8.0 Too Much to Squeeze into a Weekend
Jukuea (thank you) – always handy to know how to say it when visiting a foreign town
When I visited Krakow last year, it luckily coincided with the World Youth Day. With the Pope visiting, colorful banners, open concert, international youth groups and untapped energy invigorated every corner of this beautiful city. Krakow is a metropolitan which was not made of concrete, cement and glass buildings. It is made of decade old, ingeniously carved and paint-palette colored stones. The unique city landscape, deeply rooted cultural heritage and world-renowned landmarks captivate every traveler’s imagination.
The entire old town district is a World Heritage site. It is surrounded by a belt of green park and an almost intact city wall. Cobble streets interlaces between magnificent Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque buildings throughout the entire old town. A sip of local brewed coffee or cold Tyskie beer complements perfectly with the well preserved architecture – sophisticated and soothing. It was hard to imagine this was once the frontier of one of the bloodiest war in human history. When I visited, the expansive central plaza was decorated for an open concert. A bustle market hall runs down the center of the plaza offering an authentic bazar experience. Strolling across the old town, you will reach the Wawel Royal castle which presented a splendid architectural beauty and a breathtaking view of the entire city.
Perhaps one of the most memorable black and white films, Schindler’s heroic story was highly regarded as a beacon of humanity during the darkest hours of World War II. Pass the river Vistula to the south of the city, you will find the Schindler’s Museum which is converted from the famous enamel factory. This museum is a genius time machine which inundates visitors back to relive the history. I walked down the barb-wire-gated, grim looking ghetto where Jews were isolated. I passed the hair saloon and muzzled train station and heard the intermittent whispering of terror. Propaganda posters were on the wall: Russian soldiers were rapists and Polish Jewish deserved little to live. Many Polish also joined the rank of its German occupants against the less fortunate Jews. The flickering light, torn wall paper, the occasional gun fire, shouting in the alley, siren, mixed with burnt smell and lingering anxiety, it was a vivid tour to the Schindler’s 1939 Krakow. This reminded me of the book Man’s Search for Meaning – even during the worst period of WWII, there were German officers who showed courage and compassion, and there were defector who were crueler than the Nazis.
Wieliczka Salt Mine
Take a train further down south, it will be the famous Wieliczka salt mine. You will need to pre-book as the mine only allows limited visitors. There are two routes into the mine. The tourist route is where you get to see the big halls carved hundreds of meters beneath the surface. The miner’s route will take you to experience the labyrinth network of rooms, stairwells and endless dark tunnels. Both routes are impressive and unmissable. On the tourist route, you will see an magnificent underground cathedral, in which everything was carved out of salt. However, my favorite is still the miner’s route. During my trip on the miner’s route, our guide made us sit in a circle in a stone chamber. Then he asked us to turn off our head light and remain silent. It was unnerving initially but when the anxiety settled, it was a surreal experience. I felt like I was sitting in the middle of the universe – seat-less, weight-less, only the faint breathing reminded me of reality. On the tour, I also get to learn the intricate system to control moisture which dangers the mine, the 100% saturated salt lake and the ventilation system to keep air balanced throughout the structure. By the end of the trip, we get to see the map. I realized that I covered just a small portion of the massive mine. It felt like a curious running rat in a perplex maze.
The downside of the World Youth Day was that the Auschwitz camp was exclusively booked. I was so looking forward to connect with the stories I read about it. So make sure you check all the opening times before you book your trip! Nonetheless, Krakow alone merits more than a couple of days to explore. It is a rare jewel that combines rich culture, history and beautiful architecture.