The main square, as taken from the tower.
Krakow is one of the few cities in Poland the Germans didnâ€™t destroy. They certainly invaded it, but the Soviets counter-invaded before they got the chance to sack it. This week Krakow is celebrating its 750th anniversary as a city, meaning it was founded in 1257. Actually, itâ€™s much older than that, but it was destroyed and rebuilt in 1257. If you havenâ€™t figured it out yet, Poland has been invaded quite frequently throughout the ages, even by the Mongols. It is a very strategic location as it is centrally located between Asia and Europe. Anyway, the city was designed in the Middle Ages, so you know traffic is a problem. The city was built in the typical moat-and-wall-defense design of the time.
In the 18th Century, someone or another invaded, tore down the wall, and filled in the moat, building a nice little park surrounding the Town Square. Unfortunately, the Town Square is still quite difficult to access, so if your hotel is slightly outside the centre (like mine was), and you take the left fork in the road instead of the right (like I did), you end up on the other side of town (the street names in Poland all look the same!)
A lookout in the tower.
As I was only in Krakow for two days, I only got to see a few of the main attractions. The Town Square itself is very impressive. It was the largest Town Square of any European Medieval city.
It is filled with shops, restaurants, tourists, nuns, priests, pigeons, horse drawn carriages, and accordion players. At its centre are a church and a tower which you can climb for views of the city. There is a cathedral/castle nearby as well, which is very pretty, but at that point I was about Christian-ed out.
A restored synogauge.
To dilute the pervasive Catholicism I was experiencing, I took a tour of the Jewish parts of town (Kazimierz and Podgorze). Kazimierz was originally founded in 1335 as a rival town to Krakow. At one point in history Krakow was tolerant of religious differences, but at the end of the 15th Century, the Catholics started blaming the Jews for anything bad that happened, and forced them to move to this district. They lived here until the 1940s when the Nazis forced them to move across the river to the Jewish Ghetto (Podgorze) and killed anyone who didn't manage to escape. Before the Nazis invaded, there were around 60,000 Jews living in Krakow, which was about a quarter of the population.
Now there are only a few hundred Jews left in the city and Kazimierz is Krakowâ€™s trendy-artsy neighbourhood.
Warning sign at Auschwitz.
Stephen Spielberg filmed Schindlerâ€™s List in Kazimierz (the events in the story took place in Podgorze, but there is a large modern building in the middle of Podgorze now). Oskar Schindlerâ€™s enamel works factory is still standing just outside Podgorze as well, and is currently being turned into a museum.
I also toured Auschwitz (Polish: Oswiecim), which is about 70km outside of Krakow. It was amazing to see the actual site. The first camp at Auschwitz was originally built by the Austro-Hungarians as a military barracks and looks quite ordinary. When the Germans invaded they took over the camp to detain Polish intellectuals and freedom fighters, but more significatly, Auschwitz and a larger camp nearby (Auschwitz-Birkenau) were used for Hitlerâ€™s â€śFinal Solutionâ€ť of the Jews.
The most disturbing part of the tour is the museum, where personal items taken from the prisoners when they first arrived are displayed. There is a giant mound of womenâ€™s hair, as the Germans would routinely cut off their hair when they first arrived to make blankets for the war effort. There are also piles and piles of glasses, shoes, bowls, artificial limbs, and so forth, all of which would have been sent to Germany had the camp not been liberated. The storerooms where the former personal belongings were kept were nicknamed â€śKanadaâ€ť by the prisoners, as many prisoners had family that immigrated to Canada, and it was thought of as a place full of treasures.
The train tracks into Auschwitz-Birkenau.
I wish I had a couple more days in Krakow, as I didnâ€™t get to see the Wieliczka Salt Mine (they carved all kinds of things in an old salt mine) and Nowa Huta (the Soviet part of town). I guess Iâ€™ll just have to go back some day!