Couple shares lessons from living in Poland

By Page H. Gifford, Correspondent

Poland may not top the list of must-see travel destinations, but Allan and Susan Mink came home with many stories to tell after living there three months.

“It is a beautiful city, clean, very safe, many speak English, and it is not discovered by tourists,” Sue Mink said. She couldn’t stop raving about the food, including the duck breast with sour cherry sauce. Poland has a lot of bang for the buck in that it is very inexpensive, she said. The only drawback is the cold temperatures in the winter, including snow by November. Many people heat with coal, so during the winter there’s lots of pollution in the city. She added that spring, summer and early fall are great times to visit.

Passionate about history, Sue Mink explained Krakow’s rich and varied past with its prosperity and its struggles. Krakow is the second largest city in Poland, and one of the oldest in Europe. Situated on the banks of the Vistula River, it’s home to a little over 750,000 people. It began as a settlement on the current site of Wawel castle, where a legendary fierce fire-breathing dragon lived. In 1038 it became the seat of the Polish government and was one of the most important trade centers in Europe. Although it was attacked and burned by the Mongols, the city rebuilt and regained its splendor and importance.

“In 1364, King Casimir founded the University, which still operates. He also founded the Jewish suburb Kazimierz, where we nested,” Sue Mink said. The 15th and 16th centuries were Krakow’s Golden Age, in which the city was a center of culture, art and commerce.

“Some of my favorite places in Krakow were the salt mines,” she said. The Wielczka salt mines are a historic monument located in the Krakow metro area and feature a legend about a Hungarian princess and a history that includes the Soviet disruption of a Nazi arms factory. Beginning in the 13th century it was mined for table salt, but ceased commercial mining in 1996 due to market decline. Deep in the mine is the brightly lit St. Kinga’s Chapel with a statue of St. Barbara, DaVinci’s The Last Supper and Pope John Paul II all carved out of salt.

“I loved the Franciscan church because the stained glass was breathtaking, as were the art nouveau paintings all over the walls. It was the pope’s favorite church, and I loved to just go sit and look in it,” she said. The stained glass windows are large and the art nouveau style gives it a more modern flavor – less traditional but beautifully dynamic. “Also I just loved the main square – a great place for people watching and there were often fairs and events there.”

In 1572, after the death of King Sigismund II, who had no heirs, the conflict among the nobles weakened the central government and the throne went first to France and then to other foreign governments. After more upheaval, a brutal invasion by the Swedes and an outbreak of the Bubonic plague, the capital of Poland was moved to Warsaw.

Eventually Poland was conquered and divided between three countries – Austria, Germany and Russia. Krakow fell into the Austrian section and became part of the Hapsburg Empire. Although it thrived culturally under Austrian rule, the people of Poland longed to be reunited under one rule.
In1939, Nazi Germany invaded Poland during the infamous blitzkrieg and Krakow fell that September.

“The Jews were moved to a ghetto south of the city and streets and landmarks were renamed with German names. Eventually, nearly all the Jews of Krakow were murdered, many in Auschwitz,” Sue Mink said. About 3,000 survived, a third of them saved due to the efforts of Oscar Schindler of the famed Schindler’s List, and his enamelware factory just south of the city. Though the inhabitants of Krakow suffered during the war, the city itself was left unscathed. “If travelers can deal with it, they should go to Auschwitz as it’s not that far, the Rynek Underground Museum in the main square – it’s an architectural site that shows the old market square as it was in medieval times. Schindler’s factory is also there.”

Soviet forces entered the city in January 1945 and the country was under Soviet rule until 1989.

“During that time, a large suburb, Nowa Huta, was built around a huge steel mill to the east of the city. An entirely planned area, it was meant to be a prototype of the perfect socialist city,” she said. “It was interesting to see the bits left from the Communist era, including little restaurants called Milk Bars that were very cheap, set up for the workers – for example, 40 cents for breakfast.”

“We visited L’viv, which is in Ukraine. The best thing that happened was when we were going there, we had to change trains because the tracks are different gauges between Poland and Ukraine. We got confused and missed the train to L’viv, and it only went once a day, so we were stuck in this tiny Polish border town overnight. But there was a magnificent castle, and we actually were able to spend the night there at Krasiczyn Castle,” she said. “L’viv is a grand old lady but she’s not recovered from the Communist era yet – still scruffy, but with great beauty underneath. Also even less expensive than Krakow.

“I think Krakow will be discovered soon as a great place to visit,” she continued. “People should get there before it’s found out. Wonderful architecture – some of it very eclectic and fun, like the house of architect and painter, Teador Talowski. This was his personal home. It has a spider web in the circle on the top of the building, along with a turkey and a dragon on either side. He had a number of really fun buildings throughout Krakow.” He has been described as combining the influences of historicism, art nouveau and modernism in his eclectic style.

Sue Mink said Krakow is booming with over 50 international companies, including IBM, Google and Cisco.

“Krakow is seen by many as the European version of Silicon Valley, and the unemployment rate is about 4 percent,” she said. The city is a center of culture and education and, as the Minks discovered, a growing tourist destination.

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