Monday, May 23, 2011

Trip to Poland

I've recently returned to Northern Ireland from a wonderful trip to Krakow, Poland.  My friend Ben and I accompanied Ewa, a fellow study-abroad student who was returning to Poland for the summer.  Thanks to Ewa we were able to appreciate the history and culture surrounding us, as well as simply getting along much more smoothly.  Krakow is a beautiful city, a vibrant and well-preseved place that has been a center of Polish culture for a thousand years.  For several centuries it was the capital city of the Kingdom of Poland. 

We packed a lot of sight-seeing into our brief time: we toured several large churches and cathedrals, including the Basilica of Sts. Stanislaus and Wenceslaus, which has a crypt containing the tombs of many Polish kings and notable citizens.  The Basilica is atop the Wawel, a hill that overlooks central Krakow and is the site of the Royal Castle.  We took an extensive tour of the castle and viewed the wealth of royal art and artifacts, from tapestries to cannons. 

At the foot of the Wawel Hill is a statue of Smok, the mythical dragon whose cave can still be explored.  The story goes like this: In ancient times, a dragon lived in a cave at the foot of Wawel, by the River Vistula.  He would only stop pillaging and destroying the surrounding towns if the people would appease him with a young maiden once a year.  King Krak of Poland sent his best knights to slay the dragon, who would light them on fire with ease.  Krak offered his daughter Wanda's hand in marriage to anyone who could kill the dragon.  Though every knight who attempted this was killed, a poor peasant named Skuba volunteered.  Skuba filled a sheep's stomach with sulfur and set the bait outside smocza jama (the dragon's den).  The dragon took the bait, but after eating it was gripped with a terrible thirst.  He drank and drank from the Vistula, but his thirst could not be quenched.  Finally he exploded!  Thus, Skuba was married to Princess Wanda, and they lived happily ever after.

We also toured Krakow's large market square, saw a duel between men clad in medieval armor, ate pierogi and visited Oskar Schindler's factory.  Our most striking experience occurred when we took a day trip from Krakow to Auschwitz (Oswiecim in Polish).  It is a visit that was hard to understand at the time, and I'm still processing what I saw.  We took tours of both the original Auschwitz death camp and the nearby Birkenau camp.  I learned a lot more about the cost of the WWII on the Polish people - 3 million of the Jews murdered were from Poland, and the original purpose of Auschwitz was to house Polish resistors to Nazi rule - 6 million Polish civilians died in the war.  Our tours were sobering showers of facts - the harsh realities of camp life, the numbers of the dead - but it was difficult (for me, at least) to comprehend that the place was one where so much horror had occurred.  It is hard to feel the fear of the imprisoned when you walk under sunny skies around a place that, apart from the large number of visitors, is relatively peaceful.

My trip to Poland was a lot of fun.  I learned so much about a culture of which I had known very little, and even learned a few key Polish words - Nie rezumiem po polsku ("I don't speak Polish") came in handy when I had to let anyone know that I couldn't understand them! 

I'm off.  Good bye for now - Do widzenia! 

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