Warsaw, the capital of Poland and home to nearly 2 million inhabitants, is of relatively new and not very interesting construction, because about 85% of its buildings were destroyed during World War II and they were replaced mostly with drab, Soviet-style, gray buildings. However, parts of the historic city, known as the Old Town (Stare Miasto), have been rebuilt from the post-ward rubble and a walk through this area of several square blocks is very pleasant. We visited the massive Royal Castle, which was but a heap of stony debris in 1945 but is now a nice museum, plus a couple of old churches that survived (such as St. Anne’s) and the urban campus of Warsaw University. We also passed by Radziwill, the Presidential Palace, which is not open to tourists.
The largest and tallest building complex in the city – in fact, in the whole of Poland – is the Stalinist-era Palace of Culture and Science, which was a “gift of friendship” from the Soviet Union to the Polish nation, but there is nothing really for tourists to see inside of it other than an observation terrace on the 30th floor. According to the Lonely Planet guide to Warsaw, “Poles often joke that this is the best city view because it is the only one which does not include the Palace itself!”
We also walked by the large area that used to be the Jewish Ghetto. This is where nearly half a million Jews were crowded together and, little by little, were exterminated mainly through deportations to death camps or through starvation and disease. After crushing the uprising of April-May 1943, the Nazis burned and razed the whole ghetto to the ground with one exception: the Nozyk Synagogue, which had been turned by the Nazis into a stable for their horses in an act of purposeful desecration. The building, dating to the start of the 20th century, was lovingly cleaned up and reopened in 1945, when a few Jewish survivors returned to Warsaw, but has since been more thoroughly restored and now serves as the center of a Jewish community numbering in the few hundreds. (For additional information on the community, see http://www.jewish.org.pl/index-en.html
.) The former Ghetto district is presently a mix of green areas and relatively modern, residential apartment buildings.
The City of Warsaw does not maintain an official English-language website, but for those who can read Polish, the site is http://www.msiwarszawa.com.pl/
Cracow (Kraków) is the most beautiful and historic large city in Poland, with a population of about 800,000. Founded in the 7th century, it was actually the capital of the Piast kingdom from 1038 until 1596, and even after Warsaw became the nation’s capital, it was in Cracow that Polish kings were crowned and buried. We are fortunate indeed that the city was spared the general devastation brought about by World War II, although it suffered from heavily polluting industrial development in the outskirts.
The two main areas to see are the Old Town and Kazimierz. Separating the two is a hill topped by Wawel Castle, the ancestral home of Polish kings, and Wawel Cathedral, where some 100 members of the country’s royalty are interred. The castle is famous for its collection of 16th century Flemish tapestries. Down in the middle of the Old Town is the main market square (Rynek Glówny), the largest medieval square in Europe. It features a 16th century building (Cloth Hall) in the center of the square housing a market for arts and crafts; the 14th century St. Mary’s Church; and the 15th century Town Hall Tower, which can be climbed to the top. Every hour on the hour, a trumpeter plays a tune from St. Mary’s highest tower which ends abruptly, because it is meant to recall a 13th century trumpeter who was cut down by a Tartar arrow when warning of an invasion.
Kazimierz, previously located on the outskirts of Cracow, was founded in 1335 by King Casmir the Great and became the home of many Jews who arrived from Germany on their way to Prague. The area features seven very old synagogues in various states of repair, as well as two cemeteries. The historic building in the best shape is Tempel Synagogue, which has now been completely and beautifully restored by the World Monuments Fund and by the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation (see http://wmf.org/html/programs/news/newstempel.html
). Tempel, an impressively ornate building, was built in the 1860s as part of the Polish Jewish Reform movement, and is virtually the only 19th century synagogue in the country to survive the Holocaust – although it too was defiled by the Nazis, who used the property (how else?) as a stable. We also visited the Isaac Synagogue, which dates back to 1644, but it is pretty much empty inside. For additional information on Jewish history and sights in Cracow, see http://www.us-israel.org/jsource/vjw/Cracow.html
The city maintains a very nice website at http://www.krakow.pl/en/