All Over the Map: A Quick Tour of Poland’s Voivodeships
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small, Voivodeships of Poland, photo: Wikimedia Commons, center, voivodeships_wikimedia.jpg
Discover the feudal origins of these idiosyncratic regions, and get cultural, historical and geographical overviews for all 16. From the seashore cliffs of West Pomerania through the mediaeval architectural monuments of the inland town of Sandomierz to the birthplace of Fryderyk Chopin, let Culture.pl take you on a tour of Poland’s voivodeships.
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The hussars winning the Battle of Kircholm, photo: FoKa / Forum
The curious word ‘voivodeship’ is specific to Poland and denotes a main administrative region. There are 16 in all, with each made up of a number of powiaty, smaller territorial divisions comparable to counties. The powiaty in turn contain a number of gminy or ‘municipalities’ which are Poland’s smallest administrative divisions.
The origins of voivodeships go a long way back in history. They first appeared after a period of feudal division in the early Middle Ages. Infighting caused Poland to temporarily split into about a dozen principalities, and after it reunited these former divisions’ borders were reflected in the shapes of the new regions of military governance now known as voivodeships. These military roots are even encoded into the Polish name for them: województwa (vou-yeah-voo-tz-tfah) which comes from the phrase wodzić woje, meaning ‘to lead warriors.’ The name points to the fact that the head of a voivodeship or a wojewoda was obliged to command its warriors in times of need.
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The name ‘wojewoda’ is said to come from leading warriors, meaning that each should muster his soldiers and command them ex officio, which still very much occurs today when a particular voivodeship calls for a levy en masse against a foe.
From ‘Korona Polska’ (Polish Crown) by Kasper Niesielski, written in the years 1728-1743
Today, of course, the head of a voivodeship isn’t required to ‘lead warriors’ and performs decidedly peaceful administrative functions instead…
The shapes and number of voivodeships has morphed throughout Poland’s long history, reflecting the evolution of Poland’s territory and administration. The fewest number of voivodeships at once was during the 14th century – only eight, each of them accordingly large. In the years 1975–1998, they were at their highest number – 49 comparatively small areas – while their current total today was set in 1999. Below you’ll find short descriptions of each of the currently existing 16 voivodeships.
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Książ Castle, Wałbrzych, photo: Kamil Cieliński/Książ Castle promotional materials
Dolnośląskie or the Lower Silesian Voivodeship lies in the south-west corner of Poland. It’s capital is Wrocław, an ancient city that in the early Middle Ages was one of the three capitals of Poland alongside Kraków and Sandomierz. In the south of the region lies the Karkonosze mountain range (up to 1,600 metres above sea level) whereas in the north are the Silesian-Lusatian lowlands. In the highlands in-between, you can find the grand Książ castle, which dates back to the 13th century. Expanded many times over the centuries, it’s the third largest such structure in Poland and a major tourist attraction. A famous artist born in this voivodeship (in Wrocław) is Janusz Olejniczak, a pianist famed for his interpretations of Chopin and the soundtrack he recorded for Roman Polański’s Oscar-winning film The Pianist.
7 Wonders of Wrocław and Lower Silesia – Image Gallery
Kujawsko-Pomorskie is called the Kuyavian-Pomeranian Voivodeship in English. It’s located in central Poland and has two cities serving as its seat of government: Toruń (the birthplace of Nicolaus Copernicus) and Bydgoszcz. The region is cut by the Vistula flowing from south to north, with lakelands on both sides of the river, whereas in the north there’s the Tucholska Plain. The aforementioned Toruń lies on the Vistula and is a very good reason to visit this voivodeship. Dating back to the 13th century, the town has a magnificent mediaeval old town whose historical value is reflected by its UNESCO World Heritage Site status. The major silent-era film star Pola Negri was born in the Kuyavian-Pomeranian Voivodeship in the town of Lipno. She was one of Hollywood’s biggest early stars, so quite rightfully her star can be found in the Hollywood walk of fame.
Marina on Mill Island in Bydgoszcz - Image Gallery
Lubelskie or the Lublin Voivodeship lies in eastern Poland and its capital is Lublin. This city is where one of the most significant political pacts in Poland’s history was sealed – 1569’s union with Lithuania, which formally established the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. In the south of the region lies the hilly land of Roztocze – a place highly valued for its picturesque nature – the central area is taken up by the Lublin upland. In the western part, in the town of Puławy, you can find the Czartoryski Palace and its historical English-style garden, one of the most popular destinations in the region. Henryk Sienkiewicz, one of Poland’s most influential writers and winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature was born in the Lublin Voivodeship, in the village of Wola Okrzejska.
Lublin by Edward Hartwig – Image Gallery
The Lubuskie Voivodeship is located in Poland’s west, with its government located in two cities: Gorzów Wielkopolski and Zielona Góra. The latter is a place with long-standing wine-making traditions dating back to the 14th century. The Lubuskie Lakeland lies in the centre of the region, whereas in the north there’s the Gorzów Valley which extends from east to west. In the south lies the town of Żagań, which according to legend was founded around the year 700 by the Slavic princess Żaganna. This town features a post-Augustinian monastery complex sporting impressive baroque architecture and includes a historical library with frescos by the noted Silesian artist Georg Wilhelm Neunhertz. One of Poland’s best-known pop and rock singers Maryla Rodowicz also comes from Lubuskie (she was born in Zielona Góra).
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A privately owned postcard, photo: strojeludowe.net
In English, Łódzkie is called the Łódź Voivodeship. Located in central Poland, it has the city of Łódź as its capital. The city rose to prominence after a period of galloping industrial growth in the 19th and early 20th century, linked to the textile industry. In the region’s west, there’s the Sieradz Lowland and in the centre lies the wavy Łódź Upland. The town of Łowicz lies in the region’s north and is the centre of the characteristic Łowicz style of folk art admired in things like traditional clothing and cut outs. This folk aesthetic uses lively shades of colours such as red, green, yellow and blue and employs stripes as well as rooster and flower motifs. A famous Polish artist born in the Łódź Voivodeship (in Łódź itself) is Zbigniew Rybczyński. This filmmaker studied at the famous Łódź Film School and won an Oscar in 1983 for his avant-garde animated short film Tango.
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Małopolskie or the Lesser Poland Voivodeship lies in the country’s south. Its capital is the ancient city of Kraków, which was the capital of Poland from 1296 to 1611. King Zygmunt III Vasa moved his residence from Kraków to Warsaw in 1611 making the latter, effectively, the seat of Poland’s government. In the south of the region lies Poland’s highest mountain range – the Tatra Mountains reaching up to 2503 metres above sea level, and in the north there’s the Kraków-Częstochowa highland. Just on the outskirts of Kraków lies the salt mine in Wieliczka, whose history dates back to the 13th century. It’s a cherished tourist attraction that lets visitors explore its awe-inspiring depths (such as an underground cathedral) and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The famous graphic artist Zofia Stryjeńska, best remembered for her works inspired by folk art, was born in the Lesser Poland Voivodeship, in Kraków.
Historic Salt Mine in Wieliczka and the Kraków Saltworks Museum – Image Gallery
Mazowieckie lies in central Poland and is called the Mazovian Voivodeship in English. Its capital is Warsaw, Poland’s largest city (around 1.7 million residents) and also the capital of the entire country. Warsaw was very badly affected by World War II – around 85% of its buildings were destroyed – and the rebuilding of the city was a humongous feat. The picturesque Old Town was reconstructed so skilfully that it became a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In the central part of the region lies the Warsaw Valley cut by the Vistula river, an area surrounded by a number of uplands. About an hour’s drive east from Warsaw, Żelazowa Wola is the village where Fryderyk Chopin was born. The traditional nobleman’s manor that was his birthplace serves as a museum to the world-famous composer and pianist, and is a great reason to visit the Mazovian countryside.
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Opolskie or the Opole Voivodeship lies in the south of Poland and has Opole as its capital. The city is well-known for its annual National Festival of Polish Songs, running every year since 1963. This major event showcases the country’s most impactful pop songs and includes a special competition for debuting artists. In the north of the region lies the Silesian Lowland, whereas in the south there’s the Głubczyce Plateau. About 30 km south of Opole lies Moszna, a village that’s famous for its massive castle dating back to the 18th century. Due to its impressive Baroque, neo-Gothic and neo-Renaissance architecture and large amount of towers (99 in fact), Harry Potter fans call it Poland’s Hogwarts. A well-known face of culture born in Opolskie (in Strzelce Opolskie) is the actor Arkadiusz Jakubik, who has starred in several major Polish films from this century, such as the 2017 award-winning film Silent Night.
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The Podkarpackie Voivodeship lies in the south-east corner of Poland. Its capital is Rzeszów, a city with one of the most modern economies in the country, as it heavily relies on computer specialists and workers skilled in aviation. In the south of the region lie the picturesque Bieszczady Mountains (up to 1346 metres above sea level) and in the north are the plains and plateaus of the vast Sandomierz Valley. The Bieszczady National Park located in the aforementioned range is a magnificent nature reserve that covers nearly 300 square kilometres. Almost 80% of its area is covered by woods (including beautiful beech forests) and is an absolutely splendid place to visit. A famous artist born in the Podkarpackie Voivodeship is Jerzy Grotowski, the world-famous theatre director and theoretician.
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The Podlaskie Voivodeship is located in the north-east of the country. It has Białystok as its capital, a city with a number of architectural monuments, one of the finest being Branicki Palace. Because of its impressive late Baroque architecture, this former aristocratic residence (today an edifice of the Medical University) is sometimes called the ‘Versailles of Podlasie.’ In the north of the region, there’s the Suwalskie Lakeland, while the Białystok Upland can be found in the east. In the south-east lies the famous Białowieża National Park which is located in the middle of the Białowieża Forest – the last remaining part of the ancient woods that once covered all of Europe’s lowlands. This beautiful forest is around 8,000 years old and houses the majestic European bison. Ludwik Zamenhof, the creator of the universal Esperanto language, was born in this voivodeship, in Białystok.
The Legacy of Ludwik Zamenhoff, Archive Photos – Image Gallery
Pomorskie is called the Pomeranian Voivodeship in English. It’s located in the north of the country and has Gdańsk is its capital. This ancient city is commonly associated with amber artisanship, which flourished here from the 16th to the 18th century (the so-called golden age of amber) and is still practised today. In the north of the region is the characteristic elongated Hel peninsula, and in the central area there’s the Kashubian Lakeland. In the west lies the town of Malbork and its mediaeval castle. A stunning monument of Gothic architecture and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the massive Malbork Castle grounds are considered some of the finest in all of Europe. Dorota Masłowska is a well-known writer from the Pomeranian Voivodeship. She was born in the town of Wejherowo.
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The Spodek building in Katowice, photo: Michał Łuczak/Forum
Śląskie or the Silesian Voivodeship lies in the south of the country and has Katowice as its capital. The city no longer is the important coal mining centre it was in the 19th and 20th centuries, but it remains an industry hub and acts as an organiser of important events, such as the 2018 UN Climate Change Conference. In the south of the region lie the Beskid Żywiecki Mountains (up to 1,725 metres above sea level) and in the centre there’s the Silesian Upland. The picturesque town of Pszczyna, a popular tourist destination, lies in Upper Silesia in the south eastern parts of the voivodeship. Due to its historical architecture, such as the Market Square surrounded by 18th- and 19th-century tenements or the neo-Baroque palace, it’s often called the ‘pearl of Upper Silesia.’ A famous artist born in the Silesian Voivodeship (in Żywiec) is Natalia LL, well-known for her avant-garde videos and installations such as Consumer Art.
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The Świętokrzyskie Voivodeship is located in south-central Poland. Its capital is Kielce, a city that has five nature reserves within its area. One of these is the Karczówka reserve, which protects the unique landscape of Mount Karczówka – a picturesque wooded hill with a 17th-century church and post-Bernardine monastery on top. In the centre of the region lie the Świętokrzyskie Mountains, purportedly the oldest range in Europe, whereas in the south there’s the Nida Valley. In the east is the charming town of Sandomierz, which was recently declared a ‘monument of history.’ The town has retained its mediaeval urbanistic plan and has many architectural monuments like the mediaeval Opatowska city gate and the mediaeval-renaissance city hall. The eminent writer Witold Gombrowicz was born in the Świętokrzyskie Voivodeship in Małoszyce.
Kielce Dance Theatre at the Silk Road Festival [gallery]
Warmińsko-Mazurskie is called the Warmian-Mazurian Voivodeship in English and is situated in the north of the country. Its capital is the city of Olsztyn, which has fifteen lakes within its limits, including the 412 hectare Ukiel Lake. Having an urban swimming beach, marinas and kayak rentals the lake is a popular recreation destination. In the north of the voivodeship lies the Sępopolska Lowland but most of the region’s area is taken up by the massive Mazurian Lakeland. The latter has thousands of lakes, among them the largest in Poland: Lake Śniardwy. Thanks to the area’s magnificent nature, it’s a much-visited tourist destination, especially popular with admirers of yachting. The novelist Jakub Żulczyk, whose Blinded by the Lights was recently adapted into an HBO TV series, was born in this voivodeship in Szczytno.
Lakeside Holidays in 1950s Poland
Wielkopolskie or the Greater Poland Voivodeship lies in West-Central Poland and has Poznań as its capital. The city is often associated with the Poznań International Fair, the biggest exhibition hall in Poland, with 17 exhibition pavilions constantly hosting trade fairs since 1921. In the north of the region lies the Wielkopolskie Lakeland, while in the south there’s the Południowowielkopolska Lowland. The area of the voivodeship is where the Polish state came into existence in the 10th century (that’s when the first historical Polish ruler lived – Duke Mieszko I). Less than an hour’s drive to the north-east from Poznań lies Poland’s first capital, the town of Gniezno, where the Gothic cathedral saw the coronations of five Polish kings. The poet and Nobel Prize in Literature winner Wisława Szymborska was born in the Greater Poland Voivodeship, in Kórnik.
The Gniezno Doors
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Seaside cliffs in the Wolin National Park, photo: Jan Włodarczyk/Forum
history of Poland
lower silesian voivodeship
Lesser Poland Voivodeship
Greater Poland Voivodeship
West Pomeranian Voivodeship
Zachodniopomorskie is called the West Pomeranian Voivodeship in English and is situated in the north-west corner of the country. Its capital is the city of Szczecin where one building you can find is the amazing Mieczysław Karłowicz Philharmonic. With a shape resembling an iceberg, this award-winning 2014 edifice houses a concert hall with a special geometrically-designed interior providing great acoustics. In the south of the region, there’s the Zachodniopomorskie Lakeland, while in the north you have the Szczecin Shoreland. In the north-east, on the Baltic coast, there’s the beautiful Wolin National Park. Among its biggest attractions are the majestic sea shore cliffs reaching up to 93 metres high. A well-known artist born in the West Pomeranian Voivodeship (in Szczecin) was the painter Henryka Beyer, who was celebrated for her still lives.
Author: Marek Kępa, May 2019
Szczecin Philharmonic – Image Gallery