And so to our final destination of Krakow in South Eastern Poland. Krakow is considered to be the cultural capital of Poland, and has been a city of significance long before the country of Poland even came into existence. Its beautiful central square at the heart of the city is flanked by large old town houses and there is a large covered market in the centre of the the square. Krakow is a very compact city and most of its interesting areas are within easy walking distance of the main square. Upon arriving we walked down through its winding streets to the edge of the river where the Wewel Royal Castle sits atop a large hill overlooking the rest of the city. Having been through successive rounds of modifications and enhancements through the ages it now presents as an odd looking patchwork of architectural styles. This doesn’t diminish from its impressive stature and rightly deserves its place overlooking the city. In the afternoon we headed out to an area know as Podgorze. It was the site of the Jewish ghetto setup by the Nazis into which all of the Krakow’s Jews were moved in 1941. 15,000 Jews were crammed into an area which originally housed just 3,000. In what was once a small square in the centre of the ghetto, there is an unusual memorial of a series of chairs. The chairs are said to have been left there, piled high with the belongings of residents of the ghetto after the ghetto was liquidated and its inhabitants sent to Auschwitz. The square is now flanked on one side by a very busy road but somehow maintains an eerie calm.
A trip to Krakow is not complete without a visit to one of important sites in human history, Auschwitz-Birkenau. It’s importance transcends all types of travel be it backpacking around Europe or an over 50′s coach tour. Every tour operator in the city offer trips, often at the top of their billing. It almost seems as if Krakow is looking increasingly westwards in its political and cultural life but always maintains an eye on its history, which is certainly to its credit. All too often I’ve seen places become soulless urban sprawls devoid of any history they once had. The trip to Auschwitz takes almost a day, but it is a day well spent. It’s not a place to go to be entertained, more a place to go to be reminded of the sacrifices of others and to have your numerous privileges put into context. It’s one of the few places in the world that I would go beyond just suggesting a visit to, and instead insist on.
The final day of the trip was to Wieliczka Salt Mine. It’s one of the oldest salt mines in the world, records showing its existence as early as the 13th century. It only stopped mining table salt in 2007. The many passage ways and large caverns contain intricate statues and sculptures carved out of the salt. The section of the mine covered by visitors is around 2.5km, which amazingly is less than 1% of the entire mine shaft system. The whole two week trip was a good change of pace from my usual travel destinations, certainly more developed places – but equally as enthralling. As for my travel companions the state of their bank balances and urgency of their stories means I’m fairly certain their first ever backpacking trip was a success.