Poland’s landscape sweeps down from the mountain ranges in the south through a varied landscape of wooded plains, forests, innumerable lakes, protected marshes and shifting sand dunes. The primeval forest in Białowieża is unique in Europe; while the lakes and mountains attract visitors from all over the world, keen to explore areas that were once privy only to natives and those in neighbouring countries. The marshes and lakes in particular foster a huge variety of exceptional flora and fauna.
Poland extends 650km from north to south and 690km from east to west, covering an area of 312 700sq km, which makes it the ninth largest country in Europe. The imaginary lines linking the northernmost and southernmost points of the continent (North Cape in Norway and Cape Matapan in Greece) and its east and west boundaries (Central Ural in Russia and Cabo da Roca in Portugal) intersect near Warsaw, which places Poland at the centre of Europe. The general shape of the country is somewhat rounded, with a strip of land, the Hel Peninsula (34km long for an average width of 500m), jutting out into the sea. The country has over 3 000km of borders to which should be added 694km of coastline along the Baltic. It is bordered to the north by Russia over a distance of 210km (Kaliningrad region), to the east by Lithuania (103km), Belarus (416km) and Ukraine (529km), to the south by Slovakia (540km) and the Czech Republic (790km) and to the west by Germany (467km).
Poland is essentially a region of lowlands, forming part of the great north European plain. Indeed, the word “Pole” means “field” and “plain” in Polish. The average altitude is 173m and 91% of the territory lies below 300m. The southern part of the country alone is mountainous but the highest point does not rise above 2 500m. Poland’s topo- graphy features five main natural regions: the sandy Baltic coastline and lakeland in the north, the great central plain, the plateaux and the foothills bordering the various mountain ranges in the south. The oldest massifs (the Sudeten) date from the Paleozoic era whereas the higher Carpathian range consists of younger Alpine-type mountains from the Tertiary era. The largest human concentrations in the country are settled in the areas where the Hercynian bedrock is rich in coal, lignite, copper, sulphur, zinc, lead and rock salt (Silesia). During the Quarternary period, the great Scandinavian ice sheet (inlandsis) advanced across the plain and reached the foot of these mountains. The fertile silts (loess) deposited in front of the ice cap ensured the agricultural wealth of the Lublin plateaux, of Little Poland and of Lower Silesia around Wrocław. As the inlandsis receded, a process which ended only some ten thousand years ago, it carved the landscapes of Masuria and of Pomerania, forming an array of lakes and wooded morainic hills characterized by infertile podzolic soils. The ice sheet considerably disrupted the draining of the land and the course of the country’s two great rivers. The Wisła or Vistula (1 087km) and the Oder or Odra (912 km) drain northwards across most of the country before flowing into the Baltic. But their course sometimes veers at right angles and follows an east-west direction. The Wisła runs right across the centre of Poland and flows into the Gulf of Gdańsk. Its main tributary is the River Bug (730km) which acts as an eastern border along part of its course. The Oder has its source in the Czech Republic and forms a natural western border with Germany. Its main tributary is the Warta (753km). These rivers already feature the same characteristics as Russian rivers: they are frozen in winter and swell dramatically in spring when the snow melts. However, they are navigable during part of the year and well connected with one another by canals.
The Coastal Plain Along the Baltic
The Polish coastal fringe, between 40 and 100km wide, stretches along the Baltic, forming a fairly straight, sandy low-lying zone. Extending over a distance of 694km, it is only indented to the west by the Gulf of Szczecin (Oder Delta and Bay of Pomerania) and to the east by the Gulf of Gdańsk (Wisła Delta). The landscapes feature long sandy beaches (very crowded in summer lined by dunes and forests of conifers. During the Tertiary period, the resin from these trees became fossilised in the form of amber, sometimes trapping insects or pieces of plants. The amazing brightness of amber led ancient peoples to believe that it resulted from sun rays being solidified in the waves and later thrown back onto the beach. Amber, used for making jewellery and ornaments, was at the origin of a flourishing trade which reached it peak during the 2C AD. Gdańsk is still today the world’s amber capital, a metropolitan hot spot, and an important shipbuilding centre. The coastline features several natural treasures, among them the Słowiński National Park (on Unesco’s List of World Biosphere Reserves) where one can ramble among huge shifting dunes over 30m high and a few shallow coastal lakes. On the other hand, water in the Baltic is five times less salted than in the North Sea or the Atlantic. That is why the subaquatic fauna is scarce (few molluscs and jellyfish). Large cetaceans (whales...) are also rare because of the shortage of food, of the relative shallowness of the sea, of the total absence of tidal movements and of the difficulty of going through the Danish straits leading to the high seas.
The Lake Region: Pomerania and Masuria
The north of Poland is an area of low hills (200 to 300m) dotted with lakes. Pomerania extends from the German border (Oder) to the Wisła Valley. Lying east of the river, Masuria stretches to the country’s eastern border. This region of Poland features some 9 300 lakes with an area of over 1ha, in other words more than 1% of the country’s total area. It offers a landscape which is unique in Europe. Pomerania boasts the greater number of lakes but the two largest lakes are situated in Masuria (Lake Śniardwy has an area of 114sq km, Lake Mamry 109sq km). Connected with by canals and rivers, the lakes form vast waterways. Many people enjoy angling and sailing, particularly in Masuria where the longest nautical course totals 91km! The area shelters a great variety of aquatic flora and fauna. Lake Łukajno is on the List of World Biosphere Reserves and one can get a glimpse of wild ducks, swans, herons etc. Landscapes feature sparsely populated wooded hills. Rye, oats, potatoes and flax grow on the meagre soil part of which is devoted to pastures. Apart from seasonal jobs during the summer, unemployment is very high in this region.
The Great Central Plain
Central Poland consists of several vast plains, cut from east to west by wide valleys. West of the Wisła are the plains of Greater Poland (through which flows the Warta) and of Kujavia; to the east are the plains of Masovia (drained by the middle Wisła) and of Podlasie. Together they form landscapes of lowlands offering little contrast. In fact, this central openland area extends from Berlin to Moscow and, for centuries, men, traders, travellers but also invaders have passed through it. Located here is the cradle of the Polish State, Gniezno, as well as one of Poland’s economic centres, Poznań, and of course the capital, Warsaw. Commercially, it is one of the country’s most dynamic regions. The landscapes are monotonous as they are in all stone-free sandy lowlands. Birch and pine forests alternate with strips of open cultivated land. The Kampinos primeval forest, lying west of Warsaw, attracts visitors interested in World Biosphere Reserves; the meeting of the Wisła and of the Scandinavian inlandsis resulted in a unique landscape of sand dunes covered with vegetation and of marshland. The Polish plain gets little rain but the thick layer of sandy clay often accounts for insufficient drainage of the soil which creates an environment of marshland and peat bogs (such as the amazing Biebrza Park). Soils are on the whole mediocre but they were improved in the west by one hundred years of Prussian occupation, through intensive use of chemical fertilizers.
Foothills and Low Plateaux
The Wisła and Oder valleys run through relatively low plateaux: Silesia, Little Poland, Lublin plateau and western Galicia. This southern area features an exceptional combination of agricultural and mining resources. It was therefore natural that it should attract human settlements, with a high rural population density in the Rzeszów and Sandomierz basins, and enormous urban concentrations in Silesia and in the ancient trading and cultural cities of Kraków, Lublin and Wrocław. The industrial basin of Upper Silesia is renowned for its important reserves of coal around Katowice. However, the region is currently undergoing a complete redevelopment programme. The Little Poland plateau is dominated by an ancient Hercynian massif, the Holy Cross Mountains (the highest peak, Mount Łysica reaching 612m), prolonged northwards by the Częstochowa Jurassic plateau. This area is the oldest from a geological point of view. There are important mineral deposits. The undulating landscapes feature limestone ridges dotted with medieval castles (eagles’ nests around Kraków). The Galicia plateau is marked by fertile valleys and rich pastures alternating with sterile sandy soils and marshland. The Lublin alluvial plateau, covered with loess and fertile deposits, is one of Poland’s main wheat-producing regions.
The Sudeten and Carpathian Mountains
The southern mountain ranges are unquestionably the country’s natural borders. They include the Sudeten to the west (border with the Czech Republic), and to the east part of the western Carpathians (border with Slovakia). Although this area represents less than 10% of the country’s territory, it nevertheless occupies an important place in the Poles’ collective imagination, both as the source of the country’s two main rivers and as a holiday and recreation area rich in traditions. This is therefore Poland’s top tourist region. Lying to the south-west of the country, the Sudeten stretch over a distance of 250km and the highest peak, Mount Śnieżka, summits at 1 602m. These mountains offer many spa and ski resorts, as well as impressive nature parks, including the Table Mountains (Góry stołowe), and the Giant Mountains (Karkonosze), a granite range where moufflons gambol over natural rock formations with shapes appearing to be sunflowers, horses’ heads, and pilgrims.
To the south-east, the Carpathian fringe includes the High Tatras (Tatry), the Beskid (Beskidy), the Pieniny and the Bieszczady. Mount Rysy, south of Kraków, reaches 2 499m and is the highest peak of the High Tatras and throughout Poland. Winter sports resorts such as Zakopane are very popular and the Tatras National Park welcomes over 2 million visitors every year. Scattered over the park’s territory are some 30 lakes filled with crystal-clear water, known as “stawy”, the most famous being Morskie Oko, the “Eye of the Sea” (covering 35ha and 51m deep) and many mountain streams sometimes featuring spectacular waterfalls (Wielka Siklawa, 70m high). In springtime, fields known as “hale” are covered with thousands of crocuses. Many caves can also be visited. The Beskid are the country’s second highest mountain range, peaking at 1 725m (Mount Babia Góra). In the Pieniny National Park’s limestone mountains, mountain rafts go down the Dunajec Gorge, which, in places, looks like a deep grand canyon.
Poland’s last Carpathian mountain range, the Bieszczady, culminating at 1 343m (Mount Tarnica), is particularly wild and sparsely populated. High pasture areas, called “połoniny”, are exceptionally beautiful. This park and those of the Giant Mountains, the Tatras and the Beskid, are listed by UNESCO as part of the Cultural and Natural World Heritage categories.
Poland enjoys a temperate climate, featuring well-defined seasons and in particular cold dry winters and hot rainy summers. However, the climate can vary significantly from one year to the next. Apart from the specific mountain climate which applies to the South of the country, the climate over the rest of the country marks a transition between the oceanic and continental influences. The great north-European plain is an area where masses of humid air from the Atlantic or the North Sea come into contact with dry air from the inland regions of the Eurasian continent. Consequently, there are temperature variations from west to east and from north to south. The main characteristics of Poland’s climate are unstable weather conditions and a frequent cloud cover; there are only between 30 and 50 clear days in a year. Dominant influences come from the west during the summer months (rainfall is 2 to 3 times more abundant than in winter and the average temperature is around 18°C) and from the east in winter (average temperature – 3°C), particularly in December and January (the coldest month). The intermediate seasons are hardly noticeable. The hottest month is July, when the average temperature is between 16 and 19°C. Warm days with temperatures of at least 25°C, ideal for tourism, can be expected in Poland from May until September (“golden autumn”). Their number increases as one moves away from the sea and closer to the mountains. In general, the North-west of Poland, close to the Baltic sea, enjoys a predominantly temperate oceanic climate with damp snowy winters and cool summers (sea breeze) with alternating periods of rain and sunshine. In the eastern part of the country, continental influences are more obvious, with harsh winters lasting over four months and drier summers. The main characteristic of mountainous areas is the presence of snow for the major part of the year. In the Sudeten, snow falls during 120 days and in the Tatras this can be extended to 145 days. In the Tatras Mountains one can sometimes experience the foehn, a violent wind, fairly warm and dry, called “halny” in Polish.
Poland may look like a largely agricultural country but 28% of its territory is covered with forests. They are planted with coniferous forest pines (70%), and the remainder comprised of a mixture of resinous spruce and fir, and deciduous oak, beech, hornbeam and birch. Although the major part of Poland’s forested regions have been cleared to make way for farming activities, one can still see areas untouched by human activities: some thirty “puszcze” or “bory”, primeval forests, extend over part of the territory. The gems of Polish flora include the ancient Rogalin oaks, hundreds of which grow in the large forest situated near Poznań. Famous for their longevity, the oldest (over 700 years) have all got a name, Bartek, Chrobry, Lech, Czech and Rus, and are the heroes of many legends. Giant trees up to 50m high grow in the Białowieża primeval forest. In view of the absence of natural barriers that would limit plant migration, most species are transitory (apart from a few endemic species in the Carpathian Mountains). There are, for instance, some berries belonging to Eurasian species and North-American such as cranberry (borówka), blackcurrant (czarna porzeczka) or blueberry (jagoda), which the Poles like a lot. Mushrooms are plentiful and chanterelles (kurki) and cepes (prawdziwki) are on all the tables at the beginning and at the end of the summer. If you arrive at the right time, you’ll have no problem filling a basket.
Local fauna is almost identical to that found in the rest of Europe. Among domestic animals, dogs and horses are particularly dear to the heart of the Poles who raise renowned breeds and enter them into many competitions. Moreover, horse riding is a great national tradition and Polish breeding of Arab horses is famous throughout the world. Animals in parks and gardens peacefully cohabit with the local population. Birds come willingly to an outstretched hand to peck at some seeds or squirrels answer your call (“Basia, Basia...” Polish people say) and get hold of the hazelnut or walnut you are holding out to them. From the point of view of variety and number of species, the animal world is considerably richer than the plant world. There are, in Poland, 93 species of mammals, 406 species of birds, nine species of reptiles, 18 species of batrachians and 55 species of fish. White storks hold a special place within the bird population. Poland is called the paradise of storks: a quarter of the European population of storks nests here because the birds find many places to build their nests and clean areas rich in food. The Poles are particularly fond of this animal and from March on, they look up at the sky and wait for the familiar clatter. Birdwatchers also have their own paradise: the Biebrza marshes. 263 bird species can be spotted in these marshes during the brooding season as well as during the migration period. The valley is one of the last places in Europe where aquatic and marshland birds can live, because most marshes on the European continent were drained. This prime environment is also very much appreciated by birds of prey resulting in the highest number of different species (25) in Europe. In these marshy areas, one also meets elk, the most powerful members of the Cervidae family, and beavers. Another peatbog park on the list of World Biosphere Reserves is the Polesie National Park, east of Lublin. The national emblem of Poland is traditionally the white-tailed eagle, the country’s largest bird of prey. A very small number of them nests in the North of the country, mainly on the Island of Wolin (this national park is also renowned for its cormorants and otters) and along the Baltic coast. Another interesting sight is the Nietoperek bat reserve in Greater Poland, which consists of a huge bunker built by the Germans between 1925 and 1941, where a few thousand bats hibernate every year. Poland also offers an impressive mammalian spectacle: bisons, the largest European animals are protected in several national parks including the Białowieża National Park where there are over 250 specimens. All thoroughbred bisons born in Polish nature reserves are given names starting with the syllable “Po”, for example “Poranek” or “Pomruk”. The high mountains in the South of the country shelter a particularly rich fauna. The most interesting wild species are chamois, moufflons, deer, marmots and royal eagles. Other large mammals are equally protected in Poland: brown bears, wolves, lynx, and wild cats.