Things to see and do - Poland
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The Region Today
The Region Today
Since 1989, Poland has been faced with a gigantic task: moving from a state-controlled economic system and an authoritarian goverment to a market economy and potitical democracy. This “metamorphosis” could not be achieved without radically changing society, mentalities and traditions. So, how far has Poland gone down this road?
Democracy in Poland
Large, Homogeneous, Youthful Population
With 38.1 million inhabitants , Poland represents 8.4% of the EU population. However, since 1999, the Polish population has been decreasing slowly. This is due to a lower birth rate, to a death rate which is still fairly high (over 8%) and to a negative migration balance (many Poles leave to find work in other EU countries).
Poles form around 97 %of the country’s population, the remainder consisting essentially of Germans, Ukrainians and Belarusians. The Polish population is one of the youngest in Europe, even though it is gradually getting older. People over 65 represent only 13% of the population and over one third of the total number of inhabitants is under 25. Life expectancy is three years less than the EU average, with pollution, overtaking tobacco, excessive alcohol intake, and the deteriorating health service, cited as the main cause.
Rapid economic Transition
In 1989, the country’s economic situation was alarming: hyper-inflation (700%), enormous debts, an obsolete, inefficient industry and backward agriculture. The state-controlled system which had been the rule for over forty years, had prevented the Poles, at least partially, from adjusting to the changing world. As early as 1990, the Minister of Finance, L. Balcerowicz, imposed “ radical remedies” on the country in order to launch it into the market economy. These reforms continued to be implemented in spite of a slower process of privatisation between 1993 and 1997 due to a leftist party in power. The return of Balcerowicz as Minister of Finance in 1997 – 2000 (he is now President of The National Bank of Poland) attests to the people’s will to continue his policy of reforms: massive privatisations, development of the free market rules, radical decrease of public debts and inflation, convertibility and reinforcement of the złoty, creation of the Warsaw stock exchange, income tax levied on individuals and a value-added tax (VAT). The aim was simple: maintain a 6-7% growth in order to reduce the gap between Poland and EU countries. This vigorous policy paid off: the GNP increased by 42% between 1990 and 2002 and inflation is now stabilised around 2-3%. Although it reached 5.8% in 2006, the economic growth rate has been slowing down, in particular because of the unfavourable economic climate in the EU. It was mainly the 2 million small and medium-sized businesses created in the trade and services sector (food and computing stores, clothes shops, car dealers...) which helped boost the Polish economy and employment. They employ 55% of the working population and produce 1/3 of the GNP. However, they have to compete with foreign hypermarkets (Leclerc, Auchan, Carrefour, Ikea Decathlon, Leroy Merlin...). In fact, foreign buyouts focused mainly on the most lucrative sectors: alcohol (Polmos bought by Bacardi and Pernod-Ricard), telecommunications (TPSA bought by France Télécom)...
Three examples illustrating foreign investment and the creation of factories by large companies are: Michelin in the field of tyres, Dell in computing and the much earlier case of Fiat established before 1939. The private sector now generates 80% of the economic activity even though the public sector still employs 1/3 of the working population. In spite of this, tricky problems are plentiful. Agriculture employs almost a quarter of the working population (on small plots averaging 6ha) and only produces 4% of the GNP. At least half of the two million farms will disappear during the coming years and the others will have to be radically modernized. Other difficulties arise from the coal mines , which are showing a loss and are in debt, and from the steel industry which requires heavy investments as well as massive lay-offs.
Institutional and Administrative Reforms
In 1997, Poland acquired a new Constitution , the previous one dating from 1952. Today, Poland’s institutions are similar to those of France. Executive power is in the hands of a President, elected by universal suffrage for a five-year term renewable once, who has a right of veto in Parliament. Legislative power belongs to two houses , elected by direct universal suffrage for four years, the Diet (460 members elected by revised proportional representation, which gives a bonus to the largest parties) and the Senate (100 members elected by majority vote). In 1998 a reform of administrative autonomy introduced a third degree of decentralisation (districts or powiaty) and the number of regions (województwo) was reduced from 49 to 16.
Difficult Legacy of the Opposition
Democratization saw the emergence of a great number of short-lived parties. There is a proverb that says: “where 4 Poles are gathered, there are already 5 political parties”. Among the main parties, the oldest are those on the left, in particular the SLD (Democratic Left Alliance), formed from the ruins of the former Communist party. Samoobrona (Self-Defence), the populist agrarian party led by A. Lepper, which caught the public’s attention, claims to be situated on the extreme left. The anti-communist movement extended, after 1989, from the centre to the extreme right. The i ntellectual, democratic trend was represented by different parties in succession, including the Freedom Union (UW) whose main representatives are T. Mazowiecki, B. Geremek, L. Balcerowicz. The liberal trend is led by the PO , Civic Platform, founded in 2001 by men such as D. Tusk and J. Rokita. The conservative and Christian-Democrat trend is represented by the PiS (Right and Justice, also founded in 2001) with the twins Jarosław (current Prime Minister) and Lech Kaczyński (the country’s current President) and Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz . Finally, the League of Polish Families (LPR) is an ultra-Catholic, nationalist and anti-European party.
Changes in Power and “Cohabitation”
In 1989-1990, the right wing held the Presidency (L. Wałęsa) and Parliament. In September 1993, the legislative elections brought the victory of the left wing taking advantage of the population’s discontent linked with the rapid social and economic reforms. This first change in power, shared at the time by other east-European countries, was marked by a short cohabitation; in November 1995, L. Wałęsa was beaten at the presidential election by A. Kwaśniewski, a former Communist of the SLD, reelected on the first ballot in October 2000. The period 1997-2001 was in turn marked by a left/right power-sharing, known as “cohabitation”, ending in September 2001 when the legislative elections were won by a left-wing coalition. But the political climate turned sour: split of the governmental coalition in March 2003, scandals linked with corruption and increasing unpopularity of the Prime Minister, replaced in May 2004. In September and October 2005, the legislative and presidential elections led to the second change in power: the right wing came back and the left wing was crushed. However, the high level of abstention (between 50 and 60%) confirmed the politicians’ representation crisis.
Radically Transformed Society
Poland’s GNP per inhabitant is less than half the EU average and the IDH which measures the level achieved in terms of life expectancy, education and income per inhabitant, ranks the country 36th in the world. The average salary is around €500 net per month (€200 for the guaranteed minimum wage), but this average is distorted by very high salaries, in particular in Warsaw where they are twice as high as anywhere else. Unemployment , a real national calamity, concerns around 3 million people (18% of the working population) including 85% who do not get unemployment benefits (benefits are only paid for six months and are in the region of €150 per month). Young people under 25 and those over 45 who have no diplomas are worst off. About 30% of the total income of households comes from State assistance. However, budget restrictions and price increases make life difficult for the most underprivileged who think that their country has moved from the era of full wallets and empty shops to that of full shops and empty wallets. In spite of the evident emergence of the middle classes in large towns, Poland still functions on two levels : there are those who were able to follow the modern economic movement and the others. Health and education are also on two different planes: private establishments , which have very high fees and public establishments, forced by budget restrictions to be less well equipped and understaffed. The pensions’ reform (the country has 9.5 million pensioners) is underway, combining some capitalisation with the present share-out system but many elderly people are obliged to have financial help from their children. One of the consequences of these difficulties is the existence of a black market economy which is believed to represent over a quarter of the GNP and to involve over one million people who do not declare their work and their income although they sometimes receive social benefits.
In 1991, the presidents of both republics, L. Wałęsa and F. Mitterrand signed a treaty of friendship and solidarity between the two countries, the term solidarity having in fact never been used before in diplomatic language. In 2004, the Polish Season in France, Nowa Polska, enabled French and Polish people to celebrate and rediscover the history of a close and unusual relationship between the two peoples, who never fought each other, a very rare example in European history. This closeness is symbolized by the love stories of Marie-Louise de Gonzague and Władysław IV, Marie d’Arquien (Marysieńka) and Jan III Sobieski, Maria Leszczyńska and Louis XV, Maria Walewska and Napoleon Bonaparte, George Sand and Chopin, Mme Hanska and Honoré de Balzac, Maria Skłodowska and Pierre Curie or, more recently, Sophie Marceau and Andrzej Żuławski. It may be a known fact that Polish borrowed many words from French (“à propos, vis-à-vis, cul-de-sac, dossier, en face, enfant terrible, passe-partout, calembour, fondue, pruderie, fiole, abat-jour, paysage, gendarmerie, garde-robe…”) but the reverse is also true: riding (“calèche, cravache”), pastries (“baba, meringue”), clothes (“chapskas”) not forgetting dances such as mazurkas, polkas and polonaises.
Poland in the EU
Between the EU and the US?
As early as 1994, Poland clearly showed its economic inclination towards the EU and its military inclination towards the US: the country applied for EU membership and, at the same time, joined NATO’s “Partnership for Peace Agreement”. In May 1997, Poland was invited into the Atlantic Alliance (in fact, full membership became official on 12 March 1999) and, in December, the country’s application for EU membership was accepted. In Copenhagen in 2002, Poland was one of the ten countries designated to join the EU (membership came into effect on 1 May 2004). In 2003, there was a hardening of West-European opinion following Poland’s decision to support the US intervention in Iraq and to buy F-16 planes rather than French Mirages or Swedish Gripen. However, the referendum on EU membership in June 2003 was a success in Poland: 77.4% of the population voted “yes”, but the Poles rejected the project of European constitution in favour of the Nice Treaty (2000), which gave them more bargaining power. The European Parliament election in June 2004 was marked by a record abstention rate (almost 80%) and nearly half the new Polish members of the European Parliament can be said to be Euro-sceptics. However, the success of Poland’s entry into the EU is gradually gaining the approval of the most reticent: farmers, who were very pessimistic two years ago, had to admit that direct European subsidies were flooding in at the rate of 55 euros per ha (nearly 1.5 billion euros paid to 1.4 million farmers representing 85% of all farmers) and that exports of farm produce (milk, sugar beet, meat, cheese, butter) had increased by over 40% since membership came into force. Today, the EU is Poland’s main trading partner (70% of exports and 60% of imports) and it brings into the country 3/5 of foreign capitals. Poland could, within a few years, join the euro zone but no date has yet been fixed since the country’s budget deficit (nearly 4% of the GNP) is higher than the European limits. As for the opening of the labour market, it depends on bilateral agreements: the United Kingdom, Ireland, Spain, Holland, Norway, Italy, Sweden and Switzerland are, for the moment, the only countries to have signed full open labour agreements with Poland. Partially open labour agreements , based on quoatas for specific professions, are signed with Belgium, France and Germany. Over a million Poles, with both highly skilled or manual labour backgrounds, have left Poland since its entry in the EU to search for better wages.
Difficult Relations with the Neighbours
In November 1990, Poland signed with Germany an “Agreement of friendship and neighbourly relations”, guaranteeing the inviolability of the borders and the rights of the German minority in Poland. In August 1991, the meeting of the Polish, German and French foreign-affairs ministers marked the timid beginning of a trilateral cooperation known as the Weimar Triangle . In addition, four Euro-regions are developing on the western border. However, the memory of the atrocities perpetrated by the Nazis is still very present in the mind of the Poles and when Berlin speaks of the dramatic situation endured by six million Germans “displaced” in 1945 or the possible compensations their descendants could claim, feelings run high. The recent gas pipeline project between Russia and Germany, which by-passes Poland, was also the source of heated arguments. Since Poland partly depends on Russia for its oil, she must humour V Putin in spite of serious disagreements. The recent diplomatic crisis between Poland and Belarus, close to Moscow, shows that relations between these countries are not yet normalized. It is no longer the case with Ukraine : the Poles were the staunchest supporters of the “orange revolution” which led the pro-western side to power to the great displeasure of Moscow. There are still many Poles living around L’viv and economic relations between the two countries are important. Warsaw has stepped up security checks along this border to be ready to join the Schengen area but her visa policy is very supple. Three Euro-regions were set up on the eastern border. To the south, Poland founded in February 1991, together with Hungary and Czechoslovakia, a group known as Visegrad to reinforce the positions of the three partners in the processus of European integration. Seven Euro-regions were created on the southern border. To the north, Poland is a member of the Council of Baltic States and a Euro-region was created.
The Importance of the Church
With around 95% of Catholics, including over 60% who practise their religion, Poland is one of the few countries of Europe where religion is so important. Attendance at the 15 000 churches and chapels is still high and Sunday Mass gathers church-goers of all ages. Every year on 15 August, 4 to 5 million pilgrims go to Częstochowa to pray in front of the icon of the Black Virgin, the protector and patron saint of Poland. The number of marriages remains high (marriage in church is recognized by the law) and the average age for a first marriage is around 27 (against 30 in the EU). There are differences of opinion about the place of religion in the State (in particular on the question of abortion, the concordat and sexual education in public schools). Some people today object to what they consider as an excessive involvement of the church in political affairs or to the verbal faux pas of certain Catholic fundamentalists who can be heard on Radio Maryja, on the Trwam television channel or who express their ideas in the Nasz Dziennik daily newspaper.
Solidarity and Family Traditions
The Poles can at first appear slightly cold or obsequious to a European from the West; this is mainly due to variations in social behaviour. In Poland, you would rarely greet someone you meet but don’t know, yet you would use several polite phrases when introduced. This is when you can really discover the extent of the Poles’ hospitality: a Pole will do everything he can to help you if you are in difficulty. From the dark hours of their history, the Poles have retained an acute sense of duty, towards themselves and their family but also towards others and towards their nation. Family ties are particularly strong, especially since the shortage and high cost of housing often compel several generations to live under the same roof, even though the divorce rate is rising. Houses and apartments are often still blessed on 6 January and the first letters of the name of the Three Kings are then written with chalk on the doors. Respect between generations is very high, although misunderstandings sometimes arise between those who spent most of their life under the Communist régime (the over-45s), those who lived during both periods (the 30-somethings) and the young who were born after the mid-80s.
Religious feasts offer the opportunity of gathering the whole family and often friends as well. Weekends are also privileged moments for the Poles who recharge their batteries in the country (barbecues on lake shores during the fine season, mountain activities in winter). Contrary to what happens on working days, when meal times are disturbed, weekends make it possible to enjoy the five traditional meals, breakfast at 9am, a second “breakfast” at midday, then lunch at 3pm, dinner at 5pm and supper at 8pm. The main meal takes place in the middle of the afternoon (obiad) and usually includes soup, a main course with meat and crudités and sometimes a cake for dessert, served with tea or a fruit tea (kompot), even vodka or wine on special occasions.
With an average of 122 inhabitants per sq km, the Polish population is unequally spread throughout the territory. The North of the country is sparsely populated, in contrast with the Warsaw metropolitan area (2.3 million inhabitants) and the industrial region of Upper Silesia (the Katowice conurbation has reached 3.5 million inhabitants!). Poland was originally a rural country but today 65% of its population lives in urban areas and there are more than 40 towns with over 100 000 inhabitants. In addition to the two urban regions already mentioned, there are three other large concentrations of slightly over one million inhabitants each: Kraków , Poland’s former capital on the River Wisła, Łódź , the large textile city and Gdańsk-Gdynia-Sopot , known as the “3-Cities”, with two ports on the Baltic. The Polish population is also concentrated in other large towns such as Wrocław, on the Oder (640 000 habitants), an important centre of metallurgy as well as of the chemical and food processing industries, Poznań , on the River Warta (570 000), one of the country’s oldest towns, Szczecin , a major port on the Baltic (413 000), Bydgoszcz (369 000), a large industrial city in the Lower Wisła Valley, Lublin (356 000) specialised in consumer goods and Białystok (292 000), Poland’s second most important textile centre.
Food and Drink
Copious and rich in calories, Polish cuisine has skillfully appropriated the various influences of the populations who occupied the country over the centuries. The Baltic, the numerous lakes and rivers, the mountain ranges and the great plains provide each region with its specific products.
Any good meal starts with soup and Poland having as wide a choice of soups as France has of cheeses, you will be offered mushroom soup, sorel soup, sauerkraut soup or crayfish soup served with a varied selection of ravioli or meat balls. The most common soups on the menus of restaurants or private homes are:
Barszcz which belongs to the History of cuisine. In the old days, country people prepared this soup from sour fruit picked in forests. Later beetroot replaced these berries. The sour taste was preserved by adding fermented beetroot juice ( kwas ), lemon or vinegar.
Żurek , or white barszcz, which is just as popular, is a soup made from fermented rye flour juice served with sausage.
And finally flaki po warszawsku or Warsaw-style tripe which is a mixture of shin of beef and tripe seasoned with paprika, ginger and nutmeg.
Whether grilled, coated with breadcrumbs, or covered with onions or prunes, pork is the Poles’ favourite meat.
Poultry follows closely. Polish-style chicken, stuffed with breadcrumbs, egg and parsley, and duck stuffed with pieces of apple and soaked in red wine while cooking are the two most famous recipes.
The many wild areas and dense forests offer a choice of game . Hare, wild boar and roe-deer are particularly appreciated by hunters’ families or by those who know where to find this kind of meat. As for partridge , once it is stuffed with bread soaked in milk, currants and juniper, it reminds young generations that, in the old days, royal and feudal hunts always ended with gargantuan feasts.
Beef is not so well liked, except for steak tartare the origin of which goes back to the times when Mongol horsemen invaded central Europe, stocking their supply of raw meat under their saddle.
Polish cuisine is privileged in being able to use only choice fish or very tasty ones: sturgeon from the Baltic, pike from pure fresh-water streams, or pikeperch from the lakes. Carp , which is probably the most commonly found fish on restaurant menus year-round, becomes a traditional festive dish on Christmas eve in homes all over Poland. As for herring , it is a popular cheap dish: laid out in small rolls stuffed with cucumber and hard-boiled egg or marinated in a mixture of oil and onions. Herring and vodka go very well together.
Pierogi are small crescent-shaped ravioli made from a simple dough consisting of flour, water, eggs and salt. This forms the base of a large number or creative variations. Among the most common are the Russian-style pierogi filled with white cheese, onions and potatoes, others being stuffed with mushrooms and cabbage. As a dessert, pierogi are filled with fruit: cherries, strawberries or blueberries.
Marinated cucumbers (ogórki kiszone) are eaten throughout the meal. As an appetizer with beer, as a first course or as a main course with other vegetables. These cucumbers are picked before they are ripe and look more like gherkins. They are pickled in brine made with cherry, vine and oak leaves, dill, coriander and a spoonful of white vinegar and brandy. They are believed to reduce the effect of vodka.
Cabbage is used in many ways, raw and cooked, but it is also the essential ingredient for a dish unanimously appreciated by Polish gourmets, bigos. Served as a first course or as a meal in itself, this kind of Polish-style sauerkraut is a mixture of several types of cabbage, pork, mutton or veal, game, mushrooms and even prunes, seasoned with many spices such as hot pepper from Jamaica, cardamom or nutmeg, and Madeira.
In Masuria and Warmia, forests and lakes are an inexhaustible source of high-quality products such as fish dumplings or pikeperch served with crayfish tails . More unusual are goose or duck’s-blood soup(czernina z golcami), and Masurian gingerbread (piernik) flavoured with chicory.
Anyone interested in drawing up a list of all the recipes based on potatoes should definitely go to Poland. Potato croquettes, mashed potato, potato noodles, potato soup, potato salad...potatoes are everywhere. More original are onions stuffed with mushrooms (gały cebulowe).
The high number of miners in need of sustaining food and the proximity of Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic had a significant influence on Silesian cuisine. Specialities include the following: Silesian noodles made from potatoes; krupniok , made from offal, buckwheat flour and blood; Silesian stuffed roll , consisting of a slice of beef seasoned with mustard and stuffed with bacon, sausages and cucumbers pickled in salt.
The Polish court, for a long time based in Kraków, made it a point of honour to have a variety of European dishes on her menu. Hungarian goulash , Vienna schnitzel or Russian-style pierogi are quite at home in Little Poland.
Oscypek , a smoked cheese made from ewe’s milk in shepherds’ huts and bryndza , another cheese made from ewe’s milk but unsmoked, are the tasty ambassadors of the Podhale region. Oscypek is on sale on the pavements of Zakopane. Cut into slices, covered with dill and heated in an oven for a few minutes, it goes very well with brandy.
Charcuterie from Kurpie, a small region situated between Masovia and Podlasie, is renowned for its smoking technique using juniper wood . Juniper also flavours a local beer that is reputed to give credence to the toast, «To your health»! Except in the region along the border with Germany, around Zielona Góra, Polish wine-growing is nonexistent.