Auschwitz-Birkenau

A historian once pointed out, quite correctly, that it was necessary to understand the past in order to understand the present. This is a phrase that springs all too readily to mind for a visitor to Auschwitz, a place that one feels must be included on a trip to Krakow.

It is, of course, not quite so easy to understand the minds of those that created places like Auschwitz. It is also understandable why some people may not wish to visit. It is not a place that makes for comfortable viewing, but travel is not always about seeing the beautiful and aesthetically pleasing things. Travel is, or should, be about understanding and learning as well as hedonistic pleasure.

If one were to be driven inside the grounds of Auschwitz without seeing anything, and thus missing the infamous gates, little might seem amiss. The site of an old army barracks, you might think and this would be correct, as the camp served precisely this purpose until 1940. Only then did its ghastly history begin.

The notorious gate

The notorious gate

There are a few hints in the grounds of some of the camp’s unpleasant secrets. The watchtowers and barbed wire suggest a more sinister purpose. The visitor might not immediately realise it, but a basic brick building was used as a gas chamber. Nearby, there is a gallows. Here, Rudolf Höss, the Commandant of Auschwitz, was hanged after being convicted of the murder of three and a half million human beings.

Gallows

Gallows

It is, though, inside the buildings that the horror of the place begins to hit home. It is, of course, impossible to imagine what things were really like, but the stark displays leave a feeling of emptiness and despair, none more so than the cabinets filled with human hair. The vast piles of tattered shoes are also heart-rending.

Watchtower

Watchtower

However awful Auschwitz feels, a trip to the nearby Birkenau camp feels even more desperate. The latter was built by prisoners, largely Russian prisoners of war, as an addendum to the Auschwitz camp, as Auschwitz was simply not big enough. Birkenau is vast, bare, bleak and open. The railway line running into it gives a sense of a one-way journey into Hell. The sparse wooden huts and the basic latrines made it a Hell that was freezing in winter and burning in summer.

Birkenau

Birkenau

View of Birkenau camp

View of Birkenau camp

Huts at Birkenau

Huts at Birkenau

This is history at its most uncomfortable. It is also history at its most necessary.

Wieliczka Salt Mine

The small town of Wieliczka is about eight miles south east of Krakow and is known almost exclusively for the salt mine beneath it. Salt deposits were first discovered in the 13th century and the mine continued in commercial operation until the end of the 20th century. The site was placed on the very first UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites in 1978.

The first task for the visitor is, naturally enough, to descend. There are around 350 steps down, though it can seem like more as the spiral staircases just keep coming. An inevitable thought as you disappear further into the earth is that you hope you don’t have to come back the same way. Thankfully not – there are lifts to take you back to the surface.

Going underground

Going underground

Although some of the more recent sculptures in the mine were created by modern artists, most of the work was done by miners. Unsurprisingly, in a devoutly Catholic country, many of the pieces are of a religious nature. The effect is rather like entering an underground cathedral. It’s possible, should you be so inclined, to hold your wedding ceremony in the mine, though presumably the event would cost a fair amount. There are even occasional concerts held in some of the larger chambers, the acoustics being exceptional.

(Under street) sculpture

(Under street) sculpture

One of the sobering thoughts, as you wander around the passages and caverns of the mine, is that the visitor only sees a tiny portion of the whole place. A visitor will walk around two kilometres of the total of 200 or so kilometres of the total. The walking tour takes around two hours.

The mine is almost an underground city in salt, with its chapels, chambers and rooms. The ‘city’ has its own lakes and small rivers, so intensely saline as to make the Dead Sea look like a freshwater lake. The administrator of the mine had his own ‘house’ within the mine, the Gothic architecture befitting its subterranean location.

The most spectacular of the mine’s three chapels is the Kinga Chapel, dedicated to the mine’s patron saint. It is the largest chapel and is delightfully ornate, containing many sculptures and intricate chandeliers, all lovingly carved from rock salt.

Salt chandalier

Salt chandalier

Poland thrives on myths and legends. Not surprisingly, one of these legends is attached to the mine and its patron saint. Kinga was a Hungarian princess who was to be married to the King of Krakow. As a gift for her husband, she asked for a salt mine, salt being scarce in Poland. Her father duly provided one. She threw her ring into the depths of one of her father’s salt mines before leaving for Poland. On arriving there, she asked the people to dig a deep pit. The people found salt and wrapped around a salt crystal was the princess’s ring.

Salt stalagtites

Salt stalagtites

The original miners had their own canteens, but the modern-day visitor can have a meal in the restaurant, 125 metres below ground. Diners are unlikely to make requests for extra salt.

Krakow – Inside the Horseshoe

It is almost certain that a trip to Krakow will, at least for a first-time visitor, involve visits to the Wieliczka Salt Mine and to Auschwitz-Birkenau. These places merit a full examination of their own and cannot be crammed into a small piece about the city itself. This article will concentrate purely on Krakow.

Weather for duck holidayers

Weather for duck holidayers

Krakow may be synonymous with the above sites, but there is plenty to see in the city. The centre is enclosed by the horseshoe-shaped Planty Park, which makes it very easy to navigate. A river always helps, both in terms of adding something to the scenic aspects as well as for finding one’s way, and the mighty Wisła runs through Krakow to the south of the city.

The Market Square is the city’s heart, full of people and pigeons whatever the time of year or day. The centrepiece is the lovely Renaissance building, the Cloth Hall, still in use as a market, but mainly selling souvenirs these days. Overlooking the square is the giant Gothic brickwork that is St Mary’s Basilica. On the hour mark, look and listen out for the trumpeter at the top of the taller of the two towers. Legend has it that the curtailed call is in memory of the 13th-century trumpeter who was cut short in mid performance by a Tatar arrow as he sounded the alarm.

St Mary's Basilica

St Mary’s Basilica

The upper floor of the Cloth Hall houses the Sukiennice Museum, comprising four grandiose rooms of 19th-century Polish art. The museum is part of the National Museum, which in reality is a collection of museums and galleries. The Historical Museum is similarly scattered and includes the splendid Florian Gate, a typically Krakow-style mixture of the Gothic and Baroque rolled into one structure.

Cloth Hall

Cloth Hall

On the hill at the southern end of Planty Park stands Wawel Castle, which is another collection of buildings that have a slightly patchwork appearance after much destruction and rebuilding through the centuries. The 14th-century Gothic cathedral – itself something of a composite affair – stands out and is the burial place for Polish kings and heroes, including Poland’s greatest poet, Adam Mickiewicz, who is also honoured with a bronze statue in the Market Square.

The Royal Chambers features a number of beautifully decorated rooms and halls. Keep an eye on the ceilings, particularly in the ‘Room of the Heads’, where 30 (there used to be a lot more) sculpted and painted faces peer down to keep an eye on proceedings to make sure the royals don’t get above themselves. The ‘Room of the Birds’ is another hall with remarkable decorations, chiefly in the shape of the Renaissance frieze featuring the aforementioned birds.

To the south east of the castle lies Kazimierz, the old Jewish Quarter. This area has undergone a major revival in recent years. Much of the Steven Spielberg film, Schindler’s List, was filmed here and a little row of shops created for the set has been preserved in tribute. Now, though, there are synagogues, museums, bars, cafés and restaurants of all kinds, including a very decent Indian.

Krakow does not lack for bars and restaurants and vegetarians are well catered for. It’s worth noting that food portions tend to be rather large and that Polish beer is pretty strong, so unless you have an extraordinary constitution, ordering the smallest option on the menu and the lightest beer is the sensible option. A ‘small cheese pie’, for example, is roughly the size of a medium-sized bungalow and may come with enough vegetables to satisfy one’s five-a-day ration in one go. Even Monty Python’s Mr Creosote might be slightly intimidated by the larger versions. For those who can’t manage between meals, there are legions of bagel sellers dotted around the town.

A glass of Polish porter is something well worth trying and for the truly adventurous, two glasses. Żywiec Porter is as black as the Ace of Spades and is so thick that you can almost chew it. At 9.5% ABV, it is a beer to sip slowly and has a kick like a mule wearing reinforced Doc Martens. It is, in fact, quite a pleasant drink with dark roasted notes and a hint of chocolate, but it is not a session beer.

Poles will argue the vodka is a Polish, rather than Russian, invention and don’t be surprised to find yourself offered a chance to sample some in a restaurant. The vodka may be pure or come in unusual flavours, and it is, of course, impolite to refuse the offering. If you’re visiting in winter, a small glass puts a rapid injection of warmth into the body.

One unusual Krakow feature is the corvid commuter run. Early in the morning, vast quantities of rooks fly in from the neighbouring countryside, accompanied by quite a few jackdaw outriders. In the evening, they all head off again. It’s a spectacular sight and while you see plenty of these birds in the parks and gardens, you wonder how the city accommodates such enormous numbers and where they all go.

1,670 kilometres from home

1,670 kilometres from home

Unfortunately, Krakow seems to have become something of a magnet for stag weekends, so a visit during the week is not a bad move. Still, nobody with any interest in culture (or indeed decent pubs) should find themselves on too much of a collision course. Life is too short to spend hours sitting in a faux-English pub drinking bad beer.