Poland's eastern metropolis of Lublin (pronounced loo-blin) is a surprisingly likable big city. There aren't many traditional tourist sites here, and not many foreign tourists either, but that's part of the charm. After visiting tourism behemoths like Kraków or Gdansk -- or even after spending time in the hustle and bustle of Warsaw -- Lublin feels much more relaxed and "real." It's a decent place to plan an overnight stop, with a number of excellent hotels and restaurants, and enough evening activities like concerts and clubs to keep you occupied. During the day, be sure to take in the city's lovely and partially restored historic core, with two of the original town gates still standing.
Lublin traces its history back about 800 years, when it was an eastern outpost for the Polish kingdom to guard against invasions from Tatar and Mongol hordes. The town grew greatly in importance with the union between the Polish and Lithuanian kingdoms at the end of the 14th century and the formal union of 1569. Before the union, Lublin had been a frontier town on the eastern fringe of the Polish kingdom, but the link-up with Lithuania placed the city directly between the then-Polish capital, Kraków, and the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius. Lublin suddenly found itself at the center of a country stretching from the Baltic to the Black seas.
The city thrived into the 17th century as an important commercial and legal hub, and was the seat of Poland's royal tribunal; but, as elsewhere in Poland, the countless wars took their toll. Lublin was sacked at least half a dozen times, by Muscovites, Swedes, Cossacks, and others. The Polish partitions at the end of the 18th century brought more confusion to Lublin. The town first found itself on the Austrian side of the border, then a few years later, it was attached to the Duchy of Warsaw, and then, ultimately -- for most of the 19th century -- it was ruled by tsarist Russia. The 19th century, however, brought industrialization and a measure of prosperity back to the city, and at the end of World War I, when Polish independence was fully restored, Lublin served for a short time as the country's capital. World War II, though, brought renewed disaster. Lublin had traditionally been an important city for Jews and for Jewish scholarship -- its prewar population of 100,000 was more than one-third Jewish -- but the Nazis destroyed this civilization in just a few short years. Polish Jews here were first herded into a restricted ghetto just off the Old Town, and then deported to the nearby concentration camp at Majdanek; many met their deaths at the exterminations centers at Sobibór and Bezec. The Nazis even made Lublin the wartime seat of "Operation Reinhard," their covert plan to exterminate the Jewish population of German-occupied Poland.
After the war and with the shifting of Poland's borders westward, Lublin again found itself on the frontier, but this time with the Soviet Union. Thousands of Poles fled here from the east, and the city's population soared to its current 380,000. The Communist period was a mixed bag; Lublin acquired important industries, but the city suffered under insensitive planning and reconstruction. The city's historic core, the Old Town, was largely left to rot. Even today, Lublin's many charms are arguably blighted by a sea of Communist-era housing blocks. During the post-Communist period, the city authorities have tried to restore something of the city's noble past. The Old Town is undergoing extensive long-term renovation, leaving elegantly restored Renaissance palaces still standing, in many cases, next to fallen-down, abandoned ruins.
It Happened Here: Poland & Lithuania Form Early European "Union"
When Poland joined the European Union in 2004, it was seen as a tremendous "first" in the country's history, but maybe it was a really only a "second." It was here in Lublin, all the way back in 1569, that Poland and Lithuania agreed to fuse their considerable domains into a united entity that in many ways bears an uncanny resemblance to today's EU. From the original document: "The Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania are now one, inseparable and indistinguishable body, but also an indistinguishable, yet one, common republic which has coalesced into one people out of two states and nations." As with the EU, the two agreed in principle to honor one authority, follow a single foreign policy, and adopt a common currency. At the same time, as with the EU, both retained separate treasuries, armies, and courts. The result portends both good and bad for today's EU. The union brought both kingdoms considerable prosperity and power -- but only for a time. It eventually proved unworkable and left both at the mercy of more powerful neighbors.