Trip Start Nov 14, 2011
133Trip End Feb 28, 2013
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From my first visit to Krakow as a child when I was enraptured with the stories of past Polish Kings and Queens to subsequent visits, I have always felt that Krakow was a place that touched my heart and soul – a city of magic and beauty. As much as Jeff and I want this year of travel to include places and experiences we haven't been to before, we both agreed that coming back to Poland had to include a stop in Krakow.
It had been 15 years since our last visit to this city. Driving into the Old Town, things had changed as expected. The area around Wawel Castle (the home of past Polish royalty) that overlooks the Wisla River now has a lovely pedestrian walkway around the castle. The biggest changes that we noted though came from 3 things that have left their mark on the city and Poland.
Karol Józef Wojtyła (also known as Pope John Paul II and now Blessed John Paul II) moved to Krakow with his father to study at Jagiellonian University and pursue his passion for acting. Due to the outbreak of WWII, Karol Wojtyła was forced to give up his studies. Being a very religious person, his decision to enter the priesthood came due to the experiences of the occupation and the death of his father. Pope John Paul II’s connection with Krakow continued where he was assigned to pastoral service in the area, rising up through the ranks to bishop and then cardinal of Krakow before finally being appointed as Pope in 1978. Each time Pope John Paul II came back to Poland, he always made a stop in his beloved city of Krakow. Pope John Paul II holds the distinction of being the first non-Italian Pope to be appointed to the position. Coming from Poland where the majority of people are of the Roman Catholic faith, every Pole is very proud of their Polish Pope. It is then no surprise that there are now organized tours and pilgrimages to the places where Pope John Paul II was deeply associated with. Walking through the park that surrounds the walled section of Old Town close to the university, Jeff and I came across a photo exhibit of the visits Pope John Paul II made to the city and area. Despite some of the issues I have with the Catholic Church, I do respect Pope John Paul II as an individual and what he tried to accomplish. He was open to the world and its people – not judging or discriminating but loving and accepting. A grand goal to aspire to indeed!
With the election of Lech Wałęsa in 1990 to become the first democratically elected President of Poland, the last tentacles of communism rule were finally being eliminated from Poland. Over the years as Poland began to rebuild itself as a democratic and independent nation, there was more freedom for Poles to finally tell their stories of what life was really like during WWII Nazi occupation and the subsequent Communist years after the war when the world forgot about Poland
This leads to the next item that impacted the city and it comes from Hollywood and what one director Steven Spielberg accomplished. Steven Spielberg’s 1993 epic drama Schindler’s List helped to push along Kazimierz’s (a district within Krakow) Jewish revival. The district of Kazimierz is where Spielberg filmed Schindler’s List and it was also an area where Jews have lived for over 500 years. Prior to WWII, there were an estimated 65,000 Jews who lived in Krakow. Only a few thousand survived Hitler’s monstrous vision of a superior race (thanks largely to Oskar Schindler who safeguarded his Jewish employees who lived and worked in Kazimierz and Podgorze - another district in Krakow). The remaining Jews who survived the war eventually left the area and country due to anti-Zionist policies of post-war Communist authorities. In my past visits to Poland, I had visited Auschwitz (only a few kilometers from Krakow). This time around, I wanted to visit the places where Jewish life once existed and thrived. Visiting the district of Kazimierz, I felt sadness as well as hope. Sadness for the lives lost and the potential contributions to society that the people who died under Nazi terrorism would never be allowed to be made. Hope in visiting the Galicia Jewish Museum (www.galiciajewishmuseum.org) and seeing the photo exhibit by Chris Schwarz documenting the memory of Jewish life in Southern Poland. The exhibit showcases forgotten cemeteries and broken down synagogues that have been left to rot or have been converted for other uses
We enjoyed our walks through the Old parts of Krakow having a beer at one of the many outdoor terraces or sampling the many Polish specialties. Jeff and I had a scrumptious lody (ice cream) in the Kazimierz district after noticing a stream of people savouring their lody. We followed the path of lody eaters and came upon a place on Starowislna Street where the only indication that this was the lody place was a small sign hanging outside that read simply "Lody" and the long line up of people all waiting patiently to purchase their selection. The wait for our lody although long was worth it as the lody was truly divine!!
I didn’t really want to leave Krakow however I know that I’ll be back to visit this special place again someday.