When one comes across the country of Poland, it does not surprise us that not many can come up with any famed landmark or attraction. Because to us it is not well known nor advertised. A pity that is since many would be even more surprised to know the rich heritage and glorious past that the Polish people call an inheritance!
Yes, Poland was at a time in the early renaissance era an empire, covering all of the modern country’s borders but well beyond into present day Russia and parts of Germany too. But it sank into a decline that led to its partition by its neighbors in the 1700s. But throughout this time the Polish people retained their identity to re-establish their country after the end of WWI.
We came to this fascinating country in 2001 when it was in the early throes of embracing capitalism in a big way. And because it was a coach tour, we did not do much off the ‘beaten track’ sights, since our tour brought us to a set itinerary. However it was already a very good preview of what more we can see.
So rather than a story per se, this is a rubdown on the cities that we touched as we blazed through the country.
The first city that we visited in Poland would be Poznan. You see, we had come over from Germany having left Berlin in the wee hours of the morning. Part of the reason was the time it might take to clear customs (yep this was before the EU extended eastwards) and fortunately for our coach there were no holdups. It was also a fortuitous time as our little red dot had barely concluded visa-free entry of our bright red passport into a number of Eastern European nations… just a couple of months before our journey.
Today the city has a large industrial base due to its proximity to Germany, but like Warsaw it too was totally destroyed by the war. We stopped over only for a short while in the old town square where a large community of painters was gathered. Much of this old area are restorations, including the city hall.
More time however, was to be reserved for the capital and
Once again when we visited the center of old Warsaw, we were told that all of the buildings in the city center were rebuilt after WWII. The city was completely destroyed with not a single building left intact according to our local guide. Such was the carnage of the war that carried off a fifth of the country’s population.
Today (ok back then), the center was bustling with traditional shops hawking anything from branded goods to jewelry shops selling amber trinkets. It is good to remember that the Baltic sea and its surroundings are a good source of this fossilized tree sap. The only thing was, barely three years after our journey, when Mel returned on a business trip in 2004 it had all transformed. All these shops were gone. Only to be replaced with the large chain stores. That’s globalization for you…
Known before WWII as the Paris of the East, it underwent a huge restoration effort that was pinpointed down to historical detail. Such as the old town walls that used to protect the medieval city. And in the summer the old center is turned into an art haven. It felt like being in Paris with the artists belting out works of art or making caricatures of tourists who wished to be satirized. And we are sure you know who Frederic Chopin is. For while he wrote compositions mainly for the piano, he is nevertheless famed. There is a park in the city dedicated to this world renown son of Warsaw.
But the prized stop for us was the palace of Wilanow. The baroque style palace was constructed for the wife of King Jan III Sobieski in the 1680s after his victory over the Turks in Vienna. Jan III Sobieski is known as a warrior king who lifted the siege on Vienna by defeating the Turks in 1683. He beat them back from the region and prevented further incursions. In fact that could be considered to be one of the turning points of history because barely 100 years earlier the Ottomans were on the brink of breaking through central Europe.
Today the palace is museum, but unfortunately most of the treasures are long stripped away by foreign powers that “carved” Poland up and absorbed them. Nonetheless, the palace is an indicator of the wealth of the country at the height of its power. Poland has “moved” since the last 200 years. Before its partition in the 18th Century, Poland was a commonwealth with Lithuania and had territories further to the east – where Belarus and part of the Ukraine now are.
The history of Poland for the last 200 years had been one of war and oppression. Subjected by stronger powers of the time (Austria, Prussia and Russia), the country was partitioned three times. These stronger neighbors took advantage of the disunity of the Poles to slice up their territories. Thus for almost 200 years, Poland did not exist as a country!
We got to Krakow after a brief stop at the 14th century Paulite monastery in Jasna Gora which houses a black Madonna. The site was very crowded with pilgrims who had traveled all the way to be part of the services in the cathedral. Solemn the crowd was and we quietly took our place to see her.
Located in southern Poland, the city was left largely unscathed by WWII. Its many monuments and medieval structures are a testament to the past glory of the Polish nation. It was the capital of the Polish state until Vasa Kings moved it to Warsaw in the 1500s. Did you know of the legend of Krak the dragon? When it died, its bones were said to have given rise to the city. And today there is a metallic “dragon” at the base of Wavel hill that spits out fire. Some tourist trap indeed!
In addition to monuments, the city also boasts of the oldest university in the country. It is also considered the cultural center of the country. The royal palace on Wavel hill still has elements of its 11th century origins if one looked closely. Its gold gilded dome stands out radiantly in this palace where many a Polish King were crowned and quite some are interred. As we said it was good fortune this royal district was not badly bombed during WWII and thus most of what we saw were originals rather than restorations.
No visit to the city is complete without standing in the town square with many others to listen to the call of the clock tower trumpeter. The old clock tower in Krakow comes alive each hour with the tune of the trumpeter. He stops abruptly and many had wondered why this is the case. This tradition is derived to honor the trumpeter who was allegedly shot dead by Mongols in the 13th century while he attempted to warn the city of their approach. Who shot him? Well it was said to be the Mongols, though we do not know the range of arrows exceeding 200m. So that’s some story. Anyway.
Fortunately for Europe, the Mongols stopped short of this part of Poland and turned back as their great Khan died. The marauding tribes decided to return home to participate in the voting of the next Khan and they did not come back. Phew!
Wieliczka salt mines, located 10 miles southeast of Krakow is one of Poland’s best-known tourist attraction at the time of our tour. Well-preserved mining chambers and traditional mining tools and machines are on display as you descend into the depths of the mine.
Parts of the salt mine – were decorated by the miners with sculptures after they were exhausted of mineral. You can see the sculptures of various fairytales such as gnomes and dwarfs. Salt crystals still form on the ceiling and roof of each level of the mine evident as you can see around the chandelier (pictured in the slide show). Over time, these works grew in number to become a large collection worthy of museum status. The mines – 7 levels deep are now defunct and only used as a tourist attraction. There is even a band in the mine that will play a random tune for a small fee.
At the end of the tour, we came to a huge hall that was used in the past as a cathedral (Chapel of the Blessed Kinga). It has a “ceiling” of more than 2 floors high. Awesome! Our guide told us that the underground corridors and chambers of the mine also serves as a magnificent venue for concerts, banquets, conferences, balls and sports. Wouldn’t you like to hold an event here?
And with that, we conclude the Poland segment of our coach tour. We were to drive over the Tatra mountains through Slovakia (here).
Today, Poland is dynamic and rising economic power in Eastern Europe once again. Having lost many years in the Soviet bloc, the country is slowly but surely moving towards being an advanced country. And we will not be surprised that it does so. You will be surprised to see a mix of the old and restored in Poland. This strong people have overcome adversity to begin their rise once again as a major center of culture in the region. Someday perhaps, we can revisit and until then we wait for “Krak” to arise once again.
We toured all over Poland in the summer of 2001 (July)