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The Central Europe Diverse Cultural Experience

Surrounded by many other countries, Poland contains incredible and interesting history because of its large diversity.

Geography

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The natural landscape of Poland can be broadly divided into three relief groups: lowlands, highlands, and mountains.

The eastern extremes of Poland are typical for eastern Europe, while the rest of the country is more like western Europe by climate, structure and the character of its vegetation.

Poland is a relatively low-lying country. 91.3 percent of its territory lies below 300 m above sea level.

The highest point is Mt Rysy in the Tatras, while the lowest point is located west of the village of Raczki Elblaskie.

The highest-lying settlement is Gubalówka (today part of the municipality of Zakopane), the lowest-lying settlement is Zólwiniec.

There are three main mountain ranges in Poland: the Carpathians, the Sudetan Mountains, and the Góry Swietokrzyskie (Holy Cross Mountains).

The longest rivers are the Vistula, Oder, Warta, Bug, Narew, San, Notec, Pilica, Wieprz and the Bóbr.

Poland has some 9,300 lakes with surface areas over 1 ha; they make up 1 percent of the country's territory. The largest is Lake Sniardwy in the Mazurian Lake District, and the deepest is Lake Hancza north of Suwalki.

The structure of the relief can be divided more specifically into a series of four distinct zones.

To the north lie the marshes and the dunes of the Baltic sea.

To the south is a belt of morainic stretch with thousands of lakes, the southernmost border of which marks the limit of the last ice sheet.

In the the center of Poland is the third zone, which includes the central lowlands. This is the site of agriculture in places where loess was deposited above the relatively sterile soils.

The fourth zone is composed of the mountains and highlands to the south; though limited in size, it offers a most spectacular landscape. Along the southernmost border of the country are the Sudety mountains and the Carpathian ranges and their foothills.

History

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European Institutions

Poland's reentry into Western Europe, from which it had been forcibly separated since the end of World War II, was a gradual process. By 1996 the country had become a member of the Council of Europe, established economic ties with the European Union (EU), and been admitted to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.

In 1999 Poland became a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Poland (with other candidate countries) finished the accession negotiations in December 2002. The Accession Treaty was signed in Athens on April 16th, 2003. After the ratification of that Treaty, Poland and other 9 countries became the members of EU on May 1st, 2004.

Euro-regions

Since 1990, 16 Euroregions have been created alongside Poland's borders. Euroregions are the areas of trans-border co-operation based on agreements signed by the local authorities of adjacent countries.

The aims of the Euroregions are to enhance relations between neighboring regions, develop their infrastructure, foster economic cooperation, protect the environment, and to promote tourism, cultural and educational activities.

Famous Poles

If it hadn’t been for the Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus and his paper “On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres”, modern Europe would have continued much longer in the belief that the Sun orbits the Earth. Today, his name is given to universities, observatories, space probes and even craters on the Moon and Mars.

John Paul II, Karol Wojtyla (1920-2005) was born, educated and ordained in Poland. The pontificate of JPII was characterized by openness to dialogue with the world and active spiritual work. He was the first in the history of the Church to hold prayer meetings with all religions.

Frederic Chopin – one of the greatest pianists of the 19th century – created a playing style which is still copied by musicians around the world, including those who come to Poland to perform at Chopin festivals.

Another pioneer in her field was Maria Sklodowska-Curie (Marie Curie), the first woman to become a doctor of physics and a professor at the Sorbonne. She discovered polonium and radium and did research into radioactivity and its use in cancer treatment. Twice awarded the Nobel Prize, she eventually died of leukemia.

Other Polish Nobel prize winners include: Henryk Sienkiewicz, Wladyslaw Reymont, Czeslaw Milosz, Lech Walesa and Wislawa Szymborska.

Nature

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Poland is a country of great biological diversity: about 75 thousand species of plants, 39 thousand micro-organisms and fungi, and about 2750 vascular plant species and sub-species. Also, there are about 33-45 thousand animal species living in about 360 types of ecosystems.

Because some changes in the natural environment caused by economic development occurred in Poland later than in the west of Europe, some species and habitat types which have disappeared in the West, still exist in Poland.

Also, the long tradition of nature protection in Poland has helped to save much of the great European primeval forest – Puszcza Bialowieska (Bialowieza Forest). There we can see how the nature of Central Europe used to look like centuries ago.

The biggest animals in Poland are the European bison. By the 18th century, the European bison was almost extinct, with only small herds remaining in the Bialowieza Forest and the Caucasus. At present, some 250 bison range freely in the Bialowieza Forest. The entire bison population in Poland numbers about 660 animals. The species is now bred in most European countries- all European bison around the world have ancestors from Bialowieza, and this is the only case in history when a species of this size has been saved by regeneration breeding.

There are also other places hardly touched by the civilization, like the wild and desolate Bieszczady Mountains with their spectacular pastures known as poloniny, and the inaccessible flood plains along the Biebrza River, home to many rare bird species, sometimes found nowhere else in Europe.

There are 23 national parks in Poland with total area of ca. 780,000 acres, which cover approximately 1 per cent of the country's area. Polish National Parks are exceptional in Europe for their range of wildlife, their size and varying geographical interest.

Agrotourism

There are over 2 million farms in Poland, and about 10,000 of them receive guests. The list of these farms can be obtained from regional agro-tourism associations.

Those people welcoming guests to their farms are passionate people who have abandoned the city life to live closer to nature. They are eager to tell you about the local attractions and very often will organize thematic excursions and rent out the necessary equipment. It might be rafting on the Biebrza River, and bird watching, or following the traces of the Lemko culture in Beskid Niski, or even biking or cross-country skiing in the Suwalki region.

When choosing your agro-touristic lodging it is worth checking what their standards are. Places meeting the minimal standards are classified as category 1, and those in the highest standard, category 4, have a separate bathroom, cooking space and TV. Summer rental houses are a separate category. They usually have more than 3 bedrooms, a fireplace, dining room and a kitchen. Sometimes they are also equipped with a sauna – or in the Mazury and Suwalki region – a hot tub.

The hosts usually offer meals, often prepared using ecological products. Bread baked in burdock leaves, milk straight from the cow, homemade cheese, honey still with the scent of the forest, fried saffron milk caps, or trout from the river. And for dessert: a glass of liquor. Prices range from 40 zl to 140 zl for a double bedroom, and full board is from 20 zl to 60 zl per person.

Agro-tourist farms offer additional attractions: mini zoos (very often with exotic animals), playgrounds for the children and the opportunity to help around the farm (feeding hens, milking the cows). And for an extra fee (usually small) you can participate in thematic workshops: bee keeping, pottery, painting, sculpting.