267 Shades of Amber
When you buy a piece of amber jewellery or a little amber charm for your bracelet, you are holding in your hands an object which is on average 40 million years old but it can be as old as 90 million years. Baltic amber is a natural substance of extraordinary beauty and properties. It is said to have therapeutic benefits, and sinks in fresh water but floats on the surface in saltwater. It originates from the resin, which protected pre-historic coniferous trees against insect and fungal attack. When the liquid solidified it trapped organic matter such as needles, insects and even small reptiles inside it preserving them forever. Today amber is often found washed up on the beaches after large storms.
Amber appears in all shapes and sizes - the largest piece ever found weighed 9.75 kg (approx 21.5 pounds) and also comes in an amazing range of colours (over 267 are officially recognised).
Since medieval times Gdańsk has been the main centre of amber craftsmanship, with a guild established in 1477. The ‘Amber Route’ leading from the Baltic region through Italy to Egypt and linked to the ‘Silk Route’ was established as early as 1500 BC. The Gdańsk masters produced many beautiful artefacts, which were sought after all over Europe and beyond.
Since the collapse of Communism, both Gdańsk and the amber crafts industry have enjoyed a renaissance, and once again stunning pieces of Polish amber jewellery are produced to suit any pocket.
The Story of Mysterious Mines
The medieval salt mine in Wieliczka near Kraków is one of the most famous tourist attractions in Poland. Its breathtaking underground chapel carved entirely out of salt is visited by thousands of tourists every year. What is less known, is that since the 16th Century salt was prized for its health properties and believed to cure a range of ailments from snake bites and throat conditions to gout and ulcers. In the 19th Century a treatment centre was set up underground in the mine, when the local physician Dr Feliks Boczkowski observed that the miners did not suffer from catarrh or allergies. The centre still exists today. Some, 135 metres below the ground, in a beautiful salt chamber know as Lake Wassel, patients gather on the bank of the underground salt lake for treatment of respiratory conditions as well as allergies. The treatment is so successful that a second chamber was opened in 2008 in a set of old underground stables.
While mining salt brought health benefits another mine, some 280 km west of Wieliczka brought poison and death. In a small area in the Sudeten mountains in south-west Poland, there is a place called Złoty Stok, where since 7th Century gold has been mined. Although there was no Gold Rush, in the 16th Century it mined about 8% of the total European gold production and it is possible that gold from Złoty Stok was used to finance the voyage of Christopher Columbus to the New World. But with promise of fortune came misfortune. Unknown to miners and investors at the time, the heat used to extract gold from the rock also released arsenic, which was slowly poising the miners. The introduction of gunpowder into mines did not improve the situation either, and it was not until the 19th Century that safer methods of gold mining were found. Today, the mine is a tourist attraction where in the café you can have a cup of tea or coffee with a splash of arsenic, which they tell me is not life threatening.
The Story of Old Masters in Poland
The turbulence of Polish history was one of the main contributing factors to an almost complete loss of precious works of art in Poland. During the course of numerous wars, invasions and the Partitions these were robbed and taken away from Poland. Some were returned, most were not, so it is astonishing that you can see any world class art in Poland at all – a fact worth remembering when visiting any Polish gallery or a museum.
Probably the best known painting is Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘Lady with the Ermine’, housed in Kraków. It is a portrait of Cecilia Gallerani, the mistress of Lodovico Sforza, Duke of Milan painted by Leonardo around 1483-90. It’s one of only four portraits of women painted by Leonardo, the Mona Lisa being the most famous. Unlike the Louvre, in the Czartoryski Museum where the Lady with the Ermine can be seen, you are not hurried by crowds of tourists. You can often admire this fine painting in an atmosphere of solitude and intimacy.
The second world class painting owned by the Czartoryski Museum is ‘The Landscape with the Good Samaritan’ by Rembrandt van Rijn (1638). Rembrandt was fascinated by biblical stories and characters and the painting is one of many with this theme. Incidentally, there are two more paintings by Rembrandt with Polish connections: The Polish Nobleman (1637) and The Polish Rider (1655). Sadly, neither is housed in Poland.
But the third painting owned by the Czartoryski collection is most famous by its absence but that’s a different story…
Meat Under the Saddle
Polish cuisine has been influenced as much by geography, climate and soil as by history.
In the past, Poland was one of the most cosmopolitan countries in Europe and the strong influence of German, Hungarian, Jewish, French and Italian cuisine is one of the reasons why Polish cuisine is difficult to define and varied in equal measure.
Poles studying at medieval universities such as in Bologna brought with them Italian influences which were later enhanced by Bona Sforza, an Italian wife of King Zygmunt the Old, who introduced tomatoes (pomidory) amongst other ingredients. The elegant court of Henry de Valois – the first elected King of Poland popularised sophisticated French dishes and ingredients. Beef was brought to Poland in a rather unconventional way by Tartars who used to place a piece of raw meat under their saddle to make it more tender.
Severe, long winters forced Poles to master the art of food preservation and gave them a taste for vodka which aided the digestion of fatty foods eaten in winter. Sauerkraut (shredded fermented cabbage), which is rich in vitamin C is used in winter salads and is the main ingredient for bigos (hunters’ stew). Poles like eating soups such as rosół (chicken stock soup) and barszcz (beetroot soup). Pierogi (the Polish relative of ravioli) are also very popular. Since one third of the country is covered in forests, venison, mushrooms and berries are also part of the staple Polish diet.
The classic ingredient of Polish cuisine is meat, usually pork. Polish ham is famous for its quality and taste, and flattened pork chops coated in flour, egg and breadcrumbs (kotlet schabowy) constitute the main part of a traditional Sunday lunch.
Wafer, Water and Birch Twigs
Polish culture is rich in customs and traditions, which have survived for centuries. The most important ones are related to Christmas, Easter and Corpus Christi.
Although many Christmas traditions have been adopted from other European countries, two remain uniquely Polish – sharing the wafer before the Christmas Eve meal and leaving a spare seat at the table for an unknown guest who happens to look for shelter and knock at the door.
Easter Monday is called Śmingus-Dyngus and traditionally it is the time when boys pour water over girls. The number of times a girl had to change into dry clothes was a good indication of her popularity among the boys. The tradition dates back to pagan times when water was believed to have magical cleansing powers. In the Christian tradition, the pouring of water is reminiscent of baptism and the cleansing of sins and evil.
Corpus Christi (the Body of Christ) is the Catholic feast observed on the Thursday after Trinity Sunday when the Eucharist is carried in a procession to four outdoor alters decorated with the twigs of birch trees. In Poland, the tradition dates back to 1320, and it has been so strong that even successive Communist regimes did not dare to abolish it, although they did their best to discourage people from attending. Today, it still remains a public holiday.
The Finest Horsemen in Europe
Poland has a long and glorious equestrian tradition. The Polish cavalry is legendary, and its tradition goes back to medieval mounted knights. One of the first glorious victories came in 1410 during the battle of Grunwald when the combined Polish and Lithuanian armies defeated the Teutonic Knights.
In 1503 the first hussar unit was formed – considered to be an elite of the Polish army. Well trained and well equipped, famous for the wings attached to the back of their armour they were almost unstoppable. Rarely defeated, they often proved to be a decisive factor in battles against an overwhelming enemy, as in the Battle of Kircholm (1605) and the Battle of Vienna (1683).
In the 18th century, the Polish cavalry evolved and the hussars were replaced with the uhlans. Fighting alongside the French army during the Napoleonic Wars they proved to be effective in battle and influential in fashion; both their tactics and their uniforms were copied by many other European armies. Their most famous victory came in the Battle of Somosierra (1808). It was only World War II that brought to an end the cavalry regiments in the Polish army.
With this illustrious history in mind, it is not surprising that Poland also has a long tradition of breeding horses. Polish bred pure Arabian horses were instrumental in creating and maintaining successful the cavalry regiments, and they are still highly prized all over the world. Studs such as the one in Janów Podlaski attract some of the best known and wealthiest buyers. For those with less deep pockets, there are numerous horse-riding activities all over Poland.
The Polish contribution to world musical heritage is considerable, although it is confined mainly to what Poles call ‘serious music’ (muzyka poważna) – classical music (with some noble exceptions)
Stanisław Moniuszko ( 1819-1872) is often referred to as the father of Polish national opera. His most famous operas are Halka and Straszny Dwór (the Haunted Manor). Created when Poland did not exist as a country, they emphasised Polish customs and traditions, echoed Polish traditional dances and appealed to patriotic sentiments.
Those sentiments were also strongly present in the life and work of undoubtly the most famous Polish composer - Fryderyk Chopin (1810 – 1849). Born in Żelazowa Wola, near Warsaw he grew up in the beautiful Mazovian countryside, listening to traditional Polish folk music: mazurkas and polonaises, which became the main influences in his work. Although he spent most of his short and tragic life in exile, his love of Poland was never extinguished. After his death, Chopin’s heart was brought to Poland and laid in the Holy Cross church in Warsaw underneath the inscription: ‘For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also’.
Chopin, in one way or another influenced other famous Polish artists and composers who followed him onto the world music stage such as: Karol Szymanowski (1882 – 1937), Ignacy Jan Paderewski (1860 – 1941) Witold Lutosławski (1913 – 1994), Witold Małcużyński (1914 – 1977), Henryk Górecki (b. 1933) and Krzysztof Penderecki (b.1933).
Chopin’s favourite composer was Mozart, and although Mozart never visited Poland some of his operas were performed in Warsaw before they had premieres in Prague, Berlin or Paris. Warsaw is the only city in the world where during the annual Mozart festival all twenty two operas are performed by the Warsaw Chamber Opera in their original order.
The Story of a Wounded Eagle
The white eagle with a golden crown, beak and talons has been a Polish emblem for at least 1000 years. And so have, in one form or another, the Polish national colours: white and red (white symbolises honour and purity, red – courage)
A white eagle appeared on the red banners of Polish medieval knights. The current Polish flag with two horizontal stripes, one red and one white, was formally approved in 1831. However, the exact details of how and when they became national symbols are hard to find, so in the absence of facts here is the legend (or at least one version of it).
Lech, the legendary founder of Poland was riding his horse in the forest one day when he spotted a white eagle sitting on her nest and guarding her chicks. A ray of sunshine from the setting sun fell on its beak and so it appeared to be gold. Lech wanted to take one of the chicks. When he reached up into the nest, the eagle attacked him. Lech grabbed his knife and plunged it into the eagle. When he saw the red blood pouring from the wound onto the white feathers, Lech felt ashamed. He decided to make a white eagle with the golden beak his emblem and white and red his colours. He also founded the settlement in the place where he saw the eagle and he called it Gniezno (from gniazdo – nest in Polish). It became the first capital of Poland.
The Story of Polish Pottery and Hand Blown Glass
Poland has a long tradition of making pottery and hand blown glass. Probably the most famous manufacturers are in Bolesławiec, Włocławek and Krosno.
Bolesławiec is a small town in the south-west of Poland and the pottery (sometimes known under its German name Bunzlau) has been manufactured there since the Middle Ages. Using traditional methods, the pottery is still hand made and hand decorated. It comes in a range of patterns although the most common one has been inspired by a peakcocks’s tail (pawie oczko). Despite being hand made, it is very durable.
Włocławek has been associated with the production of beautiful hand made pottery since 1873, when the first pottery factory was founded. The factory produced tableware in characteristic cobalt blue, brown and green floral patterns. In the 1970’s Włocławek pottery became very fashionable but the 80’s and the 90’s brought a decline and finally the collapse of the company. The factory was revived in 2002, and since then has been producing traditional faience products, every single one of them painted by hand and signed by the craftsman.
Just like pottery the tradition of glass blowing in Poland dates back to medieval times. The oldest pieces come from the 10th and 11th Century. In the 16th Century, there were about 30 glass blowing manufacturers in the Krosno area. The industry continued to expand until the 1700’s when historical events brought about a decline in the glass making tradition and production. However, the industry just about survived and after the collapse of Communism it enjoyed a renaissance with the design and production of high quality domestic and artistic glass by craftsmen who passed their skills and traditions from generation to generation.
The Capital With a National Park On Its Doorstep
Poland has many areas of outstanding natural beauty safeguarded by 23 National Parks, which cover roughly 1% of the country’s area. The Polish countryside varies enormously - from the Sudeten and Carpathian mountains in the south, through the great plains of Central Poland, the thousands of lakes in the Masurian and Pomeranian Lake District and the Baltic coast in the north. It also includes the last primeval forest in Europe in Białowieża, the rolling sand dunes in Słowiński National Park, large marshes around the rivers Biebrza and Narew, the Alpine landscape of the Tatra Mountains and the Żuławy region just outside Gdańsk which lies below sea level.
Some of the National Parks are in unusual places. The Kampinos Forest is just on the outskirts of Warsaw making it the only capital city in the world bordering a national park. One of the national parks is not on the mainland but on Wolin island in the north-west of the country, near to Szczecin.
Poland is a great place to see animals such as European bison, wild boar, beavers, elk, lynx, white and black storks, golden eagles, red-deer, roe-deer, and wolves in their natural habitat.
Whether you are into hill walking, rock climbing, horse riding, canoeing, angling, hunting, forest walking, mushroom picking or bird watching - Poland has got something to offer.