by Lori Catron
Are you drawn to castles, ancient culture, breathtaking scenery and fantastic cuisine? Try Poland.
I joined Yolanta Barnes of Sights and Soul Travels to experience and share her life ambition of endearing travelers to her native country.
Our visit started in the heart of the ancient city of Krakow. The Old Market Square features Cloth Hall, billed as "the world's oldest shopping mall." We toured the 14th-century Collegium Maius of Jagiellonian University (its most famous student was Copernicus); the Wawel Castl, residence of Polish royalty since the 11th century; and the incredible Wieliczka Salt Mine, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We spent hours walking in this subterranean city carved in salt, admiring underground chapels and lakes.
We also saw the Czartoryski Museum, which displays Leonardo da Vinci's Lady With an Ermine. I cannot express how beautiful this painting is and how lucky I felt to be standing within arm's reach. I was delighted with the food. I loved Krakow's gourmet restaurants, which served their meals in atmospheric, imaginatively designed interiors. Every meal was a culinary experience. Try blueberry pierogi or the traditional borscht (beet soup).
In the mountain town of Zakopane, we took a cable car to Kasprowy Peak for a hike in the Tatra Mountains. We soon realized how out of shape we were, so we relaxed on a rafting trip down the Dunajec River. We rode in a horse-drawn carriage to Lake Morskie Oko, which is possibly the most beautiful mountain lake in Europe. Visiting Niedzica Castle, we learned of the castle's connection to the Incas, and of the Hungarian owner who lost the castle to the Communist government.
I saved Birkenau and Auschwitz for last because I knew it would be an emotionally draining experience. These camps became synonymous with what has been termed "the greatest mass murder in the history of humanity." The scale of the Nazi death camps was incomprehensible: Jews, Poles, Russians, Gypsies and others perished here. I left this day with a heavy heart.
I loved Poland not only for its historical and cultural content, but also for its people. For me, Poland proved to be a country whose citizens opened their arms and let me into their hearts.