Eastern Europe in a Wink, Part II
After our short flirtation with the Estonians, the two of us set forth to continue our hopscotch south through Eastern Europe.This seemingly aimless pouncing resulted from a combination of our curiosities, contacts, and ability to take advantage of Europe’s many discount airlines.
Of Harvest, Death, and Perseverance
With a population of over 38 million, Poland is the European Union’s largest post-communist member. The country gained its independence just before the 1920’s, only to have its youthful aspirations and optimism crushed with the invasion of the Germans in 1939. Indeed, Poland’s hinge location between Western and Eastern Europe has served itself for better and for worse throughout the ages. In medieval times its location provided a pivotal anchor point for the salt trades, a time without refrigeration, when salt was deemed as valuable as gold. It was Poland’s proximity to Germany and central location that the Germans strategically used the country for vital command posts in WWII to support their efforts on the Eastern Front, and why they chose to locate the majority of their concentration camps here.
Our travels took us to two Polish capitals of culture: Warsaw and Krakow. Each portrayed a unique window into Polish life.
A traditional horse carriage waits to provide a romantic tour of medieval Krakow
First, we have Warsaw, a Polish metropolis that is aggressively rebuilding after having over 80% of its urban landscape destroyed during the famous Warsaw Uprising and as the Germans retreated back from the Soviet army as the War came to a close.
Warsaw's 1955 Palace of Culture and Science. This was one of the first major reconstructions after the devastating losses sustained from WWII.The rebuilding effort to create a new Warsaw continues aggressively today. Some have labled Warsaw as one of Europe's most architecturally ugly cities. Pictured above is the Warsaw Zlote Tarasy, a multi purpose hotel and shopping complex.
A few hours away on train, we find the more subdued and charming city of Krakow. Unlike its neighbor to the north, Krakow was fortunate to preserve the large majority of its medieval center from destruction. It is a reminder of not just Polish cultural heritage but of what undocumented Architectural treasures must have been destroyed in the much larger Warsaw.
The beautiful Rynek Główny square in Krakow, one of Poland's most important market squares.
Tower of St. Mary's Basilica in Rynek Główny SquareThe overwhelmingly hodge-podged combination of historic styles combined over time at Krakow's Wawel Castle.
Alexander Morley enjoying the sun and courtyard of Wawel Castle
Gutter detail, Wawel CastleStrangely placed cornice that has started to crumble... note the nets Nicely corbeled brick work.
Krakow provided us the ideal home base for excursions to two outstanding historic sites that portray both coins of the past; the inspiring and the horrific.
The inspiring site we speak of, of course, are the famed Salt Mines of Wieliczka. Built in the 13th Century this mine was carved out of the rock salt. From its beginning until its close it was under the ownership of Żupy KRock saltrakowskie , making it the 14th oldest company in the world. It remained in use until the mid 1990’s.
The mine shafts are a combination of tight, snaking passageways and vast open chambers
Rock salt, unlike other types of mines, provides a relatively healthy environment that does not pollute the lungs, and as such, the company was able to excavate to enormous depths and remain underground for longer periods of time. Horses, for example, that were lowered into the mines would remain their entire life. All said and done, there are over 190 miles of mines which reach depths of over a 1,000 ft. Today, one can tour a selected portion of the mines and witness some of the more spectacular moments. Cathedrals, chapels, sculptures, underground canals, and salt lake chambers have resulted from the hundreds of years of human use.
St. Kinga Chapel, this is the main religious space in the mines
Stairs into St. Kinga ChapelBeautiful vertical shaft reinforcements that are several hundred years old.
The horrific site we speak of is the infamous Nazi extermination camp of Auschwitz in Oświęcim, site of the largest single mass deportation of prisoners during WWII. Before speaking about this delicate subject, we must first remember the words of the great Spanish philosopher, George Santayana:
"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."
These words are inscribed on a plaque as one enters Auschwitz to remind why the terrible complex remains today for visits.
For our part, we found it to be sourly confounding to see so many tourists trekking to this dreadful place. On each face read a silenced look of disbelief, that such an atrocity of this scale could occur no more than 70 years ago. Even deeper within every visitor is the unspeakable awe that is felt at the enormity, the horrid efficiency, and the ability to compound and murder people at an unspeakable scale. It is a dreadful and cold place. It is so cold and so unbelievable that the majority of the tourists did not seem to have sorrow left over to express. It was beyond them and it was beyond us. We expected to leave feeling sad, but we left as the place was: cold and empty.
While our brief tour revealed windows into the country’s past, Poland continues hard into the present. We met up with some Polish friends in Krakow, and over several rounds of flavored vodkas, an impressive spread of kielbasa, pierogis, and dark breads we discussed the troubles of the country’s emergence from the iron curtain. While many of the elderly generation still find it hard to adjust to a capitalistic society, the youth have embraced it with optimism unlike that probably seen since Independence was achieved nearly 100 years ago. Today, Poland experiences what hopes to be a sustained liberation to truly harness a new identity. Taking what remains from the past, they continue to persevere.
Next stop, the Balkans.
This work by A.D.Morley & J.A.Wong is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
A new adventure begins as we finish one chapter; we hope to share our story with you. We are graduates of Washington University in St. Louis, Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts.