Opole is a city in southern Poland on the Oder River (Odra). It has a population of 125,992 (June 2009) and is the capital of the Upper Silesia, Opole Voivodeship and, also the seat of Opole County. Today, many German Upper Silesians and Poles of German ancestry live in the Opole region; in the city itself, however, Germans make up less than 3% of the population.Opole’s history begins in the 8th century. It this time, according to the archeological excavations, the first Slavic settlement was founded on the Ostrówek – the northern part of the Pasieka island in the middle of the Odra river. In the early 10th century it developed into one of the main gróds of the Slavic Opolanie. At the end of the century Silesia became part of Poland and was ruled by the Piast dynasty; the land of the pagan Opolanie was conquered by Duke Mieszko I in 992. From the 11th-12th centuries it was also a castellany. After the death of Duke Władysław II the Exile, Silesia was divided in 1163 between two Piast lines- the Wrocławska line in Lower Silesia and the Opolsko-Raciborska of Upper Silesia. Opole would became a duchy in 1172 and would share much in common with the Duchy of Racibórz, with which it was often combined. In 1281 Upper Silesia was divided further between the heirs of the dukes. The Duchy of Opole was temporarily reestablished in 1290.
In the early 13th century Duke Casimir I of Opole decided to move the settlement from the Pasieka island into the right shore of the Odra river (since the 17th century it is the old stream bed of Odra known as Młynówka). All of the inhabitants had to be moved in order to make place for the duke’s new castle that was eventually built in the place of the old city. Former inhabitants of Ostrówek together with German merchants that immigrated here from the West, received first town rights probably as early as around, 1217 though this date is disputed. Opole received German town law in 1254, which was expanded with Neumarkt law in 1327 and Magdeburg rights in 1410. Opole developed during the rule of duke Bolko I of Opole. In this time the castle was finally completed and new buildings, including the city walls and the Holy Cross church, were constructed. Along with most of Silesia, in 1327 the Duchy of Opole came under the sovereignty of the Kingdom of Bohemia, itself part of the Holy Roman Empire. In 1521 the Duchy of Racibórz (Ratibor) was inherited by the Duchy of Opole, by then also known by its German equivalent – Oppeln. The second castle of Opole was probably founded in the 14th century by duke Władysław Opolczyk, though some sources claim that it was originally a wooden stronghold of Opole’s castellan dating into 12th century.
With the death of King Louis II of Bohemia at the Battle of Mohács, Silesia was inherited by Ferdinand I, placing Opole under the sovereignty of the Habsburg Monarchy of Austria. The Habsburgs took control of the region in 1532 after the last Piast duke of Opole – Jan II the Good died. In those days the city was still mainly Polish-speaking (around 63%), with other nationalities represented mainly by Germans, Czechs and Jews. The last two dukes of Opole: Nicholas II of Niemodlin and Jan II the Good did not know German at all.
Beginning in 1532 the Habsburgs pawned the duchy to different rulers including several monarchs of Poland (see Dukes of Opole). With the abdication of King John II Casimir of Poland as the last Duke of Opole in 1668, the region passed to the direct control of the Habsburgs. At the beginning of the 18th century the amount of Germans in Opole was estimated at around 20%.
Poland’s territory extends across several geographical regions, between latitudes 49° and 55° N, and longitudes 14° and 25° E. In the north-west is the Baltic seacoast, which extends from the Bay of Pomerania to the Gulf of Gdańsk. This coast is marked by several spits, coastal lakes (former bays that have been cut off from the sea), and dunes. The largely straight coastline is indented by the Szczecin Lagoon, the Bay of Puck, and the Vistula Lagoon. The centre and parts of the north lie within the North European Plain.
Rising gently above these lowlands is a geographical region comprising the four hilly districts of moraines and moraine-dammed lakes formed during and after the Pleistocene ice age. These lake districts are the Pomeranian Lake District, the Greater Polish Lake District, the Kashubian Lake District, and the Masurian Lake District. The Masurian Lake District is the largest of the four and covers much of north-eastern Poland. The lake districts form part of the Baltic Ridge, a series of moraine belts along the southern shore of the Baltic Sea.
South of the Northern European Lowlands lie the regions of Silesia and Masovia, which are marked by broad ice-age river valleys. Farther south lies the Polish mountain region, including the Sudetes, the Kraków-Częstochowa Upland, the Świętokrzyskie Mountains, and the Carpathian Mountains, including the Beskids. The highest part of the Carpathians is the Tatra Mountains, along Poland’s southern border.
The geological structure of Poland has been shaped by the continental collision of Europe and Africa over the past 60 million years, on the one hand (and the other), by the Quaternary glaciations of northern Europe. Both processes shaped the Sudetes and the Carpathian Mountains. The moraine landscape of northern Poland contains soils made up mostly of sand or loam, while the ice age river valleys of the south often contain loess. The Kraków-Częstochowa Upland, the Pieniny, and the Western Tatras consist of limestone, while the High Tatras, the Beskids, and the Karkonosze are made up mainly of granite and basalts. The Polish Jura Chain is one of the oldest mountain ranges on earth.
Giewont in the Tatra Mountains; the mountainous south is a popular destination for hikers
Poland has 70 mountains over 2,000 metres (6,600 ft) in elevation, all in the Tatras. The Polish Tatras, which consist of the High Tatras and the Western Tatras, is the highest mountain group of Poland and of the entire Carpathian range. In the High Tatras lies Poland’s highest point, the north-western peak of Rysy, 2,499 metres (8,199 ft) in elevation. At its foot lies the mountain lakes of Czarny Staw pod Rysami (Black Lake below Mount Rysy), and Morskie Oko (the Marine Eye).