Occupying the whole of southwestern Poland, Silesia, or Śląsk (pronounced shlonsk) in Polish, can claim both the most tumultuous history and the most distinct identity of all the country’s regions. The area was defined long before the modern-day Polish state, and parts now fall within the borders of Germany and the Czech Republic. Most of Polish Silesia is comprised of the voivodeships (provinces) of Upper Silesia (Górny Śląsk), whose major city is industrial Katowice, and Lower Silesia (Dolny Śląsk), the capital of which is picturesque Wrocław. The names refer to altitude rather than geographical location.
The culture of Silesia is not the result of continuous development, but rather the last vestiges of a stronger regional tradition largely obliterated by forced population shifts after WWII. Silesia had a German majority throughout much of its history, and memories of those communities and their mass ‘repatriation’ still linger. Wrocław is a historical gem and well worth a visit. But the real draw is the Sudetes Mountains, a strip of natural beauty and idyllic resort towns stretching along the Czech border, and a boon to hikers, bikers and spa fans alike.
The rich history of the region underpins its charm, with architecture ranging from medieval fortresses to Baroque cathedrals. Importantly, this is the site of the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp complex, a grim memorial that has been listed as a Unesco World Heritage site (1979) and is compulsory viewing. Silesia may afford plenty of opportunities for fun and relaxation, but it also takes a glimpse at the dark side to appreciate the significance of this once-turbulent corner of Europe.