From salt sculptures and medieval churches to the
horror of Auschwitz, Poland's Krakow is seeped in history
Krakow, a city founded by medieval Polish kings, remains resolute in a country torn apart by centuries of invaders – Tatars, Swedes, Germans and Russians. The medieval heart is an unspoiled enclave surrounded by remnants of Socialist squalor.
Even as Poland continues to forge a 21st century identity by turning its gaze west to the European Union, the residents of this former capital are gathering up the remnants of pre-Soviet era political glory and repositioning it as a top tourist destination.
Indeed, Krakow, about 200 miles south of Warsaw on the Vistula River, has something for just about everyone. The late Pope John Paul II lived and worked here. Polish kings were crowned here. Nearby salt mines funded the territorial ambitions of Polish rulers. Oh, and there’s Auschwitz.
This World War II concentration camp has a different atmosphere than those I’ve visited in Germany. Here, the Nazis were the invaders. Polish villages were bulldozed and Polish farmers evicted to create the massive and isolated internment area. Polish nationals who resisted the Nazis were the first to be imprisoned here. By 1942, Jews were brought in by the trainload from around Europe, and extermination became the focus. As the war drew to a close, the Nazis tried to cover up this function by blowing up the crematoria and destroying records.
Although most of the buildings of Auschwitz and Birkenau, about a mile away, are gone, the aura of evil remains. Just looking at the displays behind glass of piles of discarded shoes, eyeglasses, suitcases and other items sent chills down my spine. (The memorial suggests that children 14 and under not visit the death camp.) About 1/6 of those killed by the Nazis died here.
Admission to both parts of the camp is free. Groups are required to hire a guide, but individual visitors can ask at the museum if there’s a guided tour they can join. One- and two-day study tours are available for those who want a closer look at the horror.
Auschwitz is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, as is another unexpected tourist attraction in this part of Poland. The Wieliczka Salt Mine has fueled economic prosperity in Krakow at least since the 11th Century.
Salt, an absolutely essential commodity, provided the only reliable method of preserving food over the winter. Monarchs who controlled the salt trade were wealthy and if they controlled mines as well, it was as good as gold. In fact, salt was used instead of coins as a means of payment for goods and services, and was one of the key ingredients in gunpowder – always useful for armies.
By the 16th century, the mine had become one of the largest business enterprises in Europe.
As new methods of food preservation developed, the salt was used for other purposes – bathing in brine was very popular in the 19th century. In the 20th, the specific microclimate of the underground mine proved useful for the treatment of asthma, inflammation of upper and lower respiratory tracts, and some allergies. A health clinic still operates down under, although tourism is the main draw.
Salt mines aren’t like coal mines. There isn’t black dust everywhere, the descent isn’t miles deep and the passages aren’t narrow. Instead of an elevator down to the beginning of the tourist route through the mines, for example, one traipses down a long stairway. There are 200 miles of tunnels on nine levels, but the average visitor sees just a small portion of the total, a bit more than two miles, located about 210 - 443 feet below ground.
One surprise was the number of sculptures on display. Miners have carved all sorts of fanciful shapes in the rock salt, from representations of royalty to elaborate chandeliers.
Meanwhile, back in the medieval heart of Krakow, renovation continues. Chic new shops and restaurants line the cobblestoned pedestrian streets and are surrounded by the city park that replaces the old city walls torn down in the 1830s. Some of the gates remain, including St. Florian’s built in 1300. It’s next to the barbican, a red brick round bastion built in 1498, at the main entrance to the old city.
The street from St. Florian’s gate leads to the Gothic-style St. Mary’s Basilica on the northeast corner of the town’s Main Square. Be sure to be at the square at the top of the hour to hear the bugler. From the taller of the two spires of St. Mary’s, a bugle has been played every hour for more than 600 years.
The Main Square is dominated by one of its original structures: the Cloth Hall (Sukiennice) that dates to the 13th century. It’s still a trading hall, although the goods changing hands these days are mainly Polish handcrafts.
A block off the Main Square is Jagellonian University, founded in 1364 by King Casimir the Great. Its students have included Copernicus and the future Pope John Paul II. Not far away is the apartment where John Paul II stayed when he returned to town as pope (typically, a vase of sunflowers marks the window of his bedroom). The city's current metropolitan archbishop is Bishop Stanisław Dziwisz, long-time secretary of John Paul II.
Kracow was the capital of Poland from the 13th to the 17th centuries. High on a hill, the Royal Castle at Wawel provides wonderful views of the countryside along with a peek inside a masterpiece of Renaissance architecture. From the royal chambers and staterooms to the collections of Oriental art and military trophies and collection of Flemish tapestries, reminders of Poland’s past glory are everywhere.
Kazimierz, Krakow’s Jewish Quarter, was made famous in the 1990s, by Steven Spielberg, who filmed much of “Schindler’s List” on its narrow streets. After the Holocaust emptied the neighborhood during World War II, the quarter was deserted and fell into ruin. However, after the end of Communist rule, heirs of former inhabitants have returned, claiming family property and restoring many of the buildings.
I stayed just a short stroll to the east of the medieval center of Krakow at the Batory Hotel. In a quiet residential neighborhood, this family-run three-star had its own restaurant and a wonderful vest-pocket lobby filled with tropical plants. And, if you didn’t bring a laptop, it’s just a block from an Internet café.
It’s easy to get to Krakow by either rail or airplane via Germany.