By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, March 5, 2000

If you do only one thing when you come to Krakow, go to Wawel Hill.

Stand in the open courtyard atop the hill, and through the surrounding architectural clutter--for the hill is like an eccentric collector's living room, crowded with all manner of exotica--millenniums of Polish history and legend press in on you.

There are, of course, the well-known glories of this Jurassic-era plateau: the 14th-century Wawel Cathedral, burial place of Polish kings, where John Paul II served as cardinal before becoming pope; the squat 16th-century Renaissance castle that, over the centuries, barely survived the plunder of Russians, Austrians, Swedes and Germans; and the cave by the River Vistula below, where legend says a Polish boy named Krak killed a man-eating dragon, allowing the town to be founded.

Artifacts unearthed here date back 50,000 years. And in one of the strangest claims made for the hill, it is said that one of Buddha's stones is buried 30 feet below the surface. Visitors stand above it, absorbing its reputed positive energy. I just got cold.

Perhaps it was my sense of the darker edifices on this remarkable hill. Standing in front of the castle is a gray, barracks-like building. It was built by the Nazis, whose governor in Poland, the vile Hans Frank, had his headquarters in the castle. Five stone plaques jut out from the building; chiseled clean now, they once displayed the swastika. A little "dictator's balcony" is perched on the second floor, from which Hitler reputedly addressed his troops when he visited the city.

Visible from the hill, on a street toward Main Market Square, is the building, four houses down from the base of the hill, where Oskar Schindler had an apartment. And along this same street, Jews were marched to the ghetto before being sent to their death 37 miles west in the extermination camps of Auschwitz and Birkenau.

All of this, and more, can be seen with a single 360-degree turn on the cobblestones.

Krakow is the loveliest and most searing of Poland's cities. Unlike Warsaw, which was literally leveled by the Nazis and then made ugly by communist reconstruction, this city survived its occupiers. And in ways that Warsaw simply cannot, Krakow bears witness to the Polish past.

And the future. For Krakow is not simply a museum. It is home, for instance, to 50,000 students and Europe's second-oldest university, Jagiellonian University, founded in 1364. Bustling with the country's new capitalism, the streets are alive with the restaurants, bars, shops and cultural events that serve the young and the increasing number of tourists who are exploring this great and compact Central European city.

For me, however, Krakow remains an absorbing history lesson with new discoveries every time I visit. The first time I came, I admired the 16th- and 17th-century Flemish tapestries in Wawel Castle. On my second visit, a Polish friend pointed out some of the restitching on the tapestries. They were plundered by Russians who cut them up to make them fit on the walls of their Moscow homes and were only put back together when they were returned to Poland in the 1920s.

The first time I came, I visited St. Mary's Church in the main square, with its stunning altar, carved in the 14th century, with local people serving as models. But somehow I didn't hear the trumpeter who plays on the hour from one of the church's two spires, the notes always ending abruptly. The original trumpeter warned the townsfolk of an invasion only to be cut down by a Tatar arrow as he played.

Krakow, about 2 1/2 hours by express train from Warsaw, is a great day trip from the capital but rich enough to sustain a much longer visit. Properly explored, the city demands at least a few days to absorb its treasures, particularly Wawel Hill, the university and the Main Market Square, with its Cloth Hall market, magnificent churches and one of the city's best restaurants, Wierzynek, which has wonderful Polish cuisine, including bigos (sauerkraut and sausage) and pierogis (Polish dumplings). Make sure to stop in.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2000 The Washington Post Company