It became commonplace to see surprise, concern and even amazement on the faces of those I told about my upcoming visit to Poland. My friends assumed that the trip must be some type of effort to find my roots by climbing the family tree. It wan't. Beyond that, they couldn't process the idea that I just wanted to go.
But I discovered that Krakow in the fall is a wonderful choice for so many reasons. It is a beautiful city that wears its history with pride in its architecture, religious devotion and deep tradition.
I stayed at the only hotel situated right on the stunning Main Square, the oldest and largest medieval square in Europe and generally regarded as the most beautiful. It is home to St. Mary's Basilica, famous for its spectacular wood carved altar and the trumpet signal played from the tower each hour that commemorates the 13th century trumpeter who was shot sounding an alarm that a Mongol attack on the city was underway. To this day, the trumpet stops playing mid-song just as it did the moment the original trumpeter was shot in the throat.
The Church of St. Adalbert is also in the Main Square, a tiny stone church, almost one thousand years old. In the evenings, the Royal Chamber Orchestra string quartet performs in St. Adalbert's. The wooden pews are not the most comfortable concert seating and it can be a tough ticket due to its intimate size but the acoustics are wonderful and it is a magical experience.
The Main Square is also home to what is considered to be the oldest shopping mall in the world, filled with booth after booth of vendors, in the spirit of medieval days when food, clothing and basic necessities were sold in the same manner. Today it is mostly jewelry, Baltic amber being the local favorite, and souvenirs.
The walking tour of the Jewish quarter is a moving experience reflecting a dark period in Krakow's history. Prior to World War II, it was a thriving community of 6300 Jews, later virtually wiped out by the Nazis. There are now signs of the slow, painstaking rebuilding process.
Auschwitz/Birkenau, about an hour outside of the city, is worth an entire day. The impact of this museum is difficult to describe and even though many feel they could not handle such a visit, it is a challenge worth overcoming as a citizen of the world.
Of particular note is November 1st, All Saint's Day, a national holiday in Poland. All during the day, Poles place flowers, candles and lanterns on the graves of family, friends and loved ones. By the time darkness falls, the cemeteries are ablaze with light and people. I visited the Rakowicki Cemetery and it was a spectacular sight, particularly the graves of the famous artists, politicians and military heroes who are buried there whose monuments were surrounded by hundreds of candles.
The city is friendly and comfortable, like an overgrown village, and very affordable. Most of the tourists have left by the end of October and while it was chilly and sometimes a bit drizzly, it was manageable without discomfort. Polish food includes interesting soups, hearty meat dishes, a variety of sausages, root vegetables and lovely desserts. The fish was exceptional quality and the produce was fresh and delicious. And the breads and pastries are to die for.
Europeans already know of Krakow's charm judging from the many people I met from England, Ireland, and France who were on a short holiday and the packed shuttle flights in and out of the city. I traveled solo and felt comfortable and safe the entire time. If you are considering a trip to Europe, I hope you will consider this little gem of a city. It won't disappoint.