Poland Rediscovered: Krakow, Auschwitz and Warsaw
See more travel details for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick's guidebooks.
Hi, I'm Rick Steves, back with more of the best of Europe. This time we're exploring the best of Poland. It's a nation with a rich past and an exciting future.
Every country's had its ups and downs. But Poland's been particularly hard hit through the ages. Thankfully, these are good times in Poland. It's a member of the European Union, its economy is thriving and it's never been more fun to visit. Poland's two must see cities are Warsaw and Kraków.
Enjoying the highlights of Poland, we'll visit its grand cultural center, Kraków. Make a pilgrimage to Poland's holiest site, remember the horrors of Auschwitz, descend into a magical salt mine, feel the jazzy beat, be inspired by WWII heroics, slam down a Polish tradition... and experience the Phoenix of Europe - Warsaw
In the northeast of Europe, Poland is one of the largest countries on the Continent. We'll visit its historic capital, Kraków, side trip to a salt mine and to a concentration camp, then head for Poland's modern capital, Warsaw.
We start in Kraków - it's like the Boston of Poland: a charming and vital city buzzing with history, college students and tourists. Even though the country's political capital moved from here to Warsaw 400 years ago, Kraków remains Poland's cultural and intellectual center.
The city's history is rich, its sights are fascinating and the prices are some of Europe's lowest. This is a country where the most expensive café on the most expensive perch serves drinks for a fraction of what you'd expect. The charm of today's Kraków lies in its medieval roots.
Kraków grew wealthy from trade in the 12th century. Traders who passed through were required to stop here for a few days and sell their goods at a discount. Local merchants then resold their wares at a profit...and the city thrived.
In the 13th century the Tartars - a.k.a. the Mongols - swept in from Asia and destroyed Kraków. Resilient Krakovians took this opportunity to rebuild their city with a near-perfect grid plan, a striking contrast to the narrow, mazelike lanes of most medieval towns.
Eventually Kraków's power waned. Warsaw emerged as Poland's dominant city while Kraków became a provincial backwater of the Hapsburg Empire ruled from Vienna. While Warsaw was in the sphere of Moscow and therefore more Eastern and conservative, Kraków has long been more Western and liberal.
Kraków emerged from World War II virtually unscathed — it slumbered under communism until Poland won its freedom in 1989. Today, this city is Poland's leading tourist attraction...with plenty of top-notch sights.
After the Tartars destroyed their city, Krakovians built this imposing wall. The big, round defensive fort standing outside the wall is a barbican. It provided extra protection at the town's main gate.
By the 19th century, the city wall was no longer necessary. Locals tore down most of it, filled in the moat and planted trees. Today, this delightful and people-friendly green belt a park called the Planty — circles Kraków's Old Town.
To get away from the tourists' Kraków, bike or hike around the Planty and up the park that lines the Vistula river. If you think you're good at chess, challenge one of these guys.
Nearby, the imposing St. Mary's Church — with its soaring lookout tower — has long been an icon of the city. Each mid-day, crowds gather for a medieval moment as a nun swings open the church's much-adored altarpiece. This exquisite Gothic polyptych — an altarpiece with pivoting panels — was carved in the late 1400s by Veit Stoss. One of the most impressive medieval woodcarvings in existence, it depicts the death of the Virgin with emotion rare in gothic art.
St. Mary's Church faces Kraków's marvelous Market Square. One of Europe's most gasp-worthy public spaces, it bustles with life. This square is where Kraków lives....kids practice break dancing, horse carriages take you for a ride and folk bands add traditional color.
When built in the 13th century, this was the biggest square in medieval Europe. Back then, you couldn't sell things just anywhere. Everything had to be sold here on the Market Square... or in the Cloth Hall. In the Middle Ages, this was where the cloth sellers had their market stalls. Today — whether you're looking for a fancy egg, some traditional embroidery, or a little amber — it's your one stop souvenir-shopping arcade.
I find Polish culture and history both compelling and confusing. My friend and fellow tour guide, Kasia Derlicka, is joining us to be sure we get things just right.
Kasia: Lets go a very special place. It's close to every Polish heart. Its Wawel and Poland actually begins in Wawel.
Wawel Hill is sacred ground to the Polish people, a symbol of Polish royalty and independence. A castle has stood here since the 11th century. Today Wawel is the most-visited sight in all Poland. The highlight of the entire castle complex is the cathedral. Wawel Cathedral is Poland's national church, its "Westminster Abbey." To Poles, this church is the national mausoleum. It holds the tombs of Poland's greatest rulers and historic figures.
Poland is devoutly Catholic. 75 percent of its nearly 40,000,000 people are practicing Catholics. Pope John Paul II was a hometown boy and served right here as archbishop of Kraków before being called to Rome. Catholicism defines the Poles, holding them together when nothing else could.
Kasia: Imagine, Poland was crunched between Protestant Germany and Orthodox Russia. During the partition in the 19th century, we didn't even show on the map, but we survived — thanks to being Polish and thanks to being Catholics. And during Communism it was also very difficult and very dark, but we expressed our freedom and political dissent by going to Mass.
Compared to the rest of Europe, Polish churches are alive with people practicing their faith. Respectful tourists are welcome. Some come to worship and others to remember leading figures in Polish history, such as Kazimierz the Great.
If you're going to remember one Polish King, remember Kazimierz the Great, who ruled Poland from Kraków in the 14th century. Kazimierz was one of those larger-than-life medieval kings who left his mark on all fronts. He was a great warrior, diplomat, patron of the arts and womanizer.
His scribes bragged Kazimierz found Poland made of wood and left it made of brick and stone — he even made it onto the fifty zloty note.
Most of all, Kazimierz is remembered as a tolerant and progressive king. In the 14th century, when other nations were deporting Jews, King Kazimierz actively welcomed them. He granted Jews special banking and trading privileges and began a long-lived tradition of Poland being a safe haven for Jews in Europe.
The neighborhood of Kazimierz, named for the king, was a thriving and autonomous Jewish community for centuries when most of the world's Jews lived here. In the 1930s, a quarter of Kraków's population was Jewish.
While few Jews actually still live here, the spirit of the Jewish tradition survives. Perhaps the best way to enjoy that is at a Klezmer dinner concert. Several restaurants offer Jewish music from 19th-century Poland with their traditional cuisine. As Polish and Jewish culture mingled here for so many centuries, it's hard to distinguish between Jewish and Polish cuisine. But with ambience like this, it's clear the Jewish heritage here is a rich one.
While Poles and Jews managed to live together relatively well, the story became a nightmare with the rise of Nazism in the 1930s. This thriving Jewish community — like most in Europe — was decimated during the Holocaust.
The fragile remains of the community, historic exhibits and its synagogues provide a meditative look at how the town was walled in and its residents eventually shipped off to nearby concentration camps. Ultimately less then 10 percent of Kraków's Jews survived the war and the death camps.
The Jewish cemeteries of Kazimierz were defiled by the Germans, bulldozed by Nazi tanks. Headstones — broken under tank treads — now create a moving mosaic wall and Holocaust monument.
But the most powerful Holocaust monument — I think in all of Europe — is the concentration camp at Auschwitz, an hour's drive from Kraków.
Auschwitz was the biggest and most notorious concentration camp in the Nazi system. Seeing the camp can be difficult. But Auschwitz victims and their families want tourists to come here to experience the scale and the monstrosity of the place in human terms, in the hope that the Holocaust will never be forgotten.
The Nazis turned this army base into a death camp. They murdered over 4 million European Jews in Poland. Over a million people — the vast majority of them Jews — were systematically exterminated here at Auschwitz. The notorious gate welcomed inmates with a cruel lie: "Arbeit Macht Frei"...work will set you free.
Former cellblocks tell the story. People were told they'd be starting new lives and to bring luggage, clearly labeled with their names. After they were killed, everything of value was sorted and warehoused. Eyeglasses evoke how individuality was trashed; crutches and prosthetic limbs remind us that the first people exterminated were mentally and physically ill German citizens; children's clothing...the Nazis spared no one. And a seemingly endless mountain of shoes — its hard to comprehend the numbers.
Halls are lined with photographs of victims, each marked with dates of arrival and dates of death. Inmates rarely survived more than a couple of months.
The crematorium is marked by its chimney. Up to 700 people at a time could be gassed. But it required two days to burn that many bodies here. The Nazis didn't like this inefficiency, so they built a far bigger camp two miles away.
Auschwitz II or Birkenau was a vast factory of death holding 100,000 people. A few buildings survive. Train tracks lead efficiently past the main building, into the camp and to the dividing platform.
A Nazi doctor stood here and evaluated each prisoner as they stepped off the train. If he pointed the right, the prisoner marched — unknowingly — directly to the gas chamber. If he pointed to the left, the person was strong enough to work and would live a little longer. It was here that families from all over Europe were torn apart forever.
Up to a thousand were packed into each of these buildings. Each inmate had an ID number, a barrack number and a bed number. Two chimneys connected by a brick duct provided a little heat.
The bricks are worn smooth by inmates who sat here to catch a little warmth. I can't imagine how cold they must have been — here in the bitter Polish winter...wet, hungry and dressed in rags.
The Germans bombed the sprawling gassing and cremation facilities as they retreated. The ruins stand as a memorial. The gas chambers — where the mass killing was done — were disguised as showers. People were given hooks to hang their clothes on — conned into thinking they were coming back. (Nazis didn't want a panic.) Then the inmates piled into the "shower room". At Birkenau, the Nazis gassed and cremated over 4,000 people per day.
The camp monument represents gravestones and the chimney of a crematorium. Plaques — in each of the languages spoken by camp victims — explain the purpose of this memorial.
The memorial reads "a cry of despair and a warning to humanity." Since liberation day in 1945, millions have visited this place. Hopefully they take away a determination to learn from the Holocaust and never let it be repeated.
Driving through the countryside back to Kraków refreshes travelers with a look at today's peaceful, rural Poland. Few visitors take time to see the countryside. Stop the car...get out...enjoy an intimate look at Poland's welcoming country life.
The small houses are traditionally used by three generations at the same time. Nineteenth century houses — the few that survive — often sport colorful stripes. Back then, parents announced that their daughters were now eligible by getting out the paint. Once they saw these blue lines, village boys were welcome to come a courtin'.
The remarkable Wieliczka Salt Mine just outside of Kraków has been producing salt for eight centuries. Today it's busy not with miners, but with tourists.
After descending 200 feet below the surface, you follow your guide on a mile long downhill stroll getting a memorable peek at life in the mine. It's vast: nine levels, 1000 feet deep, over a hundred miles of tunnels. For century's generations of Wieliczka miners spent their daylight hours underground, rarely seeing the sun.
Proud miners carved figures of great Poles out of the salt. You'll see legends from the days of King Kazimierz, when one-third of Poland's income came from these precious deposits...the famous astronomer Copernicus...and even the region's favorite son, Pope John Paul II.
Guide: The total number of chapels in the mine is over 20. This is the oldest chapel in this part of the mine, Saint Anthony's Chapel from the 17th century. Everything here is made of salt — even the chandelier is salt crystal. Visitors expect the salt to be white, but its black, but it's salt. If you don't trust me, you can taste it. And salt preserves everything. Take me for example — I'm 65 years old and I'm still fresh, still young.
The mine's enormous underground church, carved in the early 20th century, is still used for Mass. Everything here, including the altar and grand chandelier is hewn from this underworld of salt.
When the tour's over, a small but industrial-strength lift beams you up.
Back in Kraków, cap your day in one of the town's many Jazz clubs. Like much of Poland, Kraków, pulses with cool jazz nightly. Back in the 1950s, Janusz Muniak was one of the original Polish jazzmen. Now he owns the Jazz Club U Muniaka and jams regularly here in a mellow cellar.
After a three-hour train ride from Kraków, we arrive in Warsaw.
Warsaw — pronounced "var-sha-va" in Polish — is Poland's capital and biggest city. Its outskirts sprawl with communist-built apartment blocks. Downtown has a Gotham City ambiance, with busy boulevards, expansive squares and blocky buildings.
The Palace of Culture and Science — Poland's tallest building at over 700 feet — is a Warsaw landmark. It was a "gift" from Stalin in the 1950s that the people of Warsaw couldn't refuse. Because it was to be "Soviet in substance and Polish in style," Soviet architects actually toured Poland to absorb the local culture before starting the project. To show their gratitude, the people of Warsaw nicknamed it "Stalin's penis."
And nestled in the center of all this utilitarian concrete are plenty of urban charms. Warsaw's Royal Way — a mostly buses and taxis-only shopping boulevard — is a local favorite for strolling and browsing, and ultimately leads you to Warsaw's historic Old Town.
The castle long served as a royal palace. Sigismund III — the great king who moved Poland's capital from Kraków to Warsaw in 1596 — stands overseeing everything and the city's legendary mermaid welcomes friends while keeping out foes.
The grand city of Warsaw experienced more than its share of hardships in the last century. As with the rest of Poland, the real tragedies come with the Nazis and WWII. During the Nazi occupation there were two heroic uprisings. First, the Jewish Ghetto Uprising. Then, about a year later, the entire city rose up against the Nazis in the Warsaw Uprising.
Several powerful museums are dedicated to telling the story. By the 1930s, Warsaw, with 350,000 Jews, was one of the largest Jewish cities in the world. The Nazis arrived in 1939. They crammed Warsaw's Jews into a single neighborhood and surrounded it with a wall. As more Jewish people were moved in from the countryside, Warsaw's ghetto was soon the miserable home of well over a million people.
By 1942, half of the Jews in the ghetto had died of disease and starvation. The Nazis began moving Jews at the rate of 5,000 a day into death camps like Auschwitz. The ghetto's population was down to about 60,000 when those that remained realized that they would die even if they did nothing, so they decided to stage an uprising.
Hopelessly outgunned by the Nazis, the uprising was crushed, the ghetto was demolished and its residents were killed.
Because of the ferocity of Nazi hatred, nothing remains of the ghetto except the street plan and the heroic spirit of the people who once lived here. Ghetto Heroes Square — now surrounded by bland Soviet-style apartment blocks — marks the heart of what was the Jewish ghetto. The monument commemorates those who fought and died "for the dignity and freedom of the Jewish Nation, for a free Poland and for the liberation of humankind."
About a year later, the rest of the city staged another ill-fated uprising, the Warsaw Uprising. By 1944, as the Soviet Army drew near, it was becoming clear that the Nazis' days in Warsaw were numbered. With the expectation of help from Soviet tanks, which were gathering just across the river, it seemed like the right time to attack.
This monument recalls the 50,000 Polish resistance fighters — the biggest underground army in military history — who launched a surprise attack on their Nazi oppressors. They poured out of the sewers and caught the Nazis off-guard, initially having great success. It was rifles, knives and Molotov cocktails against air force, tanks and artillery as they battled courageously for 63 days.
But the Nazis regrouped and brutally put down the Warsaw Uprising. A quarter of a million Poles were killed.
Through all of this, the Soviets sat here, across the river. They watched and waited. As the smoke cleared and the Nazis retreated, the Red Army marched in and claimed the pile of rubble that was once Warsaw.
To me, the thriving city itself is the best memorial to those Warsaw heroes. Today, as you explore, it's hard to imagine that by 1945 nearly two-thirds of the city's prewar population was dead and not a building was standing in Warsaw's "Old" Town. Virtually everything you see is rebuilt.
Before the war, Warsaw's Old Town Square was one of the most happening spots in Central Europe. And today even the higgledy-piggledy charm of the buildings has been painstakingly restored. The colorful architecture reminds locals and tourists alike of the prewar glory of the Polish capital.
The old town's many restaurants provide a good introduction to Polish cuisine...and central to that is vodka.
Vodka, after it's chilled properly, pours thickly into the glass. We're having some traditional Polish dishes that go well with vodka: herring, cold cuts, Polish pickles and steak tartare.
Rick: So has vodka long been part of Polish tradition.
Kaisa: Yes it's a traditional Polish drink and actually it makes a lot of sense. In the old days, when the winters were long and very cold, we needed it. It was our warm-up. It was essential to survive this harsh climate. Do you know how to drink Vodka?
Rick: Show me.
Kaisa: OK, first of all, Na zdrowie (toast).
Rick: Strong! Now what?
Kaisa: You can chase it.
Rick: Oh my! Why don't you sip it? It's like...wow!
Kaisa: What a question. So it hurts only once.
Rick: It hurts only once, that's for sure.
Warsaw's huge, idyllic Lazienki Park is sprinkled with neoclassical buildings, peacocks and young Poles in love. It was built in the 18th century by Poland's very last king — King Poniatowski, who wanted it both for his own summer residence...his striking Palace on the Water — and as a place for his citizens to relax.
A monument to Frederick Chopin, Poland's great romantic composer graces the Park's rose garden. Chopin sits under a wind-blown willow tree. He spent his last years in Paris, where he wrote most of his greatest music. But locals cherish the thought that Chopin's inspiration came from memories of wind blowing through the willow trees of his native land — Poland.
The resilience of Poland's culture and the warmth of its people inspire me. And learning from this country's recent past, I'm reminded that we have much to be thankful for and much to be vigilant against. Travel engages me with our world and it helps me feel fully alive. That's why I like it. Thanks for joining us. I'm Rick Steves. Until next time...keep on travelin'.
See more travel details for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick's guidebooks.