Vistula River

Vistula River


The Vistula (Wisła; Weichsel; Visla), is the longest river in Poland at 1,047 km (678 miles) in length. It drains an area of 194,424 km² (75,067 sq. miles), of which 168,699 km² (65,135 sq. miles) lies within Poland (over half the area of the country) .

The Vistula has its source in the south of the country, at Barania Góra (1220 m high) in the Silesian Beskids (western part of Carpathian Mountains) where it starts with the White Little Vistula (Biała Wisełka) and the Black Little Vistula (Czarna Wisełka). It then continues to flow over the vast Polish plains, passing several large Polish cities along its way, including Kraków, Sandomierz, Warsaw, Płock, Włocławek, Toruń, Bydgoszcz, Świecie, Grudziądz, Tczew and Gdańsk. With a delta and several branches (Leniwka, Przekop, Śmiała Wisła, Martwa Wisła, Nogat and Szkarpawa) it empties into the Vistula Lagoon, or directly into the Gdańsk Bay of the Baltic Sea.

Origins of the name Vistula

It is not known whether the root of the name Vistula is Indo-European or pre-Indo-European. The diminutive endings -ila, -ula, were used in many Indo-European language groups, among them Germanic (see Attila, a "little father" in Gothic) but also in Latin (see Ursula, a "little female bear") which makes it difficult to establish its origin in the Vistula name. The name was first recorded by Pliny in AD 77 in his Natural History. He uses Vistula (4.52, 4.89) with an alternative spelling, Vistillus (3.06). The Vistula River ran into the Mare Suebicum, which is today known as the Baltic Sea.

In writing about the Vistula River and its peoples, Ptolemy uses the Greek spelling, "Ouistoula". Other ancient sources spell it "Istula". Pomponius Mela refers to the "Visula" (Book 3) and Ammianus Marcellinus to the "Bisula" (Book 22), both of which names lack the -t-. The definitive reference is probably Jordanes (Getica 5 & 17), who uses "Viscla". The Anglo-Saxon poem Widsith refers to it as the "Wistla".

For centuries, the river was well-known in Germany and surrounding countries by the German name Weichsel (in medieval German documents spelled Wissel, Wixel etc.). The most recent glaciations of the Pleistocene epoch, which ended around 10,000 BCE, is called Weichsel glaciation in regard to northern central Europe.

The Russian tsarist administration called the Kingdom of Poland the "Vistula province" after the January Uprising, from 1867 to 1917.


Ancient settlement

In the millennium before the birth of Christ, the Vistula basin was settled by Germanic tribes, most notably the Suebi and Burgundians, and around the delta itself by the Eastern Germanic Goths (see also Gothiscandza, Oksywie culture, Wielbark culture). The Vistula region, along with the lands of the Rhine, Danube, Elbe, and Oder, came to be known as Magna Germania by the first century AD. The Lower Vistula would remain Germanic territory until 1945.

Ptolemy, in the second century AD, would write of the Vistula as the border between Germania and Sarmatia. To the east of the Vistula were found Baltic-speaking tribes, generally identified with the historical Aestians: Galindians, Sudovians and Borusci. It has not been verified whether any Slavic tribes were settled along the Vistula at that time.

Tacitus is another source regarding information on the early inhabitants of the Vistula. However, he makes no secret that many of the tribes to the east of the Vistula were somewhat shrouded in mystery. For example, when describing the Venethi, Peucini and Fenni he wrote that he was not sure if he should call them Germans, since they had settlements and they fought on foot, or rather Sarmats since they have some similar customs to them.

The Vistula river used to be connected to the Dnieper River, and thence to the Black Sea. The Baltic-Sea--Vistula--Dnieper--Black-Sea water route was one of the most ancient trade-routes, the Amber Road, on which amber and other items were traded from Northern Europe to Greece, Asia, Egypt, and elsewhere.

World War II

The Second World war was sparked by conflict over the mouth of the Vistula. The formerly-German city of Danzig (today Gdańsk) lies at the mouth of the river, where the Vistula meets the Baltic. German desire to fully incorporate that city into Germany thus connecting East Prussia to the rest of Germany, and Polish designs on the city to give them a seaport, sparked the outbreak of war in September 1939.

The Upper Vistula changed hands from time to time, but after the emergence of Poland in 966, became solidly Polish (Slavic) territory. The past two millennia saw Germanics pushing east and south along the Vistula as the Slavs pushed north and west, with neither ever attaining sustained domination over the entire river basin. This was changed after the postwar expulsions of Germans from the area by Stalin.

In 1945, the victorious Stalin changed the longstanding Germanic-Slavic balance of the Vistula Basin by means of ethnic cleansing (a tactic employed by the Soviet Union across their empire). In 1945, all Germans from the Vistula basin (along with those in East Prussia and the Oder basin) were expelled from their homes, and their property seized. Ever since 1945, the entire Vistula basin has thus been Polish-dominated territory for the first time in history.

Today, the Vistula is part of the Polish heartland, a far cry from being "the eastern reaches of Germany/germania" as it had been since the Iron Age. The eastern border of Germany was shifted west by Stalin to the artificial Oder-Neisse Line.


The Vistula is navigable, but large parts of its course do not meet the requirements of modern inland navigation. From the Baltic Sea to Bydgoszcz (where the Bydgoszcz Canal connects to the river), Vistula can accommodate modest river vessels of CEMT class II. Further upstream the river does not have enough depth to allow river barges to navigate.

Upstream of Warsaw, a project was undertaken to enlarge the capacity of the river by building a number of locks in Cracow area; this project was never prolonged further downstream, so that the navigability of the Vistula remains problematic. The potential of the river in the decades to come would increase considerably if a restoration of the East-West connection via the Narew - Bug - Mukhovets - Pripyat - Dnieper waterways would be considered. The shifting economic importance parts of Europe may make this option interesting.

Towns and tributaries

Town Tributaries Remarks
Wisła river source
Skoczów Brennica
Strumień Krajka
Czechowice-Dziedzice Biała-Wisełka
Brzeszcze Vistula, Soła
Oświęcim Soła
Zator Skawa
Skawina Skawinka
Kraków (Cracow) Sanka, Rudawa, Prądnik, Dłubnia, Wilga most are canalized streams
Nowe Brzesko
Nowy Korczyn Nida
Opatowiec Dunajec
Połaniec Czarna
Baranów Sandomierski Babolówka
Sandomierz Koprzywianka, Trzesniówka
Annopol Sanna
Józefów nad Wisłą
Solec nad Wisłą
Kazimierz Dolny Bystra
Puławy Kurówka
Dęblin Wieprz
Wilga Wilga
Góra Kalwaria Czarna
Otwock, Józefów Świder
Konstancin-Jeziorna Jeziorka
Warsaw Żerań canal several other minor streams
Modlin Narew
Czerwińsk nad Wisłą
Wyszogród Bzura
Płock Słupianka, Rosica, Brzeźnica, Skrwa Lewa, Skrwa Prawa
Dobrzyń nad Wisłą
Włocławek Zgłowiączka
Nieszawa Mień
Toruń Drwęca, Bacha
Solec Kujawski
Bydgoszcz Brda canalized
Świecie Wda
Gniew Wierzyca

Near Kwidzyń Vistula is divided onto two separate branches that constitute the river delta:

Nogat Leniwka
Town Tributaries Remarks Town Tributaries Remarks
Sztum Tczew
Malbork Gdańsk Motława, Radunia, Potok Oliwski in the city the river is divided onto several separate branches that reach the Baltic Sea at different points, the main branch reaches the sea at Westerplatte
Elbląg Elbląg shortly before reaching the Vistula Bay

Right tributaries

List of right tributaries with a nearby city

Left tributaries

List of left tributaries with a nearby city

See also


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