Travel provides a unique opportunity to enjoy history by experiencing it up close. Certainly you learn a lot while traveling, but perhaps more significant is how what you already know makes traveling so much more enjoyable. Having background knowledge of the events and forces that have shaped the history of a place, or even doing some last-minute reading goes a long way in making visits to new places highly rewarding. What you already know allows you to take in the new things you see in a way that creates meaning from them, and make connections. Rather than merely looking at buildings or places that are supposed to be important, you’re struck by the realization that this is where certain monumental events took place. You can almost imagine the people, be they famous or nameless, drifting about the space.
I recently went to Kraków, Poland, with the main purpose of visiting the Auschwitz concentration camp. I also had the chance to spend a lot of time in Kraków itself, particularly in the Old Town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The city was the capital of Poland until the seventeenth century. Its central square is said to be one of the largest in Europe, and lived up to all my expectations.
First of all, the architecture, similar to what can be found in many other important European cities, was very elegant and also quite colorful. One of the most prominent features of the city center is St. Mary’s Basilica, which possesses two asymmetrical towers. Legend has it that this is due to the fact that they were built by two brothers, who were rivals. It was interesting to speculate on the relationship between the brothers just by looking at the towers, as one has a crown-like structure on top and is much taller. There’s also a trumpeter who plays every hour atop the taller tower, to commemorate the trumpeter who died while warning the city of a Mongol attack.
The Cloth Hall in the center of the city square is another feature worth mentioning. It’s comparable to the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul; however, it covers a much smaller area, and is just one long hall. Nonetheless, it was a prominent center of trade where merchants from far and wide would conduct business. While the external features of the hall are somewhat more memorable than those of the Grand Bazaar, the interior is less crowded and appears somewhat hollow. In my opinion, this steals from what makes such an environment memorable and distinct: the mingling of smells, the voices of salespeople and the extremely diverse blend of commodities sold. Admittedly, what I’m describing is more Oriental than Western, but I can’t help but think that such environments are more readily found in the East than in the West.
Wawel Castle was also a touristic highlight of our visit. It was built as a relatively well-fortified castle on the bank of the Vistula River. The interior is richly ornamented, and the view from the walls is stunning (it’s now the background on my phone). There’s also a statue representing a dragon from Polish mythology situated outside the walls, and it breathes fire if you send an SMS to a certain number.
For those interested in art, I should note that we also got to see Leonardo Da Vinci’s “Lady With an Ermine.” If one of my friends hadn’t pointed it out, we would have missed it, as Poland was not high up on the list of places where I would have expected to find such a painting. It turns out that after having been lost for three centuries, the painting appeared in Poland with no explanation.
Kraków was truly a fascinating city, especially to me as I both love the time period during which it was most important, and have a special interest in the history of the nation that ruled over it. In addition, having the chance to see Auschwitz was very moving, and I’ll be dedicating a separate piece entirely to that.