Mention Poland to travellers and eyebrows are raised. Known or not, it evokes a similar response.
‘Why are you going there?’ is a typical query. As if I needed a reason to visit one of Europe’s most interesting countries.
The Poland quandary. It’s off radar for many Europe bound travellers. No one asks me why I go to France, Italy or the UK. Popularity explains everything I suppose.
Granted, Poland doesn’t ring with equal music to France, despite Chopin hailing from Warsaw before he became a hit in Paris. A melodious segue? Poland and France share a lot of history and not all of it musical. Polish kings looked to the court of French king, Louis XIV for architectural inspiration, pomp and style.
Krakow was Poland’s capital city until the ruling Swedish king bestowed the honour on Warsaw in 1596. It remained the capital of the Grand Duchy of Krakow from 1846 until 1918, which largely accounts for its impressively large public buildings.
Unlike Warsaw, sadly bombed to smithereens in WWII, Krakow retains its historic Old City and Jewish Quarter (Kazimierz) almost intact.
With a population of less than 1 million, it’s also comparatively easy to navigate, a pedestrian’s paradise with parklands surrounding the central district and an efficient tram network that reaches most sites of interest to a visitor.
There is a long-standing Polish-Australian connection. Explorer Sir Pawel Edmund Strzelecki was commissioned by NSW Governor Sir George Gipps to survey what eventually became Gippsland. While surveying the Australian Alps in 1840, he named Australia’s highest point in honour of Tadeusz Kosciuszko, one of Poland’s most important national heroes.
The connection is a curious one for visitors. Just outside Krakow is an artificial hill, constructed in 1823 to commemorate Kosciuszko. It’s simply called ‘Kosciuszko’s Mound’. Apparently, when Strzelecki saw Australia’s highest peak it reminded him of the mound.
Krakow’s dominant sight is the Wawel Castle, set on a rise overlooking the Vistula River. Not just one building, but several, command this impressive position. Within its walls, Polish royal families lived and kings and queens were crowned. In 1930, the complex became a national museum and now comprises 10 separate curatorial departments from medieval tapestries to Renaissance art, from armour to princely relics. The Polish crown jewels are here but, in terms of cultural significance, they’re outshone by the coronation sword, known as ‘Szczerbiec’.
The Old City (Stare Miasto) is a delight. A huge square occupies pride of place; it’s where you’ll find a fairly constant movable feast of humanity in all its guises. The wonderful Cloth Hall houses a market and is surrounded by cafes.
Within the square is St Mary’s Basilica, the city’s largest church. Each hour, seven days a week, a single trumpeter emerges from its highest spire and plays the ‘Hejnal Mariacki’, a kind of national anthem. The trumpeter cuts off mid-song in remembrance of the original trumpeter who was shot in the throat during a Mongol attack in the 13th century. The noon performance is played each day on Polish national radio. It’s a stirring memory. I waited for the trumpeter to face my direction (and some 20 eager primary school students). He plays the same interrupted tune four times facing the four compass points. Occasionally, he waves down to the adoring crowds, as he did the day I was there. The kids went wild cheering – as did I.
The Kazimierz (Jewish Quarter) is where many of Krakow’s funkiest bars and micro-breweries are located. The city’s oldest synagogue is also there.
Krakow’s Jewish past remains strong, although it’s overwhelmingly a Catholic city – Pope John Paul II hailed from Krakow and was the city’s Cardinal Karol Jozef Wotyla until attaining the papacy in 1978. Perhaps nowhere is the Jewish connection felt with more passion than in the newish Oskar Schindler Museum, which sits across the Vistula from the Old City.
Housed in the original enamel factory owned and run by Schindler, this is an obligatory attraction for all visitors to Krakow. Even if you haven’t read Thomas Keneally’s Schindler’s Ark or seen Steven Spielberg’s film Schindler’s List, this museum will inform both the mind and heart.
Approximately 45 minutes’ drive west of Krakow are the twin camps run by the Germans during WWII: Auschwitz and Birkenau. The former was both a work camp and death factory, while the latter operated solely as a death camp. Guided visits are conducted daily. During busy summer months, booking in advance is recommended. Organised transport and a tour to both camps may be arranged in Krakow via numerous tour operators.
Some 3 million visitors pay their respects here. To say it’s a humbling experience is an understatement
Visitors react differently. Some weep openly, others remain silent. I witnessed nervous laughter and occasional inappropriate behaviour, such as taking pictures despite signs indicating photography is prohibited.
My personal belief is that everyone should visit the camps, if only as a reminder of the depths to which human depravity and cruelty can sink. If we bear in mind hatred and intolerance are no solutions to imaginary problems based entirely on ignorance and fear, the surely hope prevails.
With hand on heart, I highly recommend a visit to Krakow and Auschwitz/Birkenau. There’s much to see and learn from there; I’ve only highlighted the obvious, so dig deeper and find rewards.
I’m already planning my next visit.
Poland’s dining scene is far better than I anticipated. Three Krakow restaurants impressed me in particular, all three in the Old City:
Miod Malina for its refreshing take on traditional Polish food.
Wierzynek is a rambling historic restaurant (over 300 years serving the Polish elite) in the Main Square. Well-prepared dishes focused on game and other local ingredients. Polished (pun intended) service and used to tourists. Try the Vodka flight.
Albertina was my favourite. Service is friendly and informed. It’s a terrific place to sample Poland’s surprising array of decent wines while chowing down on food cooked with a deftly light touch.
The modern Galaxy Hotel may not be deluxe but it offers clean rooms, helpful employees and a warm welcome in a convenient location. Easy walking distance to the Oskar Schindler
Museum, the Jewish Quarter and Old Town.
A Krakow Card is handy for entry to most attractions, public transport included. See www.discovercracow.com
Tom Neal Tacker travelled to and visited Krakow as a guest of RailEurope and the Krakow Tourist Board.