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Poland's Absolute Must: Warsaw and Krakow
Ryan Eyre
Posted December 10, 2007


     The Polish capital Warsaw is an absolute must for anybody wanting to understand the country’s history. Here, the trials and tribulations of modern Poland are observed more noticeably than anywhere else in the country. Warsaw has been the capital of Poland for over four hundred years, when King Sigismund III Vasa moved the royal court from Krakow at the end of the 16th century.  

     The Old Town (Stare Miasto) is the obvious draw for the first time visitor as it is the one historically preserved quarter of Warsaw. The primary attraction here is the Old Town Market Place with its merchant’s houses framing the square, as well as the Royal Palace and the old city walls. One would assume that the buildings are originals from the 16th and 17th century but amazingly, virtually none of this is original as Warsaw was almost completely destroyed during the Second World War and meticulously rebuilt afterwards. Warsaw had been seriously bombarded by the Germans in 1939 but it was the Polish Home Army Rising in 1944 that resulted in most of the city being destroyed. By this time of the war the Soviets were approaching from the east and the Polish resistance thinking they would receive assistance from the Russians called for a general uprising. They managed to take control of a good part of the city from the Germans but Stalin refused to assist what he perceived as the anti-communist Polish Home Army and thus the resistance was cut off and eventually brutally crushed by the Germans. The end result was the destruction of most of the city in house to house fighting and the deaths of several hundred thousand Warsovians.  

     The Warsaw Uprising Museum, which opened in 2004, is an excellent way to become acquainted with this part of Warsaw’s history, as the compelling exhibits are all in English as well as in Polish. After the war the Soviets established a compliant Polish People’s republic. Warsaw was largely rebuilt in the Communist style of architecture, and the much of the buildings are ugly and uninspiring. The most noteworthy building from this period is the Palace of Culture and Science, a 757 foot tall skyscraper built between 1952 and 1955 and modeled after the Stalinist edifices in Moscow. It serves as a vast business and exhibition space with a concert hall. The Polish Academy of Natural Sciences Museum is housed there as well.  

     Located further south from the center is one of the finest parks in Warsaw and indeed all of Europe: the Lazienki Park. Polish king Stanislaw August Poniatowski acquired the gardens in the 18th century adding baths and the neo classical proportions which the park still retains. An 80 hectare green oasis in the largely concrete city the park is a wonderful place to stroll, walking along the tree shaded paths down to the baths, stage and palaces at the lower end.  

     180 miles south of Warsaw and easily accessible by either bus or train is Poland’s former capital and it’s most historically significant city, Krakow. Since the end of the Cold War and the removal of visa requirements Krakow has become justifiably one of the most popular destinations in the new Europe. Krakow was the only major city in Poland to escape serious material destruction during the Second World War and thus retains an architectural and cultural unity about it not found elsewhere in the country. The oft recited myth concerning the city’s origins is that Krakus, a legendary Polish prince, slew a dragon named Smok Wawelski in a cave underneath Wawel Hill, the site of the Wawel Cathedral and Castle, a greatly symbolic place in Polish history. 

     Many Polish monarchs are buried in the Cathedral, who ruled from the Castle from 1038 until the capital was moved to Warsaw in 1596. Not far from the Wawel Hill is the Jagiellonian University, founded by King Casimir III in 1364. One of the great centers of higher learning in Central Europe, its famous alumni include Copernicus and Pope John Paul II, who was bishop of Krakow before being elected Pope in 1978. 

     A short walk further on and one enters the Main Market Square of Krakow, the largest medieval square in Europe. The most famous building in the square is the Cloth Hall. There merchants convened to trade goods, especially cloth. In front of the Hall is a statue of the famous Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz . Opposite lies St. Mary’s  Basilica, from whose tower everyday on the hour a trumpeter blows the hejnal tune, and cuts it off mid note, to commemorate an incident during the Mongol invasion of the 13th century when a trumpeter was shot in the throat by an arrow.  

     The Square is the center of Krakow. During the height of summer it is full of tourists but it’s not difficult to get away from the crowds by wandering away from the main streets. One particular district of Krakow that leaves a strong impression is the Kazimierz, which was the traditional center of the Jewish community in Krakow from the 14th century until the Holocaust. Walking around the nearly deserted streets at night one cannot help but feel a sense that the quarter is haunted, with the old synagogues, cemeteries and other vestiges of what was once a vibrant and thriving Jewish community. All that was ended with the Nazi German occupation of Poland and the anti-Semitic (and anti-Polish) policies that ensued. The egregious outcome of this genocide lies only a few hours west of Krakow, at the otherwise unremarkable town of Oswiecim, better known by its German name of Auschwitz-Birkenau. It was at this concentration camp that perhaps over a million people were killed, mostly Jews, but also ethnic Poles, homosexuals and other “social undesirables”.  There is perhaps something distasteful about the idea of a death camp being a tourist attraction, but nevertheless the site is a popular day trip from Krakow, with numerous buses departing from the city center directly to the camp. Be in a contemplative and sober mood and the experience is not one to be forgotten quickly.   

     The tragedy of modern Poland, seemingly over with the end of communist rule, is now to be replaced by one of the success stories of the new Europe. Any visit to Poland is bound to be rewarding, with Poland’s two most significant cities a good introduction to the country and basis for further exploration.  

About the author: Ryan Eyre is a self-professed Europhile whose recents peregrinations have taken him to most of the countries of Europe. He hopes to return there on a more permanent basis in the near future. When not contemplating European history and culture, he is a resident of his hometown Seattle.

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