Krakow in southern Poland was a fun place to visit. It is often described as one of the most beautiful cities of Europe.
Like Prague, it is a walkable city. Most of the city’s historic area has been turned into a pedestrian zone with rickshaws, buggies and segways. It is a tourist magnet complete with its own Hard Rock Cafe, and the city’s squares teem with buskers and mimes.
Krakow is a relatively small city, with about 750 thousand inhabitants, and was spared the WWII destruction of other Polish cities such as Warsaw. Like other Middle European cities, the place is clean as a whistle. The horse-drawn carriages even have a co-driver whose job it is to wield a butterfly-net-type sack on a stick as a pooper scooper…before the horse poop even hits the ground.
The Old Town district of Krakow is said to have about 6,000 historic sites and more that 2 million works of art. Its historic architecture includes baroque, renaissance and gothic buildings.
You can find treasures and spend any amount of time exploring this 13th century merchants’ town, looking at wonderful old houses, theaters, churches and palaces lining cobblestone streets.
The magnificent interiors are famous for their color, stained glass, architectural details, paintings, sculptures and furnishings. Don’t miss the ancient synagogues, 14th century fortifications, Jagiellonian University and the Gothic cathedral where they buried the kings of Poland.
Even here, reminders of WWII’s devastation are never far away. On a square near the wonderful medieval Krakow Castle is a simple wooden cross memorial to the Soviet massacre of 22,000 Polish officers in 1939 in the Katyn Woods. And the old Jewish quarter has no Jews, though there are plenty of Klezmer music concerts and Yiddish museums to remind of how robust and vibrant that community once was.
Krakow is also the jumping-off point for tours to the Auschwitz-Birkenau camps. Although not a “fun tour”…such a trip is really, really a necessary (we think obligatory) visit for everyone to witness the pure monumental evil that was Nazi fascism.
The numbers, such as six million murdered, are incomprehensible to handle. Seeing acres and acres of dormitories, with huge rooms filled with children’s shoes…and others with human hair which was used to stuff cushions and mattresses…brings the numbers into some human perspective.
Since 1979 more than 25 million people have visited this former concentration camp. From 1955 to 1990 the museum was directed by one of its founders and former inmates, Kazimierz Smolen.
We watched several groups of somber Israeli high school students singing and holding ceremonies next to the huge gas ovens and couldn’t help but weep.