27 April 2008

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My first trip to Poland but, I suspect, not my last.

Krakow was, quite simply, wonderful. Beautifully elegant, easily accessible, friendly. And with bloody good food!

I'm sure it didn't hurt that we were staying in a 5 star hotel, which was highly conveniently placed for the amazing Rynek Glowny (Market Square), the largest medieval square in Europe and which is the heart of Krakow - it's the centre around which all other streets revolve. We were also close to Wawel Castle (the epicentre of Polish heritage), and within easy walking reach of Kazimierz, the historic Jewish district and where Spielberg filmed Schindler's List. Actually, the whole of Old Town Krakow is within easy walking distance and is best experienced on foot.

As for the food, well thankfully the old, dull days of the Communist bloc are a dim, distant memory. Nowadays Krakow has a very lively food scene, ranging from traditional Polish cuisine (which was delicious), and Jewish food (ditto), to modern fusion cooking, or Italian, or Greek, or Chinese, or French, or, well, pretty much anything you could ask for. There were even a couple of McDonalds, but so far Krakow remains unsullied by any other fast food chain. It was also pretty cheap, even taking into account the exchange rate *winces*. The Polish zloty is tied to the Euro, so sterling buys about 17% less than a year ago. My guidebooks suggested that the Polish standard of service was erratic at best but I certainly didn't find it to be so. Service was uniformly excellent, prompt, efficient and friendly. It may be that a couple of years ago the Poles hadn't quite mastered the nuances of good service but they definitely have now.

I was interested to observe the nationality of visitors. The largest contingent was definitely British (perhaps spurred by curiosity, as so many Polish workers have come to Britain in recent years), although there was a fair sprinkling of Americans. There was a small (very small) horde of Japanese, and I heard a fair few French and Italians. Plus a few Germans. In old Krakow pretty much everyone speaks at least a bit of English (it was the lingua franca of international discourse) and at all the tourist sites everything was in both Polish and English. It's obvious that the Poles are trying hard to forget their Russian and replace it with English instead. Great for me, especially as Polish is a pretty difficult language to pronounce.

Outside of Krakow we visited The Wieliczka salt mine, which is the oldest working mine in the world (dating back to the 10th or 12 century, depending on which story you believe). And, yes, okay some of the carvings are a bit kitsch, but, oh my God, some of the chapels, especially the largest, the Chapel of St Kinga, were amazing. Everything inside, including the chandeliers, are made out of salt.

Where else? Auschwitz-Birkenau. I'm glad that I went, even though the more I think about it, the more angry and tearful I become. Because I knew, you see, how the inmates were treated, both at the work camp of Auschwitz and the death camp of Birkenau. I've seen documentaries, viewed the footage of the mounds of human hair, the shoes, the spectacles. But knowing and seeing are two very different things. Their treatment was so horrible that there are no words. I remain haunted by the photographs of inmates lining the walls of one of the buildings. On each photograph is the date of arrival and the date of death. The average is no more than 6 months and for women considerably less (about a month). And these are the people who weren't sent straight to the gas chambers, the 20% or so who were 'fit to work'. And so they were worked to death instead. Not one person in any of the photographs survived.

There were a lot of visitors there. Which I think bodes well - the more people who visit the less we are tempted to forget. Again, the largest contingent of non-Polish (there were quite a lot of school trips) were the British, which isn't unusual according to my guide. There was also a large group of Israelis, praying for the murdered.

If you ever go to Krakow, and if you can face it do go to Auschwitz-Birkenau . I don't think you'll regret it.

And I know that you won't regret visiting Krakow. Honestly, I enjoyed it so much more than Prague, and I gather that it compares very favourably with Budapest, too. Krakow. The jewel of Poland.


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