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Published: December 4th 2016
Wawel Castle I
The castle on the right and Wawel Cathedral on the left. View from Sandomierz Tower at the far end of the castle.
A work trip took me to Krakow in mid-June. I was to attend the Annual Conference of the European Test Publishers Group (ETPG) that my company had just joined. I dove straight into the city’s rich history on my way from the airport into the city since my taxi driver seemed to know all the bits and pieces. Krakow was the capital of Poland before the capital was moved to Warsaw in the 17th century. In spite of this kings were crowned in the city until 1730. Most of the buildings in the city remained undestroyed during the Second World War – by chance, as it turned out: The Nazis had prepared everything so that they would be able to blow up the whole city before the Red Army would arrive, but then the latter arrived so surprisingly quick that the Nazis did not have time to push the button, which saved the city. The taxi driver said “But that’s about the only good they did us” – which itself tells a story!
Amongst the buildings of the city there are a large number of churches and this is due to the fact that in the old days all the
Wawel Castle II
Wawel Cathedral, with the Presbytery to the left of it.
noble and rich families had their own church and priest. Just imagine that, it was a status symbol! Today the city has around 800,000 inhabitants and several universities, and it is still proud of its history as Poland’s capital. Moreover, every person from the city I talked to seemed to really love their home town, which I can truly relate to after having been there.
My hotel was barely a five minute walk from the bustling market square. I had to finish up some work before I was able to go out, but after dinner I went for a nice stroll through the city centre. Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday were busy with the conference. However, in the evening we had some events in and around the city scheduled. On Wednesday night, we went for a two hour guided city walking tour. We started the tour at the Barbican, an additional line of wall and mold with a gate in it that was erected to enhance the fortification of the city. From there we walked past Floriaņska Gate into the Old Town, or the part of town that once was surrounded by walls. We followed the Royal Route, the route
Wawel Castle III
The courtyard inside the castle.
the kings used to ride down on their way to the coronation ceremony that took place in the castle at the other end of the city.
Looking at a city map one can see that on this end the city is more recent, its houses and streets were build according to a certain plan. Once you approach the Market Square you are in the oldest part of the city. In its centre lies the Cloth Hall, a building that serves as an indoor market. The huge square is surrounded by bars, cafés, and restaurants and it is incredibly busy. There are stalls, street performers, horse carriages, and masses of people – tourists from various countries. We finished our evening at a food stall where we got all kinds of traditional sausages, pig, beef, horse, deer, and the sausages were huge and greasy. The guy serving us the food was super passionate about his sausages! Of course I preferred a vegetarian sandwich. After dinner we went to a jazz club.
The next evening afternoon we went on a guided tour to Wieliczka Salt Mine, a huge salt mine about an hour’s drive from the city. We walked down many,
St. Mary Basilica
... on Stare Miasto, the Central Market Square, in the old town of Krakow.
many stairs, until we were almost two hundred meters underneath the earth, and went for a guided tour. It is amazing how many tunnels there are, but the most amazing thing in my opinion was the cathedral that the workers had built. It was a huge cave with a few carefully crafted reliefs. One of them was the last supper, and when one looked at it from a distance it really looked three dimensional. We finished our evening with a dinner in one of the caves, a most amazing location for a restaurant.
On Friday the conference finished. I had some work left to do, but afterwards I walked to a rooftop restaurant in the north of the city. From the roof I had a wonderful view of the market square, the many churches, and Wawel Castle on the other end of the city.
For Saturday I had booked a trip to Auschwitz and Birkenau. The former Nazi concentration camp is just about an hour’s drive from the city. I think nobody feels happy when being there, but being German made me feel particularly bad. I barely dared tell our driver that I was German, but to him
... in the middle of Stare Miasto, the Central Market Square, in the old town of Krakow.
this was not an issue at all. Auschwitz, this place of terror and pain, was quiet although it was very crowded with tourists. And one could almost sense the bad energy. Our guide did a fantastic job explaining all the horrible facts and the precision according to which the camp had been organised. It was impossible for me to imagine the dimensions and the incredible pain and suffering of each single individual. I saw many people cry and I was close to tears many times myself.
It got even worse when we continued from Auschwitz to Birkenau where the crematoria had been. I had seen so many pictures of it, but when I was there I realised how vast the camp had been, and under what horrible conditions people there had to live – if they were lucky enough to live at all. It is beyond words to describe the horror, pain, and suffering. Far than one million people were killed there, and even nowadays we still walk on their ashes. I was deeply moved by all those who survived and now make sure we never forget what happened. I was deeply impressed by those who work as guides
... in the Jewish Quarter, called Kazimierz.
in this place, all those who maintain what is still there so that we never forget. I hope everyone who ever sees this place realises that we are all human, that we are all connected, and that hatred will never make this world any better. After this trip I did not feel like doing more sightseeing. I went for a quiet dinner in the most beautiful Jewish quarter to reflect upon what I had seen and experienced. The quarter is very peaceful and there are far less tourists than in the city centre, so it was a perfect spot.
I spent my entire Sunday in Wawel Castle. The castle is located on a hill on the south side of the city and it is surrounded by an impressive wall. A lot of what we can see now dates back to the Renaissance period. The northern part of the castle burned down in the early 17th century, but was rebuilt. Nowadays there is an outer and an inner courtyard, the latter being surrounded by a two-story gallery. This courtyard is also used for performances like for example opera. Surprisingly the “Lady with the Ermine” was on exhibition in the castle
The Sausage Man
Walenty Kania. He produces famous sausages and sells them at a stall in the Jewish Quarter.
as well, and of course I went to see her. A lot of rooms were open for visit, so one could see the wonderful wooden floors, painted walls and ceilings, all the furniture, and lots of treasures and arms. Also there was an area where one could see the excavations of the very old parts of the castle – the hill had been a human settlement since Paleolithic times.
Underneath the castle there is a dragon’s den. The legend goes that the builders of the castle woke up a dragon that was sleeping underneath the hill. The dragon wanted what most dragons want: virgins that the inhabitants of the city had to give him, along with food. Many brave knights died trying to kill the dragon. Ultimately a smart man stuffed a sheep with Sulphur and placed it in front of the cave. After the dragon had eaten the sheep he became incredibly thirsty and drank a lot of water and then simply exploded. I don’t know whether this smart farmer ultimately got to marry the princess, but it would be a nice end of the story, wouldn’t it?
After my visit to the dragon’s den I went
... that we had with our sausage dinner - incredibly sweet and artificial...
back to the wonderful Jewish quarter and had a nice dinner with food from the Levante before heading off to the airport and flying home. What an interesting city with a rich history, I just loved it!
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