I was never too keen to visit Poland actually. (Russia, Bulgaria and Romania also - and more so - still fall into that category) My image of the country was still somewhat stuck in the eighties when it was all about shipyards, Solidarnosc and the grey, expressionless face of its last Communist leader – the famously unpronounceable Wojciech Jaruzelski.
However going to a personal terra incognita is always a thrilling experience and after watching Ryanair’s fluctuating prices for a week we took the plunge – a very nervous plunge since I had never flown the cattle truck airline and I was more than a tad apprehensive. In retrospect Ryanair is not half as bad as some make out, no frills, no bullshit – just a silly, annoying fanfare if you land on time.
So what is there to see in Krakow? The Czartoryski Museum which I was keen to visit remains closed for refurbishment – it has not been open for about two years now and that’s a real shame. However Krakow’s world art piece de resistance is on show at Wawel Castle. You pay ten zloty to view Leonardo’s minuscule Lady with an Ermine in an appropriately darkened room. I don’t believe this is Leonardo’s best and I was left somewhat puzzled by both the lady’s awkward hand with very elongated and bony fingers and the ermine (we normally would call it a stoat) itself which is not cute at all but rather malevolent looking. Still there are only so many Leonardos you can see in one lifetime and the ten zloty was well spent.
So…what is there to see in Krakow? Put simply churches, more churches and then some more churches. First Wawel Cathedral – set within the grounds of the Royal Palace and a massive structure with some incredibly decorated chapels, a crypt with most of Poland’s royals interred, some lovely tapestries. You buy the ticket and you’re invited to go up to one of the Cathedral’s towers until you stand just beneath Poland’s largest bell – the Zygmunt, cast in 1520. Mercifully they keep it silent while the tourists visit the tower.
Interestingly the Cathedral and the Palace, though both within the same compound, seem to fall under the separate jurisdictions of Church and State – much like the arrangement for the cathedrals in Malta. Talking of the Church as an institution rather than brickwork, I did get the feeling that the Church is still pretty strong in Krakow. I have never seen so many young priests and nuns anywhere else in Europe. From our apartment just across from the Dominican church I could also notice steady streams of locals coming in and out of the church presumably for a short prayer visit. The first mass of the day was at 6am in most churches whereas Malta has mostly done away with this early service though it still persists in Gozo.
I never knew Gothic could be this wonderful, this colorful. There’s a blue star-studded ceiling; there are columns featuring gold, black, reds. yellows and all sorts of terracotta hues. There is a massive crucifix hanging in the church’s crossing. And then there is an awesome sculpted polyptych as the church’s altarpiece. This is normally kept closed but a nun opens it at 11.50am each day to show the hidden centerpiece within – a huge sculpted Dormition of the Virgin. This breathtaking ritual is somewhat ridiculed by a recorded fanfare that breaks out when the altarpiece is fully open, very much in the fashion of the Ryanair onboard announcement marking yet another on time landing. Bit ridiculous but again a very well spent six zloty. The altarpiece is by Veit Stoss (1450-1533) who surely deserves to be much more renowned than he appears to be. I visited this church about three times in an effort to take it all in (impossible ask). On our last day I was lucky to witness the tail end of a wedding mass there with the church brightly lit and the altarpiece opened for the occasion (I suppose the bride and groom pay extra for the privilege...). When the mass ended the church organ blasted out a reverberating rendition of the Wedding March. It’s at magical moments like these that words simply fail you and the emotions of this multi-sensored experience get overwhelming. That’s the second time I went to heaven that day.
In the middle of the square squats the huge Sukiennice – a medieval cloth hall now abuzz with all sorts of souvenir sellers – some tatty but there are plenty of examples of regional wood carvings if you are ready to splash out. I got me a small Madonna and Child and it didn’t break the bank.
Which brings me to the subject of pricing. Well Krakow is embarrassingly cheap especially where food is concerned, One example will suffice I think. At one of Krakow’s most popular restaurants we ordered two mixed grills of sorts marked at around 30 zloty each (30 zloty approximates 7.5 euro). The waitress politely advised us not to order two as it might be too much so we ordered just the one platter to share. When the food arrived it had no less than eight different pieces of meat and all of them in double portions! Plus veg and rice and stuff. I’m pretty sure you couldn’t do it cheaper if you cooked this at home.
The one problem (if you can call it that) with Krakow is its small size – after a day or so you are likely to end up wandering along the same streets - quite ok for some but not for a restless animal like me.
So we took the obligatory tour to Auschwitz. It’s a strange experience knowing full well the horrors that happened there and what man is capable of inflicting on his fellow man. It is difficult to put things in perspective, difficult to imagine the real horror in spite of the brilliant guiding. It is instead the mountains of shoes and the inmates’ traveling baggage which are left to tell but a small part of this sad sad story. It was only the room full of human hair which I found disturbing (very sensibly you are not allowed to take photos in this room). All this in Auschwitz One.
Auschwitz Two (Auschwitz-Birkenau) is vaster and was the ultimate death factory of the Nazi Regime. The camp and the extermination chambers are partly in ruins – the chambers were of course hurriedly destroyed before the Soviet Army liberated the camp.
The commonly photographed main entrance of the camp with its rail lines leading through the doors of earthly hell remains a strong icon however much one might have seen it.
One of the rooms at Auschwitz contains the famous George Santayana quote “The one who does not remember history is bound to live through it again”.
Now that I have seen this place I want to read some more on the subject. I had read Rudolf Hoss’s sangfroid memoirs a long time ago and it’s time to either borrow the tattered copy again or look for something more on this harrowing subject.