MAZOVIA /MAZOWSZE/ AND PODLASIE
Mazovia (Mazowsze) is a historical and ethnographic region in central Poland, straddling the Vistula River. The Mazovian Lowland is one of Poland's most extensive geographical regions.
Its natural extension is the Podlasie Lowland at the confluence of the Narew and Biebrza rivers and the basin of the middle Bug River.
Historically, Mazovia is one of the oldest parts of Poland, though it grew in importance only in the 16th century when King Sigismund III Vasa moved his royal seat, and thus Poland's capital, from Cracow to Warsaw.
The strongest magnet for visitors is Warsaw with its monuments, museums, theatres, galleries and shops. Many tourists from Poland and abroad flock to Zelazowa Wola. Worth visiting is also Lodz - if only to take a stroll down the straight Piotrkowska Street, Europe's longest shopping street, with the biggest concentration of pubs, nightclubs and restaurants in the whole country.
Warsaw has been Poland's capital since 1596. Before, this function was performed by Gniezno, Poznan and - for five centuries - Cracow.
Podlasie has no big cities, its main attraction being tiny Orthodox towns and villages with lovely churches and thriving traditions.
Above all, however, Mazovia and Podlasie offer magnificent nature: two vast forests in Kampinos and Bialowieza and, unique in Europe, flood plains along the Narew and Biebrza rivers with a staggering wealth of flora and fauna.
In the Middle Ages most of the region was covered by extensive woods. Today only fragments remain, but still they are impressive forests protected by national parks. Near Warsaw stretches the Kampinos Forest (Puszcza Kampinoska). A protected area of this size and importance lying in direct proximity to a big city is unusual in the world. The forest makes a great recreational terrain ideal for hiking, biking and horse-riding. The Kampinos National Park protects not only its rich flora and fauna (including elks), but also a cluster of inland dunes, without equal in Europe.
Still more attractive and valuable for biologists is the Bialowieza Forest (Puszcza Bialowieska). This is Europe's largest natural forest, the last patch of primeval woods with a wealth of flora and fauna unparalleled in any other European forest. The Bialowieza National Park has been recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site and a Biosphere Reserve; it has also received the European Diploma. The average age of its trees is 126 years. The wildlife includes the European bisons, Europe's biggest mammals. You can admire the treasures of this magnificent forest by following numerous marked trails. At the outskirts of the forest are two pretty villages, Bialowieza and Hajnowka. Their residents are largely Orthodox Christians and you can visit their lovely old churches.
The Biebrza and Bialowieza National Parks have been invited to join the international PAN PARK (Protected Area Network) project. As members of the network, they will be among Europe's showcase national parks, widely promoted around the world.
The north-east part of the region, with the flood plains along the Biebrza and Narew Rivers, is one of the most beautiful and wildest areas in Poland. The Biebrza flood plain is the largest and best preserved natural peatland in Europe, protected by a national park and the international Ramsar Convention, which protects wetlands of great natural value and important as waterfowl habitats. The Biebrza and the Narew make a true paradise for bird-watching lovers. On the Biebrza banks live as many as 269 species of birds; at the Narew River, the number exceeds 200. There are also many elks, beavers and otters. The terrain is wild, but not inaccessible. The best way of visiting it is by boat or canoe. The area has plenty of water-sports equipment rentals as well as hotels, pensions, camping sites and agrotourist farms. Despite all these facilities, though, it remains delightfully low-key.
Warsaw (Warszawa), Poland's capital (since 1596) and the biggest city (1,615,000 people), is an important academic, cultural, political and economic centre, the seat of the Parliament, President and central authorities. Called "the Paris of the North" before the war, it was razed to the ground by the Nazi. Although painstakingly rebuilt, it lost some of its previous charm. Its most characteristic landmark is the Palace of Culture and Science, a huge building in the Socialist-Realism style, erected in the 1950s. In recent years modern steel-and-glass high rises have been mushrooming around it. But there are still many fine, restored palaces and churches. The Old Town with its bright houses, defense walls and the Royal Castle, has been listed by UNESCO as an example of perfect reconstruction work which utilized what survived from the original buildings. Take a stroll around and visit Warsaw's parks, especially the Lazienki, a charming 18th-century park-and-palace complex. In summer, open-air piano concerts are held here.
The other big city in the region is Lodz, which is also Poland's second most populated city. Before the war it was one of the country's major centres of industry and trade, with Germans and Jews (mainly affluent families of merchants and industrialists) accounting for half of its population. Today you can marvel at their palace-like factory halls as well as Piotrkowska Street, believed to be Europe's longest shopping street, with a 4-kilometre continuous stretch of townhouses. This elegant, eye-catching street has the country's biggest concentration of pubs, nightclubs and restaurants, which make Lodz a place well worth visiting.
Tourists also flock to Zelazowa Wola, a small village where Frederic Chopin was born in 1810. His birthplace is a small ivy-clad manor house. Inside you can see a collection of memorabilia associated with the great composer including the piano which he played during his Sunday concerts.
Also visit Bialystok, the capital of Podlasie. Here you can feel the atmosphere of Poland's eastern fringes with their multitude of different cultures and nationalities. Highlights include Orthodox churches, an interesting open-air museum of traditional architecture and the Baroque Branicki Palace from the turn of the 18th century.