What you should know about Polish, the Poles and Poland...


Poland is located in the central area of the European continent. The country's area is 312,683 square kilometres which means Poland is the ninth largest country in Europe and the sixty-third largest in the world. 91.3% of the area is occupied by lowlands (below 300 metres asl). The highest peak is Rysy in the High Tatra at 2,499m. There are three major mountain ranges - the Carpathians, the Sudetes and the Więtokrzyskie Mountains.

The country stretches from the mountains in the south to the Baltic coast in the north, with Szczecin, Gdańsk and Gdynia being the main seaports. The longest river is the Vistula [Wisła] at 1,047 km, and the second longest is the Oder, marking a border with Germany along its downstream course. In Poland there are about 9,300 lakes of over 1 hectare in area, together comprising 1% of the country's land mass.

On a map, Poland's shape resembles a circle, with a characteristic stub, the Hel Peninsula (34km long, 500m wide on average). In the west, Poland borders Germany (467km of border), in the south, she borders the Czech Republic (790km) and Slovakia (541km), and in the east, her borders are shared with the Ukraine (529km), Belarus (416km), Lithuania (103km) and Russia (210km).


Warsaw - with a population of about 1,618,500 (spread over 494 km2)

Official language



1 Polish zloty (PLN) = 100 grosz

Political System

Poland is a multi-party republic with a bi-cameral Parliament (the lower house sitting in Sejm with 460 seats, the upper one in Senat with 100 seats).  Parliamentary elections are held every 4 years.

Sejm deputies are elected by means of a universal, equal, direct and proportional secret ballot. Senators are elected by the same means.  A joint session of Sejm and Senat, presided over by the Sejm Marshall, comprises the National Assembly. The Head of the State is the President, elected by a popular vote and serving a five-year term of office.

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Famous Poles

John Paul II

John Paul II (aka Karol Józef Wojtya) (1920 - 2005) was born in Wadowice on the 18th May, 1920. He was the first and so far the only Pole to be elected as Pope and head the Roman Catholic Church from inside the Vatican. During his long and successful life, he spent 27 years within the Papacy. His Pontificate was the third longest in the history of the Roman Catholic Church (after those of St. Peter and Pius IX). It lasted 9,665 days, something of an eternity when compared to the mere 33 days that his predecessor served. During those 27 years, he made numerous visits worldwide to countries with significant Roman Catholic communities.

Maria Skodowska-Curie

Maria Skodowska-Curie (aka Madame Curie) (1867-1934) was an eminent Polish physicist and chemist who lived and worked in France. She was the first ever woman  to complete a doctorate in France and subsequently became the first female professor to teach at the Sorbonne University.
Working in co-operation with her husband, Pierre Curie, in 1898 she discovered two chemical elements - polonium and radium. She was also the first woman to win the Nobel Prize and remains the only woman in the world to become a double Nobel Prize Laureate - for physics in 1903 (which was jointly awarded to Pierre Curie and Henri Becquerel), awarded for the discovery of radioactivity, and for Chemistry in 1911, which was awarded for the isolation of pure radium.

Lech Walęsa

Lech Walęsa (1943 - present) is a trade union leader, politician, and laureate of the 1983 Nobel Peace Prize. In 1980, he headed the workers' strike at the Gdansk Shipyard and between 1980 and 1981, he was Chairman of the National Co-ordination Committee of the Free Trade Union, Solidarity. He took part in negotiations with the communist authorities that resulted in the Round-Table Agreements of 1989. In 1990, he was elected President of the Solidarity Trade Union and from 1990-1995, he served as the President of Poland. He is the author of several books, including Droga Nadziei [A Way of Hope] (1987), and Droga Wolnoci [A Way of Freedom] (1991).

Wisawa Szymborska

Wisawa Szymborska (1923 -   ) is a poet and literary critic. She won the 1996 Nobel Prize in Literature, becoming the fourth Polish laureate of the award after Henryk Sienkiewicz, Wadysaw Rejmont and Czesaw Miosz. In 2001, she was made an honorary member of the American Academy of Fine Arts and Literature, the most important American distinction awarded to renowned artists.

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Polish Cuisine

Polish cuisine has incorporated different elements of the traditional cuisines of the numerous peoples who  have cohabited with the Poles for centuries, e.g. Jews, Ukrainians, Belorussians and Lithuanians. This is part of the reason that Polish food has a multi-ethnic dimension.

One delectable Polish speciality is its range of cured meats, especially Polish sausages, which are prized all over the world for the traditional manner in which they are made.  Other much-loved meat products include Polish hams with their delicate flavour, smoked pork butt roasts, cured pork fillets and bacon, not to mention marvellous terrines that are made from a number of different meats, including venison.

A standard Polish dinner will invariably include a soup. Polish beetroot soup follows a centuries-old recipe, but our sour soup is a close contender in terms of popularity.

Meats are traditionally cooked in various ways: roast, stewed, fried or grilled. They are served either hot - with various mouth-watering sauces - or cold.

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Polish Festivities and Customs

The Poles have a reputation for their great love of festivities and their adherence to age-old customs. The observance of tradition is felt most greatly during the major church feasts, including Christmas, Easter, Corpus Christi (celebrated with huge processions) and All Saints' Day.

Poles also celebrate secular occasions, including Women's Day (8 March), Mother's Day (26 May), Grandma's Day (21 January) and Children's Day (1 June) - the latter being the festival at which innumerable children's events take place.

Another much-loved tradition is St. Andrew's Day, which is viewed as the last occasion for merrymaking before Advent, and includes lots of fortune-telling for the year ahead.


Christmas is the festive season most important to all Poles and, at the same time it is the festival that is richest in folk tradition.  It is preceded by Advent, which is a period of merry anticipation for the advent of Christ. A tradition observed during Advent is the offering of gifts to children on the date of St. Nicholas' Feast (6 December).  Gifts are usually hidden under a child's pillow or in a shoe.

The largest number of folk customs are related to the last day of Advent, i.e. Christmas Eve.  This is the day on which it is most easy to observe folk rituals, customs and traditional beliefs.  Christmas Eve is an important family-oriented Polish tradition. Following a wafer-sharing family ceremony at the start of a rich twelve-dish dinner (which traditionally excludes any meat), families join in with the choral singing of traditional Christmas carols. The evening of Christmas Eve usually ends with the whole family attending a Midnight Mass, called Pasterka (Shepherds' Mass).


Beside their birthdays, Poles celebrate their name-days, i.e. the feasts of their namesake patron saints.  This is a tradition which continues to  be popular in Poland. The person celebrating his or her name-day will receive good wishes and gifts from family and friends.  Wherever there is more than one namesake feast in the calendar, it is traditional to select just one of them for life.  This is usually the one most closely following the birthday or the feast of the personal patron saint, or the date most generally accepted for the given name.

All Saints' Day

Celebrated on November 1, this feast commemorates many saints and martyrs. In contrast to the high-spirited American tradition of Halloween, for Poles this is a day is full of contemplative recollection and prayer.  In Polish tradition, no grave should be forgotten on this day, and the large majority of graves are beautifully decorated with a sea of flowers and candles.  These candle-lit cemeteries make an unforgettable scene as family and friends reunite over the graves of their significant ones.

All Souls' Day

This is a more modern equivalent of the pagan Slavic Dziady feast and bears the generally-applied name of the Roman Catholic Feast of Commemoration of all the Faithful Departed. Zaduszki falls on November 2, the day following All Saints' Day. The faithful pray for the souls of loved ones currently languishing in Purgatory.


New Year's Day, preceded by the New Year Ball, marks the onset of the Carnival - the period of frequent and sometimes huge dancing parties. Amongst those carnival entertainment traditions that are gleefully maintained whenever possible are the sleigh rides that were popular for centuries with the nobility. Fat Thursday, the last Thursday before Lent, is the day when everybody enjoys deep-fried sweet doughnuts - fluffy balls of various sizes, made of yeast dough and filled with fruit preserves, and cienci - thin ribbons of dough with one end twisted through a slit down the middle.

Carnival ends with a huge dancing party, which is held on the night preceding Ash Wednesday and known as the "herring party." at which the dish of the day is served in all its imaginable forms in a festival that serves as a foretaste for the coming Lent.


The most spectacular religious feast preceding Easter is Palm Sunday, solemnised at churches throughout the country to commemorate the triumphant entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. The chief attribute of the feast is the palm, though this is now a far cry from the palm leaves that were used to welcome Jesus to the Holy City. Usually it takes the form of a decorative bouquet of box leaves, dried flowers and willow twigs with catkins.

On Holy Saturday, people bring small decorative baskets to church that are filled with samples of the food they have prepared for Easter which they bring in order to have the food blessed. This is the last day of Lent fasting. The blessed food will then be shared at the start of a celebrated Easter breakfast.

Easter eggs.

The decoration of Easter eggs is a Polish tradition stretching back many centuries. In Polish culture it became an element of folk art, with ornaments and techniques varying from region to region.
Easter Monday is the day of migus-dyngus, with boys pouring water over girls and spanking them with willow twigs. It is hard to say how this prevailing custom originated. Possibly, it was seen as an act of purification and an enhancement of reproductive ability.  Historically, in many regions water was poured not only onto females, but also onto the ground (in order to ensure a good harvest), and onto the cows, (in order to ensure good milking).

Religious feasts

Easter (Easter Sunday and Monday) and Corpus Christi (one Thursday in June) - changing with the calender
15th August - Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary
1st November - All Saints' Day
25th and 26th December - Christmas

Public holidays

1st January - New Year's Day
1st May - Labour Day
3rd May - National holiday, commermorating the anniversary of the passing the Constitution of 3rd May, 1791
11th November - National holiday, commemorating the regaining of national independence in 1918

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Polish Alphabet

The Polish alphabet is used to write the Polish language and, colloquially referred to as the "abecado". It consists of 32 letters and is based on the Latin alphabet, with the addition of certain diacritic marks. The letter order is:


Useful linguistic links:

  • edu.info.pl - educational portal
  • KMK - KMK Online Linguistic Bookshop. Over 2,000 dictionaries
  • jezykiobce.pl - Language learning software (English, German, Russian, Spanish)
  • Slowka.pl - e-mailed vocabulary items with recorded pronunciation (English, German, French)
  • Ling.pl - Free online dictionaries (English, German, French, Italian, Spanish, Russian, Polish)

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Useful Contacts


47 Portland Place
London W1B 1JH
Tel.: 0 044 870 774 2700
Fax: 0 044 207 291 35 75 or 0 044 207 291 35 76
E-mail: polishembassy@polishembassy.org.uk


Al. J. Ch. Szucha 23,
00-580 Warsaw
tel. (+4822) 523 9000
www. www.mfa.gov.pl
e-mail: dsi@msz.gov.pl


ul.Wiejska 10
00-902 Warszawa,
tel. (+4822) 695-29-00
e-mail: listy@prezydent.pl


Al. Ujazdowskie 1/3
00-583 Warszawa
tel. (0-22) 841-38-32 (0-22) 694-69-83
fax. (0-22) 628-48-21
e-mail: cirinfo@kprm.gov.pl
www: www.kprm.gov.pl/english/index.html

Polish Social and Cultural Association Ltd. (POSK)

238-246 King Street,
London W6 0RF

Phone/fax numbers

  • front desk: 020 8741 1940
  • secretarial office: 020 8742 6411, Fax: 020 8746 3798,
  • accounts: 020 8742 6413
  • theatre box office: 020 8741 0398/1887
  • gallery: 020 8742 6430
  • restaurant & cafe: 020 8741 3225
  • tourist information: 020 8741 5541
  • Polish library: 020 8741 0474
  • POSKlub: 020 8741 4271
  • bookshop: 020 8748 5522,
  • information desk: 020 8748 1203