Poland just might be one of the most fucked over countries in the world in recent centuries. Being wedged between Germany and Russia has not made for a nice place to be when it comes to nationalism or independence. But that hasn’t stopped the Poles from being one of the more fun and easy going cultures we have come across. On top of that their country, or at least the main cities we went to, has some of the best tourist sights we have seen. Although some of them are a little on the sombre side, given the recent occupations of Russian Communists and German Nazis.
We started Poland in Krakow, which is one of the “it” cities in terms of European tourism. There is little wonder why when you arrive to the huge Old Town square, lined with great architecture, big churches and clock-towers, with the iconic Cloth Market in the centre. On top of all there is to see in the city area there are also some world-class day excursions to be had to the likes of Auschwitz or Wieliczka Salt Mines, both very different types of tourist experiences but both well worth a look. And if all the sights aren’t enough there is also the nightlife, which Krakow is renowned for, with pubs and clubs hiding down every alleyway and courtyard behind the old building facades.
As the train we caught from Berlin ended up being about 5 hours late due to electrical faults we arrived in the city after midnight. The Old Town was pumping, with as many people out and about as we saw any other time of the day. We were a bit on the tired side after the train so took it easy for this night, but we did make it out later to see some nightlife. On this occasion we decided to check out the Jazz Rock Club. This basement style bar turned out to be more of a metal rock club, with a death metal band, complete with Polish operatic style singing, playing when we first arrived. They were great fun and the small crowd was really getting into it for a Sunday night. After the band finished the DJ continued playing great tunes that kept us happy for too many hours at the bar.
The first tourist thing we did was check out the Wieliczka Salt Mines, as being the weekend we thought it might be a good idea to get the 15km out of the city. This wasn’t the smartest move with the place absolutely packed with local tourists. Lucky for us they did separate English tours so we were able to jump the 100m long queue to get in on one of these. We weren’t sure exactly what to expect here and when we started our descent down 50 something flights of stairs, to end up over 130m underground, we were wondering what we had let ourselves in for. But the crowds of tourists are testament to how amazing this place is. It is a massive mine area that has been worked for its rock salt for about 500 years. Just the feats that have been accomplished to get this deep in the ground, to bring down horses to work, to eradicate the poisonous gases that build up and to get the salt out of the place is pretty special, but on top of that there are hundreds of sculptures all carved out of the rock salt over the years. There are scenes of favourite Polish legends, statues of kings and famous people, shops, a conference hall and images of those working the mine, but most impressive is a massive cathedral, fully dug out of the rock. The miners had 40 plus chapels in the mines, I guess they needed to pray on a regular basis in such a scary environment. This main cathedral is something else. With chandeliers made from wood and salt crystals, a tiled floor all carved out of rock salt and all the various biblical scenes, from the nativity to the crucifixion, engraved over the walls, this place has to be seen to be believed. Definitely well worth the crowds.
The other major tourist site outside of Krakow is Auschwitz-Birkenau. The site of an estimated one and a half million Nazi killings during WW2. These concentration/extermination camps were some of the most prolific and horrific. To visit them is one sombre experience. Auschwitz 1, which was set up as more of a work camp is now a museum to the tragedy and you can see everything from the shoes, suitcases and hair, which was all stockpiled from the camps unlucky inhabitants, through to the sleeping and living conditions and even the execution wall, where those who needed to be made an example of were shot. The Auschwitz 2 (Birkenau) site is more of a memorial, as there are not so many buildings left here. As this was the main execution site it is a very eerie place to walk around knowing that there were these massive extermination chambers here responsible for ending the lives of so many hundreds of thousands of Jews and other minorities that Hitler didn’t like. One quote from the place really stands out is “The one who does not remember history is bound to live through it again”.
We also did a tour of the Jewish quarter in Krakow, one of the biggest in Europe pre-WW2, and also the subsequent ghetto where the Jews where penned in before Hitler decided on the “Ultimate Solution” and the exterminations started. More very moving stuff and so hard to imagine such horrors could happen in the world. We had also watched Schindler’s List the night before, so we saw locations where scenes of the movie were filmed. Then the tour culminated at the Schindler Factory, which is at least a good story to come out of such a sad time, and as our guide informed us there were plenty of other stories of Poles saving Jews, which at least shows some positives for humanity. Away from the war side of things, the old Jewish quarter, Kazimierz, is actually quite a funky bar and restaurant area now and we were a little disappointed we only discovered it on our last day, as it looked to be a far more mellow and less sterile area than the main town square where we had been spending most of our time.
In saying that there is still plenty to see in the Old Town main square. A big reason for this is that the area pretty much escaped WW2 with its architecture unscathed, so the place is visually stunning. The Cloth Market in the middle of the square is a cool old building, but it also has tunnels underneath where you can see exhibitions showing 100s of years of life that have been going on in this area. There is also Wavel Castle up on the hill to the south of the old town, which we only managed to quickly view from the outside, as there is just so much to do here. We also found a place touting itself as selling “The best NZ style burgers in Poland”. We had to give them a try and they were awesome, maybe the best NZ style burgers outside NZ, and better than some inside too. Plus they had heaps of kitsch Kiwiana decorating the place and played kiwi tunes the entire time. All the girs in the shop were Polish, but someone there must be representing New Zealand hard.
After spending longer in Krakow than planned we weren’t too sure if we should stop off in Warsaw too, but we were glad we managed to slip in a couple of quick nights there. It has a far more modern big city feel than Krakow. We went out for a drink the first night to a funky little bar area where there were ten or so small bars in a little block of unused shops. We also did a tour of the Old Town and checked out the Polish Uprising Museum. The most interesting thing about the Old Town was that it’s not that old. The place was fully wiped out during WW2, so it has been completely reconstructed as it used to be, using paintings of the city that were commissioned by the various kings over the years. Looking at the place it is hard to know this without being told, so is pretty cool they have been able to reconstruct it so well. The Uprising Museum wasn’t as good as some of the Communism/Terror style museums we have seen, but it did show how unlucky the Poles have been over the years. After only getting their second independence in 1918, after being part of Prussia, Russia and Austria, they were then invaded by Germany and Russia at the start of WW2. Germany then attacked the Russians and took Poland for itself. When the Poles started their Uprising near the end of the war they expected help from the Russians and Allied forces, but they just left them and Hitler put his final efforts into obliterating Poland. This suited Russia as they had already done a deal with the allies that they would control Poland after the war, so they didn’t mind if the best Polish fighters were all wasted. All pretty sad really, and then they were stuck under Soviet communism for the next 45 years until the USSR started to fall apart in 1989.
Overall the Poles seem to have come out of this period pretty well and given their limited times of independence there is a fiercely patriotic spirit about the place. They want to ensure they maintain their nation this time. With the likes of Warsaw advancing as a modern cosmopolitan city and Krakow as one of the tourist cities of the world, there is no reason not to think they will continue to flourish as a proud independent nation.