As a former flight attendant, I visited all European countries except Albania and Poland. Poland is the fifth largest country in Europe. Aside from Lech Walesa, Copernicus, the Pope and a decade of Polish jokes that I never understood, I knew nothing about this land. However, my interest peaked as it would soon be hot on the tourist path and because my husband’s family in Chicago is here. He accompanied me with pleasure to discover his roots. I went to become educated and rich with something new. We traveled from Atlanta via JFK and Warsaw to Krakow for only 4 days. No tired rest with head spinning path. The best off-season visit is best to mingle with the locals. Provides a more authentic and intimate atmosphere.
When we arrive at the airport, we are welcomed by Pavel who will be our driver all the time. Bearing the welcome sign “Souza Davis”. I say, “Hi, I’m Suzy from Atlanta.” She laughed when he replied, “Yes, in the basement of the United States.” We searched Amadeus Hotel, a 16th-century luxury inn in the heart of downtown. Prince Charles I was once told in our room.
We set out to find dinner. The bright old city was amazing and filled with many young people, which made me feel old. 150,000 students reside in this university city. Krakow is the main party scene in Europe where they stay out until the birds sing. This historic district has the highest concentration of bars and restaurants in the world. We suddenly discovered the Pierogi Garden, the home of fresh Polish dumplings. It was stuffed with sauerkraut, lamb, beef, berries, chocolate and even peanut butter. There were 6 types of soups, all with beets that I hate. After a dozen dumplings, I had a melted yogurt pie that was very delicious.
Poland has experienced countless conquests throughout its history. Destroyed by the Germans and then the Russians, it finally gained independence in 1989 with the collapse of Soviet communism. Krakow was connected to destruction near the end of World War II by the Germans. They planned to detonate it as soon as the Russians took over, fortunately the war ended hours before the plan was implemented.
Today it is still one of the few cities remaining in its original form. With a population of now 780,000, it has turned into a modern international capital. Vibrant and modern, it retains in one way or another its traditional culture with royal architecture. In Krakow one finds the spirit of the new Poland.
On the second day, Anna, who was remarkably beautiful, received us. We started off on a network of cobbled streets in the old city that were intended for walking. It was a maze of museums, chapels, galleries, cafes and a hole in the wall bars. Even in winter, there was entertainment with street dancers, Mimes, and accordion players, and on one corner, I saw a knight dancing on armor.
We entered the market square, the largest medieval square in Europe where little has changed since 1257. It is crowned by the bell tower where a horn plays at the top of the hour. Residents go crazy at night. You should see the cloth hall where fish merchants, clothing merchants and bakers sell their wares since the 14th century. Now it is a gorgeous gallery of handicraft kiosks.
We drove to the well-preserved ghetto which is now sharply artistic. Poland once occupied the largest concentration of Jews in Europe at 3.5 million. During the Middle Ages, the Kings of Poland indicated that they were expelled elsewhere and called on them to increase the economy. Here they flourished until the Holocaust and coercive communism after World War II. Now only 180 remain. We saw the ghettos where the famous Spielberg movie was filmed and looked across the river to see the Schindler plant.
Rick Steves wrote that one should visit the milk bar here. Anna escorted us to a government-backed coffee shop for the working class. They are a storehouse of Poland’s Communist past. Everything is surprisingly cheap. I ordered a bowl of soup and a homemade cheese cake for $ 2.
Then we visited Wawel Castle, a 12th-century masterpiece and iconic pride of the city. There were no queues as we walked the paths of history. This was the residence of the Kings for 500 years. Anna explains the legend of your breath dragon named Your Highness here who ate virgins for breakfast.
This was reinforced by the discovery of large, exotic bones in the fourteenth century AD. (Bones are actually whalebones as this region in Europe has once been underwater for ages.) Thus the dragon has become a symbol of the city and is ubiquitous in souvenir stores. Then Anna pushed us into many beautiful churches, for me it’s always boring like painting with numbers, but she was amazing. Ask if there is any Protestant here. She bluntly replied, “Yes, one.”
The afternoon was spent on searches of restaurants and hotels. I loved the official greetings and it is always educational. Find out about local cuisine and accommodations in the best location at the best price. All hotels have been fully booked. Jews and Catholics visit throughout the year on pilgrimage or come to tours at the roots.
Krakow is recently ranked among the top 10 European destinations. I now understand the reason. Americans continue to rave about Prague which I now find with price inflation and falling service levels. It has become as expensive as Rome. In the end, Krakow may do the same when Poland turns into the Euro in 2012. At the moment one can boast at reasonable prices. Europeans flock to save 50-70%. Germans and Danes, in particular, are coming for dental and optics needs. Medical tourism, including plastic surgery, is booming. I meet an Austrian airline stewardess who flies every month for spa treatments at half the cost.
At night, we had dinner at Wierzynek, the oldest in the world that had served princes to tourists since 1364. It was delicious (organic) peasant food (wild boar), grilled ribs and pile of potatoes. I ask them to teach me some Polish language, which is an impossible Slavic language like alphabet soup. The word toilet has 5 syllables.
On the third day, we woke up on a gray, cold, and wet day that gave us the right atmosphere for what we would see. Pavel led us 60 km to Auschwitz. We were greeted by Yuri, our wonderful personal guide whose only passion was enlightening us in the unimaginable tragedies that occurred here from 1940-1945. I visited Dachau once, but this was the largest concentration camp. This death factory killed 1.4 million people of 27 nationalities. Most of them were Jews. Others were Roma, Soviet, Poles, LGBT, political opponents, and more.
We entered the portal and read “The work will set you free”. Inside there was a strong reminder when we saw the crematorium and the starvation cells, kilograms of hair, endless eyeglasses and a still gray pond of ash 60 years ago. The children’s section was the most sane for me. He was carrying a sea of tiny shoes, dolls, and accurate German documentation of 230,000 young children who suffered and died here.
We were taken to the expanded Birkenau camp (Auschwitz 2), with its wooden barracks built to house 100,000 people but eventually it contained 200,000+ together in silence, we three walked half a mile to see the rubble of the gas chambers and the memorial. At the end of our tour, Yuri said goodbye to us with this profound statement: “I directed many Holocaust survivors who visited here like tourists. Ultimately they told me that I was unable to provide 1% of how bad that was really.” This was the most emotionally touching spot. That I’ve seen my eyes.
In the late afternoon we visited the famous Wieliczka Salt Mine. This mysterious, spacious underground city of 3 miles long has extracted salt for 800 years. The World Heritage site attracts 1 million visitors a year and looks as if they have arrived today.
Our guide Justina seemed to be obsessed with salt, but was just a love of her job as a mentor. She said that following her down 836 step was better than Stairmaster. Caves have carried me, but this site will forever be engraved on my mind. Imagine underground chapels, ornate statues, chandeliers and life-size figures sculpted entirely from salt or a restaurant and a 380 ‘post office below street level. It was amazing. For centuries miners and horses spent their lives here. Stay healthy in this small, rich climate. It has to do with magnesium ions, whatever it is? Today people come to the healing rooms of the treatment complex to isolate in the purity of natural air.
Day 4. I’m constantly searching for the globe, searching for unique things or places to offer to fellow travelers. Today I found him in Zakopane. For years now, a friend of mine has insisted on visiting this mountain resort with a funny name that I can’t remember. We drove to the fresh air of the Tatra Mountains with Eva, our expert guide that day. She said this adventure destination of 60,000 people swells to nearly 200,000 throughout the year. In summer they come to spas and hiking in the Alps. In winter they come to ski. That week, Zakapan hosted the International Ski Jump Competition.
Here was a charming city of artists and Gyurek, an ethnic group of mountain heights. These itinerant shepherds go back to the fifteenth century. They love to wear colorful clothes for tourists. They live on cheese or anything smothered by cheese. We visited a cheese market the size of Switzerland. As far as I could see my eyes, there were sheep and goat cheese artistically carved in every conceivable form. We also toured the Aqua Park with an Olympic-sized metal metal heated swimming pool and Olympic high-speed cable cars in the mountains to see the stunning views.
It was a more productive and enjoyable day tour. I found a local tourist company that arranged fun activities for groups such as horse sled through the woods, dog sleds and the new “rowing” in rubber sled rafts down the mountain. In the mega overseas market with countless stalls, I bought a stunning leather coat and fur for $ 260 that looks fashionable 6 times its price.
There is much that I have not seen on this short visit. On my next return, I will take a new “Crazy Communism Tour”. Outside Krakow is Noa Huta, which was once a highly socialist suburb of forced industrialization. Mega steel mills factories overtook rich farmland. Doctors and professors have been sent here to work. Miles of concrete blocks were erected to house them.
On the tour, you can discover the experience of Stalin’s direct gift to Krakow by riding a classic German eastern Trabant car to Noa Huta. A dinner of salted bread, pickles and vodka is included, followed by dancing in the 1970s disco.
Under the yoke of communism, the Poles refused to abandon their religion. Stalin said, “The implementation of communism here is like a bull ox.” Faced with such a determined spirit in people, he surrendered. I am amazed at all the obstacles this stoic country has overcome.
If you are there and have bought a London, Paris, Madrid or Athens shirt, I encourage you to visit undiscovered parts of Europe. Krakow will become the next Prague. It’s full of history, friendly faces and delicious cuisine, and it won’t break your pocket. If you can visit New Poland, please do not tell anyone about Zakapane, one of the best kept secrets in the world.