Poland’s turbulent history is reflected in the urbanism, architecture and art of four of Central Europe’s most beautiful cities, Krakow, Warsaw, Torun and Gdansk. Their rich patrimony consists of great churches, fine royal and aristocratic palaces, beautiful merchant houses and some of Europe’s grandest castles. Once Central Europe’s most powerful Renaissance state, Poland was annihilated after its 1795 partition by Russia, Prussia and the Habsburg Empire. Reborn after WWI, then devastated by the Nazis, it was subjected by the Soviets after WWII. It ultimately led the fight for liberation against the USSR during the late 1980s.
Dynastic monuments such as Krakow’s Wawel Royal Castle and Warsaw’s Royal Palace reflect a unique, highly creative adaption of Western Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque forms. Medieval Poland derived great riches from its wheat and from salt, mined at the vast Wieliczka Salt Mine. This mine incorporates a huge subterranean chapel carved entirely from salt. The country’s great wealth and sophisticated intellectual culture facilitated the inauguration of Krakow’s University, one of the world’s oldest, where the great Nicholas Copernicus studied. Among other great Poles, Frédéric Chopin and Marie Curie hold pride of place. Poland’s role as the bastion of Catholicism against Russian Orthodoxy, Swedish Protestantism, Turkish Islam and Communist secularism, is expressed in Krakow’s Saints Stanislaus and Wenceslas Cathedral. This is also true of Warsaw’s St John’s Cathedral. Poland’s beautiful city churches include Krakow’s Church of St Mary, with its remarkable Veit Stoss altarpiece. Krakow’s marvellous Royal Collection includes Leonardo da Vinci’s Lady with an Ermine. Poland struggled against the fearsome Teutonic Knights whose headquarters, Malbork Castle, was one of the largest, most advanced citadels of its time. Gdansk’s medieval port, rich Town Hall, and Artus Court (guildhall), and Torun’s lovely merchant houses, reflect their membership of the powerful Hanseatic League.
Poland’s darker history is reflected in Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp and Monument to the 1944 Warsaw Uprising. Its eventual triumph can be enjoyed in the Danzig ship yards, where its revolutionary union, Solidarity, has an evocative memorial.