Poland, a country located in central Europe and officially known as The Republic of Poland, was initially settled by the Polanie tribe around the 8th century A.D. These tribes originally built their homes by the Warta River, but soon conquered other tribes until their territory resembled that of modern Poland. The first official recognition of Poland as a state began when its ruler, Mieszko I, was baptized into the Christian church in 966. The medieval town of Częstochowa was founded in the 11th century and the monastery established there received an icon of the Black Madonna in 1384; making it a medieval pilgrimage site. The town remains a popular tourist site since it contains the monastery as well as a number of medieval castle ruins. Poland became an official kingdom in 1025 and established the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth with neighboring Lithuania in 1569.
The 16th century is often known as the “Golden Age of Poland”, a time of stability and prosperity. Krakow, one of the largest and oldest cities in Poland, contains many beautiful works of art and architecture created during this time period, such as the Old Synagogue in their Jewish quarter. Since Krakow served as the capital of Poland throughout much of its history, it also contains a number of churches and other buildings established during Poland’s early history. Krakow’s Old Town is a UNESCO World Heritage site and possesses many shops, pubs and restaurants that are popular with tourists. You can take a day trip from Krakow to visit Zelazowa Wola, the birthplace of the famous musician Frederick Chopin. Other notable Old Towns or medieval cities throughout Poland include the town of Toruń, the historic center of Warsaw and the ancient city of Zamość.
An invasion by Sweden in the mid-seventeenth century, as well as many famines and epidemics, led to the end of the Commonwealth in 1795. Poland’s lands were divided between Prussia, Austria and the Russian Empire. It remained fractured until 1918, when it was reconstituted as the Second Polish Republic after the surrender of Germany in WWI.
Poland faced a crushing defeat at the beginning of World War II and was again partitioned into two parts; one part went to Germany and the other to the Soviet Union. Neither totalitarian regime was kind to the Polish people; they lost over 6 million people during this time period to gulags (work camps) in the Soviet Union and concentration camps established by the Germans. Auschwitz, one of the best known camps, has been turned into a museum that serves as a memorial to the victims of Nazism. Visitors to the former camp come away with a sobering picture of the cruelty humanity can show towards others.
After a period of time as the socialist Republic of Poland, Poland overthrew their communist rule in 1989 and emerged as a modern nation that is part of NATO, the European Union and the World Trade Organization. Their temperate climate and bountiful natural attractions make Poland a popular tourist attraction, as well as one of the most populous countries in Europe with an estimated 38 million people living there (as of 2008).
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