Krakow is the premier tourist destination in Poland. It is a large city but its Old Town is charming and extremely pleasant to walk. The Wawel dominates the upper part of the Old Town. It is really composed of two buildings, Wawel Castle and the Cathedral. Walking downhill via one of several narrow streets, one finally arrives at the Main Market Square (Rynek Glowny), a huge (the largest medieval square in all of Europe) and delightful mix of shops, restaurants with outdoor dining, pubs, mimes, street musicians, etc. The atmosphere is extremely festive with thousands of people enjoying the area. At one end of the square is St Mary’s Church. From its bell tower, in the 13th century, a trumpeter was warning the townspeople with his horn that the enemy Tatars were approaching, when he was struck and killed by an arrow. Each hour, this scene is reenacted with the trumpeter beginning his warning and never completing it.
The interior of St Mary’s Church is positively stunning. Ceilings and columns are painted a dark shade of red or maroon while many of the baroque accoutrements are black with gold trim, creating a striking appearance. The main altarpiece is exquisite (considered the finest Gothic sculpture in Poland). Unfortunately, picture-taking is prohibited.
In the center of the square is the 16th century Cloth Hall (Sukiennice) which is now lined with myriad small shops selling assorted crafts. On the opposite side of the square from St Mary’s is the Town Hall tower which visitors may climb for a bird’s eye view of the square.
The most important excursion from the city is to Auschwitz, German for Oswiecim, which was the location of the Nazi’s largest and most-infamous concentration camp. It was here that genocide reached its pinnacle. Nearly two million people of various ethnic groups were exterminated here. The exhibition which involves a tour of the barracks, gas chambers and crematorium is a somber reminder of one of the nadirs of human history. A guidebook is provided to visitors, which is sufficient for exploring the camp. A film which documents the liberation of the survivors by the Russians is shown frequently during the day.
A shuttle bus operates during most of the year to ferry visitors to nearby Birkenau, which was where most of the actual exterminations took place. Plan on an extremely somber experience and a depressing day, but a visit here is necessary to truly appreciate the holocaust.