The best kept secret in the world, Krakow and Zakapane, Poland

As a former flight attendant, I have visited all European countries, except Albania and Poland. Poland is the fifth largest country in Europe. Apart from Lech Walesa, Copernicus, the Pope and a decade of Polish jokes that I never understood, I didn't know anything about this land. However, my interest peaked because it will soon be hot on the tourist route and because my husband's family from Chicago is from here. He accompanied me with a sense of delight to discover his roots. I was educated and enriched by something new. We flew from Atlanta through JFK and Warsaw to Krakow for only 4 days. There is no rest for the tired with a rotating itinerary. I prefer to visit out-of-season cities to interact with the locals. It provides a more authentic and intimate environment.

Upon arrival at the airport, Pavel greets us happily and will be our driver at all times. It has a welcome sign "Suza Davis". I say: "Hi, I'm Suzy from Atlanta." I chuckled when he replied, "Yes, down from the United States." We checked into the Amadeus Hotel, an elegant inn from the 16th century in the heart of the city center. Prince Charles once lay in our room, I have been told.

We set out to hunt for dinner. The lighted old town was impressive and full of so many young people that made me feel older. 150,000 students reside in this university city. Krakow is the main party scene in Europe where they remain outside until the birds sing. This historic district has the highest concentration of bars and restaurants in the world. Suddenly we discover the Pierogi Garden, home of the freshest Polish meatballs. They were stuffed with sauerkraut, lamb, veal, berries, chocolate and even peanut butter. There were 6 types of soups, all with beets that I hate. After a dozen meatballs, I had a melted sheep's milk cheese pancake that was more than delicious.

Poland experienced innumerable invasions throughout its history. After being devastated by the Germans and then the Russians, he finally achieved independence in 1989 with the collapse of Soviet communism. Krakow was wired for destruction near the end of World War II by the Germans. They planned to blow up once the Russians took over, fortunately the war ended hours before the plan was carried out.

Today it remains one of the few cities left in its original form. With a population of 780,000 inhabitants, it has been transformed into a modern international capital. Vibrant and modern, but somehow retains its traditional culture with a royal architecture. It is in Krakow where the spirit of the new Poland is found.

On day 2, Anna met us, who was surprisingly beautiful. We start in the network of cobbled streets of the old town intended for walking. It was a maze of museums, chapels, galleries, coffee shops and pubs on the walls. Even in winter there was entertainment with street dancers, pampering, accordionists and in a corner, I saw a knight in armor dancing break dance.

We enter Market Square, the largest medieval square in Europe, where little has changed since 1257. It is crowned by the Bell Tower, where a bugle sounds at the highest hour. It drives residents crazy at night. A must-see is Cloth Hall, where fishmongers, fabric merchants and bakers have sold their products since the fourteenth century. Now it is a fabulous arcade of craft stalls.

We walk to the well-preserved Jewish quarter, which is now avant-garde with an artistic character. Poland once had the highest concentration of Jews in Europe at 3.5 million. The kings of Poland during the Middle Ages noticed that they were being expelled to other places and invited them to increase the economy. Here they prospered until the Holocaust and forced communism after World War II. Now there are only 180 left. We saw the ghettos where the famous Spielberg movie was filmed and we looked across the river to see the Schindler factory.

Rick Steves writes that one should visit a milk bar here. Anna accompanies us to one of these government-subsidized coffees for the working class. They are remnants of Poland's communist past. Everything is surprisingly cheap. I ordered a plate of homemade soup and cheesecake for $ 2.

Then we visit Wawel Castle, a 12th century masterpiece and defining icon of the city's pride. There were no queues as we walked through its history halls. This was the residence of the kings for 500 years. Anna explains her dragon legend that spits fire called Smok here who ate virgins for breakfast.

This was reinforced by the discovery of strange large bones in the 1400s. (The bones are actually whale bones, since this area in Europe was underwater eons ago.) The dragon thus became the symbol of the city ​​and is omnipresent in the souvenir shops. Anna then pushes us into several beautiful churches, for me always as boring as painting by numbers, however, they were exquisite. I ask if there are Protestants here. She responded in fact: "Yes, one."

The afternoon was devoted to inspections in restaurants and hotels. I loved the formal greetings and it is always educational. I learn about local cuisine and accommodation in the best location at the best price. All hotels were complete. Jews and Catholics visit throughout the year on religious pilgrimages or come to do root tours.

Krakow was recently ranked among the top 10 European destinations. Now I see why. Americans are still excited about Prague, which I now find is going through inflated prices and lower service levels. It has become as expensive as Rome. Eventually, Krakow can do the same once Poland converts to the Euro in 2012. For now it can be wasted at affordable prices. Europeans come here to get 50-70% savings. Germans and Danes in particular come for dental and optometry needs. Medical tourism, including plastic surgery, is booming. I met an Austrian hostess who flies monthly to receive spa treatments at half cost.

At night we had dinner at the Wierzynek restaurant, the oldest in the world that has served princes to tourists since 1364. It was a delicious (organic) wild boar, roasted ribs and lots of potatoes. I ask you to teach me some Polish, a Slavic language that is as impossible as a mouthful of word search. The word toilet has 5 syllables.

On the third day, we woke up with a gray, cold and wet day that gave us the appropriate environment for what we would see. Pavel drove us 60 km to Auschwitz. We were greeted by Yuri, our brilliant personal guide whose only passion was to enlighten us about the unthinkable tragedies that took place here since 1940-45. Once I visited Dachau, but this was the largest of the concentration camps. This death factory killed 1.4 million people of 27 nationalities. The majority were Jews. The others were gypsies, Soviets, Poles, gays, political dissidents and more.

We enter the door saying: "Work will free you." Inside there was a powerful reminder when we saw the crematoriums, the hunger cells, kilos of hair, endless lenses and a still gray pool of ashes 60 years ago. The most sobering thing for me was the children's section. It contained a sea of ​​small shoes, dolls and meticulous German documentation of 230,000 children who suffered and died here.

We were taken to the extended Birkenau camp (Auschwitz II), with its wooden barracks built to house 100,000 but eventually had more than 200,000. Together in silence, the three of us walked half a mile to see the ruins of the gas chambers and the memorial. At the end of our tour, Yuri said goodbye to us with this profound statement: "I have guided several Holocaust survivors who visited here as tourists. In the end they told me that I cannot present 1% of how bad it really was." This was the most emotional touching site my eyes have ever seen.

At the end of the afternoon we visit the famous Wieliczka salt mine. This mysterious and vast 3-mile-long underground city has extracted salt for 800 years. The World Heritage site attracts one million visitors per year and it seems that everyone arrived today.

Our guide Justina seemed to have an obsession with salt, but it was simply the love of her work as a guide. She said to follow her 836 steps, which was a better exercise than a stairway teacher. The caves bore me, but this site will remain etched in my mind forever. Imagine underground chapels, ornate sculptures, life-size galleries and figures carved entirely in salt or in a restaurant and a post office 380 & # 39; & # 39; below street level. It was spectacular For centuries, miners and horses spent their lives here. They remained healthy in this rich microclimate. It has to do with magnesium ions, whatever they are? Today people come to the healing chambers of the treatment complex to isolate themselves in the natural purity of the air.

Day 4. I continually search the world for unique things or places to present to other travelers. Today I found it in Zakapane. For years, a friend of mine insisted that I visit this mountain resort with the funny name I could never remember. We drove into the pure air of the Tatra Mountains with Eva, our expert guide that day. She said this adventure destination of 60,000 residents increases to 200,000 almost year-round. In summer they come to mineral spas and alpine hiking. In winter they come to ski. That week Zakapane organized the International Ski Jumping Competition.

Here was a charming city of artists and Giorake, an ethnic group of mountain mountaineers. These wandering shepherds date back to the fifteenth century. They love dressing up in their colorful clothes for tourists. They live with cheese or anything covered with cheese. We visited a cheese market the size of Switzerland. As far as my eyes could see, there were artistically sculpted sheep and goat cheeses in every imaginable way. We also tour the water park with an Olympic-sized mineral hot spring mineral pool and ride cable cars in the mountains to enjoy breathtaking scenery.

It was a more productive and enjoyable day trip. I found a local tourism company that organizes fun activities for groups such as horse-drawn sleds through the forest, dog-sleds and the new "snow rafting" on rubber rafts that splash to the mountain-style slide. In the huge open-air market with countless ethnic stalls, I bought a striking leather and leather coat for $ 260 that seemed fashionable 6 times its price.

There is so much that I could not see on this short visit. On my next return, I will do the new "Crazy Communism Tour". Outside Krakow is Nowa Huta, once a severe socialist suburb of forced industrialization. Huge steel mills seized the rich farmland. The doctor and the professors were sent here to work. Miles of concrete housing blocks were erected to house them.

On the tour you can discover the first-hand experience of Stalin's gift to Krakow when traveling in a classic Trabant car from East Germany to Nowa Huta. It includes a dinner of salted bread, pickles and vodka, followed by a dance in a retro disco of the 70s.

Under the yoke of communism, the Poles refused to renounce their religion. Stalin said: "Implementing communism here is like saddling a bull." Faced with such a determined spirit in people, he surrendered. I am amazed at all the obstacles that this stoic country has overcome.

If you have been there and bought the shirt from London, Paris, Madrid or Athens, I encourage you to visit undiscovered parts of Europe. Krakow is destined to become the next Prague. Overflowing with history, friendly faces, hearty cooking, and it won't break your pocket. If you can visit new Poland, don't tell anyone about Zakapane, one of the best kept secrets in the world.