Krakow, arguably one of the most beautiful cities in Europe (probably the most beautiful in Eastern Europe) has a rich history and a vibrant population. Our mere three days there were not enough to make a real analysis of the city, but we did manage to get some feel of what Krakow was like. Throughout history Krakow has been through a lot, whether it be a Tartar invasion, a Nazi extermination, or a Soviet occupation, Krakow has seen it all. When we would walk down the streets we could hardly help but think of the people who had inhabited it during the various time periods. Looking at buildings that were once the homes of hundreds when the ghettos were established, or the famous tower where the lone trumpeter warned his countrymen of the coming Tartars, you couldn’t help but feel like you were walking amongst living history. It’s truly an incredible place.
We were dropped into this place fresh out of an unpleasant ten hour Ukrainian train ride which covered about twenty miles. We hopped off the train and were put into a place that seemed almost like home. A mall! No, not a crappy second or third tier Indian or Thai mall, a real mall. Better than the ones at home. It was huge, had some amazing ice cream, and was actually connected to the train and bus station. Here we replenished our tired selves with some Subway and ice cream. When we finally exited the mall, we had no idea where we were going and rain clouds loomed overhead. We went to a tourist information office and hid from the now torrential rain fall and gusts. We got some information and talked to a local city guide who gave us some hints for dealing with taxi drivers (he referred to them as ‘f—ers’—not sure where he picked up his English!). The woman at the desk told us that we should go on the tram. The thunderstorm had passed and the sun was shining, so we followed her instructions and crossed the street to the tram stop. We boarded but soon found things were harder than they seemed. All the trams were being re-routed thanks to a visit from the Ukrainian president who had followed our lead and gone to Poland (though he probably hadn’t taken the 10 km/hr train). A friendly guy fresh from the pub tried to help us, but it seemed with the road closures no tram could get us to the Sheraton. We finally got there by walking after a prolonged detour of tram rides that took us exactly one block from where we had started.
When we arrived we found the security a little tight with metal detectors and baggage screening machines at the entrance. We soon found out that the Polish president had come in from Warsaw to meet his Ukranian colleague and was staying in the same hotel as us. It seems both presidents were following our lead (I’m sure they’re avid readers of sixintheworld.com). We further observed that the entire parking lot was blocked off so it could be patrolled by fifty secret service agents. There was one posted outside the room next to us as well. We weren’t sure who was inside, but it felt a little creepy having our movements so closely monitored.
When we finally left the Sheraton to go and see what Krakow had to offer we were amazed. As we walked down the streets, we felt as if we going back in time. There was no better place to start than the city square. Here we listened to some local accordion players, watched second (or maybe third) rate break dancers, and let the little kids watch some puppet shows. There was also some sort of concert going on. It seemed to be traditional music but we never hung around that side of the square long enough to find out. We sat in the square for what must have been hours, soaking up the sunshine and watching the crowds. Everywhere we looked the people were smiling and happy, a big difference from some other Eastern European countries we traveled to. In fact, Poland seemed more like western Europe than eastern. While some of the old Soviet bloc countries have retained an almost entirely foreign atmosphere, Poland has jumped right into a western European mindset. One cab driver reminded us this is because the country had been part of western Europe for centuries and a member of the Eastern bloc for only 60.
We continued our adventure around Krakow by going into the old Jewish ghetto. At the advent of World War II, Jews had inhabited the area known as Kazimierz for over 500 years. They had been forced out of Krakow in the 15th century and built a thriving community just outside the city walls. The Nazis forced all of Kazimierz’s Jews into another ghetto across the river and killed them in the concentration camp portrayed in Schindler’s List. This place was very saddening. Every building seemed to tell its own story of how hard life was during the occupation, of all the bloodshed and horror that had happened around it. (We also went to Auschwitz, the main death camp during the occupation, but that is another post.)
While we were walking down these streets, we noticed a huge crowd gathered around a small street. We made our way over and found out it was a Catholic procession honoring Krakow’s patron saint, Stanislas. This is in the old Jewish ghetto mind you. It was fun to see how excited the people got about their religious leaders, who walked by waving in their robes, but it was also strange to think that the original inhabitants lost their lives because of their faith. This experience sums up how we feel about Krakow: it is a city that bears the scars of the past but that looks positively towards the future.