Poland Rediscovered: Krakow, Auschwitz and Warsaw
Rick Steves' Europe: Episode # 310
Poland is ready to be rediscovered as the old "east" transforms itself into the new heart of Europe. Krakow, with its bubbly Baroque and cobbled charm, is emerging as the exciting "next Prague. " Nearby, a visit to Auschwitz teaches us a timeless, soul-searching lesson. Systematically destroyed during World War II, Warsaw is a lively, thriving capital once again.
- Read the script from the show.
This hilltop has seen lots of changes over the years. Kazimierz the Great turned a small fortress into a mighty Gothic castle in the 14th century. Today, you'll see the cathedral and a castle complex, but little remains of Kazimierz's grand fortress, which burned to the ground in 1499. In the rest of the castle, you'll uncover more fragments of Kraków's history, and have the opportunity to visit several museums (tel. 012-422-5155, ext. 219).
Kazimierz (Jewish Quarter)
The neighborhood of Kazimierz, 20 minutes by foot southeast of Kraków's Old Town, is the historic heart of Kraków's once-thriving Jewish community. After years of neglect, the district is today being rediscovered by Krakovians and tourists alike. This is basically a local-feeling, slightly run-down neighborhood with a handful of Jewish cemeteries, synagogues, and restaurants, and often a few pensive Israeli tour groups wandering the streets (from Main Market Square, walk down ulica Sienna, bear right through the Planty park, continue straight at the intersection with busy Westerplatte down Starowislna; or take the tram to Miodowa and cut through the park).
Klezmer Concerts and Jewish Food
Kazimierz is a hub of Jewish restaurants, featuring cuisine and music that honors the neighborhood's Jewish heritage (and caters to its Jewish visitors). If you want fancy dining with a Jewish folk-music serenade, Kazimierz has it. On a balmy summer night, the air is filled with the sound of klezmer music — traditional Jewish music from 19th-century Poland, generally with violin, string bass, clarinet, and accordion. Try Klezmer-Hois (#6, tel. 012/411-1245); Restauracja Arka Noego (shares building with Jarden Bookshop at #2, tel. 012/429-1528); or Ariel (#18, tel. 012/421-7920).
The unassuming regional capital of Oswiecim (ohsh-VEENCH-im) was the site of one of humanity's most unspeakably horrifying tragedies: the systematic murder of at least 1.1 million innocent people. From 1941 until 1945, Oswiecim was the site of Auschwitz, the biggest, most notorious concentration camp in the Nazi system. Today, Auschwitz is the most poignant memorial anywhere to the victims of the Holocaust (in Oswiecim, about 50 miles west of Kraków, connect by bus or train, tel. 033/844-8100).
A tour of the Salt Mine shows how the miners lived and worked, (using horses who lived their whole lives without ever seeing the light of day), takes you through some impressive underground caverns past subterranean lakes and introduces you to some of the mine's many sculptures (including an army of salt elves and this region's favorite son, Pope John Paul II). Your jaw will drop as you enter the enormous Chapel of the Blessed Kinga, carved over three decades in the early 20th century (10 miles southeast of Kraków, ulica Danilowicza 10, tel. 012/278-7302).
Jazz Club U Muniaka (Kraków)
The club has live music nightly (cover charge, cheap drinks, best bands on weekends). If you hang around the bar before the show, you might find yourself sitting next to owner Janusz himself, smoking his pipe...and getting ready to smoke on the saxophone.
After centuries of living peacefully in Poland, Warsaw's Jews suffered terribly at the hands of the Nazis. Several sights in Warsaw commemorate those who were murdered, and those who fought back. But because the Nazis leveled the ghetto, there is literally nothing left except the street plan, some monuments, and the heroic spirit of its former residents. Begin at Ghetto Heroes Square (plac Bohaterow Getta) in the heart of what was the Jewish ghetto. The big park across the street is the future site of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, scheduled to open in 2012.
The most central sight relating to the Warsaw Uprising is the monument at plac Krasinskich (intersection of ulica Dluga and Miodowa, a few blocks northwest of the New Town). The Warsaw Uprising Museum is thorough, well-presented, and celebrates the heroes of the Uprising. The location is inconvenient (a 10-min tram ride west of Central Train Station), but for history buffs, it's Warsaw's single best museum (on the west edge of downtown at ulica Przyokopowa 28, tel. 022-539-7901).
For up-to-date specifics, see the latest edition of the Rick Steves' Snapshot: Kraków, Warsaw & Gdansk travel guide or the Rick Steves' Eastern Europe travel guide — or join us on one of our free-spirited Eastern Europe tours.