Europe has little gems hidden away off the beaten tourist path. For most visitors planning a European holiday, the majority make it to the halo-ed streets of Paris, Rome or Zurich. But scratch the surface a little deeper and smaller less glamorous destinations will actually take your breath away. Krakow was a surprise for us. A city known mostly in the London corporate circles as the nearshore outsourcing destination for IT and BPO services, I didn’t know any colleagues or friends who had attempted a holiday in this city. To be honest, I couldn’t remember why we thought of making the trip either. The city was always singing its tune at the back of my head for more than 10 years – a remnant of my utter reverence for Schlinder’s List and the lasting craving it left in me to retrace the steps of the victims of Auschwitz and of Oskar Schindler. Having exhausted the typical ‘touristy’ cities of Europe, we embarked upon our journey to this unconventional destination.
So it was on a cold Easter’s Friday afternoon that we found ourselves taking a flight from Heathrow to Krakow with a stop-over at Schipol. By the time we arrived in Krakow, it was freezing cold and quite late into the night. A small airport coupled with a long taxi ride through deserted roads surrounded by construction sites didn’t do much to raise my hopes of a wonderful city waiting for me to explore. Having coaxed my mind not to jump to hasty conclusions, my first impression of our hotel, carefully chosen by me for its strategic location in the city centre, was an old baroque style building in the middle of a cobbled street surrounded by similar grand buildings. And this was just the beginning of a love affair with possibly one of the most amazing cities in Europe.
The three days we had in Krakow were a revelation of the sheer vibrancy and beauty of the city, the architecture, hidden (literally) pathways and tunnels, its extremely polite and friendly and helpful citizens and definitely the most important of all – its history!
A trip to the salt mines was ethereal. One of the first Unesco World Heritage sites ever, the Polish people take immense pride in that honour. The Wieliczka Salt Mines, in operation for more than 8 centuries, has been converted into an immensely popular museum since the last salt was mined in 2007. The sheer size of the mines could house the city of Krakow in its midst. The massive cavernous halls have hosted several concerts and weddings and it’s hard to imagine you are in the depth of the earth’s core after having descended so many hundreds possibly thousands of steps into the mine.
The centre of Krakow was frankly quite typical of a European city. A huge central square dotted with restaurants and cafes along its sides. What wasn’t so typical was massive ‘souq’ in that square. Yes, a middle eastern style Souq. I guess this was where the middle eastern influence from the days of the Ottoman empire neighbouring the Austro-Hungarian empire, exerted its influence over the eastern European towns and cities. The Wavel Castle and the myriad broad tree-lined pathways crisscrossing the city provided a glimpse of the royals who built this city to its grandeur evidenced through our eyes.
Going back to my original wish to visit Krakow, we set off early for Oświęcim. The city of the famed Auschwitz concentration camp was and still, is called Oświęcim. The Germans named this town Auschwitz and the camp has carried on with that name in order to never forget the German influence upon this town which carved its unwanted place in the history of the Second World War. It was an eerie and sombre mood with which we entered the camp with our guide and the rest of our group. There were Americans, Europeans and even Japanese men and women in our midst and of course, us of Indian origin. The sheer diversity of the group reminded me of the fact that there wasn’t a soul in this world who hasn’t been touched by the history of Nazism and the sad truth of the concentration camps. The city of Oświęcim was chosen by the Nazis for establishing the largest camp for a strategic reason. The image below speaks louder than words and hence I leave it as such.
Two miles away from Auschwitz is Birkeneau. This is where Auschwitz II–Birkenau was established. A camp whose images have been etched in our memories from the many films and history books, it was a sick feeling which engulfed me when I first laid eyes on the watchtowers and the railway line of Birkenau. Here was that reality which we had just read in history books and seen in films right in front of our eyes. It was a sobering moment and moment to reflect on the millions of people who had lost their lives in these camps. And a moment to be thankful for that such catastrophic acts of human atrocities are addressed immediately by the international justice system. The Second World War was a watershed war in the history of mankind which changed the course of events forever and has given rise to so many institutions and communities of harmony which we take for granted today. My fascination with the Second World War, the Auschwitz and other concentration camps and the ultimate triumph of good over evil deserve a complete post in itself.
Possibly one last thought on Auschwitz was the sheer love and pain with which the people of Poland have preserved this camp for posterity. ‘One must never forget’ was the constant rhetoric of our guide as the survivors of the Holocaust are drawing to a natural end of their lives. We took several photographs which are too disturbing to publicise. But this museum will exist for centuries to come to remind the young that atrocities were committed in the name of religion and supremacy. I have lived in Germany and never once associate them immediately with Nazism. This trip to Auschwitz reminded me of the horrors and the darkness of the crimes committed by the German Nazis. Maybe that is the reason why, today, Germany is the one country to have opened its doors and its arms to the Syrian refugees. Assuaging a sense of guilt of the Second World War.
Returning to Krakow, determined to leave behind our sombre mood, we explored the food scene of Poland. A trip into Hard Rock Cafe, a must in every city we visit was uneventful. Although I kept my eyes open for any potential disturbance, conscious that I was in an American bar, a hotbed attraction for terrorist attacks in Europe, having the Paris attacks at the top of my mind. I guess I wasn’t yet able to shake off the sombre mood of Auschwitz. A dinner to sample the not very well advertised Polish cuisine turned out to be quite a grand affair in a rooftop restaurant overlooking the Wavel Castle. A combination of roasted goat’s leg and a baked salmon with a very green crust coupled with some strange sounding drinks did manage to leave an impression, albeit a limited one for a restaurant hardened London-er!
The next two days were spent exploring the city through maps, our favourite pastime even if we have GPS! The Jewish quarter, sampling Indian food, again a must in every European city we visit, and lazing around in the cafes and restaurants of the city.
Fast approaching the end of this wonderful journey in possibly the most surprising of tourist destinations, we couldn’t leave without the fulfilling the original purpose of the visiting Krakow – Schindler. Not aware that the museum was closed for renovations, we headed off after having checked out of our hotel, with just a few hours left for our departure from this city. Sorely disappointed at not being able to enter the building, I devoured what little information was available outside the building on the Schindler Jews and the man himself, Oskar Schindler. Content that I had managed a glimpse of the man who defined humanity in the face of extreme adversity, we prepared for our journey back to London, living a life which has been gifted to us because of the sacrifices of men such as Oskar Schindler. God bless you where ever you are.