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Poland past and present

Nicholas Lim on 12 Aug 2014


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A bustling city with a rich cultural history, Krakow is also a stark reminder of the Holocaust


MANY years had passed since my first visit to Krakow. Judging by the crowds that flocked to see Poland’s second city on my second trip here, it looks like it is now firmly on the sightseeing map, and it is well deserved too.


Old Town
A belt of trees runs around the old town, also known as Stare Miasto in Polish, and crossing this green lung feels like a step back in time. In this Unesco World Heritage Site, you leave behind the modern malls and hotels on the outside and enter a world with mediaeval buildings that look the way they did centuries ago. The city was fortunate to escape major damage during World War II.


The main market square is Europe’s largest, and its vast size comfortably accommodates the bars on its perimeter, the artists who perform daily and the visitors who come to gawk or simply while their time away. The chatter of people and the strains of busking violinists contrast with the stillness of human statues mere metres away. A break-dancing group I saw on my previous visit still performs in front of the cloth hall that stands in the middle of the square, and it still pulls a sizeable crowd.


Even with all this activity going on, one tune continues to turn the heads of newcomers upwards, the hourly hejnal that is trumpeted from the towers of St Mary’s Basilica. It is hard to miss the melody which plays four times, always with the same abrupt ending. The interior of the church, with its high blue ceiling adorned with gold stars and the enormous gothic altarpiece, is a sight to behold. 


Walking down the Royal Way, the street was lined with more buskers and people holding up signs advertising the small museums, tattoo parlours and beer gardens within the buildings. I passed several pretzel stands, saving my appetite for a familiar favourite on Grodzka Street, the Miod Malina. It serves hearty and decadent renditions of traditional Polish favourites like stews, dumplings, pancakes, meat and fish, at prices you wouldn’t expect at a Michelin-listed establishment.


After having my fill, I continued my walk to the end of the Royal Way, where Wawel Royal Castle perched on the hill greeted me. Behind the fortified walls, the gold-topped cathedral, the palace and the ruins formed a beautiful backdrop for two newlywed couples that day. Children on a school trip spoke in hushed tones in the crypt of the cathedral, where they had come to see the final resting place of Poland’s kings, queens and national heroes. 


Legend has it that Lord Shiva scattered seven chakra stones and one landed here. A few people stood near the corner of the courtyard near the entrance of the gallery, leaning against the wall with no intention of going in. I guessed that they had heard about the legend and were trying to feel the energy of the stone.


The castle museum exhibits royal treasures, and due to the ongoing renovation of the Czartoryski Museum, it is also now home to Leonardo da Vinci’s Lady With An Ermine. I was excited to see the painting for the second time. Compared to his Mona Lisa at the Louvre, visitors get more time and space to appreciate this masterpiece, even during the peak tourist season.


Wartime relics
The Wawel Royal Castle overlooks the Vistula river, and on the other bank lies the district of Podgórze, Krakow’s ghetto during the war. This was where Steven Spielberg filmed his award-winning film, Schindler’s List.


I took a tram ride and alighted right next to Ghetto Heroes Square. The empty bronze chairs scattered around are a sombre reminder of the deportations that took place there.


It takes less than 10 minutes to walk to Oskar Schindler’s Enamel Factory, where he employed and housed more than 1,000 Jews to save them from certain death in concentration camps. The building was converted into a museum with interactive exhibits that describe life in wartime Krakow.


Tourists can stand in the spot where Liam Neeson, who played Schindler’s character, sends away a Jewish girl, or walk around the reconstruction of Schindler’s office and view the names of “Schindler Jews” on an installation. The factory stands as a powerful witness to man’s capacity for both altruism and evil.


As the sun set on my way back to the old town, the bars and cellars were lit up and the music grew louder. In the main square, street vendors launched illuminated toys towards the sky. This city still creates new pleasant memories and fresh surprises for a repeat visitor, and in my mind I was already planning to return again.


Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.

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