- The Washington Times - Friday, August 4, 2006

KRAKOW, Poland — The shrill, thin whistle of the train; the rattling wooden boxcars filled with moaning, miserable people; the tracks leading from the West and ending in a single track entering into the horror of Birkenau are memories emblazoned into the collective memory of the civilized world.

I was one of the lucky ones to have escaped all that, and now I was retracing a train voyage in the opposite direction: from Krakow through Silesia to Wroclaw (long known by its German name, Breslau), through what was East Germany, into Berlin and Potsdam, ending in Munich.

The journey of a group of travel writers began in Krakow, that splendid medieval city barely touched by the ravages of World War II, whose charter dates to 1257. Once there were eight gates to the city and 47 towers along its moated walls. The towers were defended by the various guilds, such as those for the haberdashers, butchers and carpenters; just a few remain. The moat has been transformed into a park that encircles the inner city.

The main entrance to the city is St. Florian’s Gate, with the emblem of Poland, the royal eagle, upon it. A second fortification to protect the entrance to the city was built in the 15th century. Although the second wall no longer exists, St. Florian’s Gate and the Barbican, a red brick construction in Arabian design, still stand. Street musicians play Bach and Mozart on accordions and xylophones beside the thick stone walls.

Ulica Florianska is the street leading from St. Florian’s Gate to Krakow’s magnificent 13th-century medieval market square. The street is lined with small hotels, restaurants and shops and once was part of the Royal Route traveled by the kings on their way from Warsaw to be crowned in Krakow.

Krakow’s market square is one of the largest and certainly most splendid medieval squares in all of Europe, divided in two by the great Cloth Hall, perhaps the world’s first shopping mall. The Cloth Hall is filled with souvenir shops selling more than cloth — amber from the Baltic, folk craft, postcards and pottery.

The square is lined with cafes and overrun with pigeons. According to legend, the pigeons are knights who were turned into birds by a witch. As the story goes, a duke who wanted to be king sought counsel from a witch, who exchanged his knights for the money he needed for his quest. She transformed the knights into pigeons when the duke failed to keep his promises.

Every hour, from the highest tower of St. Mary’s Church on one side of the square, a trumpeter plays the hejnal, commemorating the 13th-century Tatar raid on the city. A watchman noticed that the Tatars were approaching and sounded the alarm on his trumpet. One of the invaders saw the bugler on the tower and killed him with an arrow through his throat. Because the watchman saved the town but was silenced in midwarning, the modern-day trumpeter cuts his playing short in the middle of the hejnal.

DAILYBROADCAST

The noon playing of the hejnal is broadcast daily on Polish radio. We watched as a group of Polish students clapped and cheered the bugler’s performance one afternoon. He, in turn, leaned out of his high window and waved his trumpet in salute to the crowd below.

From the market square, we wandered into the graceful courtyard of the university’s Collegium Maius. Krakow’s university was founded by King Kasimir the Great in 1364 and is the second-oldest in Eastern Europe; Copernicus is its most illustrious one-time student. The Collegium Maius, built in 1400 with the funds from the sale of the jewelry of Poland’s young queen-saint Jadwiga, is the oldest surviving college.

From the heart of the city, we walked up Wawel Hill, seat of Krakow’s original settlement and site of the royal palace and cathedral where the kings were crowned. Hanging at the entrance to St. Stanislas Cathedral is a large bone, said to be all that is left of the dragon that once inhabited Wawel Hill.

The dragon, named Smok Wawelski, lived in a cave near what is now the castle. He feasted on the peasants’ sheep (and young virgins). One day, a shoemaker (or perhaps it was an old man) named Krakus smeared a sheep with sulphur. The dragon, as was his wont, gobbled up the sheep, but he became so thirsty that he drank half of the river Vistula and exploded, much to the joy of the community, which named the city after its hero.

Krakow is an exquisite city with many good museums, graceful art-nouveau decorations, and Renaissance and Gothic buildings. The old Jewish ghetto is located in Kazimierz, once a separate town created by Kasimir the Great.

Two synagogues are still in use. Behind one built in the mid-16th century is the old Jewish cemetery, where many of the tombstones survived the desecrations of World War II. Several Jewish restaurants are in the neighborhood, including the Klezmer Hois, where we dined on an outstanding spicy goulash soup redolent with cinnamon, black currant jam, paprika and raisins.

DOWNTHE SALTMINE

Not far from Krakow is the thousand-year-old Wieliczka salt mine. The crystallization of salt dissolved in seawater began some 15 million years ago, but mining did not begin officially until 1105. The mine remained in operation until 1997.

Salt was Poland’s economic foundation and was used in lieu of coins as a method of payment. The production and distribution of salt became a royal monopoly. As early as the 14th century, the salt mines generated more than 30 percent of the state income.

The Wieliczka mine is an excavated complex descending nine levels. We climbed down 800 steps to the fifth level and walked along some of the 186 miles of corridors. The tourist route through the mine includes many of the excavated chambers and chapels with salt carvings. The gray salt walls and floor, our guide told us, were stronger than marble. Many tourists lick the walls to see if they are really salty.

Pine pillars shore up the ceiling of the mine. Wood is preferable to metal because metal corrodes and wood is preserved by the salt. The air in the mine is considered so healthy that there are two health centers deep within the mine to treat respiratory diseases such as asthma and various skin disorders.

LOWERSILESIA

Back on the train, we passed through fields of goldenrod and forests of birch, aspen and pine to the mountains, towns, castles and spas of lower Silesia. We stopped for an alfresco lunch in the market square of the charming town of Jelenia Gora at the foot of the Karkonosze Mountains. The square is surrounded by arcaded 17th- and 18th-century houses and dominated by an 18th-century baroque town hall. We watched a fetching Polish bride, gowned in traditional white, and her bridegroom leave the town hall, serenaded by costumed accordion players.

Jelenia Gora was established in 1108 and chartered in the 13th century. It became known for its cloth manufacturing, especially delicate batiste and voile, and it was a center of engraved glassware. Its medieval heart was untouched by World War II. The town has an organ-music festival in September and a street-theater festival in July and August.

Just up from the market square is the Church of Our Lady, where a visitor can see two penitents’ crosses on the outer wall of the church. These crosses were made by criminals in the Middle Ages; miscreants were required to make a stone cross and place it at the scene of their crime or near a church.

Above the main entrance to St. Anne’s Chapel, located inside a medieval tower, is the inscription in Latin dedicating the chapel to “St. Anne, Christ’s grandmother.” From Jelenia Gora, it’s a short train ride to Wroclaw (pronounced “vrotsluff”), Silesia’s principal city, founded by a Czech duke in the 10th century. Later, it came under Austrian and Prussian rule and was known as Breslau.

Wroclaw was badly bombed during the war, but the old town, especially the market square and its surrounding buildings, some dating from the Renaissance, have been well-restored. The town hall in the center of the square is a marvel of Gothic gables. In the summer, concerts and other cultural events are held in the square, which is graced with a lovely contemporary fountain.

Our visit began with a trip to the Raclawice Panorama, a depiction of the 18th-century battle in Poland’s struggle against Russia for independence. Tadeusz Kosciuszko, a hero of that rebellion, earlier was a colonel of engineers with the American troops in the Revolutionary War. He helped fortify Philadelphia and made a strategic contribution to the American victory in the Battle of Saratoga. A statue of Kosciuszko was dedicated in 1910 in the northeastern corner of Washington’s Lafayette Square.

Wroclaw University, formerly a Jesuit college, dates from 1702. Perhaps the most imposing part of the university is the Aula Leopoldina, the assembly hall, gorgeously decorated in gilt and paint in flamboyant baroque style. Our guide proudly pointed out a nondescript cafeteria around the corner from the Aula Leopoldina as the place where Stephen Spielberg ate lunch when he was filming “Schindler’s List” in Wroclaw.

Wroclaw has several beautiful churches, a baroque palace, monasteries and museums, but the cultural pride of the city is the newly renovated opera house. Closed for eight years for renovation, the opera house is a jewel of crimson and gold.

Our stay in Wroclaw and Poland was all too short before we set forth on the night train in comfortable sleeper compartments to Berlin.

SEAOFCRANES

Bombed to smoking bits in the last days of World War II, Berlin has become a city of extraordinary architecture. In the 16 years since the reunification of the country, Berlin has been a sea of cranes and construction sites. The yellow construction crane is sometimes called the state bird of Berlin.

Many of the buildings are completed, including the Reichstag; the Potsdamer Platz center, which incorporates shops, restaurants and outdoor entertainment; hotels; and the extraordinary Jewish Museum, designed by American architect Daniel Libeskind, who also is the master-plan architect for the Freedom Tower that will replace the World Trade Center twin towers in New York. The large Berlin Hauptbahnhof opened this year to accommodate rail traffic from all directions.

We did not linger in Berlin but took the sleek commuter train to nearby Potsdam to visit that beautiful 18th-century town, made famous by Prussia’s Frederick the Great, who built his summer palace, Sanssouci, there.

Potsdam is on a large island, surrounded by a series of interconnecting lakes and rivers. In July 1945, the city’s 19th-century Cecilienhof was the locale for the conference of Harry S. Truman, Josef Stalin and Winston Churchill (replaced by Clement Atlee during the conference after the Labor Party upset the Tories in Britain), which established the division of Germany and Berlin into Allied sectors and set the stage for the war-crimes trials and German war reparations.

At nearby Wannsee in 1942, the Nazis concluded the infamous Final Solution. Potsdam, as our guide informed us, was the site of the only KGB prison in Europe. Just outside Potsdam proper is Babelsberg, synonymous with the German film industry since 1912. Today, Media City, as it is called, incorporates German film, television and radio. The Potsdam Film Museum is located in what were the royal stables.

Potsdam was to Berlin as Versailles was to Paris in the days of the Bourbon monarchy. Frederick made Prussia a great power: He created the first partition of Poland and seized Silesia from Maria Theresa of Austria. He was a great reformer.

Among his innovations was his insistence that potatoes be planted and that his subjects eat them. Today, potatoes are left with roses on the grave of Frederick’s dogs in the palace garden to symbolize his role as the potato king.

Potsdam is a quiet suburban city, no longer the summer residence of kings, and the parks and palaces are open to the public. There’s a neighborhood of elegant 18th-century houses, a Dutch quarter, which Frederick William I built to attract Dutch artisans to the city. Few came, but the gabled houses remain.

The Russian colony was built between 1826 and 1829 as a gesture of friendship between the Prussians and the Russian czar. The Bornstedt Crown Estate, founded by Frederick William IV as an Italianate palace, houses glassworks, a perfumery, restaurant, bakery and a brewery.

Guided walking tours of the palaces and gardens, including a coffee break in the palace, are offered for about $30 or $15 without the visit to the palace. For those unwilling to walk, pedicabs are available to circle the town for about $15 per hour.

As Potsdam is surrounded by water, one of the delights for a visitor is to take a cruise around the lakes and the Havel River to see the summer palaces from the water. Boats leave the Potsdam pier several times daily and on weekends make additional two-hour evening cruises.

The train beckoned for the journey on the City NightLine to Munich, the end of our rail trip. The City NightLine is a splendid train, with comfortable sleeper compartments.

In first class, you can have a compartment for one or two, with a shower and toilet. The water is hot, and the toilet functions, even though the space is best suited for tiny people. A continental breakfast — which in Germany includes ham and cheese — comes with the first-class ticket.

Even a second-class sleeper includes a sink and excellent accommodations. The ride is smooth, and you wake up in time for an early start in Munich or in ample time to get to the airport for the flight home.

• • •

We traveled on Austrian Airlines from Washington to Vienna, Austria, and connected to Krakow. Options are to fly other international carriers to their hub cities and transfer to Krakow.

It is possible to travel through Western Europe with a rail pass or point-to-point tickets obtainable from RailEurope in advance of departure. The Polish rail pass is available now. Go to www.raileurope.com/us/rail/passes/eurail_poland_index.htm. The advantage of obtaining tickets in the United States is that one is not caught by changes in the value of the dollar and the traveler is assured of times and reservations on the trains.

RailEurope — and City NightLine information — can be reached at 888/382-7245. For information, advice, tickets, seat reservations and rail passes, as well as maps, rail travel tips, prices of tickets in different classes for RailEurope, go to www.raileurope.com.

Batory Hotel, Ul. Soltyka 19, 31-529 Krakow; www.hotelbatory.pl/. This is a small, simple, family-run hotel that is centrally located, a pleasant alternative to the international chain hotels. Prices are moderate and include an ample breakfast buffet.

Czocha Castle in Sucha is a genuine medieval castle transformed into a simple, state-run hotel. It is best-suited to the adventurous who are willing to put up with inconveniences in exchange for staying in a real castle.

For additional information, contact the Polish National Tourist Office, www.polandtour.org, or the German National Tourist Office, www.cometogermany.com.

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