According to an ancient Polish legend, a fearsome, fire-belching dragon once lived in a cave at the foot of Wawel Hill. Many brave knights set out to subdue the dragon and failed — until a shoemaker's apprentice named Krak came up with a crafty solution. Krak prepared a meal of sheep filled with spices and sulfur, which the dragon eagerly consumed. Overwhelmed by thirst from the fiery stuffing, the dragon gulped water all night from the Vistula River. He drank so much that he burst, freeing the countryside from his tyranny. The grateful Poles made sure that Krak was wed to the king's daughter, and the old capital of Poland — Krakow — took his name forever!
This fanciful tale — spun by our skillful tour guide during a visit to Wawel Royal Castle — set the stage for a mid-July Northwestern Alumni Association Alumni Campus Abroad program in Krakow.
We enjoyed a week of hearty food, Polish folk entertainment, mountaintop adventures and a trip into the depths of the world's most artistically inspired salt mine. But we also experienced sobering moments as we toured Nazi concentration camps and walked in the footsteps of Oskar Schindler, the factory owner who saved more than a thousand Jews from the Holocaust.
Headquarters for our adventure in Poland was the Krakow Holiday Inn, located just a few blocks from the center of the world's largest surviving medieval town. This allowed our bargain hunters easy access to what is billed as the "planet's oldest shopping mall" — the 16th-century Sukiennice, or Cloth Hall, in the 10-acre Rynek Glowny, or Grand Square. The Grand Square's many beautifully decorated restaurants were also within walking distance — and most every evening we visited one or another of them for Polish treats including pierogis, potato pancakes, homemade soups and an endless array of salads.
Northwestern travelers agree that the educational component of these trips sets them apart from mere casual tourism. Several distinguished scholars from Krakow's Jagiellonian University (established in 1364) visited us for morning lectures on Polish history, culture, politics and family life.
While Krakow serves as the historical and intellectual center of Poland, trips to other parts of the country broadened our understanding and appreciation.
In Warsaw we viewed the amazingly reconstructed Stare Miasto, or Old Town. Destroyed during World War II, Old Town has been rebuilt in the image of the original medieval city. The communists' "minimalist" (read ugly) residential architecture and the many monuments dedicated to Polish victims of World War II give Warsaw a somewhat disturbing quality. Not the most upbeat city to visit, but still, not to be missed.
At Auschwitz and Birkenau we toured the remaining buildings where the Nazis pursued their sinister "final solution," and we viewed piles of articles left by those on their way to the gas chamber. On the walls hung pictures of those who entered the camps never to emerge.
On the optional Schindler's List Tour, the most compelling visual was the wall outside the only active synagogue in Krakow's Kazimierz district — the old Jewish town. The wall was created from salvaged fragments of Jewish cemetery headstones that had been broken up by the Nazis for various uses.
At the Wieliczka Salt Mine, just 8 miles southeast of Krakow, we boarded tiny elevators to plunge down in the darkness. We emerged to view a unique collection of "salt sculptures" carved by the miners themselves. Polish heroes and historical figures, religious icons, chandeliers and other works of art adorn rooms of this enormous mine. The tour guide claimed we walked down 400-plus stairs to see all the chambers after exiting the elevators, but I admit I lost count.
After mostly urban outings, a day spent in the mountainous region near Zakopane was a welcome change of pace. A favorite year-round retreat for skiers and hikers from all over Europe, Zakopane offers incredible mountain panoramas and a downtown full of tourist shops and attractions, including sheep, "mountain men" and sheepdogs, who wander around town greeting visitors.
Of course, one of the most obvious pleasures of a trip like this is the company of Northwestern alumni and friends. As a veteran of seven such vacations, I can vouch for the fact that travelers on Northwestern trips can expect friendly companions, intelligent conversation and much good humor and wit. As for Poland, I found it to be a highly civilized, laid-back country with gorgeous scenery, rich history and much to do within easy travel distance of Krakow. Would I recommend it? As they say in Polish, Tak!Susan Kraus Jones (J71, GJ72) is a professor of marketing at Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Mich. She serves as a regional director with the Northwestern Alumni Association.