I love living in the city and I have loved travelling to numerous cities around the world. There is great beauty in the history, the architecture, the art, the culture, found in the compactness of an old city. Side by side, layer by layer, the joys and accomplishments, alongside the sorrows and horrors. The best and worst of humanity can often be seen. Beauty just across from darkness, and somewhere somehow in the midst, hope.
Kraków is Poland’s (and one of Europe’s) oldest continuously inhabited city. While one of my main goals is visiting this part of the world was to spend a significant, but certainly not ‘good’, day at Auschwitz-Birkenau, Kraków was an unexpected delight. It is a gorgeous city, but it also has its own historic horror, and I found myself looking for both beauty and hope.
What did I love about Kraków?
Kraków’s entire medieval Old Town is on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
The town square is a gathering place of art, food, performance and music.
At one edge sits St Mary’s Basilica.
Inside is its famous Gothic altarpiece,
and its stunning painted ceilings and walls.
Every hour a trumpeter appears from the highest tower to play a traditional anthem.
Down the city’s narrow streets are hidden gems of buildings …
… and gardens …
… and courtyards.
Overlooking Old Town is the fortified castle hill of Wawel,
with its Cathedral consisting of a conglomeration of chapels and domes of varying styles and periods.
The Jewish history of the city is seen in Kazimierz and its own market square, Wolnica.
Here, the beautiful Three Musicians sculpture and its adjacent tree caught my eye.
From there it is a short walk to the Vistula river
with its modern bridges joining different parts of the city easily and accessibly.
What did I learn from Kraków?
It is on the other side of the river that some of the darker parts of this beautiful city’s history became more apparent.
Here in Podgórze the Kraków Ghetto was established in 1941.
It was ‘liquidated’ (far too sterile a term) in 1943.
A simple memorial in the square is confronting in its starkness.
Each of the 70 chairs represents 1000 lives.
One glimpse of hope is the Schindler Factory, best known from the 1993 film, which is today a museum about this dark chapter in world history.
But for the people of this city, perhaps the best glimpse of hope is found in their favourite son, a man named Karol Józef Wojtyła, who lived here during this horrific period in history. After losing his family, he turned not away from but toward God and entered the priesthood.
Some forty years later he was elected Pope, taking the name John Paul II and becoming a beloved figure known for his commitment to peace and reconciliation. Hope out of darkness indeed.