Planning trips to the Polish cities of Warsaw and Krakow ? Here are some recommendations*. To view all the photographs (with the captions in full) of each city, click on any image and navigate using the left and right keys.
1. The capital of Poland was razed to the ground during the Second World War, yet the precise reconstruction of Warsaw in the aftermath has produced a beautiful juxtaposition of tradition and modernity across the city. Such is the spirit of the Polish people, to persevere and prosper after times of adversity. Apartments at the centre of the old town square – with traditional wooden stairwells and furnishings – can be booked.
2. Warsaw is a wondrous blend of the old and the older. There are merchant houses and churches in the old town (stare miasto) – which is over 700 years old – and they are a short walk from the new town (nowe miasto). Whereas the former is marked by gothic architecture, the latter is characterised by its baroque architecture.
3. Bombs during the Second World War destroyed parts of the Royal Castle, but precise paintings by artist Bernardo Bellotto were used when the city was restored after the war.
4. A 22-metre column to honour King Sigismund III Vaza, who had moved Poland’s capital from Krakow to Warsaw in 1596.
5. Polish cuisine: żurek, a sour rye soup with egg, mushroom, and sausage; pierogi, boiled or fried dumplings, usually stuffed with potato and cottage cheese, or minced pork meat, cabbage and mushrooms; as well as pork knuckle with mashed potato and various sides. Not pictured (but devoured): apple pie with ice cream and whipped cream.
6. By absolute chance we had a meal of crepes at a bar mleczny (milk bar). The stern lady at the counter was annoyed that we spoke no Polish, we could not understand a loosely translated menu, and she refused to let us take photographs. We later found out that milk bars, established in the nineteenth century, are traditional canteens serving cheap Polish fare.
7. Our guide from Free Walking Tour was absolutely brilliant. Here, he shares about the Jewish ghetto and the ghetto uprising in 1943. In 1940 the Nazis herded Polish Jews into a ghetto area, which was surrounded by a wall and cut off from the rest of the city. The monument was erected in memory of those who had perished during the uprising.
8. The Warsaw Barbican, part of the heavy fortifications which once encircled Warsaw.
9. In the middle of the old town square is the statue of a mermaid, a symbolic guardian of Warsaw. Legend has it that the wives of fishermen had conspired to capture her for sale, after the mermaid had caused the enamoured fishermen to stop working. The plan, however, failed because a young man the wives sent as part of the ploy was cast under a spell, and subsequently released the mermaid. The grateful mermaid then swore to protect the city.
10. A line demarcating where the ghetto walls used to stand.
11. Two monuments commemorating the Warsaw uprising of 1944: the first depicts brave men and women who fought to liberate the city (successfully, albeit for a very short time), and the second individuals of the movement who used the sewers to evacuate. Despite crushing the belligerents the Nazis were angered by the resistance, and ordered that every building was to be razed to the ground. It was three months before the end of the war.
12. The tomb of the unknown soldier, for all the Polish soldiers who had died in service. “[A]s a symbol of military tradition the tomb belongs to the entire nation”.
13. The Warsaw Rising Museum is a must-see. The exhibitions lay out the sequence of events that led to the uprising, the 63 days of brutal street-to-street fighting, how the Poles were militarily overmatched, and how the Nazis reacted, as well as the unfortunate aftermath. The multimedia features were great, though the stand-outs were the video interviews with the young men and women who recounted their stories and memories of this episode.
14. Sited in the centre of the city is the magnificent Palace of Culture and Science, which houses orchestras, museums, theatres, sport facilities, and public libraries.
15. Around the city there are multimedia benches celebrating the life of Warsaw-born Frédéric Chopin, because each bench is located at the site which was meaningful to the composer. Press a button on the bench and one would enjoy a short musical clip of his many famous compositions. This bench is found in the eponymous Warsaw Chopin Airport.
1. Unlike Warsaw which was devastated during the Second World War, many of the monuments and buildings in Krakow remain standing, even though its residents experienced the same horrors. The former capital of Poland is a beautiful historical city, and remains a centre for academia and the arts. Like Warsaw residential apartments and shopping complexes have sprouted around traditional monuments and places of worship, thereby featuring a delightful combination of the old and the new.
2. From top left, clockwise: St. Mary’s Church; the Town Hall Tower and the Cloth Hall surrounding the main market square; the St. Peter and Paul Church; as well as a bronze monument of Adam Mickiewicz, an admired Polish romantic poet.
3. The Gothic Wawel Castle, with a beautiful courtyard and two medieval churches and cathedrals, was built during the reign of Casmir III the Great. Like the old town and palace in Warsaw this palace was surrounded by formidable fortifications and defensive walls.
4. Steamed or boiled pierogi for breakfast.
5. Auschwitz I. There are three camps in the area: Auschwitz I, Auschwitz II – Birkenau, and Auschwitz III – Monowitz. These camps served two primary functions: first and initially, as concentration camps for political and somewhat prominent opponents and prisoners of war (where, as the slogan states, “work will set you free); and second, to implement the final solution to the “Jewish problem” (European Jews from the region were gathered here).
6. Auschwitz I. Living conditions were horrid. From top left, clockwise: toilets; bunks which were often shared by two or three prisoners; a room laid with hay, and occupied by 200 crammed individuals; as well as bunks which housed five or six in a pallet. Some of the later wooden buildings were designed originally as stables, but used instead to house the Poles.
7. Auschwitz I. The infamous Block 11 was the camp jail, and this death block had a basement bunker filled with confinement, starvation, and standing cells.
8. Auschwitz I. Fenced up.
9. Auschwitz I. Contrast. In one particular exhibition one would see how the hair of the victims were used for textiles, gold teeth melted into ingots, and skeletons sent to scientific institutions. There were piles of combs, brushes, prayer shawls, glasses, items of the infirmed (crutches, prosthetic legs), pots, pans, metal cups, bottles, kitchen utensils, baby shoes and clothing… The leather suitcases with names scribbled on them struck me deeply, and the guide repeatedly reminded us: “Don’t just focus on the extensive piles of items, but on the individual items, for these items actually belonged to a victim here”.
10. Auschwitz I. One of the five crematoriums-cum-gas chambers across the three concentration camps in Auschwitz. While their sizes differed they served the same functions, and each had the facilities of gas storage, gas chambers, morgues, and incineration rooms. The unfortunate and often unsuspecting victims were gassed with Zyklon B.
11. Auschwitz II – Birkenau. Some Jews who perished were deceived by the Nazis. They were told about plans for resettlement, were sold train tickets, non-existent shops, plots of land, as well as property, which could explain why families brought their valuables in bulky bags and luggage. Those condemned to the gas chambers were forced to strip before they had their “showers”, and the Nazis plundered these garments and the many valuables.
12. Auschwitz II – Birkenau. The sites were chosen because of their proximity to the train systems. Hundreds of thousands of prisoners went past the main gates of Auschwitz II – Birkenau before they entered the actual concentration camps or the gas chambers.
13. Auschwitz II – Birkenau. There were Jewish youths (and presumably students), some donning the kippah, in the concentration camp. I made some rough notes based on the inscriptions on some of their blazers of the groups around, but to no avail.
14. The historic Wieliczka salt mine is made up of nine levels, and the regular tourist can descend 135 metres to explore three levels and understand the development of mining technology over the centuries. Salt – known as white gold in the medieval days – is still mined at the present moment, and tourists only go through one per cent of the entire mine.
15. How the salt mine has expanded, how the technology for transportation and architecture has advanced, and how the workers have transformed chambers into beautiful locations are remarkable. Methods were primitive in the past, and miners who used methane for explosive expansions risked their lives in the process. In many of these chambers – especially the ones dedicated for worship – absolutely everything has been constructed using the natural landscape: the floors were carved out intricately, illustrations such as The Last Supper carved out from sand and rock, and even the chandeliers were adorned with crystallised salt rocks.
* Not an advertisement, and also not sponsored (unfortunately).
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