A Tour of Southern Poland
The country of Poland has many unique places to visit and offers an eclectic itinerary for both the seasoned traveler and the first-time visitor. There are endless sights to see in the remainder of the country but this tour will focus on the bright spots in the southern regions of Silesia and Lesser Poland (Małopolska). The overview includes the towns of Wrocław, Opole, Częstochowa, and the concentration camp Auschwitz-Birkenau. The outline will culminate in the mountain town of Zakopane.
Wrocław Town Square
Although churches and cathedrals abound, they are not the most important reason for visiting Wrocław. The vibrant Town Square is an important stop for people-watchers, food and drink connoisseurs, and independent art collectors. During warmer months, the square is populated with merchants, craftsmen, and artisans all displaying unique wares in all price ranges.
For a museum experience unlike any other, one must visit The Panorama (Panorama Racławicka). An enormous 360-degree masterpiece, The Panorama vividly details the Battle of Racławicka. Debuting in 1894, The Panorama features numerous battle scenes of the struggle between Polish and Russian forces. Being 360 degrees allows the audience not to focus on a single setting, but forces an assimilation of heartbreak, joy, humanity, and nationalism. Tours last 30 minutes and for the price of a ticket non-native speakers are given complimentary audio guides in numerous languages including English, German and French.
Other side trips in Wrocław:
Soccer enthusiasts can visit the Municipal Stadium (Stadion Miejski). The stadium was built as a home for local soccer club Śląsk Wrocław and was a featured stadium in the Euro Cup Championship of 2012.
The towering Wrocław Cathedral is also recommended for the day-tripper. Its location traces its lineage back over 1,000 years and is home to the largest pipe organ in Poland.
Following the Odra River southeast of Wrocław brings visitors to the last small town on the trek to Krakow. Although the term “small town” is loosely used considering it is home to 125,000 Poles, Opole features many modern amenities alongside its more ancient roots. Secluded from vast swathes of tourists, Opole offers numerous daytime activities along with fine evening dining.
An important stop is its open-air ethnographic museum which allows visitors to travel back two, three, or even four centuries. It demonstrates first-hand how life was like for pre-industrial Poland. Many of the buildings and accessories, while not always authentic, are painstakingly detailed re-creations. From small chapels and schools to a blacksmith’s forge one can see Poland on a more domestic, rural, and simple level.
Other side trip in Opole:
For those who don’t mind a short drive, visit Moszna Castle for an eclectic yet picturesque experience. Now a convalescence home, Moszna’s true beauty lies in its grandiose construction which is augmented by well-kept gardens.
Black Madonna of Częstochowa
Pope John Paul II
For art enthusiasts a trip to southern Poland would not be complete without a visit to the Jasna Góra monastery. A popular pilgrimage site, Jasna Góra is a vast complex requiring multiple hours of tourism. Its most significant artifact is the painting known as the Black Madonna of Częstochowa. Many legends surround the piece, the most well-known being its involvement in the Siege of Jasna Góra in 1655. Under attack by the Swedish, the defending monks were vastly out-numbered but were victorious after a month-long siege. Many considered the victory a miracle and attributed the seemingly divine intervention to nothing other than the painting itself. The markings on the painting are said to have stopped bullets fired at the monks holding the painting in front of them for protection.
The town of Częstochowa takes the upkeep and residence of the Black Madonna seriously. During pilgrimages to the monastery, townspeople can be seen handing out supplies to the Catholic masses en route to pay their respects to the icon.
The remainder of the monastery is as interesting and awe-striking as the painting itself. Visitors can see countless displays of miracles performed. Called relikwia by the Polish, these charms or relics are sent to the monastery by people who have been cured by the healing powers of the Church. In many cases, a relikwia does not need to be attributed to a large conglomeration such as the Church, but can be attributed to a singular miracle-worker such as the Black Madonna or Pope John Paul II.
To contrast the peaceful motifs expressed by religious art and relics one need only to step onto the tops of the walls. Crowning the walls the most common items seen are the large cannon. The cannon remind tourists that although currently a peaceful monastery, Jasna Góra was not always fortunate enough to have friendly neighbors in previous centuries.
Arguably the most important tourist site in Poland the Nazi death camp Auschwitz-Birkenau is not for the faint of heart. Enthusiasts seeking insightful examples of how the human mind can achieve senseless acts of murder will find this melancholy property both sobering and emotional.
Today the cities of Auschwitz (Oświęcim) and Birkenau (Brzezinka) are split by railway lines. Likewise, the grounds themselves are also split: Birkenau to the west and Auschwitz to the east. Uninformed tourists will soon realize that Birkenau, not Auschwitz, was the site responsible for the most destruction. Upon the grounds of Birkenau – the largest of the two sites- sit the most notable and famous features of the death camp: the gas chambers, the acres of rectangular wooden barracks, and the iconic entryway through which boxcars full of Jews, Gypsies, and other Untermensch arrived.
One enters Birkenau through the same ingress the former prisoners entered. Directly ahead are the tracks leading to a depot as well as the gas chambers; to the left are the women’s barracks; to the right are the men’s barracks.
Good shoes or hiking boots are advisable – the terrain is primarily gravel, brick, grass, and rocky dirt. Viewing the bare minimum of Birkenau takes approximately two hours; three or more hours are needed for in-depth research or reflection. Tourists may walk at leisure as all sites are included in the entry fee, although a guided tour is helpful and available in many languages.
The smaller, more sinister exhibits can be seen in the Auschwitz side of the area. As in Birkenau, Auschwitz features its own famous entry. Countless photographs and films have used the large black gate as its centerpiece. Above the gate appear the German words “Arbeit Macht Frei” which translate to “Work Is Liberating” or “Work Sets You Free”. It was a constant reminder to the prisoners that once inside, there was no coming out.
Most of Auschwitz’s exhibits are indoors in one of many large stone buildings. The buildings are uniform in size as individualism of any form was strictly forbidden. Each separate building houses a specific museum. Among the most interesting are collections of suitcases, photographs, hand-written letters, toiletries, shoes, and perhaps the most harrowing, an entire room full of human hair.
Due to the age and nature of the exhibits, photography and film are forbidden throughout most indoor areas. Because of the nature of violent displays – which include execution chambers, gallows, and grisly photographs – it is recommended that children do not enter the grounds.
Arguably the most scenic area in the south of Poland, the resort town of Zakopane lies on the northern and eastern faces of the Tatra Mountains. The Tatras are part of the Carpathian Mountain range and are the border of Poland and Slovakia.
In winter, Zakopane is Poland’s premier ski and winter resort. In summer, although not as busy, Zakopane boasts some of the best panoramic views in all of Poland. Fans of hiking, mountain climbing, window shopping, and people watching can find everything they want and more in Zakopane.
Zakopane is famous for its unique Góral culture. It is impossible to open your eyes in Zakopane and not see a trace of this Góral culture, whether it is architecture, food, or costumes. Many inhabitants of the city still dress in traditional Góral clothing; along most roadways or street corners visitors will find small cheese stands which sell the Góral’s well-known smoked cheese, Oscypek. The architecture of most homes and buildings are unique to Zakopane. The style is best described as both simple and ornamental; the foundations, walls, and roofs are largely done in a simplistic style, but windows, eaves, columns, and borders are richly decorated. Most buildings are wooden inside and out and fabricated color is kept to a minimum, allowing the beauty of the wood to blend its own tones.
For a vigorous day set on burning off the rich calories of Góral cuisine, visitors can climb up or down one of any number of mountains. The most popular hike leads to Morskie Oko (Eye of the Sea), the largest lake in the Tatra Mountains. Besides being a striking example of natural beauty, Morskie Oko is a launching point for experienced mountain climbers wishing to climb higher. One can reach Morskie Oko on foot which can take over three hours, or can travel by horse-drawn carriage for a speedier alternative.
Items to Consider
Although smaller towns in Poland do not have as many English-speakers as its large cities, tourist areas such as those listed above typically provide guided tours in multiple languages. Visitors are encouraged to dine and sleep at or near these tourist sites as restaurants and hotels surrounding them usually have dual-language menus or price guides.
Poland’s currency is the złoty and, like many European countries, charges a small fee to use its public restrooms; whenever you leave for a day make sure to bring along a pocketful of small denomination złoty coins.
Also, a healthy water source can at times be difficult to find. It is recommended that visitors plan ahead and pack personal water bottles or budget extra money to buy water on site.