lublin 35%. All six of the Nazi’s extermination camps were located in Poland; of these Auschwitz is the most well known. Much of the Jewish resistance to the Nazis was also centered in Poland, the most famous example being the Warsaw Ghetto uprising in 1943.
In addition to the Jews, Polish non-Jews were vigorously persecuted by the Nazis with 2 to 3 million non-Jewish Poles murdered by them. Polish civilians were ruthlessly rounded up, tortured, put into concentration camps, and executed.
The Soviets rounded up and executed the cream of the crop of Polish leadership in the Katyń Massacre of 1940. About 22,000 Polish military and political leaders, business owners, and intelligentsia were murdered in the massacre, officially approved by the Soviet Politburo, including Stalin and Beria.
Due to WWII, Poland lost about 20% of its population, added to the fact that the Polish economy was completely ruined. Nearly all major cities were destroyed and with them the history of centuries was gone. After the war Poland was forced to become a Soviet satellite country, following the Yalta and Potsdam agreements between the Western Allies and the Soviet Union. To this day these events are viewed by many Poles as an act of betrayal by the Allies. Poland's territory was significantly reduced and shifted westward to the Oder-Neisse Line at the expense of defeated Germany. The native Polish populations from the former Polish territories in the east, now annexed by the Soviet Union, were expelled by force and replaced the likewise expelled German populations in the west and in the north of the country. This resulted in the forced uprooting of over 10 million people and until recently had shadowed attempts at Polish-German reconciliation.
Communism (People's Republic of Poland)
The Communist era (1945-1989) is a controversial topic. After World War II, Poland was forced to become a Socialist Republic, and to adopt a strong pro-Soviet stance. Between 1945-1953, pro-Stalinist leaders conducted periodic purges.
After the bloody Stalinist era of 1945-1953, Poland was comparatively tolerant and progressive in comparison to other Eastern Bloc countries. But strong economic growth in the post-war period alternated with serious recessions in 1956, 1970, and 1976, resulting in labour turmoil over dramatic inflation as well as shortages of goods. Ask older Poles to tell you about communism and you'll often hear stories of empty store shelves where sometimes the only thing available for purchase was vinegar. You'll hear stories about backroom deals to get meat or bread, such as people trading things at the post office just to get ham for a special dinner.
A brief reprieve from this history occurred in 1978. The then-archbishop of Krakow, Karol Wojtyła, was elected as Pope of the Roman Catholic Church, taking the name John Paul II. This had a profound impact on Poland's largely Catholic population, and to this day John Paul II is widely revered in the country.
In 1980, the anti-communist trade union "Solidarity" (Polish: Solidarność) became a strong force of opposition to the government, organizing labour strikes, and demanding freedom of the press and democratic representation. The communist government responded by organizing a military junta, led by general Wojciech Jaruzelski, and imposing martial law on 13 Dec 1981; it lasted until 22 Jul 1983. During this time, thousands of people were detained. Phone calls were monitored by the government, independent organizations not aligned with the Communists were deemed illegal and members were arrested, access to roads was restricted, the borders were sealed, ordinary industries were placed under military management, and workers who failed to follow orders faced the threat of a military court. Solidarity was the most famous organization to be made illegal and its members faced the possibility of losing their jobs and imprisonment.
But this internecine conflict and ensuing economic disaster greatly weakened the role of the Communist Party. Solidarity was legalized again, and soon led the country to the first free elections in 1989, in which the communist government was finally removed from power. This inspired a succession of peaceful anti-communist revolutions throughout the Warsaw Pact block.
Contemporary Poland (Third Republic of Poland)
Nowadays, Poland is a democratic country with a stable, robust economy, a member of NATO since 1999 and the European Union since 2004. The country's stability has been recently underscored by the fact that the tragic deaths of the President and a large number of political, business and civic leaders in a plane crash did not have an appreciable negative effect on the Polish currency or economic prospects. Poland has also successfully joined the border-less Europe agreement (Schengen), with an open border to Germany, Lithuania, Czech Republic and Slovakia, and is on track to adopt the Euro currency in a few years time. Poland's dream of rejoining Europe as an independent nation at peace and in mutual respect of its neighbours has finally been achieved.
Note that Catholic religious holidays are widely observed in Poland. Stores, malls, and restaurants are likely to be closed or have very limited business hours on Easter, All Saints Day, Christmas Eve and Christmas.
The countryside throughout Poland is lovely and relatively unspoiled. Poland has a variety of regions with beautiful landscapes and small-scale organic and traditional farms. Travellers can choose different types of activities such as bird watching, cycling or horseback riding.
Culturally, you can visit and/or experience many churches, museums, ceramic and traditional basket-making workshops, castle ruins, rural centres and many more. A journey through the Polish countryside gives you a perfect opportunity to enjoy and absorb local knowledge about its landscape and people.
Poland's administrative regions are called województwa, abbreviated "woj.". The word is roughly equivalent to a duchy or a district. Some English dictionaries use the word voivodship to describe them, but the word is exceedingly rare, and likely not to be understood.
Poland is a member of the Schengen Agreement.
There are no border controls between countries that have signed and implemented this treaty - the European Union (except Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Ireland, Romania and the United Kingdom), Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland. Likewise, a visa granted for any Schengen member is valid in all other countries that have signed and implemented the treaty. But be careful: not all EU members have signed the Schengen treaty, and not all Schengen members are part of the European Union. This means that there may be spot customs checks but no immigration checks (travelling within Schengen but to/from a non-EU country) or you may have to clear immigration but not customs (travelling within the EU but to/from a non-Schengen country).
Please see the article Travel in the Schengen Zone for more information about how the scheme works and what entry requirements are. Regular visas are issued for travellers going to Poland for tourism and business purposes. Regular visas allow for one or multiple entries into Polish territory and stay in Poland for maximum up to 90 days and are issued for the definite period of stay. When applying for a visa, please indicate the number of days you plan to spend in Poland and a date of intended arrival. Holders of regular visas are not authorized to work.
Ukrainian citizens do not require a separate visa for transit through Poland if they hold a Schengen or UK visa.
Most of Europe's major airlines fly to and from Poland. Poland's national carrier is LOT Polish Airlines. There are also a number of low cost airlines that fly to Poland including WizzAir, EasyJet, Germanwings, Norwegian and Ryanair.
Apart from direct air connections from many European cities, there are also intercontinental flights from the United States, Canada and China operated by LOT with direct flights from Beijing, Toronto, New York and Chicago. In terms of long haul flights also Emirates and Qatar Airways flights operates to Dubai and Doha respectively as well as non-direct flights from other cities through the Star Alliance program.
International airlines fly mainly to Warsaw (WAW) . Other major airports in Poland are: Warsaw-Modlin (WMI) , Kraków (KRK) , Katowice (KTW) , Gdańsk (GDN) , Poznań (POZ) , Wrocław (WRO) , Szczecin (SZZ) , Rzeszów (RZE) , Bydgoszcz (BZG) , Łódź (LCJ)  and Lublin (LUZ) .
As the number of flights and passengers has significantly increased since 1990, new terminal has been opened at the Warsaw Chopin airport which significantly increases the airport's capacity. Also airports in Gdańsk, Katowice, Kraków, Poznań, Wrocław, Łódź, Lublin and Rzeszów have been expanded to increase their standards and capacity.
Direct connections  with:
You can enter Poland by one of many roads linking Poland with the neighbouring countries. Since Poland's entry to the Schengen Zone, checkpoints on border crossings with other EU countries have been removed.
However, the queues on the borders with Poland's non-EU neighbours, Ukraine, Belarus and Russia, are still large and in areas congested with truck traffic it can take up to several hours to pass.
If you're traveling with a US license, be sure to take an international license with you. Poland is one of the few countries in Europe requiring US persons to travel with an international license in order to rent a car. Also note that most car rentals are manual. If you want an automatic it must be booked well in advance.
There are many international bus lines that connect major Polish cities, with most of major European ones.
There are more and more ports along Polish coast, at least at every river mouth. Bigger marinas are located in Szczecin, Łeba, Hel, Gdynia and Gdańsk. Gdansk, has two yacht docks one next to the old time (market) which is usually quickly overloaded and one in the national sailing centre 17 km. next to the city centre close to the Baltic sea. The newest yacht dock will be located on the longest wooden peer in Sopot and will be ready in 2011. Although there are many sailors in Poland, there is still room for improvement which has been seen by the regional government.
From Czech Republic
Polish road infrastructure is extensive but local routes may be poorly maintained, and high speed motorways currently in place are insufficient. However, public transport is quite plentiful and inexpensive: buses and trams in cities, and charter buses and trains for long distance travel.
In Poland, the national railway carriers are PKP InterCity  and Przewozy Regionalne . There are some local carriers that belong to voivodships and Fast Urban Rail systems. The schedule of every train can be found in this official route planner .
Train tickets are quite cheap, but travel conditions (especially on most cheaper long-distance trains) reflect the fact that much of the infrastructure is rather old.
However, you can expect a fast, clean and modern connection on the new PKP IC's routes, such as Warsaw - Katowice, Warsaw - Kraków, Warsaw - Poznań and Warsaw - Szczecin. Price difference between the second and first class is not so big, same as the quality difference.
Tickets for any route can generally be purchased at any station. For a foreigner buying tickets, this can prove to be a frustrating experience, since only cashiers at international ticket offices (in major cities) can be expected to speak multiple languages. It is recommended that you buy your train tickets on-line to avoid communication difficulties and long queues. On-line tickets can be bought only for the trains of Przewozy Regionalne and PKP InterCity.
It may be easier to buy in advance during peak seasons (eg: end of holiday period, New Year, etc.) for trains that require reserved seating.
Please note, that tickets bought for the trains of one company can not be used on the train of another one. There is one exception in Warsaw, where the ticket of Warsaw Transport Authority can be used on Masovian Railways trains, but only in the area of Warsaw. If you are not sure you can travel with WTA's ticket on Masovian Railways, board through the first doors, find the conductor, and ask him. If your ticket is not valid, he will sell you one.
If you travel in a group with the Przewozy Regionalne, you should get a 33% discount for the 2nd, 3rd and 4th person (offer Ty i 1,2,3).
If you are a weekend traveller think about the weekend offers, which are valid from Friday c. 18:00 until Monday 06:00:
An early booking of the IC trains (7/15 days before departure) will be rewarded with additional discount (10-15%).
For some TLK trains you can travel with the offer Bilet Relacyjny - you will get an automatic discount on chosen routes .
Poland has a very well developed network of private charter bus companies, which tend to be cheaper, faster, and more comfortable than travel by rail. For trips under 100 km, charter buses are far more popular than trains. However, they are more difficult to use for foreigners, because of language barrier.
There is an on-line timetable available. It available in English and includes bus and train options so you can compare:  On-line timetables are useful for planning, however, there are multiple carriers at each bus station and departure times for major cities and popular destinations are typically no longer then thirty minutes in-between.
Each city and town has a central bus station (formerly known as PKS), where the various bus routes pick up passengers; you can find their schedules there. Bus routes can also be recognized by signs on the front of the bus that typically state the terminating stop. This is easier if picking up a bus from a roadside stop, rather than the central depot. Tickets are usually purchased directly from the driver, but sometimes it's also possible to buy them at the station. If purchasing from the driver, simply board the bus, tell the driver your destination and he will inform you of the price. Drivers rarely speak English, so often he will print a receipt showing the amount. Buses are also a viable choice for long-distance and international travel; however, be aware that long-distance schedules are usually more limited than for trains.
In 2011 a new bus company called Polski Bus  appeared in Poland with more 'western' approach - you can only buy tickets through the internet and the prices vary depending on the number of seats already sold. They have bus links between Warsaw and most of bigger Polish cities (as well as few neighboring capitals).
Driving in Poland may be stressful, frustrating and time-consuming, due to the poor quality of roads, lack of motorways and the driving style of the locals. Polish road network contains fewer highways and more ordinary two-lane roads than in western countries. A lot of these roads are far below capacity for the volume of traffic they are carrying and the average quality of the road surface is poor (Conditions have, however, greatly improved in the wake of the 2012 UEFA European Cup). Motorways are being constructed but Poland is still the bottom of motorway km rankings in Europe.
As a rule of thumb, assume 2 hr for each 100km of travel (allowing for unexpected delays). If you're driving through large cities, you can safely double that. Due to lack of motorways you will be passing through lots of smaller and bigger towns and often big cities which will significantly slow you down. When travelling between smaller cities or towns you will also routinely encounter slow moving vehicles, such as farm vehicles and tractors, and sometimes bicycles. Drunks, on foot or on bicycles, are a common sight. This includes having them weave through fast moving traffic at night.
Polish road death statistics are high for European standards and driver behaviour is sometimes very poor in terms of impatience, rudeness and absence of ordinary common sense or foresight. "Dynamic driving style" is expected. In practice this means that Poles often drive aggressively and recklessly, push in, "meander" through surrounding cars, routinely disrespect speed limits (frequently by a large margin) and overtake at less-than-safe distances. Overtaking is a critical and potentially dangerous manoeuvre that is commonly done in a hazardous way in Poland. In heavier traffic it's common to overtake "on 3rd" meaning that at some point during the manoeuvre there will be three cars (the overtaken, the overtaking, and the vehicle approaching from the opposite direction) next to each other side to side (or close to that). An unwritten code is followed to make this possible and "safe". The driver that is driving behind a slower vehicle and preparing to overtake expects that the slower vehicle will move to the right as far as feels comfortable also using the half-lane if it is separated with a dashed line and completely sure to be free of bicycles or pedestrians. The vehicle approaching from the opposite direction is advised or sometimes forced to also slightly move to the side. Such style of overtaking is illegal and unsafe. The above information is intended to explain the reality on the ground and help understand the traffic. Don't do it. If you hit someone or something on the shoulder, you get penalised and the driver who caused you to do it has long since driven off. Particularly reckless drivers will attempt to overtake "on four", when overtaking in both directions is taking place in roughly the same space, but this is rare.
Tailgating is routine. Aggressive driving up behind you and flashing of headlights means "get out of my way". If you're driving on a two-lane road, which will be most of the time, you are under no obligation to do so. Just be aware that the driver may throw something out of his window, or suddenly step on his brakes once he has passed you. This is done to "teach you a lesson."
If you leave a safety gap in front of your car, it will be filled by another driver as he is trying to push through the traffic.
Poles work long, so peak time in major cities frequently last till 8pm. Roadworks are common as many new road developments are under way and roads require frequent maintenance due to damage inflicted by winter conditions and as the roads are often built to subpar quality to start with.
Parking in cities and towns is often allowed on sidewalks, unless of course there is a no-parking sign. There is usually no provision for parking on the tar-sealed part of the street so do not leave your car parked at the curb, unless it is clearly a parking bay. Parking meters in cities and even smaller towns are widely used.
Some peculiarities of driving in Poland include:
Roads marked droga szybkiego ruchu (rapid transit road) are frequently anything but that. The rule of roads going through towns and not around them still applies and speed limits change rapidly from the allowable 90 kmh to 70, down to 40 and then up again to 70 within only a few hundreds of metres. Speed cameras (in unmarked dark grey pole-mounted boxes) are common (and the income from those goes to the local council.) Radar-equipped traffic police are also frequent but that apparently does little to deter the speeding drivers. In recent years there has been a resurgence in CB radio popularity. The drivers use it to warn each other about the traffic police.
Some drivers flash their headlights to warn those approaching from the opposite direction of a police control nearby (you are likely to encounter this custom in many other countries). It may also mean that you need to turn your lights on since dipped headlights need to be on at all times while driving. A "thank you" between drivers can be expressed by waving your hand or, when the distance is too great, by turning on blinkers or hazard lights for one or two blinks.
Hazard lights can be used to indicate failures but also as a way of showing that the vehicle is rapidly slowing down, or already stopped in a traffic jam on a highway.
A recent plague of flashing LED advertising hoardings has been spreading along Polish roads. As well as adding to the already high level of visual pollution these have a more immediate effect of distracting drivers during the day and blinding them at night, as advertisers leave output levels set at "high". Poland has no legislation to prevent this from happening, and the hoardings are placed at or only slightly above the line of sight. This, added to the condition of the roads and the behaviour of the locals, makes driving on rainy nights additionally difficult.
At the gas stations
In Autumn or in Spring it is common for small traders to set up their stands with fruit or wild mushrooms along the roads. They don't always stay in places where it's safe for cars to stop and you should be careful of drivers stopping abruptly and be watchful if you want to stop yourself. Wild mushrooms are a speciality if you know how to cook them. A cautionary note: There is a slight possibility that the people who picked the mushrooms are not very good at telling the good ones from the poisonous, so eat at your own responsibility. Never feed wild mushrooms to small children as they are particularly vulnerable. Rely on the judgement of your Polish friends if you consider them reasonable people.
Use only those that are associated in a "corporation" (look for phone number and a logo on the side and on the top). There are no British style minicabs in Poland. Unaffiliated drivers are likely to cheat and charge you much more. Like everywhere, be especially wary of these taxis near international airports and train stations. They are called the "taxi mafia".
Because of travellers advice like this (and word of mouth), taxis with fake phone numbers can be seen on the streets, although recently this seems to have decreased - possibly the police have taken notice. Fake phone numbers are easily detected by locals and cater for the unsuspecting traveller. The best advice is to ask your Polish friends or your hotel concierge for the number of the taxi company they use and call them 10-15 minutes in advance (there's no additional cost). That's why locals will only hail taxis on the street in an emergency.
You can also find phone numbers for taxis in any city on the Internet, on municipal and newspaper websites. Some taxi companies, particularly in larger towns provide for a cab to be ordered online or with a text message. There are also stands, where you can call for their particular taxi for free, often found at train stations.
If you negotiate the fare with the driver you risk ending up paying more than you should. Better make sure that the driver turns the meter on and sets it to the appropriate fare (taryfa):
The prices would vary slightly between the taxi companies and between different cities, and there is a small fixed starting fee added on top of the mileage fare.
When crossing city limits (for example, when travelling to an airport located outside the city), the driver should change the tariff at the city limit.
Every taxi driver is obliged to issue a receipt when asked (at the end of the ride). You can inquire driver about a receipt (rachunek) before you get into cab, and resign if his reaction seems suspicious or if he refuses.
Cycling is a good method to get a good impression of the scenery in Poland. The roads can sometimes be in quite a bad condition and there is usually no bicycle lane. Car drivers are careless but most do not necessarily want to kill cyclists on sight which seems to be the case in some other countries.
Rainwater drainage of both city streets is usually in dreadful condition and in the country it is simply non-existent. This means that puddles are huge and common, plus pot-holes make them doubly hazardous.
Especially in the south you can find some nice places for bicycling; eg: along the rivers Dunajec (from Zakopane to Szczawnica) or Poprad (Krynica to Stary Sacz) or Lower Silesia (Zlotoryja - Swierzawa - Jawor). Specially mapped bike routes are starting to appear and there are specialised guide books available so ask a bicycle club for help and you should be just fine. Away from roads which join major cities and large towns you should be able to find some great riding and staying at agroturystyka (room with board at a farmer's house, for example) can be a great experience.
Hitchhiking in Poland is (on average) OK. Yes, it's slower than its Western (Germany) and Eastern (Lithuania) neighbors, but your waiting times will be quite acceptable! The best places to be picked up at are the main roads, mostly routes between Gdansk - Warsaw - Poznan and Krakow.
Use a cardboard sign and write the desired destination city name on it.
Do not try to catch a lift where it is forbidden to stop. Look on the verge of the road and there should be a dashed line painted there, not a solid one.
As in any country, you should be careful, there are several reports of Polish hitchhiking trips gone awry, so take basic precautions and you should be as right as rain.
The official language of Poland is Polish.
Foreign visitors should be aware that virtually all official information will usually be in Polish only. Street signs, directions, information signs, etc. are routinely only in Polish, as are schedules and announcements at train and bus stations (airports and a few major train stations seem to be an exception to this). When it comes to information signs in museums, churches, etc., signs in multiple languages are typically found only in popular tourist destinations.
Most of the young people and teenagers know English well enough. Since English is taught from a very young age (some start as early as 4 years old), only Poles who grow up in isolated towns or communities will not be given English lessons. Older Poles, particularly in rural regions, will speak little or no English at all. However, it is highly possible that they will speak either French, German or Russian, taught in schools as the main foreign languages until the 1990s.
It is wise to refrain from speaking Russian on account of the countries' historically turbulent relations. In spite of this, German is still taught in many schools throughout the country, and is especially popular in the Western districts. Ukrainian also has many similarities to Polish.
A few phrases go a long way in Poland. Contrary to some other tourist destinations, where natives scoff at how bad a foreigner's use of the native language is, Polish people generally love the few foreigners who learn Polish or at least try to, even if it is only a few phrases. Younger Poles will also jump at the chance to practice their English. Be advised that if you are heard speaking English in a public setting outside of the main cities and tourist areas people may listen in to practice their understanding of English.
Do your homework and try to learn how to pronounce the names of places. Polish has a very regular pronunciation, so this should be no problem. Although there are a few sounds unknown to most English speakers, mastering every phoneme is not required to achieve intelligibility; catching the spirit is more important.
Poland's recent history has made it a very homogeneous society today, in stark contrast to its long history of ethno-religious diversity; almost 99% of the population today is ethnic Polish; before World War II, it was only 69% with large minorities, mainly Ukrainians, Belarusians, and Germans and less than two-thirds Roman Catholic with large Orthodox and Protestant minorities as well.
Poland also had the largest Jewish community in Europe: estimated variously at 10% to 30% of Poland's population at the time. Outside of the very touristy areas of the major cities, you'll find that there are few, if any, foreigners. Most of the immigrants in Poland (in the main Ukrainians and Vietnamese) stay in the major cities for work. Poland's small group of contemporary ethnic minorities, Germans, Ukrainians, Belarusians, Silesians and Kashubians all speak Polish and few regional dialects remain except in the south and in small patches of the Baltic coast.
Ever since Poland joined the European Union, international travellers have rapidly rediscovered the country's rich cultural heritage, stunning historic sites and just gorgeous array of landscapes. Whether you're looking for architecture, urban vibes or a taste of the past: Poland's bustling cities and towns offer something for everyone. If you'd rather get away from the crowds and enjoy nature, the country's vast natural areas provide anything from dense forests, high peaks and lush hills to beaches and lake reserves.
Most of the major cities boast lovely old centres and a range of splendid buildings, some of them World Heritage sites. Many old quarters were heavily damaged or even destroyed in WWII bombings, but were meticulously rebuilt after the war, using the original bricks and ornaments where possible. Although remains of the Soviet Union and even scars of the Second World War are visible in most of them, the Polish cities offer great historic sight seeing while at the same time they have become modern, lively places. The capital, Warsaw, has one of the best old centres and its many sights include the ancient city walls, palaces, churches and squares. You can follow the Royal Route to see some of the best landmarks outside the old centre. The old city of Kraków is considered the country's cultural capital, with another gorgeous historic centre, countless monumental buildings and a few excellent museums. Just 50 km from there is the humbling Auschwitz concentration camp which, due to the horrible events it represents, leaves an impression like no other World Heritage site does. The ancient Wieliczka salt mine is another great daytrip from Krakow.
Once a Hanseatic League-town, the port city of Gdańsk boasts many impressive buildings from that time. Here too, a walk along the Royal Road gives a great overview of notable sights. Wrocław, the former capital of Silesia, is still less well-known but can definitely compete when it comes to amazing architecture, Centennial Hall being the prime example. Its picturesque location on the river Oder and countless bridges make this huge city a lovely place. The old town of Zamość was planned after Italian theories of the "ideal town" and named "a unique example of a Renaissance town in Central Europe" by UNESCO. The stunning medieval city of Toruń has some great and original Gothic architecture, as it is one of the few Polish cities to have escaped devastation in WWII. Other interesting cities include Poznań and Lublin.
With 23 national parks and a number of landscape parks spread all over the country, natural attractions are never too far away. Białowieża National Park, on the Belarus border, is a World Heritage site for it comprises the last remains of the primeval forest that once covered most of Europe. It's the only place where European Bisons still live in the wild. If you're fit and up for adventure, take the dangerous Eagle's Path (Orla Perć) in the Tatra Mountains, where you'll also find Poland's highest peak. Pieniński National Park boasts the stunning Dunajec River Gorge and Karkonoski National Park is home to some fabulous water falls. The mountainous Bieszczady National Park has great hiking opportunities and lots of wild life. Wielkopolska National Park is, in contrast, very flat and covers a good part of the pretty Poznań Lakeland. The Masurian Landscape Park, in the Masurian Lake District with its 2000 lakes, is at least as beautiful. Bory Tucholskie National Park has the largest woodland in the country and has a bunch of lakes too, making it great for birdwatching. The two national parks on Poland's coast are also quite popular: Wolin National Park is located on an island in the north-west, Słowiński National Park holds some of the largest sand dunes in Europe.
Castles & other rural monuments
The Polish countryside is lovely and at times even gorgeous, with countless historic villages, castles, churches and other monuments. Agrotourism is therefore increasingly popular. If you have a taste for cultural heritage, the south western parts of the country offer some of the best sights, but there's great stuff in other areas too. The impressive Gothic Wawel Castle in Krakow may be one of the finest examples when it comes to Poland's castles, but most of the others are located in smaller countryside towns. The large, red brick Malbork castle (in northern Poland) is perhaps the most stunning one in the country, built in 1406 and today the world's biggest brick Gothic castle. The castle of Książ, near Wałbrzych is one the best examples in historic Silesia, which also brought forward the now semi-ruined Chojnik castle, located on a hill above the town of Sobieszów and within the Karkonoski National Park. After surviving battles and attacks for centuries, it was destroyed by lightning in 1675 and has been a popular tourist attraction since the 18th century. The picturesque Czocha Castle near Lubań originates from 1329. A bit off the beaten track are the ruins of Krzyżtopór castle, in a village near Opatow. The Wooden Churches of Southern Lesser Poland are listed by UNESCO as World Heritage, just like the Churches of Peace in Jawor and Swidnica. The Jasna Góra Monastery in Częstochowa and the beautiful, World Heritage listed Kalwaria Zebrzydowska park are famous pilgrimage destinations. The lovely Muskau Park in Łęknica, on the German border, has fabulous English gardens and is a UNESCO listing shared with Germany.
Studying in Poland can be an incredible experience for foreigners. Foreign students can finance a B.A. education for as low as PLN24,000 and a M.A. education for as low as PLN20,000.
There are many international schools and great universities in Poland and of them the Jagiellonian University  in particular is renowned as member of the Coimbra Group and is also a core member of the Europaeum. The University of Warsaw is the top ranked public university in Poland. National Film School in Łódź is the most notable academy.
Private universities are a recent invention, but have been successful enough where several private schools are competing with the major public universities in terms of quality. Private schools may actually be cheaper for foreign students, who are not entitled to a free education at one of Poland's public universities.
At the moment Poland is one of the best places around the world to find a job as an English teacher. TEFL courses (that's Teaching English as a Foreign Language) are run in many cities across Poland. The demand for TEFL teachers is enormous and teaching language is a brilliant way to fund your travel and earn as you go.
Even if you don't have a work visa or EU/EEA citizenship, it should be no problem for you to offer private lessons. The going rate is about PLN30 for conversation or lessons. Doing these private lessons is a great way to make some money and meet some English-speaking educated, interesting Poles at the same time. In general students, private and in classes, are very friendly toward their teachers, inviting them for dinner or drinks, and sometimes acting quite emotional during their last lesson. Post your services on telephone poles and bus stops with an email or phone number, or use Gumtree, Poland's version of Craigslist.
Ekorki  good to make a profile if looking for longer term teaching gigs. More formal than Gumtree, and used by serious employers. A little bit like Monster.com in the US.
The currency in Poland is the Polish złoty (international abbreviation: PLN), often abbreviated locally as "zł". The złoty is divides into 100 grosze. Poland is expected to adopt the euro (€) sometime after 2020, but those plans are still tentative.
Private currency exchange offices (Polish: kantor) are very common, and offer euro or US dollar exchanges at rates that are usually comparable to commercial banks. Be aware that exchanges in tourist hot-spots, such as the train stations or popular tourist destinations, tend to overcharge. Avoid "Interchange" Kantor locations, easily recognised by their orange colour; the rates they offer are very bad.
Credit cards can be used to pay almost everywhere in the big cities. Popular cards include Visa, Visa Electron, MasterCard and Maestro. AmEx and Diners' Club can be used in a few places (notably the big, business-class hotels) but are not popular and you should not rely on them for any payments.
Cheques were never particularly popular in Poland and they are not used nowadays. Local banks do not issue cheque books to customers and stores do not accept them.
Export of antiquities
It is illegal to export goods older than 55 years that are of ANY historic value. If you intend to do so you need to obtain a permit from the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage.
Super and hypermarkets
Hypermarkets are dominated by the western chains: Carrefour, Tesco, Auchan, Real, Biedronka, Lidl, Netto. Some are open 24 hours a day and they are usually located in shopping malls or suburbs.
However, Poles shop very often at local small stores for bread, meat, fresh dairy, vegetables and fruits - goods for which freshness and quality is essential.
Prices in Poland are some of the lowest in the EU.
Many towns, and larger suburbs, hold traditional weekly markets, similar to farmers' markets popular in the West. Fresh produce, baker's goods, dairy, meat and meat products are sold, along with everything from flowers and garden plants to Chinese-made clothing and bric-a-brac. In season wild mushrooms and forest fruit can also be bought. Markets are held on Thursdays / Fridays and/or Saturdays and are a great way to enjoy the local colour. Prices are usually set though you can try a little good-natured bargaining if you buy more than a few items.
It is not difficult to avoid meat, with many restaurants offering at least one vegetarian dish. Most major cities have some exclusively vegetarian restaurants, especially near the city centre. Vegan options remain extremely limited, however.
Traditional Local Food
Traditional Polish cuisine tends to be hearty, rich in meats, sauces, and vegetables; sides of pickled vegetables are a favorite accompaniment. Modern Polish cuisine, however, tends towards greater variety, and focuses on healthy choices. In general, the quality of "store-bought" food is very high, especially in dairy products, baked goods, vegetables and meat products.
A dinner commonly includes the first course of soup, followed by the main course. Among soups, barszcz czerwony (red beet soup, a.k.a. borscht) is perhaps the most recognizable: a spicy and slightly sour soup, served hot. It's commonly poured over dumplings (barszcz z uszkami or barszcz z pierogami), or served with a fried pate roll (barszcz z pasztecikiem). Other uncommon soups include zupa ogórkowa, a cucumber soup made of a mix of fresh and pickled cucumbers; zupa grzybowa, typically made with wild mushrooms; also, flaki or flaczki - well-seasoned tripe.
Pierogi are, of course, an immediately recognizable Polish dish. They are often served along side another dish (for example, with barszcz), rather than as the main course. There are several types of them, stuffed with a mix of cottage cheese and onion, or with meat or even wild forest fruits. Gołąbki are also widely known: they are large cabbage rolls stuffed with a mix of grains and meats, steamed or boiled and served hot with a white sauce or tomato sauce.
Bigos is another unique, if less well-known, Polish dish: a "hunter's stew" that includes various meats and vegetables, on a base of pickled cabbage. Bigos tends to be very thick and hearty. Similar ingredients can also be thinned out and served in the form of a cabbage soup, called kapuśniak. Some Austro-Hungarian imports have also become popular over the years, and adopted by the Polish cuisine. These include gulasz, a local version of goulash that's less spicy than the original, and sznycel po wiedeńsku, which is a traditional shnitzel, often served with potatoes and a selection of vegetables.
When it comes to food-on-the-go, foreign imports tend to dominate (such as kebab or pizza stands, and fast-food franchises). An interesting Polish twist is a zapiekanka, which is an open-faced baguette, covered with mushrooms and cheese (or other toppings of choice), and toasted until the cheese melts. Zapiekanki can be found at numerous roadside stands and bars.
Poland is also known for two unique cheeses, both made by hand in the [Podhale] mountain region in the south. Oscypek is the more famous: a hard, salty cheese, made of unpasteurized sheep milk, and smoked. It goes very well with alcoholic beverages such as beer. The less common is bryndza, a soft cheese, also made with sheep milk (and therefore salty), with a consistency similar to spreadable cheeses. It's usually served on bread, or baked potatoes. Both cheeses are covered by the EU Protected Designation of Origin (like the French Roquefort, or the Italian Parmegiano-Reggiano).
If you want to eat cheaply, you should visit a milk bar (bar mleczny). A milk bar is very basic sort of fast food restaurant that serves cheap Polish fare. Nowadays it has become harder and harder to find one. It was invented by the communist authorities of Poland in mid-1960s as a means to offer cheap meals to people working in companies that had no official canteen. Its name originates from the fact that until late 1980s the meals served there were mostly dairy-made and vegetarian (especially during the martial law period of the beginning of the 1980s, when meat was rationed). The milk bars are usually subsidized by the state. Eating there is a unique experience - it is not uncommon that you will encounter people from various social classes - students, businessmen, university professors, elderly people, sometimes even homeless, all eating side-by-side in a 1970s-like environment. Presumably, it is the quality of food at absolutely unbeatable price (veggie main courses starting from just a few złotych!) that attracts people. However, a cautionary warning needs to be issued - complete nut jobs do dine at milk bars too, so even if you're going to for the food, you'll end up with dinner and a show. Curious as to what the show will entail? Well, each show varies, but most of them will leave you scratching head and require the suspension of reality.
Traditionally styled restaurants
All around Poland, but especially in the Lesser Poland and Silesia regions, you can find restaurant, styled in a traditional way. They are usually called chata, gospoda or oberża, which can be translated to a tavern or an inn. Usually they are made of wood and have plenty of colorful ornaments hanging on the walls. Inside you can feel as if you were in a 19th century family house. Restaurant's menu includes traditional dishes and beverages, and the food is often served in decorated tableware.
The drinking and purchasing age of alcoholic beverages is 18.
Poland is on the border of European "vodka" and "beer culture". Poles enjoy alcoholic drinks but they drink less than the European average. You can buy beer, vodka and wine. Although Poland is known as the birthplace of vodka, local beer seems to have much more appeal to many Poles. Another traditional alcoholic beverage is mead. Polish liqueurs and nalewka (alcoholic tincture) are a must.
Officially, in order to buy alcohol one should be over 18 years old and be able to prove it with a valid ID, however in practice most small stores found throughout Poland will not ID you if you look like you could possibly be 18.
Poland's brewery tradition began in the Middle Ages. Today Poland is one of top beer countries in Europe.
Although not well known internationally, Poland traditionally sports some of the best pilsner-type lagers worldwide. The most common big brands include:
Micro-breweries and gastro-pubs are on the rise, in particular in the larger cities, and many delicatessen or supermarkets carry smaller brands, including hand-crafted beers of many types.
Common brands are:
Deluxe (more expensive) brands include Chopin and Belvedere. Expect to pay about PLN100 a bottle (2007 prices). Most Poles consider these brands to be "export brands", and usually don't drink them.
Poland does make wines around Zielona Góra in Dolnośląskie, Małopolskie and Podkarpackie in the Beskids with the most famous Polish vineyard in of the Dionisos of Jasło ( website only in Polish) and Świętokrzyskie in central Poland. They used to be only available from the winery or at regional wine festivals, such as in Zielona Góra. But with a new law passed in 2008, this has changed and Polish wines are also available in retail stores.
As for imported wine, apart from the usual old and new world standards, there is usually a choice of decent table wines from central and eastern Europe, such as Austria, Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania, Moldova, the Balkans, and Georgia.
It winter, many Poles drink grzaniec (mulled wine), made of red wine heated with spices such as cloves, nutmeg, and ginger. A similar drink can be made with beer, although wine is the more popular method.
Mead - Miód Pitny is a traditional and historical alcohol drink in Poland. Mead is brewed from honey and has excellent unusual taste similar to wine. Original Polish mead contain 13-20% alcohol. Sometimes it can be very sweet. Mead is produced by several companies including Apis in Lublin Today Poles have a strange relationship with mead. All of them have heard of it, almost none have ever tried it.
Poles are very keen on beer and vodka, and you'll find that cocktails are often expensive but can be found in most bars in most major cities.
Tea and coffee
Throw stereotypes out the door. For Poles, one of the most important staples to quench their thirst is not wódka or beer, but rather tea and coffee.
When ordering a coffee, you'll find that it is treated with respect reminiscent of Vienna, rather than, say, New York. Which is to say: you'll get a fresh cup prepared one serving at a time, with table service that assumes you'll sit down for a while to enjoy it. Mass-produced to-go coffee remains highly unpopular, although chains such as Coffee Heaven have been making inroads. Curiously, there are still only a few Starbucks shops in the whole country.
Ordering a tea, on the other hand, will usually get you a cup or kettle of hot water, and a tea bag on the side, so that the customer can put together a tea that's as strong or as weak as they like. This is not uncommon in continental Europe, but may require some adjustment for visitors. Tea houses with large selection of good quality teas and a relaxing atmosphere are gaining popularity.
For the most part, a good coffee can be had for PLN5-10 a cup, while a cup of tea can be purchased for the same, unless you happen to order a small kettle, in which case you'll probably pay something between PLN20-30.
Drinking water with a meal is not a Polish tradition; having a tea or coffee afterwards is much more common. If you want water with a meal, you might need to ask for it - and you will usually get a choice of carbonated (gazowana) or still (niegazowana) bottled water, rather than a glass of tap water. As a result water is never free, and is pretty expensive too compared to the average price of a meal (about 4zl for one glass). Beware that even "still" bottled water, while not visibly bubbly, will still contain some carbon dioxide.
Carbonated mineral waters are popular, and several kinds are available. Poland was known for its mineral water health spas (pijalnie wód) in the 19th century, and the tradition remains strong - you can find many carbonated waters that are naturally rich in minerals and salts. You can also travel to the spas such as Szczawnica or Krynica, which are still operational.
Opinions regarding the safety of tap water vary: odds are it's OK, but most residents opt to boil or filter it anyway.
Lodging prices are no longer the bargain they used to be several years ago; now they're comparable to standard European prices. For the bargain hunter, standard tactics apply: if hotel prices are too much, look on the Internet for private rooms, pensions, or apartments for rent, which can sometimes be found for a very reasonable price. Best deals are usually offered off-season.
Hostels affiliated with the national hostelling association are often horrid options for backpackers because of imposed curfews. Additionally, Hostelling International (HI) affiliated hostels are frequently used by large school groups, which means young children may very well be screaming their heads off and running around the halls. Some private hostels are clean and welcoming, but others can be worse than HI hostels.
The European unified emergency number 112 is being deployed in Poland. By now, it certainly works for all mobile-phone calls and most landline calls. There are also three "old" emergency numbers that are still in use. These are:
Poland is generally a safe country. In fact, you are much less likely to experience crime in places like Warsaw or Krakow than in Paris or Rome. Overall, just use common sense and be aware of what you're doing.
In cities, follow standard city travel rules: don't leave valuables in the car in plain sight; don't display money or expensive things needlessly; know where you're going; be suspicious of strangers asking for money or trying to sell you something.
Pickpockets operate, pay attention to your belongings in crowds, at stations, in crowded trains/buses (especially to/from the airport), and clubs.
In any case, do not be afraid to seek help or advice from the Police (Policja) or the Municipal Guards (Straz Miejska). They are generally helpful, professional and can speak English if in larger towns or touristic spots.
Be astute on sleeper trains, as bag robberies sometimes happen between major stations. Ask for ID from anyone who asks to take your ticket or passport and lock backpacks to the luggage racks. Keep valuables on you, maintain common sense.
Thieves can also pump the sleeping gas into your train compartment to steal valuables from you. It can happen in almost any train. Try not to sleep in the train if you're traveling alone, as usually gas is pumped when the passengers are taking a nap. Not trying to demonize - this type of theft happens relatively rarely (e.g. my father, who is traveling by long-distance trains in Poland over 500 km every week, has never had such experience), but it's not unheard of.
Violent behavior is rare and if it occurs it is most likely alcohol-related. While pubs and clubs are generally very safe, the nearby streets may be scenes of brawls, especially late at night. Try to avoid confrontations. Women and girls are generally less likely to be confronted or harassed since the Polish code of conduct strictly prohibits any type of violence (physical or verbal) against women. By the same token, in case of a fight between mixed gender travelers, Polish men are likely to intervene on the side of the woman, regardless of the context.
As a result of German and Soviet terror, modern Poland is a very homogeneous society. While quite a lot of Asian and rather less of African migrants have settled in the larger cities in the last couple of years, it is still quite rare to see non-Caucasians on the Polish streets. If you are a non-white traveller do not be surprised (or alarmed) if some people (especially young children) stare at you with curiosity. The overwhelming majority of Poles are warm, hospitable people who are often curious to learn more about other cultures. Racist incidents are extremely rare, but, just like anywhere else in Europe, have taken place, so exercise caution and common sense. If possible, try to avoid football stadiums during and right after the matches and confrontations with football supporters' groups.
LGBT issues remain very controversial, still very much taboo (although decreasingly so), and routinely exploited by conservative politicians. Polish culture also has a long tradition of chivalry and strong, traditional gender roles. That said, in larger cosmopolitan areas, gays and lesbians shouldn't have a hard time fitting in, although trans visitors will immediately attract attention.
The quality of Polish roads has greatly improved in the recent years (mainly due to the EURO 2012 preparations) and it is now generally safe and comfortable to travel across the country. At the same time, there is still room for improvement, so be careful and watch out for potholes, especially in the country-side. Polish drivers often tend to ignore speeding restrictions (despite great numbers of speed cameras and hefty fines), do not feel compelled to do the same, as penalties for speeding are quite severe. Non-EU drivers are obliged by law to pay their fines on the spot and the EU ones can get their fines posted to their home countries.
Children younger than 12 years old and who are shorter than 150 cm (4’11”) must ride in a child car seat. You must use headlights year round, at all times, day and night. The use of cellular phones while driving is prohibited except for hands-free models.
Alcohol consumption is frequently a contributing factor in accidents. Polish laws provide virtually zero tolerance for driving under the influence of alcohol (defined as above 0.2‰ of alcohol in blood), and penalties for driving under the influence of alcohol are extremely severe.
Note that that this zero-tolerance policy extends to cyclists. By Polish law one is not allowed to cycle under the the influence of alcohol and the penalties for doing so are equally severe and may include a prison sentence.
In Polish, it takes some time before adults become familiar enough with one another to refer to each other using the equivalent of "you" ("ty", equivalent to the French "tu"). Often, people who have worked together or have lived as neighbors for years still do not use the form "you" when speaking to one another. Men are called "Pan" and women "Pani" (in direct address; as Polish nouns are declined, the form of "pan" and "pani" change depending on how they are used in a sentence). That said, most Poles would just use their first names when speaking in English (or in another language without a similar form). If you are speaking in Polish, make sure to use the correct form.
Some men, particularly older men, may kiss a woman's hand when greeting or saying goodbye. Kissing a woman's hand is considered to be chivalrous by some, but is more and more often seen as outdated. Handshakes are quite common; however, it is very important to remember that men should not offer their hand to a woman - a handshake is only considered polite if the woman offers her hand to the man first. For a more heartfelt greeting or goodbye, close friends of opposite sex or two women will hug and kiss three times, alternating cheeks.
A fairly common practice is for people to greet each other with a dzień dobry (good day) when entering elevators, or at the very least, saying do widzenia (good bye) when exiting the elevator.
It is also customary to greet shop-keepers or shop-assistants with "dzień dobry" upon entering a shop or at the beginning of a transaction at the cash register, and to say "do widzenia" before leaving the shop or at the conclusion of the transaction. Some Poles also use these greetings to the people standing in line when they enter a post office.
It is normal to say "dzień dobry" when entering a compartment on the train and to say "do widzenia" when you leave the compartment at your final destination, even if you have no other interaction with your fellow-passengers for the duration of your journey.
It is usual to bring a gift when invited to someone's home. Flowers are always a good choice. Florists' kiosks are ubiquitous; be sure to get an odd number of flowers, as an even number is associated with funerals. Poles will often bring vodka or whisky, but this depends on the level of familiarity, so tread carefully. Boxes of chocolates are also a very common present when invited to someone's home for a meal or special occasion; at First Communion time (May), you will find special boxed chocolates with First Communion pictures on them for the occasion.
It is customary to hold doors and chairs for women, as well as offering help with heavy packages (to aquaintances), getting heavy luggage down from overhead racks on the train (even strangers), and - if you know the woman - helping her on and off with her coat. Polish men in general have great respect for women and show women especial courtesy in these ways.
On busses and trams, seats are set aside for the elderly, handicapped, pregnant women and women travelling with very small children (who must sit on their mothers' laps). These seats are usually at the front of trams. You can find pictures indicating which seats these are. It is permitted for anyone to sit in these seats, but the young, men, and the able-bodied are expected to give up their seats to the less able, pregnant women and the elderly, especially those seats clearly marked for such people.
Men should not wear hats indoors, in particular when entering a church. Most restaurants, museums, and other public buildings have a cloakroom, and people are expected to leave bags and outerwear there.
The practice of placing one foot on a chair while reading or studying something is very much frowned upon. You can expect to be rebuked by other passengers if you put your feet up on the seats in a train while wearing shoes (in stocking feet, it may be accepted).
Poland can be described as either Central or Central-Eastern Europe. Poles themselves refer to the "old" EU west of its borders as "Zachód" (West) and to the states created after the break-up of the USSR as "Wschód" (East). Poles would not, however, consider Poland to be part of Western Europe or the "West". Try to avoid referring to the country or its people as Eastern European, otherzuse you will be looked at as if you know nothing about the world. Geographically this is borne out by drawing a line from the tip of Norway to Greece and from the Urals to the coast of Portugal. For better or worse, Poland remains at the cross-roads of Europe, in the continent's center, however in all definitions, always west to the centre. Religion, alphabet and political affiliances of Poland are clearly western, too. Unless you lived through the Cold War, relegating Poland to Eastern Europe will not be forgiven easily.
Another small faux pas involves confusing Polish language with Russian or German. Poles value their language highly as it was kept at a high price during a longer period of oppressive depolonization during the partitions and WWII. For example this means not saying 'spasibo' or 'danke' for 'thank you' just because you thought it was Polish or you didn't care. If you're not sure if your 'Polish' words are indeed Polish or not it would be seen as extra polite to ask.
The Poles may well be the most devoutly Catholic people in Europe. The late Pope John Paul II in particular is revered here, and the Church is held in generally high esteem. Bear this in mind if religion is brought up in conversation with a Pole. Also be sure to dress modestly if you enter a church, especially during services. Poles typically dress in their "Sunday best" for Mass; dressing in sloppy or very casual clothes will be seen by many as a lack of respect, unless it is clear that someone probably does not have more appropriate clothes for the occasion (for example, a poor person or a traveller).
It is generally considered offensive to enter a church for purely touristic purposes while a service is going on. Many churches that attract tourists (such a major cathedrals) post signs indicating that tour groups should not enter the church during services, but these signs may not be in your language. Also, do not talk loudly or take flash photos inside a church when there are people present kneeling in prayer (as there almost always will be).
Non-Catholics can attend Catholic worship, but should never go forward for communion (not even for a blessing - there is a general blessing at the end of Mass). Instead, non-Catholic visitors can remain seated or kneeling when the congregation goes forward.
Catholics customarily genuflect (bend the right knee, touching it to the floor) or at least stop and bow when passing in front of the tabernacle (usually behind the altar; look for a metal - usually gold - box, and for a light - often red or an oil lamp or candle - that is burning near it). Failure to make some gesture - such as a brief pause, turning toward the tabernacle - can be seen offensive to the faithful, especially in churches where non-Catholic tourists are not common.
For the faithful, a light burning near the tabernacle indicates the presence of God in the Eucharist, inside the tabernacle. This light is burning 364 days of the year in every Catholic church (i.e., it is only turned off once per year, when the tabernacle is empty and left standing open). Thus loud talking, running, audible conversations, eating and drinking, taking flash photos, posing for pictures or other behavior that seems oblivious to the presence of God is highly offensive.
Men and boys should always remove their hats upon entering a Catholic church and keep them off while inside the church.
The most famous religious shrine in Poland is the Shrine of our Lady of Częstochowa. Her feast day is August 26th. Pilgrims from all over Poland walk (some ride bicycles or take motor vehicles) from their home parishes to the shrine especially in the period between May and August, though year-round there is a constant stream of pilgrims to the site of the shrine, the monastery of Jasna Góra in Częstochowa.
In Warsaw, Roman Catholics can attend English Mass at St Paul the Apostle of Nations Church in Radna Street.
In Wrocław, Roman Catholics can attend English Mass on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation at the church of Sw Karol Boromeusz (Charles Borromeo) in Krucza Street. The Pastoral Centre for English Speakers in the parish also offers confession and can arrange weddings and baptisms in English, as well as catechesis for converts and pastoral care in English.
Holocaust and World War II
The Holocaust was the genocide of European Jewry. The Nazis murdered 90% of Poland's Jews. In addition other ethnic, religious and political groups were also targeted. It is now estimated that the Germans killed 3 million Polish Jews. Additionally, over 3 million non-Jewish Poles were also murdered, and many others were enslaved. Many members of minority groups, the intelligentsia, Roman Catholic priests, and political opponents of the Nazis were among the dead. The Soviets (who invaded Poland shortly after the Nazis and later occupied it after the World War II) also were determined to exterminate various sections of Polish society (including, among others, members of the anti-Nazi resistance, business owners and democratic activists). Between the census of 1939 and the census of 1945, the population of Poland had been reduced by over 30% from 35 million to 23 million.
In this context, it is important to be sensitive to the fact that the time of war and Soviet occupation was a tragedy for not only Polish Jews, but most all of Polish society. Poland was the only Nazi-occupied region where helping Jews was punishable by death to one's entire family - a policy that was to a large part implemented in response to the widespread solidarity between Jews and non-Jews in occupied Poland. It is seen in Poland as offensive to downplay the sufferings of non-Jewish members of Polish society during World War II. At the same time, there was some collaboration between Poles and Nazis ("szmalcownicy"), and this topic is still being hotly debated in Polish society.
Similarly to Germany and Austria, displaying Nazi symbols is illegal, except when used for educational purposes, and holocaust denial is a crime in Poland; both could result in a prison sentence. While exceptions are technically made for the Swastika when used in a religious context for Buddhists, Hindus and Jains, you may be subject to lengthy questioning by the police, if you choose to wear a swastika. That said, the laws against swastikas are not enforced nearly as strictly as they are in Germany, and neutral display of the symbol will almost never be a problem, although it is sure advised against. Prosecutors have been known to dismiss charges against swastikas due to the ambiguous nature of the symbol.
Due to the extremely painful experiences of Soviet occupation and brutal communist rule, the topic of communism (or socialism) are quite controversial and sensitive in Poland. While some tourist-oriented businesses might be playing with communist symbols or offer "communist-style tours" (especially in Cracow), many Poles see communist symbols and rhetoric as only slightly less unacceptable than Nazi swastikas or slogans. Unlike in the West, few people in Poland (and especially few elderly people) find communist symbols romantic, funny or trendy. For most of the Poles, communist times were marked by shortages of consumption goods, state-terror and closure of borders. Many Poles are proud of the Solidarity movement and its part in the breaking down of the European communist system. Bear these issues in mind if communism is brought up in conversation with Polish people and make sure not to disrespect anyone's memory or feelings regarding this issue.
There is the de facto monopoly operator for landline phones - TP (Polish: Telekomunikacja Polska), a subsidiary of France Telecom, renowned for its leaving-much-to-be-desired services. There is also a number of smaller, often regional operators (Dialog, Netia, NOM, Energis). They are mainly serving the business market.
There are four mobile phone operators in Poland: Plus  (code 260 01), T-Mobile (formerly ERA)  (260 02), Orange  (260 03) and Play . Most of them have information avalible in Polish only. Their prepaid servicies are often calls "na kartę". Prepaid brands or virtual brands with english information on it's web sides are as follow: Heyah , Klucz , Lycamobile  and Vectone . About 98% of the country's surface is covered by the standard European GSM 900/1800 MHz network, the remaining 2% are wildlife reserves or high mountains. UMTS is available in in about 50% of the country. Domestic call rates are roughly the same across all services. Prepaid starter kits with SIM card (called starter in Polish) are widely available in reasonable prices (from 5 to 20 PLN, of witch most is available for calls), in many shops (for example Żabka and most malls). Ask for starter and be sure to name the network You want. Accounts are valid for outgoing calls for few days, so it is good to fill them up for, lets say, 20 PLN (Doładowanie [do-wa-do-va-nye] in Polish, be sure to give the value you want).
Polish telephone numbers
All telephone numbers in Poland are 9 digits long, and never start with 0 - although they used to do so. Sometimes numbers are written the old way, that is often only the last 7 digits are listed, in which case you need to prefix the now obligatory area code (eg. 22 - Warsaw, 61 - Poznan, 12 - Krakow) - OR a 0 is included in the beginning, in which case it must be skipped. As of yet, it does not matter whether you call from a landline or a mobile.
There are some special numbers, notably:
Also, texting (= sending SMSes) to:
When calling overseas, use 00, or +, and then country code.
To call abroad from Poland:
To call to Poland from abroad, dial the Polish country code,48, then the number without the leading 0, as if calling from a domestic mobile phone.
International and roaming calls are expensive. To reduce your bill you can:
If you're bringing a laptop, Wireless LAN Hot-Spots are available in distinct places, sometimes free, otherwise not very cheap. Best chances of finding one are at airports, railway stations, in cafés, shopping malls and universities. You can ask in your hotel, but be prepared to pay. For those who need to connect at an internet cafe, fear not, because Poland's major cities have internet cafes.
With your mobile phone you can use: CSD, HSCSD, GPRS or EDGE, but the cost may be unattractive. UMTS/HSPA is available in almost every big and mid-size cities. If your phone is not SIM-locked, you may consider purchasing a pre-paid SIM card designed for data access. Every mobile operator offering his own pre-paid internet offer. You may purchase Era Blueconnect Starter, iPlus Simdata, Orange Free na kartę or Play Online na kartę. Internet service from Era, Plus and Orange covers all country area with GPRS/EDGE technology. In almost every big, medium and some small size cities it's possible to recive 3G/3.5G signal.
You can refill your Play account with 30 or 50 PLN
You can also consider buying a wireless 3G modem from Play
If you want to communicate with Poles, you'll need two programs - Gadu-Gadu , a Polish language instant messenger program, or Skype . Gadu-Gadu will be difficult to use for non-Polish speaking people, but alternatives such as Adium  (Mac OSX), Kadu  (Mac OSX/Linux), and Pidgin  (Linux, Windows), all of which can be used in English, can be helpful.
Most public toilets have turned to pay-per-use schemes; expect to pay PLN1-2 to use a public restroom, eg. at a bus station or at a fast-food place (unless you're a customer there).
Toilets for women are marked with a circle on the door, and toilets for men are marked with a triangle.
All restaurants and bars are forced by law to have toilets inside (but not all comply). It's not a common practice to use their toilet without ordering (at least coffee), but if you ask a waiter, he wouldn't mind in most cases. Sometimes you have to get a key to the toilet at the counter. If there seems to be a lack of public toilets you may want to try to visit McDonald's (or another fast food place) just to use the toilet.
In case of larger events or remote venues, organizers provide so called toi-toi toilets (from one of companies that service them). From outside, they have an appearance almost identical to the American "Porta-Potty." They are narrow plastic booths, usually blue, not very comfortable, often not very clean, and hardly ever with water or paper. Expect them to smell bad.