Krakow had much the same charm as Warsaw, but more. The city had medieval styled walls that surrounded the Old Town, with a beautiful green park circling it. We walked through the sturdy red walls each morning into a vibrant city center. White, speckled horses click-clacked through the square, shaking their heads as their driver blew his shrill whistle to alert pedestrians to make way. Accordion players billowed mournful sounding Polish songs from street corners while yet others 150 meters opposite them played modern upbeat melodies.
In the Old Town square, the St. Mary’s Cathedral towers above the cobblestones. I have seen a number of churches, basilicas, and cathedrals in Europe, but this one was unique. As I entered the cathedral, something drew my eyes above. Swathes of blue speckled with gold adorned the ceiling, a color I had never encountered before in a church. Later, Hannah and I figured that this was likely due to the connection with the Virgin Mary, who is often depicted in blue. In Eastern Europe, Orthodox churches typically had intimate dark greens and yellows, while this Polish church felt much more open.
We took a day trip to visit the Unesco site of the Wielizck Salt Mines. Historically, salt was incredibly valuable as it was the only way to preserve food for any manner of time. As time went on, it became less economically viable for Poland to continue mining it as desalination of ocean water soon proved to be lest costly and more efficient. They now provide tours, instead. The salt mine is so expansive that the Eiffel Tower could comfortable fit inside it. Our guide also explained we saw only 1% of the mine, and that it would take 4 months to navigate the entire mine. It houses its own cathedral, with the likeness of religious figures carved entirely in salt by miners through the years. Pope John Paul II said mass in this underground cathedral at one time. The mine was a feat of engineering to behold and I would recommend anyone visiting Krakow take the time to visit.
On our last day we set off through the town for one last taste of Krakow and traverse the familiar paths from the previous days. We found ourselves aside the Vistula River, next to the Wawel Castle. To our surprise, very large crowds of people were winding their way through tents and carts of different vendors. Families balanced hand fulls of Polish beer, pierogis, kielbasa, and sugar-coated waffles as they tried to secure a soft patch of dry grass. We joined in the local fun and watched the sun shimmer off the river while sharing a beer and waffle. On our last lap of the city, there was an experience that will forever resonate with me.
As we slowly made our way back from the Krakow Leaky Cauldron (yep, you read that right HP fans!), we heard the low growing rumble of males chanting. Normally, I liken this sound to a soccer game, but often know even those can break into violence or riots in some countries. We slowly crept closer, carefully assessing why the crowd was gathered around the sound.
A group of young Jewish men in yamakas were loudly chanting traditional Jewish music in a large circle while dancing, including pushing around a young man in a wheelchair, who was gleefully laughing and thrilled to be involved. In the middle of the circle was one of their peers, playing a simple melody on his guitar, while the chanting nearly drowned him out. It was peaceful, inclusive, and beautiful.
That same morning was the Walk of Survivors at Auschwitz, one of the largest Nazi concentration camps, which is located outside Krakow. As time passes, the participants wane as the survivors have aged. The reality is, that young man in his wheelchair and the chanting crowd would have all likely been interned just 75 years ago. But that evening, they celebrated their freedom and religious heritage just like their ancestors did that morning, but in their own way.
We took a train departing at 10PM from Krakow to Berlin. Darkness enveloped our cabin while young travelers loudly talked and drank cheap beers in the adjacent hallway. A young woman sat on a young man’s lap, both laughing, watching the Polish landscape careen by. I found it difficult to fall asleep that night on the train. As it lurched forward at each station, I could not help but reflect on the uncertain, tragic fate of the Holocaust victims that made the very same or similar journeys from Krakow.