WARSAW vs. KRAKOW: Opt for the Cash Cow
By Carol L. Bowman
This is a tale of two Polish cities: the country’s present capital, Warsaw, and the medieval center of government until 1596 A.D., Krakow. They’re as different as the negative and positive poles of a magnetic field.
Warsaw left me feeling empty and wanting, as grey skies, constant drizzle, and an early May raw chill gnawed into my bones. Fifty years had passed since the Nazis had systematically destroyed 85% of the city, blew up centuries-old buildings, irreplaceable architecture, heritage and culture and exterminated 20% of its population. Yet, a sense that, “it just recently happened” hangs over the city like a blanket of morning fog.
The phrases, ‘Second World War, Warsaw Uprising, Jewish Ghetto and Communist Take-over’ persist. One hears them over and over while wandering through various museums that chronicle the multiple foreign occupations, horrors and devastations Warsaw and its people have suffered. City tour companies have few options. Our guide stopped by a 3x5 foot fragment of an original brick wall to proclaim that “this” was the train station where the Polish Jews boarded enroute to concentration camps. Seeing ‘What’s not there’, produced a profound emotional impact.
Most obvious in the “Old City Sector,” ironically every building has been constructed within the last 15 years. The attempt to replicate ancient structures that lined the cobblestone, pre-1939 streets, unfolded as we entered the large plaza surrounded by outdoor cafes. Although the efforts to authenticate reconstruction must be applauded, for me, a make-believe Disney World village resembling a movie set resulted. Rebuilt to appear old, it looks like what it is- an imitation town.
The people carry an invisible heaviness, even hanging from the young Poles who never experienced the atrocities and the denial of freedom. Could the past’s darkness be creating a pessimistic view of the future? Is tragedy anticipated to strike again? I can’t remember hearing laughter in Warsaw. The wounds run deep and the scars endure. Tourists become swept up in their mantra: ‘Never forget what happened here.’
I welcomed moving on to Krakow, the oldest city in Poland. It escaped the World War II bombing raids, original Renaissance, Gothic and Baroque architecture remained intact and 20th Century generations were spared the physical destruction of their city. After 1939, the Nazis turned the city into the Capital of the General Government. With Auschwitz/Birkenau camps a short distance from central Krakow, SS officers took up residence in area mansions, giving the Germans reason to save the city from pillage.
Positive energy flowed and the sun beamed as we neared Krakow. Walkers sauntered along, non-traditional bikers, business suited men and smartly dressed women in heels, briefcases slung over the handlebars, rode to and from and customers sipped cappuccino at sidewalk cafes, as early 20th Century refurbished street cars clanged by. I couldn’t wait to be a part of this idyllic scene.
It’s the ‘Pope’s town’ after all and Pope John Paul II had just been beatified a week before our arrival. I anticipated an uplifted and proud populace. Krakow, Eastern Europe’s Cash Cow, which entertains over seven million European and international visitors a year, beckoned us to get crackin.’
With 6000 historic sites emanating from the Main Market Square of the medieval Old Town and over two million works of art on display, we hit the streets immediately for our tourist work-out. Krakow grew from a Stone Age settlement in the 7th Century to a World Heritage UNESCO site, and has been named the official European Capital of Culture.
With much of the historic center auto free, for six hours, we walked, explored, marveled and enjoyed the delights of Krakow. Every block another ‘must see’ sprang into view: Cloth Hall, the oldest shopping center from 1555, St. Mary’s Basilica and tower from where a trumpeter announced the passing of every hour, Wawel Castle, where most of the Polish Kings are buried and the float of European river cruisers down the Vistula River.
Mid-point, we rejuvenated famished stomachs with Polish home cooking at a local ‘Milk Bar’. These cafeterias, known for their comfort food at ridiculously cheap prices are trendy with college students, locals and tourists who know where to find them. A government subsidized, Communist era enterprise, these establishments provided the local people with an economical place for dining. They were so popular, after the Communists left, the Milk Bars stayed.
We ended our self guided exploration of Krakow, sipping hot, mint dark chocolate that tasted like a melted Hershey bar, at a sweet café on the square. Totally sated, we understood why Krakow is Poland’s Cash Cow and why Warsaw isn’t.