Contrasts between the Czech Republic and Poland

Kraków, Poland © Ricky Yates

Kraków, Poland © Ricky Yates

You would think that with Poland and the Czech Republic being next-door to each other, and with Polish and Czech both belonging to the West Slavic group of languages, the two countries and their respective populations, would have much in common. Surprisingly, they don’t! Whilst what follows is based on seven years of living in the Czech Republic, and only the past five days travelling through Poland, I hope it still has some validity 🙂

Some contrasts are indisputable. The area of Poland is four times greater than that of the Czech Republic. Driving across Poland these last few days has forcibly brought this home to me. It is a big country! Likewise, the population of Poland is nearly four times greater than that of the Czech Republic – 38.5 million against 10.5 million.

But even with the languages of two countries both being West Slavic, this does not bring about much commonality. Whilst an adult Czech can fairly easily understand an adult Slovak and vice versa, when both speak in their respective languages, the same does not apply to Czechs and Poles. I’ve been told this several times, by citizens of both countries. Interestingly, a Polish hotel receptionist told me a couple of days ago, that she and many other Poles, find it easier to understand a Slovak, rather than a Czech.

There are similarities between Czech and Polish – both have seven cases 🙁 , and some vocabulary is also identical, or only slightly different. For example ‘beer’, which in Czech is ‘pivo‘, in Polish it is ‘piwo‘. But there are also many significant differences and various false friends. Quite commonly, when a Czech and a Pole want to speak to each other, they will resort to using second language English!

One major area of contrast is with regard to the Christian faith. Whilst Roman Catholics are the majority Church in both countries, the level of adherence and practice is vastly higher in Poland than it is in the Czech Republic. In both countries under communism, the Christian Church suffered – Protestant and Roman Catholic alike. But whilst in Poland, it was the Roman Catholic Church that was at the forefront of opposition to totalitarianism, in the Czech Republic it was predominantly artists and writers.

Over the past twenty-five years, since the collapse of the communist regimes in both countries, considerable sums of money have been spent on restoring historic Churches. However, in the Czech Republic, this has mainly been done to preserve what is seen as the country’s cultural heritage, as well as to attract tourists. In Poland, whilst both these motives also apply, the main reason is to provide and enhance, well-used places of worship.

As we have driven through Poland these last few days, one thing that has frequently struck us, are the considerable number of large new Roman Catholic Churches we have seen. These clearly have all been built since 1989. You do not see this in the Czech Republic.

Post 1989, both countries rapidly embraced capitalism with state owned industries being privatised and Western European investment being actively encouraged. This has resulted in many Czech and Polish businesses coming under foreign ownership. In the Czech Republic, these are often German – Škoda is now owned by Volkswagen, and two major supermarket chains, Kaufland and Billa, are also German.

However in Poland, the French are the major player. We’ve seen large hypermarkets belonging to Auchan and Carrefour. And in the banking arena, Credit Agricole and BNP Parisbas appear to have a considerable market share, judging by the number of branches both have in Polish towns and cities.

One observation Sybille has made since we’ve been in Poland, is that there are far fewer dogs to be seen. In the Czech Republic, the commonly quoted statistic is that 40% of households have at least one dog. Judging by the number of dogs we meet when walking in Prague, each one of which Sybille likes to say ‘Hello’ to 🙂 , that could be an under estimate. We have seen, and Sybille has said ‘Hello’ to, several Polish dogs. But to many fewer than would be the case in the Czech Republic.

The only area where I have observed any similarities between Poles and Czechs, is in their fashion sense. As I wrote under point three of my most famous post, ‘How to be Czech in ten easy steps‘, one popular male look is having long hair and tying it back in a pony tail. Since writing this, I’ve been told that this was a way, post 1968, of showing your opposition to the communist regime. This may well explain why you can often see men in their fifties and sixties, sporting this look. The look is is also alive and well in Poland, presumably with similar origins.

Likewise, the habit of Czech ladies wearing either very short skirts or spray-on jeans, can also be frequently observed in Poland. But even here, there is a difference between the two countries. In the Czech Republic, many new grandmothers, dress little differently from their daughters, often competing with them as to who has the shorter hemline! Here in Poland, the difference between the generations is rarely blurred.

Quite honestly, there is very little love lost between Czechs and Poles. Sybille and I have chosen to take advantage of living in Central Europe, by currently spending a two week holiday, exploring Poland. But several Czechs have expressed considerable surprise that we should want to do so! Most Czechs do not visit Poland. Since passing through the border area just north of Ostrava, we haven’t seen a single Czech registered car!

19 comments to Contrasts between the Czech Republic and Poland

  • Thanks for the interesting post, Ricky.
    After our recent second visit to Budapest, Karin and I have been ruminating on the differences between people in Prague and those in Budapest. My only conclusion is that, obviously, the diversity pre-dates the Austro-Hungarian Empire and maybe the Holy Roman Empire.
    History is so complicated!

    • Ricky

      Glad you enjoyed the post, Michael.

      Although Czechs & Hungarians were both subjects of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, I would expect there to be differences between the peoples because of speaking totally different languages, unlike Czechs & Poles. But yes – history is complicated!

  • Sean Mccann

    Hi Ricky,
    Thanks for another great post and the picture of the Mariacka Basilica. Kate and I spent two weeks in Poland in July split roughly equally between Wroclaw and Krakow with a couple of side trips.. We preferred Wroclaw to Krakow, we thought the latter was beautiful and fascinating in a historical sense, but Wroclaw was a more ‘human’ city while lacking very little in the history ‘stakes’. We had a most interesting discussion on the (Old) Polish Catholic Church with a gentleman running the visitors shop at St. Mary Magdalene Cathedral there. He was surprised to find Irish visitors in his city and then to find they had heard of the Union of Utrecht – naturally we cited you as our source of this knowledge.
    We were struck by the proliferation of streetside and roadside shrines, statuary and crosses with elaborate floral offerings, especially in the vicinity of Krakow. Perhaps Wroclaw having been German and more culturally ‘protestant’ had less of them? Enjoy your visit and thank you yet again. God bless.

    • Ricky

      Thank you, as always Sean, for your compliments & comments. We have just spent two nights in Kraków on our way to the Masurian Lakes in the NE of Poland & there will be a blog post, with photos, shortly. We also plan to visit Wroclaw on our way back to Prague so I’ll see if I agree with your assessment of the two cities 🙂

      The elaborate decoration of roadside shrines is something we too, have noticed. It is not just around Kraków but has been noticeable on our ongoing journey northwards.

  • Radka

    Dear Ricky,

    I speak Polish, I´ve been to Poland several times and I have many Polish friends…and I fully agree with what you have observed in just couple days 🙂 Looking forward to another post from your vacation. Enjoy and give my regards to Sybille!


    • Ricky

      Hi Radka,

      I didn’t realise that speaking Polish was also part of your linguistic ability! But thank you for confirming my observations. Depending on internet access, (I’m currently replying to your comment on a very dodgy open wifi network 😉 ), and available time, I hope to write more posts about our Polish trip in the next few days. Your regards have been passed on to Sybille!

  • David Hughes

    Ricky, this is an interesting post. My time in Poland is even more limited than yours, amounting to two journeys across the border between Krakow airport and northern Slovakia. Like Sean and you, I was also struck by the large number of roadside shrines. A couple of things about your post, Czech and Slovak adults would have more mutual understanding of each other’s languages because of the way television was broadcast pre-1993. I realise the singular of data is not anecdote but from what I’ve been told the spoken language is fine to understand but the written word is more problematic. Also, you’re a typical Praguer as plenty of people I know from Ostrava and other towns in Moravian Silesia have a fair understanding of spoken Polish.

    On the dogs – I had a look up of some statistics (here: ) and there is a lower percentage of dog ownership in Poland but in absolute figures over 5 million more dogs in Poland. Perhaps the reason for your not seeing so many dogs is you weren’t staying near a large public park for dog walking? I dunno.

    The surprise that greeted your telling Czechs you were going on holiday to Poland is perfectly understandable. As a rule, Czechs enjoy beach holidays and enjoy going South. Yes, there are beaches in Poland but it’s hardly the Med.

    While there is some recent history between the Czechs and Poles – they fought a war over an area of Silesia in 1918 and Poland annexed the town of Bohumin in 1938, plus the Poles were part of the 1968 invasion force and, on a less martial theme, there are more recent blow-ups over the importing of poor quality foods from Poland – I don’t think it’s fair to say there’s no love lost between the two. Czechs I know have no problem with Poles and vice versa.

    Finally, I once saw a very nice advert for a supermarket in the town of Namestovo in Orava, northern Slovakia, just a few kilometres from the Polish border. It read: “European quality, Polish prices”.

    • Ricky

      Hi David – thank you for your long & thoughtful comment. Addressing your various points in turn:

      I was well aware that one major reason why adult Czechs & Slovaks can understand each other, was the way TV was broadcast until the Velvet Divorce. But the two languages are much closer than Czech is to Polish. Likewise, I was aware that in NE Moravia & the small part of former Silesia which lies within the Czech Republic, Polish is often understood and spoken.

      The comment on dogs was purely observational. Sybille, who loves saying ‘Hello’ to nearly every dog that passes, has noticed & commented frequently, that there are far fewer dogs around here in Poland.

      For sure, the Czechs much prefer the beaches of Croatia, rather than those on the Baltic Sea coast. But there is plenty of architecture, culture and beautiful landscapes to enjoy in Poland too.

      Maybe saying there is no love lost between Czechs & Poles was being a little excessive. But see the earlier comment by Radka, who is Czech!

      Finally, I enjoyed your description of the advert you saw in northern Slovakia 🙂

  • Jonathan

    Hi Ricky, thanks for the various posts and blog about Poland. It certainly seems that for such a big country it doesn’t quite get the attention it deserves, beyond, of course, the typical destinations like Krakow.

    I was particularly interested by your thoughts above on the similarity (or lack of) between the Czech and Polish languages and your individual experiences on the subject.

    I’d like to throw in another perspective. I think socio-political factors come into play when people are asked to compare languages and they tend to highlight the similarities or emphasize the differences in order to reflect their own personal slants. Thus, a fair number of Czechs would claim their language has little in common with Russian, as if to distance themselves from anything Soviet/Russian, although, once you get beyond the different alphabets, the similarities are numerous and striking. Which is entirely logical, as they’re both Slavic languages.

    Similarly, while a proud Spaniard convinced of the indivisible nature of his or her country might look down his nose at Catalan and dismiss it as a “dialect” of Spanish, a supporter of independence for Catalonia would be quick to promote the language as an element distinguishing that particular part of the State. Two different Romance languages in their own right, but used in a political tug-of-war.

    My own impression with Czech and Polish is that once you get round the written distinctions (like, as you mention, pivo and piwo) the differences aren’t too insurmountable. To illustrate this, a tale from Ireland and its police force’s vain search for a Polish driver who had stacked up countless speeding and parking fines. His “name”? Prawo Jazdy.

    • Ricky

      Thank you, Jonathan for your kind words & thoughtful comments.

      I concur entirely with the two examples you give of emphasising the differences between languages, rather than their similarities, for nationalistic purposes. A further example would be the way Slovaks now very much emphasise the differences between Slovak and Czech, ever since the Velvet Divorce.

      Your tale from Ireland reminds of my own experience in Podgorica back in 2009. My hotel invoice declared that my place of residence was Sjeverna Irska which is Northern Ireland in Montenegrin. This no doubt arose from the receptionist completely misreading my passport which states that I am a citizen of the ‘United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland’!

  • Em

    Hi Ricky, I had a couple of weeks off of blog-reading and I see I have a lot of catching up to do on yours! I look forward to diving into your Polish posts.
    Krakow is the only place I’ve been in Poland, but my uncle has worked on oil rigs a number of times off Gdansk. He swears Polish people are the most hospitable, genuine people on the planet. When I was in Poland roughly 9 years ago, I was struck by the massive amounts of Pope portraits all over the place. I knew a bit about its Catholicism but had no idea the church was so openly venerated everywhere. Like you noted, such an interesting contrast to the Czech Republic!

    • Ricky

      Hi Em, how nice to have you visiting & commenting again. Welcome back!

      With regard to what your uncle has to say, we certainly found that Polish people were friendly and helpful. We were also surprised at the number of people who could speak English, with the exception of when our car broke down 🙁 Certainly statues and portraits of the late Pope John-Paul II are to be seen everywhere and the continuing strength of the Roman Catholic Church is in marked contrast to the Czech Republic.

  • The time I’ve spent in Poland is limited to the times I travelled through it to the Baltic countries, so my main impressions are of the size of the country and the churches – due to the availability of bus connections to Vilnius, I once spent a Sunday morning sitting in a bus going through Poland, and saw throngs of people going to church – definitely not a common sight in the Czech Republic! There are some places I really would like to visit one day, though.

    The “no love lost” situation is apparently oddly one-sided – many Poles like Czech culture, and are confused that Czechs don’t like them all that much. You would often see Polish buses standing in front of the hotel in my little hometown. I suspect that for many Czechs, it’s precisely the prevalent Polish Catholicism that puts them on edge.

    Personally, I can understand written Polish quite well; one of my favourite books is Polish (Pan Tadeusz) and I only found it in the original version and have no big trouble reading it, and neither did my father. 🙂 It’s more difficult with spoken language, because with the slightly different pronunciation, it’s sometimes difficult to pick on the similarities that I do see in writing; it’s usually, for me at least, one of those situations when you know what was spoken about but not what exactly was said about it!

    • Ricky

      Hi Hana – thank you for this comment & those you’ve kindly left on other posts, and sorry for being slow to approve & respond. Your impressions from travelling through Poland, very much mirror mine. And yes – there are plenty of places worth exploring.

      Thank you too, for explaining that ‘The “no love lost” situation is apparently oddly one-sided’. It’s not the only measure but you do see plenty of Polish registered vehicles in the Czech Republic. But as I say at the end of the post, once we’d gone 20-30km over the border, just north of Ostrava, we then didn’t see another Czech registered vehicle. It was nearly two weeks later when we did, just north of Wroclaw, when we were driving back to the CR.

      Very interesting to read what you say about understanding written Polish, but not understanding spoken Polish. We certainly could work out what certain things were on signs & menus, because of the similarity to Czech words that we know.

  • Really interesting observations and all too true! Every time I mentioned to a Czech that I was going on a big trip to Poland I would always get, “Why?!?!” further explained, that Czechs assumed that Poland was really similar to their country so not much of a reason to visit. (which of course, it is totally not!)

    The biggest difference I observed (apart from the larger appreciation of America and English language) is just how MODERN the cities were… they seemed years ahead of many large Czech cities. Most of the time my students tell me how they did not like visiting Poland for some reason or assume that because the Polish food products that are sold in Czech stores are of low quality, that all Polish food is like this… another myth!

    • Ricky

      Hi Cynthia – Thanks for commenting here & on some other posts, your comments on which I’ll get to shortly! I’m interested to know that you had exactly the same reaction as I & Sybille had from Czechs, when saying that you were off to explore Poland. Likewise, it’s interesting too, to hear another reason for the reaction – that Poland would be like the CR which, as you rightly say, it isn’t. I can add that to two others in previous comments – that Czechs want the warmth of the Adriatic, not the coolness of the Baltic; and their fear of Polish Catholicism.

      We certainly found that English was much more widely spoken than we expected, and usually preferred to German. As for Polish cities being modern, part of the reason is that so much was destroyed in the Second World War. Whilst the Czech people suffered much under Nazi occupation, there was relatively little physical damage to buildings. Maybe the explanation for Polish food products sold in Czech stores being of low quality, is the same as I’ve heard said about Moravian wine. That the Moravians keep all the good quality wine to drink themselves and send the poor quality wine to Bohemia 🙂

  • […] the one that has attracted the greatest number of comments has been the first one, regarding contrasts between the Czech Republic and Poland. I’m most grateful to everyone who did comment and it has been very reassuring to receive […]

  • Very interesting, Ricky. I have no personal knowledge or experience of the differences/similarities between the two peoples and their languages, so I found it very informative to read the comments as well as your post.

    • Ricky

      Interesting indeed, Perpetua. As you say, the comments this post has attracted are as informative as my original post. They almost without exception, confirm what I wrote & give interesting suggestions as to reasons for the contrasts that I observed.