It’s not a contest or a competition, but rather a healthy debate in Poland: Krakow vs. Warsaw. If you only have a limited time in Poland (as I did), which city do you choose (if you have to) – Krakow or Warsaw? Warszawa is more modern in appearance (largely re-built after World War 2) with many newer buildings but Kraków is more historical with the Sukiennice and Wawel and a short trip to the salt mines in Wieliczka.
Krakow has a lot going for it with a warm and comfortable vibe. Krakow is compact compared to the much larger urban sprawl of Warsaw. In Krakow, you can take a short walk almost anywhere. From the old Jewish quarter; to the Market Square; to the shadow of Wawel Castle and beyond. There’s a great range of bars, restaurants, and music venues. Food choice includes everything you find throughout Europe including Thai, Italian, French, Russian, Hungarian and, of course, Polish. Kogel Mogel, Szara, Morskie Oko are among the many very good Polish restaurants. Museums to visit include the National Museum (21 branches in Krakow), the gallery of 19th- century Polish art and the Schindler Factory museum on the original premises. There’s also the Wieliczka Salt Mine and a short drive to Auschwitz (see my Auschwitz post- Poland: My Visit to Auschwitz).
The “new” Warsaw is the greenest city in Poland. With over 80% of Warsaw destroyed in World War 2, city planners had a chance to modernize the city. The city gained new squares, parks and monuments. In Warsaw, you can explore the Old Town (reconstructed after the war) and the Royal Route to the baroque Wilanow Palace. Warsaw has several newer museums including the Chopin Museum, Copernicus Science Centre and the Warsaw Rising Museum – all worth a visit. The much anticipated Museum of the History of Polish Jews has been built on the grounds of the Warsaw Ghetto. The city centre is a modern downtown area with glass buildings and a newer subway system. Warsaw is an eclectic mixture of history, culture, a communist past and modern business.
Poland: Krakow or Warsaw
I hate to choose. Do you like red wine or white wine? Black or white? I like both. It depends. Although Warsaw is the capital of Poland, Krakow is probably the country’s favourite city. They are different and for many different reasons. I choose not to choose. The truth is…I’ll go back to both Krakow and Warsaw.
I was both looking forward to and dreading my visit to Auschwitz. I could barely sleep the night before, not from excitement but from anxiety, intense dreams and nightmares. Ironically, this was by far the nicest day weather-wise on my short trip to Poland. This day was Sunday November 11th. In my home country (Canada), it’s Remembrance Day and in Poland, it’s Independence Day. Auschwitz is actually a small town in Poland that had a small army camp on the outskirts of town. That camp was taken over by the invading Nazis in early World War 2 and became a prisoner and death camp.
Walking through the camp gates at Auschwitz 1 felt very strange. Surreal and peaceful in a way. The guided tour was packed with information, statistics and facts that you just can’t get walking on your own (or imagine). Our group weaved our way through the grounds and various barracks each hosting different aspects of the memorial and exhibit. There are pictures of prisoners (before they stopped taking pictures and began using number tattoos), prisoner cards, Nazi letters, camp photographs, uniforms, artifacts, etc. Seeing some of the actual shoes was troubling. Seeing the hair cut from prisoners was numbing (and I couldn’t take a picture).
The Medical Building #10 where the infamous Dr. Josef Mengele performed his human experiments was unfathomable as was the tour of the torture chamber in the basement of Building #11. Directly outside of the torture barracks is the infamous Firing Squad Wall. I was now numb and teary eyed. But there was more. Following our guide across the camp. we walked into and through Gas Chamber #1 and the Crematorium.
But this was only Part 1 of the tour because Auschwitz II – Berkenau was next. Berkenau is 5 times the size of Auschwitz 1 and the place where 10 times the number of people were killed. Auschwitz 1 barracks were luxury by comparison to the horse barns that posed as barracks at Berkenau. This was a death factory. If you were young and fit, you worked at nearby factories and farms until you died. If you were a child, woman, or weren’t fit, you were killed shortly after your arrival (to make room for the next prisoners coming).
It’s hard to fathom the events that took place here. I wonder how anyone who came through the gates could have had a single positive thought or found any hope while here. This was sheer terror and evil rolled into one. Auschwitz was definitely not on my bucket list. It’s frankly easier not to go to. The story it tells is just unimaginable. It’s disturbing as it should be. And unforgettable as it should be.