Malopolska (literally, Little Poland) is a historical and ethnographic region in south-eastern Poland.
Geographically, it encompasses the basin of the upper and partly middle Vistula with most of the Polish Carpathians, the Sandomierz Basin, the Oswiecim Basin and the Malopolska Upland.
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The name Malopolska appeared in the 15th century. The Latin “Polonia Minor” may be understood as “Younger Poland” – younger than today’s Wielkopolska, where the Polish state was created. However, as early as in the mid-11th century Malopolska came to be Poland’s principal province. It was here, in the capital Cracow, that kings and princes resided on the Wawel Hill; the city was also a flourishing centre of cultural and academic life (in 1364 King Casimir III the Great founded the Krakow Academy, later renamed the Jagiellonian University, one of Europe’s oldest educational institutions).
In 1995 the EU Council of Ministers of Culture named Krakow European City of Culture for the year 2000. In this way, Krakow became recognized as one of Europe’s major cultural centres along with Avignion, Bologna, Bergen, Brussels, Helsinki, Prague, Reykjavik and Santiago de Compostela.
Malopolska is a scenic region and its main tourist centres are Cracow (Krakow) and Zakopane. Part of the Malopolska Upland is the Cracow-Czestochowa Upland, popularly known as the Jura, a land of unique rocks, caves and gorges built of Jurassic limestone. An even stronger magnet for tourists is the mountains to the south. This Polish section of the Carpathians is about 300 km long. Numerous well-marked and groomed tourist trails invite you to commune with wild nature almost unscathed by civilization while excellent accommodation facilities ensure comfortable stay.
Worth visiting are also the Lublin region and Roztocze, east of the Vistula and south of the Bug River. Their main assets are charming countryside (with two national parks) and plenty of sites linked with the Jews that once lived there.
Between Cracow and Czestochowa stretches the Cracow-Czestochowa Upland, an area abounding with fantastically eroded rocks and karst landforms. A substantial part of the upland lies within the borders of the so-called Eagles’ Nests Landscape Parks with spectacularly situated ruins of 14th-century hilltop castles. In summer the area is extremely popular with rock climbers, as the limestone pillars, gates and cliffs are ideal for practising this sport. Not far from Krakow, the Ojcow National Park protects the most picturesque rock forms, gorges and a few hundred caves. Unsurprisingly, some 400,000 visitors come here every year.
Also built of limestone are Poland’s oldest (and of the oldest in Europe) Gory Swietokrzyskie (Holy Cross Mountains). Here, the country’s most beautiful cave has been discovered, fittingly called Raj (Paradise). It is safe and adapted for tourists, and the loop through its chambers, although relatively short, gives a good glimpse of the subterranean rugged world that you will remember for a long time.
Malopolska’s most precious asset is, however, the Carpathian Mountains. Divided into strikingly different ranges, they are suitable for easy walks, long hikes as well as exciting climbs. The highest range is the Tatras, Poland’s only alpine-type mountains with scenic trails and breathtaking vistas (the highest peak is Mt Rysy, 2499 metres). Their beauty stems largely from long green valleys and lakes surrounded by high peaks and rock towers. Not to be missed is the biggest of the lakes, Morskie Oko (literally, Eye of the Sea; 34.9 ha), and the dramatic Dolina Pieciu Stawow Polskich (Five Lakes’ Valley). The entire Tatras are encompassed by the Tatra National Park but open for tourists.
Other Carpathian ranges – the Beskidy, the Gorce and the Pieniny – are lower and gentler. Their main attraction is magnificent forests crisscrossed with a dense network of hiking and biking trails. Amid lush trees, charming clearings and bubbling brooks far from the buzz of civilization you can spot deer, hares, rare birds and butterflies. Most area is protected by national parks, but if you follow the simple rules of not leaving the marked trails, littering, lighting fires and frightening animals, you can freely commune with the magnificent nature. And there are many other attractions, like raft trips down the spectacular Dunajec Gorge in the Pieniny. In the foothills are lovely, hospitable towns and villages; many of them are popular spas in which you can take advantage of their curative waters for free.
A must on any itinerary of Malopolska is Cracow (Krakow), Poland’s cultural capital (boasting about a quarter of all museum holdings in the country), European City of Culture for the year 2000 and the most magical of all Polish cities. In 1978 Cracow’s Old Town and the Wawel royal castle were included in UNESCO’s World Heritage List. Historic monuments apart, this delightful city offers visitors exceptional atmosphere and diverse entertainment, including excellent pubs renowned around Poland. Not far off, in Wieliczka, is an amazing salt mine, unique around the world, operating uninterruptedly since the 13th century. In 1978 it was also inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List and in 1994 it was officially declared a Historic Monument. A tour of the underground labyrinth of tunnels and chambers is an unforgettable experience. Every year Wieliczka attracts over 700,000 visitors from all over the world.
Krakow and Wieliczka are not unchallenged, though. Millions of pilgrims and tourists come every year to Czestochowa, Poland’s national shrine, to pray at the miraculous icon of the Black Madonna in the Paulite monastery of Jasna Gora and to see its huge treasury full of votive offerings presented by monarchs and magnates. In summer and winter alike it, is worth visiting Zakopane, a resort at the foot of Poland’s highest mountains, the Tatras, surrounded by picturesque mountain villages. Here you can not only have a rest and hike in the mountains, but also get acquainted with the rich local culture and colourful, thriving traditions.
A dramatically different place is the death camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau (Oswiecim-Brzezinka) where during the Second World War the Nazi murdered 1.1-1.5 million people. Ninety percent of them were Jews, brought here from all countries of the occupied Europe. Other nationalities included Poles, Gypsies and Russians. Seeing the original interiors of camp buildings, gas chambers, crematoria and shocking displays of clothes and personal belongings of the murdered prisoners, you stand face to face with unspeakable cruelty and crime.
To the north-east are two more interesting places: Lublin, an attractive city with a lovely Old Town and many historical buildings (including a fine castle), and Zamosc, called the Padua of the North and the Pearl of the Renaissance, another town that has been included in UNESCO’s World Heritage List.