Poland is a large nation that straddles Eastern and Western Europe. It covers 120,700 square miles (312,700 sq. km), making it a bit smaller than the state of New Mexico. It shares borders with Belarus, the Czech Republic, Germany, Lithuania, an exclave of Russia, Slovakia, and the Ukraine, and has coastline along the Baltic Sea.
The region that is now Poland has been populated for millennia, but it was only in the 10th century that the area saw a cohesive nation form. The Slavic people had settled long before this in the area, and had expanded out to what is now Russia, the Balkans, and Germany. Some of the Western Slavs formed the Czech Kingdom, some were absorbed into the German lands, some joined the Kingdom of Hungary, and others formed the nation of Poland.
The state’s official beginning was in 966, when a duke of the Polans tribe of Slavs converted to Christianity. His new kingdom would quickly become one of the major powers in Eastern Europe, consolidating land into boundaries similar to the modern state, before fragmenting, although remaining a state, in the middle of the 12th century. For the next two-hundred years it continued to experience internal and external turmoil, with the Mongols wiping out massive amounts of people and undoing much of the earlier strengthening of the nation.
In the 13th century the country requested the assistance of German Roman Catholic knights to help subjugate the nearby Prussians, who had not yet been Christianized. The knights were successful, and eventually settled a great swath of the lands around the Baltic Sea. Following this, they went on to wage war with Poland for a great deal of the 14th and 15th centuries, into the early 16th century when Poland captured half of their state and turned the other half into a duchy under the Polish crown. The Jewish population of the country had also swelled during this period, following a number of edicts which granted the Jews religious freedom and looked after their safety, making it an attractive escape from Western Europe, which was in the midst of a fervor of anti-Jewish activity.
The next few centuries were tumultuous. Invasions by the Tatars through the latter-part of the 16th century, wars with Russia through the 17th century, and severe infighting among the nobility led to its position of power weakening, resulting in it being at times little more than a puppet of the Austrian state and the Russian Empire. During this time, however, Poland did begin experimenting with democracy, making it one of the first European nations to try more liberal ideas. In addition to later constitutional reforms which would make it a Commonwealth in the mid-18th century, it early on adopted a system of elective monarchy, whereby a new king was elected by all of the nation’s nobles, rather than inheriting the title from a dynasty.
The end of the 18th century the country was annexed and divided between Russia, Austria, and Prussia. This state of affairs shifted a bit over the next century, but remained more or less intact until the end of World War I. At this time, when the three occupying powers were severely battered from their involvement in the war, and with the support of the Allied powers, Poland reclaimed its independence, making it official in 1918. This independence was, unfortunately, short-lived, and the country was invaded by Germany and the Soviet Union in 1939. More than 6 Poles would be killed during the war, including more than 3 million Jewish Poles.
Following the war the country entered a communist period, overseen by the Soviet Union as part of the Eastern Bloc. This situation would last until the early 1990s and the fall of the Soviet Union, when it entered a period of rapid transition to a market economy. This transition went much more quickly and smoothly than in most of the other Communist countries to make such rapid shifts, and Poland was soon back on track to growth.
Today, the country is one of the safest countries in Eastern Europe, it is a part of the European Union, and it has well-developed transportation and tourist infrastructures. Some people find visits to be somber, with tours to Nazi concentration camps such as Auschwitz providing the impetus. But for others, the myriad castles, such as the Malbork Castle of the Teutonic Knights, the beautiful Bialowieza and Slowinski National Parks, and the capital city of Warsaw provide plenty to do and enjoy while visiting.
Most major international hubs have flights that arrive in Warsaw daily, and visitors can take the train from many other European cities. Boats also run from Sweden and Denmark, and overland travel is possible from all of the adjoining countries.