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Phespirit goes to Poland
Kraków     November 2000

"Poland," everyone said, "that sounds lovely!"   Hmm ..... well, as it turns out, Poland is indeed quite lovely. Phespirit stayed in the southern city of Kraków, which is probably the country's safest bet for loveliness, where the old town still retains an original architecture from its glory days as Poland's ancient royal capital.

The undisputed hub of the town is Rynek Główny, the old town square and - for fans of trivia - the largest square of mediæval Europe. Here one finds the distinctive twin-towered Mariacki Church and engrossing 'Sukiennice' market hall, plus the old town hall clock tower, little Saint Adalbert's Church, and a statue of the ubiquitous Adam Mickiewicz (Phespirit really must read some of this guy's poetry one of these days). Oh - and lots of pigeons.

At the south-east of the old town is the Kazimierz Jewish district. In the stillness of early morning this place has an ambience of pure calm, made sacred less for the profusion of synagogues than for the memory of the multitudes who died in the wartime ghetto here, just sixty years ago. Phespirit savoured the tranquility of the New Jewish Cemetery, taking an undisturbed stroll through silent autumnal trees upon a carpet of golden leaves; a step outside time.

More obvious attractions around town include the well-scrubbed Wawel Hill castle and cathedral, plus the Czartoryski Palace museum with its magnificent star attraction: 'Lady with an Ermine' painted by Leonardo da Vinci. Phespirit also took a shine to the Pauline Church, which still retains the stone upon which Saint Stanisław was decapitated. Today it bears the inscription SISTE GRADUM DIVUS TINXIT ME SANGUINE PRAESUT, along with the marvellous translation: "Stop, you passer by, the holy bishop bespattered me with his blood".

Away from the city, Phespirit visited the Wieliczka Salt Mine, bursting with grandiose underground chapels, chambers and statues carved entirely out of (guess?) salt. Entrance is via countless wooden steps spiralling 64m below the surface; exit is via a four-level box elevator with nine people squeezed into each unlit box - this is not for the claustrophobic.

Phespirit also visited the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp museums, one hour's drive from Kraków. The memory of what happened at these places is engrained in the minds of each new generation but these buildings, the grass fields, the gravel camp trails, all are now bloodless; are cleansed of the fetor of mass murder. There's no lingering sensation that over a million people - an incomprehensible figure - died here, yet reminders of individual suffering strike home hard: the torture cells, the stolen personal possessions, the tragic mounds of human hair, plaited hair .....

Lastly to Warsaw, two and three-quarter hours by non-stop express train. The old town of Warsaw - literally bombed out of existence in 1944 - has been so lovingly and immaculately rebuilt that it is now on the UNESCO world heritage site list. One would never know there had been so much as a scuffle. Phespirit found no physical remnants of the infamous Warsaw ghetto; only in the dewily atmospheric Jewish cemetery can that past be touched.

Poland has its grey concrete suburbs, its share of desolate countryside, but Poland has its beauty. After so much brutal annihilation in its history it carefully treasures that which remains. One day Phespirit will return, perhaps for a visit to the north, to Gdansk. That sounds lovely.

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