|Greetings from Poland! Krakow is one of the cities that I've been very much looking forward to visit since I've heard such great things about it. Poland reached it's Golden Age in the 16th century and was one of the most propsperous, strongest nation's of Eastern Europe. Poland is yet another country that had been occupied by a communist regime for a very long time. In fact, the country of Poland did not exist on any map for almost 120 years!
Poland's history is as tumultuous as many of it's other neighboring countries. The Nazi's quickly invaded in the early 1940's, only taking two weeks to beat the Polish army and take over the country. During Nazi occupation, the Polish were subjected to the cruelty the Nazis are notorious for. Thousdands of Polish political prisoners and resistance members died along with countless numbers of the Jewish, Gyspies and political prisoners of other countries in the infamous Nazi death camps. Poland actually had many of the larger death camps, specifically Auschwitz and Auschwitz-Birkenau, due to it's central location and infrastructure (stay tuned for another post on Auschwitz).
Poland was a major front for the Nazis as they battled with the Soviet Union, bitterly trying to push their occupied land further East. The city of Krakow was largely spared the destruction of war but many cities like Warsaw were completely leveled as they fell into the zones of the heaviest fighting. The Soviet Union along with the other allies finally "liberated" the Poles after the Nazis significantly started losing the war. Poland, like all of the other Eastern European countries, was occupied by a communist regime for years to come. Poland was really in a tough spot because they were forced into consecutive occupations by two equally bad nations.
Modern day Poland is a great place to be. The communist regime in Poland fell in 1989 with all of the other Soviet block countries. The culture has been fully revived and they are enjoying almost a renaissance. More young people in Poland are enrolling in college than ever before and they are in some of the most prosperous times of their history.
The city of Krakow itself is definitely one of the gems of Europe, possibly the most undervalued. The city was originally completely surrounded by a series of walls to protect themselves against invaders (the Turks once again). Today very little of the city walls remain but in it's place stands a park called the Planty that completely surrounds the old town. The center of the old town is one of the more beautiful areas of a city I've seen on my trip. The center is always alive with people and the shops, restaurants and other stores are great.
Two of the more interesting things about the city are the Jewish Quarter and the castle. The old Jewish Quarter in Krakow is one of the oldest of it's kind in Europe. Until WWII, this area was a flourshing area for hundreds of thousands of Jews but once the Nazis invaded it was turned into a Jewish ghetto (actually two). The Jews were eventually sent to Auschwitz less than 90 km away. This area of the city today is growing explosively. There are said to only be 100 practicing Jews there today but many other Polish people are flocking to this area. The restaurants and stores have more than quadrupled in this area in the last 10-20 years.
Two other great things about Poland: the food and the vodka. The hostel I stayed at was wonderful in Krakow and one of the perks was a Polish girl that worked there named Goisa. She took it upon herself to take us out in Krakow to try the food, spirits and experience the culture. Poland is known for the pirogies, or Polish raviolis, which I ate many of while in Krakow. Goisa also showed us some great restaurants where you could get some of the most delicious soups and pork dishes, all for a very cheap price (a giant bowl of soup was about $.50). The vodka also flows as freely as water in Poland. I only tried a few different types but they were all great.
If you want to experience an Eastern European country and city, Krakow would be my recommendation right along with Budapest.