Image: New Year's celebration in Poland
Jacek Bednarczyk  /  Corbis
Fireworks illuminate the sky over the Market Square in the old town of Krakow on New Year's Eve.
By
Special to msnbc.com
updated 5/14/2007 10:59:53 AM ET 2007-05-14T14:59:53

Though it may sound odd to say, one visits Krakow, and the region around it, both for what didn’t happen there during World War II … and for what did. Unlike many of Europe’s great cities, Krakow was largely spared the devastating bombing raids that laid waste to large parts of Dresden, London, Berlin and other cities. Its medieval halls, churches and markets; its famous castle; and its cobblestoned Old Town escaped the ’40s nearly unscathed and today visitors glory in a city so bewitching, so rich in history, that large portions have been named UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Though the ancient buildings were preserved, the region does have a World War II history, and a heartrending one, at that. Half a million visitors per year come to commemorate that part of its history, making the pilgrimage to nearby Auschwitz, the Nazis’ most horrifically effective death camp.  In a daylong trip you’ll have just enough time to touch on both sides of Krakow’s past — the sobering and the celebratory.

7 a.m. - 1 p.m.: Pay witness to one of the most unspeakable tragedies of the last 100 years with a visit to Auschwitz (known as Oswiecim in Polish). With just one day for all of Krakow, you won’t have the time for a formal tour, but you can self-guide through some of the blocks of barracks, the torture and gas chambers, exhibitions of prisoners’ belongings, and watch a 15-minute video presentation, at turns graphic and moving, that tells the story of the 1.6 million who perished here.

Morning alternative
Auschwitz is too harrowing an experience for children; and though it’s an important site to visit, many adults may not feel ready for the experience. For folks traveling with their families and others, a worthwhile alternative is Wieliczka Salt Mine . In operation since the 11th century, it was more than just a producer of salt (though that still is mined here). Over the centuries, the miners transformed their workplace into a work of art, carving elaborate chapels for them to worship in, along with statues of great religious figures.

1 p.m. - 2 p.m.: Pig out on pierogis. Pierozki U Vincenta , a single-minded specialist, serves every type imaginable of these savory dumpling, from the house special “Vincent” (ground meat and spicy lentils topped with onion and bacon bits) to a Moroccan version (starch on starch, it’s stuffed with couscous) to tropical (chicken and pineapple) to classic cheese pierogis.

2 p.m. - 7 p.m.:  You now have an impossible choice before you: whether to spend your remaining time exploring the Old Town, the old Jewish ghetto of Kazimierz or Wawel Castle. Each has its charms, and though it might be possible to combine a tour of the Old Town and the Castle, you’ll have to rush. (See Afternoon Alternative below for Kazmierz). If you take this course, be sure to swing by the Royal Chambers of the castle, with their famed Flemish tapestries and majestic throne room; the Treasury and Armory for the few remaining royal jewels and the soaring Gothic St. Mary’s Basilica (try to get there right on the hour, so that you can hear the trumpeter in a high tower mark the passing time. He stops abruptly half-way through his song to commemorate the trumpeter who was shot in the throat by Tartar invaders in the 13th century). End your mad dash at the Rynek Glowny. One of the largest public squares in Europe, it’s a shopping wonderland that becomes a non-stop carnival in the warm weather months, when street performers of all types strut their stuff on these ancient cobblestones.

Afternoon alternative
If you decide to visit the former Jewish ghetto (Kazmierz) make time for a visit to the moving Galicia Jewish Museum ; and the Izaak Synagogue which was damaged by the Nazis but is still a peacock among the houses of worship here. Many of the synagogues, including the Isaak, contain exhibits on what this area was like before Hitler destroyed its social fabric (the vast majority of Jews who lived here were killed during WWII).

7 p.m. - 10 p.m.: You might not have a Polish grandma who was a spectacular cook growing up, but at the restaurant Nostalgia , you’ll at least know what you were missing if you didn’t. It offers up a gourmet retread of all the Polish classics in the coziest of settings: in the winter, patrons gather round the fireplace and in the warmer months, it’s out to the flower-laden garden for dinner al fresco.

10 p.m. -  on … Head to, or back to (depending on what you did in the afternoon), the Kazmierz district for club- and bar-hopping. The trendiest dance spots and watering holes in town are set in these gently crumbling buildings.

Pauline Frommer is the creator of the new Pauline Frommerguides in bookstores now. Her book, Pauline Frommer's New York, was named Best Guidebook of the Year by the North American Travel Journalists Association.

Since it will take you between an 45 minutes and an hour and a half to get to Auschwitz, you should get on the road no later than 7 a.m., so that you’ll have a good several hours to tour once there. You can either rent a car and drive (the roads are well marked) or take a train. You’ll catch the train from either Krakow Glowny Station or Krakow Plazow Station; the journey costs just a few dollars and takes approximately 45 minutes. Admission to the grounds is free.  Auschwitz is open to visitors from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. in June, July and August; 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. in May and September; 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. in April and October; 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. in March, November and December 1-15; and 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. December 16 through the end of February.

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The Wieliczka Salt Mineis located 10 kilometers from the center of Krakow; it’s possible to get there by taxi, car, or commuter train from Krakow’s Glowny rail station. Admission is approximately $15. The mines are open from 7:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m., April through October; and 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. November through March. However, you’ll need to go through on a tour (2 hours) and English language tours are held only at 10 a.m., 11:30 a.m., 12:30 p.m., 1:45 p.m., 3 p.m. and 5 p.m..

Pierozki U Vincenta, ul Jozefa 11, phone 48/12-4306834.

Royal Chambers, located in Wawel Castle. Open Mondays 9:30 a.m. to noon ; Tuesdays and Fridays 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Wednesdays and Saturdays 9:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.; and Sundays 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Free admission Mondays, the rest of the week the charge is about $5.

Treasury and Armory, also located in Wawel Castle. Closed Mondays; open  Tuesdays and Fridays 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Wednesdays and Saturdays 9:30 a.m.  to 3 p.m.; and Sundays 10am to 3pm. Admission is about $5.

St. Mary’s Cathedralis adjacent to the main market square.

Galicia Jewish Museum, ul. Dajwor 13, phone 48/12-4216842; www.galiciajewishmuseum.org. Open daily 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. in the summer months and 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. the rest of the year. Admission is about $2.50.

Izaak Synagogue, 18 Kupa Street.

Nostalgia, ul. Karmelicka 10, phone 48/12-4254260; www.nostalgia.krakow.pl

Pauline Frommer is the creator of the new Pauline Frommer guides in bookstores now. Her book, Pauline Frommer's New York, was named Best Guidebook of the Year by the North American Travel Journalists Association.

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