Poland … at last!

Poland By Irene Butler.

Old Town WarsawBack in 2001 we entered Poland via train from Budapest, or attempted to…at 4 a.m. we were escorted off the train by armed guards at the border between Poland and Slovakia….why? We thought since our United States neighbours did not require a visa that we Canadians would not require a visa. WRONG! This year (a decade later) we flew into Warsaw and breezed through immigration with the customs officer barely glancing at our passports. I like to think this was to make up for last time, but in reality the visa requirement was lifted for Canadians in 2004 when Poland became part of the European Union.

Check out our Poland Photo Gallery

Warsaw proved to be worth the wait! We were swept back in time walking the streets of the Old Town’s Plac Zamkowy (Castle Square) resplendent in 17th and 18th century architecture, historically the time of Warsaw’s greatest prosperity. It was mind-boggling to think these buildings had been bombed to rubble during WWII, and were completely rebuilt from their foundations.

In the Royal Castle, one of the massive reconstruction projects, this is vividly brought to life in a series of photos: the castle as it was in 1939, then after it was levelled by German bombs in 1944, and finally after painstaking rebuilding when it reopened to the public in 1984. The original castle dated back to the 13th century, and was transformed into a 5-level edifice by a succession of Polish kings. One of the spectacularly decorated rooms, modelled from its glory days, holds works of renowned Polish artist Jan Matejko (1838-93). I was intrigued by his painting of the street in front of the castle as it was in 1866, and the remarkable resemblance of a photo taken from the same vantage point today.

In the centre of Plac Zamkowy a monument honours Sigismund III Vasa, the king who transferred the country’s capital from Kraków to Warsaw in 1596. Sitting in one of the many sidewalk cafes we relished the bells tolling hourly from the 15th century Gothic St. John’s Cathedral, the oldest church in Warsaw. While watching a wedding party exit the church, we noted the bride and groom being showered lavishly with coins by cheering relatives and friends, which sent the couple into a frenzy of “stooping and scooping” them up from the concrete. “According to tradition,” said a local bystander, “the newlywed that picks up the most coins will be in charge of the couple’s finances.” From my perspective, winning would be worth a broken fingernail or two.

Like all who enter the Church of the Holy Cross, we stood for a time before the pillar which immures the heart of Frédéric Chopin (1810-49) – Church of the Holy Cross Old Town Warsawone of the great masters of Romanic music and “poet of the piano”. The original church building dates back to the late 1600’s, with additions over the centuries, including the external staircase leading to the main entrance with an extraordinary sculpture of Christ bearing His Cross. The façade and parts of the interior, destroyed by German bombs, have since been rebuilt, the grand finale being the stunning Baroque altar completed in 1972.

The beautiful architecture of the Old Town is in stark contrast with the drab rectangular Eastern-Bloc edifices in other areas of the city that the locals say looked old only years after being built.

Kraków was a plunge into a medieval world that miraculously survived WWII unscathed. Its wealth of 7th century churches and baroque architecture is stunning. We decided to start at the top – Wawel Hill crowned with Wawel Castle. I was impressed by the grand State Rooms, but my imagination took flight in the Royal Private Apartments surmising the daily routines of the monarchy that once lived here. The nearby Wawel Cathedral was the coronation and burial place of Polish Kings for four centuries. An interesting way to leave the Castle grounds is via the Dragon’s Den. According to legend Prince Krak, the city’s founder, secured this hill with its prime location overlooking the Vistula River by outwitting a resident dragon. We entered the eerie, dank and dingy cave with water trickling down the rough rock walls. As I cautiously treaded in a particularly dark section my squeal at unexpectedly stepping into ankle deep water reverberated in resounding echoes. Outside the den the fabled beast is immortalized in an iron statue, that occasionally spurts fire from its steel nostrils.

Monuments of the Holocaust

Ghetto Square KrakowWe made our way to Ghetto Square knowing it would be the first step of many into the tragic and horrific history of the Polish Jews during WWII Nazi occupation. This square (formerly Plac Zgody) fronted the Jewish Ghetto, where Jews forced to relocate from other parts of Kraków became the victims of brutality and murder at the hands of the Nazis. Pod Orlem Pharmacy on a corner of the square provided bits of sanity and salvation for the Jews. The Nazis rational for allowing its existence was the fear of typhus fever breaking out in the Ghetto. As well as dispensing medications for the rampage of injuries and illness, the Polish pharmacist/owner Tadeusz Pankiewicz gave out hair dye to the greying men and women so they would appear younger and more able to work. Sizable chairs of black steel now fill the square in memory of those ghetto occupants that were not deemed “work-worthy” and whose furniture was tossed out onto this concrete, while they themselves were assembled in this square for deportation to a concentration camp.

The notorious gate at Auschwitz welcomed inmates with a cruel lie: “Arbeit Macht Frei”…work will set you free. Only Auschwitz Polandpartially destroyed by the fleeing Nazis, the barracks, gas chamber and crematorium are forever imprinted with the horrors of the holocaust. It was shocking to see the mountains of eye glasses, hair, crutches, prosthetic limbs, and shoes from victims. The crematorium capacity could not keep up with the 700 Jews gassed daily, which prompted the Nazis to establish Auschwitz II or Birkenau.

The sight at the entrance to Birkenau is paralyzing. A lone boxcar remains on one of the train tracks that brought thousands of boxcars of Jews from every country occupied or allied with Germany. The tracks conveniently ran between the holding barracks (of which a few of the once 300 remain). A doctor met each train, separating those who went directly to the gas chamber, and those who were strong enough to work so would live a little longer. This vast death camp could hold 200,000, with four huge gas chambers complete with crematoriums which could dispose of 4,000 Jews a day (these were bombed to rubble by the fleeing Nazis). On one side of the camp we walked through barns built to house 52 horses, yet were crammed with 400 Jews. Since liberation day in 1945, millions have visited these memorials and hopefully take away a determination to learn from the Holocaust and never let it be repeated.

A sliver of light in this dark history was our walk through Oskar Schindler’s Enamel Factory. Oskar was a cagey fellow in dealing with the Nazis that regularly came into his factory to scrutinize his books. He brought out a bottle of the best snaps and toasting became a priority, hence his fudged entries were never detected. The money taken out of the company and all his own personal wealth was used for more nutritious lunches for Jewish ghetto workers and better conditions, which in turn made them more “useful” in Nazi eyes and therefore safer from harassment or the worst scenario of being transported to one of the death camps. The movie “Schindler’s List” was riveting, but walking through the actual factory where 1,200 lives were saved by this hero was overwhelming.

Wieliczka Salt Mines

Voltaire once said, “Business is the salt of life.”
Poles could modify this quote to say, “Salt is the business of life.”

Wieliczka Salt Mine KrakowThe salt mines of Wieliczka brought great wealth to Poland in the production of table salt since the 13th century. Our guide Anna claimed, “Salt was a commodity sought-after (along with copper and lead) by all European countries, making Poland one of the richest and therefore most powerful states in Europe in by the 17th century.” Salt production was continuous since the first shaft was sunk until 2007, when the mine was turned into an underground museum showcasing sculptures carved over the centuries.

An elevator carried us into the bowels of the earth, where in succession we walked through eerie chambers and pits filled with an array of statues and sculptural relief fashioned out of rock salt – from miners at work, to kings, national heroes and religious figures. The oldest works were carved by the miners themselves, with more recent figures carved by contemporary artists. The Chapel of the Blessed Kinga was mesmerizing. It is estimated that 20,000 tonnes of rock salt were removed to hollow out this underground church measuring 54m by 17m by12m high, and took 30 years to complete (1895-1927). In the light of chandeliers made of…you guessed it, crystals of rock salt, we were enchanted by the biblical scenes. As well as the uniquely wondrous sights, we were often reminded by Anna to breathe deeply in order to maximize the benefits of the mineral laden air.

Every activity, site and experience in this beautiful country was warmed by the hospitality of its people. Ten years after our first botched attempt to visit, which we totally take responsibility for, we were glad that we had a second opportunity to pass this way, as our memories of Poland are cherished indeed.

More Information:

For superb traditional cuisine at affordable prices,
try this Restaurant Gem!
Red Point Gastro Pub
Ul Brzozowa 4
(at corner of Brzozowa & Dietla; street cars run down Dietla)
Tel: +48 518 790 905

Tours to Wieliczka Salt Mine, Auschwitz/Birkenau, & a dozen other tours)
General Manager – Julia Korczynska
ul Florianska 6, 31-021 Krakow
Tel: (48) 500169404 Fax: (48) 12 – 3973625

Tourism Poland

UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Warsaw and Krakow:
Old Town, Warsaw
Old Town, Krakow
Auschwitz and Birkenau Concentration Camps
Wieliczka Salt Mine


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