Małopolskie Province is in the south of Poland, on the border with Slovakia. Its name is often rendered in English as "Lesser Poland", but there's nothing lesser about it, and that term isn't used here. Geographically it has the heights of the Tatras Mountains, rolling countryside of woodlands and farms, and the strange depths of its salt mines. Culturally its span is even more extreme: from the fascinating old city of Kraków, and the village wooden churches and dwellings, to the 20th century hell that was Auschwitz.
- 1 Kraków is the magnificent centre of this region, with its well-preserved Old Town, and countless museums, galleries, hotels, restaurants and other attractions. It's the regional transport hub, with many budget flights to its airport.
The valley of the River Vistula is a gently rolling lowland, followed by the roads and railways, and with the main towns. The river rises in the mountains of Silesia. Following its course eastwards across Malopolskie:
- 2 Oświęcim is better known by its infamous German name of Auschwitz.
- Kraków itself is the next major lowland centre.
- 3 Wieliczka has famous salt mines.
- 4 Niepołomice has a fine hunting castle, virgin forests, and a conservation centre for European bison.
- 5 Bochnia has a large salt mine containing a church.
- 6 Tarnów has a preserved old town and cathedral, though the rest is industrial.
The Jura are the uplands northwest of Kraków - they're karst scenery resembling the Jura mountains of France. Most of this area lies in neighbouring Silesia. The area of most interest within Małopolskie is 1 Ojców National Park, only 20 km north of the city. There's also the oddity, on the border with Silesia, of Błędów Desert.
The Beskids are the range of mountains south of the valley, and part of the Carpathian range. Kalwaria Zebrzydowska is at the edge of this area and other towns in their western part include:
- 7 Wadowice, birthplace of Pope John-Paul II, has a baroque centre and has become a pilgrimage destination.
- 8 Kalwaria Zebrzydowska has a large monastery.
- 9 Sucha Beskidzka has a castle and church, and trails leading into the hills.
- 10 Zawoja is a straggling mountain community with many old wooden buildings. It's a good base for exploring Babia Góra National Park.
- 11 Rabka-Zdrój and 12 Nowy Targ are old spa towns, and good bases for exploring Gorce National Park.
- 13 Chochołów is a village of wooden houses on the border with Slovakia.
- 14 Dębno has a remarkable wooden church.
- 15 Niedzica is at the foot of Pieniński National Park along the river gorge of the Dunajec.
- 16 Szczawnica-Zdrój is a small spa town.
In the eastern Beskids are:
- 17 Krynica-Zdrój is a spa town.
- 18 Limanowa was rebuilt in the 18th C when the old wooden town burned down.
- 19 Nowy Sącz: most of the old town is no more but many historic buildings remain.
- 20 Biecz has several old buildings and part of its medieval walls.
- See Podkarpackie province for the Bieszczady mountains and Magura National Park further east.
The Tatras are the main range of Carpathian mountains dividing Poland from Slovakia.
- 21 Zakopane is a large mountain resort, busy in both winter and summer. Above it is Tatrzański National Park, with bears, wolves and other hairy beasts.
Poland was created in the 10th century when Mieszko I brought together several Slavic tribes but particularly the Polans (which meant people of the plains or fields). That early state was centred on Poznan, grew to include other lowland areas, and became known as Wielkopolska or Greater Poland. Later in his reign it grew further to take in Silesia and the area of Małopolska or Lesser Poland around the cities of Kraków, Sandomierz and Lublin. By the end of the 11th century Poland had attained roughly its present-day boundaries, had converted to Christianity, and had Kraków as its capital. That city and its surrounds were set for a long period of wealth and dominance, reflected in their cultural achievements.
Poland grew greater still through the 14th century union with Lithuania, coming to rule a vast tract of central Europe all the way to the Black Sea. But other nations began to grow and to roll back Polish control, notably Russia, Prussia and Austria. Małopolska lost some of its importance in the 17th century when the capital was moved to Warsaw, but the big decline set in when those three rival nations carved up Poland between them. This area was mostly under Austria but all three at various times held Kraków.
Małopolska suffered terribly along with the rest of the country under two World Wars, Nazism and Communism. Only in the late 20th century was Poland rid of its shackles, advancing economically, joining NATO and the European Union, and becoming a major destination for tourism. In 1999 the country's administration was reorganised into 16 województw, "voivodes" or provinces. Małopolskie Province (say "mawo-POL-skuh") comprised the western half of the historic Małopolska region, with the rest of that territory in other provinces. Małopolskie is divided into 22 powiaty or counties (and, since you were wondering, into 182 gminy or communes) but these aren't relevant to the visitor.
People in the cities and in the service sector are often multilingual and keen to show off their English. Out in the small country places you might need a bit of point-and-gesture.
By plane: The province's only commercial airport Kraków (KRK IATA) has a good range of flights across Europe. You could also fly in to Warsaw or Katowice and travel on by road or rail but there's seldom reason to do so.
By train: there are good railway services along the lowland river corridor. Kraków is a major hub and has direct trains to Warsaw (2 hr 30). From Berlin and the west, change in Wrocław or Warsaw.
By car: A4 toll motorway runs from the German border near Cottbus south of Berlin, traversing southern Poland via Wrocław and Katowice to Kraków. The highway from Warsaw is a good road but has not been upgraded to motorway.
There is good railway and bus transport along the lowland corridor, so from Kraków you can easily day-trip to Oświęcim / Auschwitz and to Wieliczka. There are also trains and frequent buses to Zakopane in the mountains. Other towns in the hills can be reached by bus but services have withered: these spa resorts still have vacationers and second-home owners arriving by car but are no longer mass resorts. You'll need a car to explore the national parks and little villages of this area.
- Kraków Old Town is a well-preserved medieval city with an impressive market place. The ancient walls have been pulled down except for the northern bastions, but the area they enclosed retains its unity and is traffic-free. It culminates in the redoubt of Wawel, with a cathedral, royal castle, and dyspeptic dragon that burps fire.
- Auschwitz comprises two extermination camps, in use 1940-45, at the edge of the town of Oświęcim. The first camp was an army barracks converted to kill people in batches of several hundreds, which accumulated into tens of thousands. This wasn't enough for the Nazi project so they built a new facility 3 km away at the village of Brzezinka - "Birkenau" in German. Here over a million would die.
- Wieliczka salt mine: the medieval world depended upon salt, as it was one of the few ways to prevent food stores rotting. The kings controlled the salt mines and pocketed the proceeds. There are several salt mines in the province but Wieliczka is the largest, with 4.5 km of tunnels (from a network of 400 km) that can be visited. Elaborate halls and artwork were hewn out of the salt by the miners.
- Medieval wooden churches are found in the province's eastern hills, eg at Dębno. There are more further east in Podkarpackie Province and continuing into Ukraine.
- Other historic wooden buildings are dotted all over the province, for instance at Chochołów near Zakopane.
- Summer hiking and winter sports in the mountains: the highest are the Tatras above Zakopane.
- The National Parks have horse-riding, canoeing and other outdoor activities.
Małopolskie is a delight to the palate - while the local cuisine may be simple, it is held to an art and eating well is a part of the local way of life. The mountains are home to traditional cheesemaking, in particular famous for the smoked cheese (oscypek). Other parts of Małopolskie may not have as famous hallmarks and share the general culinary heritage with the rest of Poland, but you can always bet on a rich supply of organic regional produce and find many restaurants where you can enjoy traditional Polish food prepared in the best of ways.
Kraków became an infamous target of British stag night excursions, but the region's nightlife is by far much more than that. Kraków is arguably Poland's cultural capital, with many venues blending cultural performances with social activities. One shall also find lively nightlife in Zakopane, the most popular mountain resort town.
While incidents of racist and antisemitic behaviour do happen, especially in Kraków, tourists should not feel any less safe than in any other region of Poland, or Europe for that matter. Much of Małopolskie thrives on tourist trade and therefore visitors are well looked after. Thanks to a large academic population, you should be able to find English-speaking support of all sorts reasonably easily.
- West is Silesia Province. The central corridor around Katowice is post-industrial brownfield, but to the south are attractive mountains, while north is Częstochowa with its baroque shrine.
- North is Świętokrzyskie or Holy Cross Province, with rolling hills, spa towns, and medieval Sandomierz.
- East is Podkarpackie or Subcarpathian Province. There are spas and old wooden churches up in the hills, and a plutocrat's palace at Łańcut. This province borders Ukraine, where Lvov is a charming old city.
- South is Slovakia. Roads hairpin over the Tatras mountains, with Tatras National Park straddling the two countries. Go west (usually via Silesia) to reach Slovakia's lowlands and main cities such as Bratislava on the Danube.