For many countries, 11 November is the day which commemorates the ending of the First World War. Poland remembers this day as the beginning of its identity as an independent state after 123 years of rule in-turn by the Russian, Prussian and Austro-Hungarian Empires.
With a long list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, preserved city centres, Gothic castles, unspoilt nature reserves and cultural gems, Poland certainly has a lot to celebrate. Every year the residents, officials and veterans gather together at midday on Pilsudski Square, Warsaw, to witness the official Changing of the Guard who protect the eternal flame by the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, the only remains of the former neoclassical Saxon Palace. The Srodmiescie district, the heart of the capital, invitingly displays its young collection of museums and galleries to the historical enthusiast. Its Umschlagplatz serves as a valuable icon of the Second World War and the architecturally inspiring Palace of Culture and Science – the tallest building in Poland – stands as a significant souvenir from last century’s era of Soviet influence. Still within the inner city’s borders, Poland’s largest park, Lazienski, may be found together with its namesake palace, home to the last king of Poland.
Throughout the country, celebrations may be found in the form of ceremonies and gatherings. Former capital, traveller’s central and one of the most traditional cities in Poland, Krakow hosts an annual parade in the vivacious and pulsating Main Market Square (the biggest medieval market square in the world) of Stare Miasto. This historical haven marks the highlights of cultural Poland: a heritage filled with castles, merchant halls, palaces, squares, towers and monasteries. Considered to be one of the most beautiful in Central Europe, the Renaissance Wawel Castle stands on a hill overlooking the rest of the old city; it has for many centuries served as a home for the numerous kings and queens of Poland and now functions as one of the most outstanding museums in the country.
A sight to see is the celebrity Bishop’s Palace, home to Pope John Paul II and traditionally a residency of the city’s bishops since the 14th century. Krakow is blessed with a rich abundance of Gothic architecture, from the Sukiennice Cloth Hall of the same era once filled with merchants and banquets to the sturdy Barbakan outpost which had defended the Florian Gate against potential invasions from the Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans, having been defeated in the 17th century Battle of Vienna, had unintentionally inspired an early coffee-drinking tradition amongst the Poles, which may be practised today in any of Krakow’s artistic and quaint cafés. Nightfall shows a new side to Stare Miasto as people continue their festivities in the inviting selection of friendly bars and atmospheric clubs, many of which may be founded in the city’s roomy medieval cellars.
A short distance outside of Krakow lies the town of Wieliczka, world famous for its spectacular 700 year traditional salt mines. A stunning labyrinth of tunnels, chapels, chambers and galleries carved entirely out of salt may be found underground and 135m into the earth an established sanatorium treats overnight patients from respiratory medical conditions.
To the west of Warsaw lies Poland’s first capital, Poznan, reputed to be the birthplace of the Polish nation and having the first Polish cathedral, St Peter’s and St Paul’s, situated on the famous Cathedral Island (Ostrow Tumski). Legend tells that the city was founded and named on this spot by three brothers, Rus, Lech and Czech, reunited for the first time after many years.
The natural beauty of Poland is just as significant as its inspirational cities. On the outskirts of Poznan lies Wielkopolski National Park: originally derived from an ancient glacier, a vast reserve protects its forests and lakes. On the Eastern border the Bialowieza National Park is shared with Belarus: over 100km² of flourishing forest area and home to many wild mammals and birds, including the European bison and the Eurasian pygmy-owl. At the country’s most northern point lie layers of golden and silver unadulterated sand dunes at Slowinski National Park, emerging from the waves and winds of the chilling Baltic Sea.
What are the productive aspects of a nation celebrating its independence?