Category Archives: Poland

Polish Tango on a Summer Evening

On Friday evening, I celebrated a friend’s graduation.  She just defended her master’s thesis on Thursday and received a 10, the highest mark possible in the Lithuanian grading system.  It was a beautiful, warm summer evening.  We took a stroll through Old Town and through the park along the Vilnelė river, had a glass of wine and went to the free Polish Tango concert in the Vilnius Picture Gallery courtyard.  You are probably thinking what I was thinking — “Polish tango?”  These guys may come from northern Europe but they have Argentinean musical souls.  Ladies and gentlemen….the Tangata Quintet.


Ban Baroque

I always visit churches as I am traveling in Europe, but I have to say that I am not a fan of Baroque churches.  I find the abundance of colors and statues and gilding all a bit overwrought.  I much prefer the clean lines and sweeping arches of Romanesque and Gothic churches.  Unfortunately those early churches were often destroyed, either by fire or deliberately torn down, and replaced by froufy Baroque churches.  I was looking forward to seeing Gothic churches in Krakow, but was disappointed to find that the interiors of the Dominican church and an old chapel that we found had been filled with Baroque decorations.  We did, however, get to see beautiful stained glass windows — especially in the Church of St. Francis — made by famous Polish artists from the 18th and 19th centuries.

An ancient mural in St. Francis' Church

Krakow Scenes

There were several outdoor exhibits marking the 30th anniversary of Solidarity (Solidarnosc), the independent labor union that challenged the Communist government’s authority in 1980, resulting in the imposition of martial law in 1981.  Lech Walesa, leader of Solidarity and later president of Poland, stands in front of a cross in the top center photo.

Legend says that a dragon lived in a lair under Wawel Castle.  Unfortunately I had just put my camera away when this dragon breathed real fire, scaring the little kids hanging on his legs.

Florianska Gate - part of Krakow's original medieval city wall

The Castle on the Hill

Krakow is probably most famous for Wawel, a castle complex where the first rulers of Poland lived before the capital was moved to Warsaw.  Almost every Polish king was crowned in the Cathedral in Wawel and many are buried there, as are other more modern national heroes.

It would take a full day to tour all the exhibitions in the castle, which include the state rooms, the royal private residences and the treasury with the crown jewels.  We only had Sunday afternoon so we were forced to choose from among the many tourist offerings.  First we went through the “Lost Wawel” exhibition, which begins with a computer-generated model of the first buildings constructed on the site in the 10th century. We then got to walk through an archeological dig that uncovered fragments of the medieval wall and the small rotunda that housed the first church in Krakow.

Next we took the audio tour of the Cathedral.  The current cathedral was built in 1364.  It is huge, with 18 side chapels.  The tour included a climb up the bell tower to see the 11-ton St. Sigismund Bell and a walk through the Royal Crypts below the church.  Highlights for me — the tombs of King Jogaila (the Lithuanian Grand Duke who married Jadvyga), Adam Mickevic (famous 19th century Polish poet) and Marshall Jozef Pilsudski (one of the founders of the modern Polish state).

At the end of the tour, we unexpectedly participated in a Polish national moment.  As we exited the royal crypts, we were channeled into a stream of people who were coming through a separate entrance to walk past the tomb of the Polish president who died in the plane crash at Katyn in April.  His burial in Wawel Cathedral was controversial – many questioned whether he really qualified as a national hero – but that apparently didn’t matter to the hundreds of people who were coming to pay their respects.

Unfortunately I wasn’t allowed to take photos in the exhibit or the cathedral, but here are a couple of photos from the outside.

Wawel Cathedral

Wawel Castle

Where else would grad students go?

Given that our merry band of travelers to Krakow was composed of two history doctoral candidates, one newly-minted history Ph.D. and an art history grad student, you won’t be surprised to learn that we took the tour of Collegium Maius, the Jagiellonian University museum.

Jagiellonian University was founded in 1364 by King Kazimierz the Great and is the third oldest university in Europe.  Nicolaus Copernicus, famous for proposing that the earth orbited the sun rather than the other way around, studying at Jagiellonian University from 1491-1495.

The museum is located in the university’s oldest building, built in 1400.  The building housed the original library, faculty dining rooms and living quarters, and lecture hall.  On display is a small globe that is the oldest surviving globe to show the Americas.  A large reproduction allows one to see that South America is basically the correct shape in the correct place, but North America is represented as a set of islands in the ocean between South America and China.

Our favorite piece, however, was the reading wheel – a wooden frame designed to hold six open books.  The reader can have six books available at the same time and simply turn the wheel to whichever book he or she wants to read at the moment.  Now that is a useful invention for an academic!

The reading wheel holds six (large) books open at a time

Polish-Lithuanian Bond

It is fitting that I, a scholar of Lithuanian history, visited Poland because Lithuania’s history has been intertwined with Poland’s history for centuries.   I came across two commemorations of that shared history while in Krakow.

The first was a monument in the planty, the city park that encircles the center of town.  I took a quick look at the plaque as we walked past.  Even though I don’t speak Polish, I immediately understood what it said.  The monument was built in 1886 to commemorate the 500 year anniversary of the establishment of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1386.  The statues on the top represent Queen Jadwyga of Poland and Grand Duke Jogaila of Lithuania, whose marriage cemented the union.

The monument commemorating the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth

This year is the 600 year anniversary of the Battle of Grunwald (Polish), aka the Battle of Tannenburg (German), aka the Battle of Žalgiris (Lithuanian) — all of which mean, more or less, “green forest.”   In 1410, the combined forces of Poland and Lithuania defeated the Teutonic Knights.  It was a major win for the Poles and Lithuanians and a major defeat for the Teutonic Knights.   The banners above Florianska Street in Old Town included one commemorating Vytautas, the Grand Duke who led the Lithuanian forces.

The banner says in Polish "Vytautas, Grand Duke of Lithuania"

Of course, I am a 20th century historian so all of this medieval history is way out of my area of expertise.  One day, I might just venture back farther in time and learn more about Lithuania’s ancient medieval empire.

Bugler’s View

On Saturday, I overcame my fear of heights and lack of cardiovascular fitness to climb up a lot of steep stairs to the top of the taller tower of St. Mary’s Basilica in Krakow’s main square.  There are, of course, great views from the top.  There is also a bugler who plays every hour on the hour from the tower.  Legend says that, in 1214, a bugler alerted the town of the approach of invading Tartars.  Unfortunately the bugler was killed by an arrow as he blew his trumpet — today’s buglers recreate the event by stopping in mid-tune.  We heard the bugler playing as we climbed the tower and then got to buy a signed postcard from him for a mere 3 zlotys.

We climbed St Mary's tallest tower, the one on the left

The view from St. Mary's Basilica tower

The bugler signing my friend's postcard

I ♥ Krakow

It only took three days, actually just the first evening, for me to know that Krakow would be one of my favorite European cities.  This week I’ll be posting photos and stories from our adventures in Krakow, but here are a few of my favorite things.

Beer flavored with ginger syrup — I know, I had the same initial response, but it is very good.

Strolling through Old Town and the Rynek (the main square) — morning, afternoon, evening, anytime was enjoyable.

Strolling through the Planty, a city park that encircles the Old Town — ditto.

Polish food — pierogi and potato pancakes, yummy!

My new plan is to spend a summer in Krakow studying Polish (after I finish my dissertation, of course).

See how happy I am in Krakow!


On Friday, the first day of my trip to Poland, we visited Auschwitz – the most well-known of the Nazi death camps during World War II.  Last winter I taught a course on History and Memory of the Holocaust.  After that experience, I felt it was important to see this site.  It was a moving experience and I’d like to share a few impressions with you.

There were flowers on many of the plaques but also these small stones.  It seems that this might be a specifically Jewish custom but I am not familiar with it.

I found the standing chimneys that are all that remain of the barracks in Birkenau (Auschwitz II) much more haunting than the preserved barracks.  Auschwitz itself was disturbing because it could almost be old brick dorms on a college campus.  I was also struck by the sign Arbeit Mach Frei (Work Makes One Free) over the entrance gate to Auschwitz.  It is always photographed from an angle that makes it seem so big — and it looms so large in our historical consciousness — that I was surprised to see a small gate and sign.

This small wire artwork stands on the train tracks on which the cattle cars arrived at the death camp with Jews and others from all over Europe.

The Gang’s All Here…and in Krakow

It seems like most people I know with a connection to Lithuania are here in September  — some just visiting and some here for a year or more.  Last night at the Fulbright orientation, there were three of us from the University of Washington plus a fourth Seattleite.  And I’m meeting three UW friends this weekend in Krakow, Poland.  I’ll be away from the computer so no posts until Monday.  But then I’ll have lots of photos and stories from my first trip to Poland.