I fell in love with Poland back in 1984, after reading James Michener’s book Poland. At a youth hostel in Germany in the summer of 1984, I met two American girls who had just gone there, and I was astounded. I had no idea you could even go to the Eastern Bloc (forbidden Communist territory!), but I was captivated and immediately obsessed. Michener’s book sealed the deal, which is why I turned up the next year at far-flung places such as Lublin and Zamość. Gdańsk was the birthplace of the nascent and progressive Solidarity movement, so I had to go there. Częstochowa was the religious capital of Catholic Poland, so I had to go there too. Warsaw, Kraków, Wieliczka, Zakopane – I explored them all in the ’80s and ’90s.
Poland has a long tragic history of yearning for freedom but being subject to invasions from every direction. It even disappeared from the map altogether for 123 years. The last invasion came from Hitler, who placed most of the extermination camps in Poland (the largest being Auschwitz-Birkenau). The last bite came from the Allied Powers, who at Yalta ceded Poland and the other eastern European countries to the Soviet Union’s sphere of influence, where they would languish until the wall came down in 1989.
Modern-day Poland is night and day from the Communist country I first visited. In thirty years it has become an extension of western Europe; in fact, Poland is now a NATO powerhouse and an emerging leader in the EU. Businesses flourish, the infrastructure has been modernized, even English is widely spoken. However, Poland still retains its charm. There is much to see outside of the major cities – the Mazurian Lake District, the Baltic Sea coast, the Tatra Mountains in the south, and some of Europe’s oldest primeval forests.