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A trip to Poland opens the door on a diverse history

Last fall, when my son Connor and I arrived in Krakow, Poland, I really didn’t know what to expect. I had only heard and read good things about Poland, but knowing a little bit about its history, I wondered if I’d detect lasting scars caused by its tumultuous history.

After all, it has been invaded by aggressors from every direction at different times since the land was populated during the Middle Ages.

To say the least, any concern I may have had was quickly dispelled as soon as we checked into the Orlowska Townhouse Apartments. Not only was the staff extremely friendly, but it was also very helpful in booking the local tours we wanted to take.

And the location of the building was just a few steps from the center of Krakow, the medieval Market Square.

Larger than most European city squares I’ve seen, Market Square is really quite quaint and accommodating for tourists.

Erected in the center is a long building known as the Cloth Hall, which was rebuilt in 1555 with a Renaissance motif. Inside, we found every souvenir we could hope to find, from amber jewelry and Christmas ornaments to clothing at the numerous shops.

Restaurants, churches and other medieval buildings lined the periphery of the square with horse-drawn carriages lined up along the street to help tourists enjoy the sites around the romantic old town.

Because of the late arrival of our flight, it was already dark when we arrived at the square, but we felt incredibly safe. The nightlife was vibrant, with people enjoying the warm evening almost everywhere.

It was exciting to see so many people enjoying a weekday evening and not rolling up the streets as soon as the sun disappeared below the horizon.

Connor and I walked around for a while until our jet lag caught up with us, forcing us to retire for the night.

Our first scheduled tour the next morning was the one I had the most apprehension about. After being picked up by the See Krakow Tour bus, we left for Auschwitz.

Connor had a little understanding of the Holocaust and wanted to learn more, but I admit I was a little nervous of what we would see and how it would affect my son.

The World War II extermination camp was not exactly what I expected. I had the notion we would find it deep in the forest, hidden from public view. On the contrary, it was right in the middle of Polish civilization.

Our guide took us through the front gate under the infamous sign in German that reads “Arbeit Macht Frei,” or in English, “Work Will Set You Free.” Of course, we know now that no words could be further from the truth.

Without going into extreme detail because of the horrific things that went on there, we saw all kinds of artifacts, mostly things taken from those who were taken there against their will. We were also shown the facilities they were forced to use.

At the even larger Birkenau, a not-too-distant larger camp making up the second part of Auschwitz, we saw the ruins of the gas chambers and crematoriums.

The day spent at the camps was somber and moving. The effect it had on me has lasted until this day, and I don’t anticipate it will ever go away completely.

Wawel Castle, right in the center of Krakow on the banks of the Vistula River, was the perfect attraction for Connor and me to recharge our emotional batteries the next day.

It consists of several buildings, and you only pay for what you want to see with an itemized ticket. Of course, not being from Poland, we elected to see it all, from the Dragon’s Den, which is a series of small caves below the main castle, to the Crown Treasury, the Armory and the Royal Apartments.

Parts of the castle, those with a Roman influence, date back to the mid-11th century. The larger, gothic portion was built in the mid-14th century by Ladislas the Short and his son Casimir the Great.

During the first half of the 16th century, a German architect and an Italian sculptor added a Renaissance influence to replace portions damaged during a fire in 1499.

The entire castle was well worth our visit and very educational.

A short walk from the castle, along the banks of the river, we boarded a small gondola for a short cruise up past the nunnery of Norbertanki Convent, which dates back to the 12th century and was impressive to see even from the outside.

Our last day was spent on another organized tour to Wieliczka Salt Mine, a 30-minute bus ride from Krakow and the one attraction I really wanted to see.

One of the coolest things about Wieliczka is that it is one of three original European destinations that appeared on the first UNESCO world heritage list. Once we saw the inside, I understood why.

Existing for over 700 years, the mine consists of a labyrinth of chambers, including two chapels and some of the most unique examples of sculptured art I’ve ever encountered, all of it carved into the mine’s salt rock.

Every chamber we passed through had either examples of art or demonstrations of mining techniques used over the centuries that we found very interesting.

Without a doubt, however, the climax of our tour through the mine was the Chapel of St. Kinga.

I was humbled to see the art created by generations of miners in the spacious chamber, consisting of overhead chandeliers and re-creations of famous religious art such as “The Last Supper” carved into the wall.

Demonstrating that the creation of art continues to this day, there is a contemporary statue of Pope John Paul II at the foot of the stairs leading down from the upper level.

I don’t think photographs could possibly convey how special the chapel really is. It’s something I can easily recommend to anyone to see for themselves.

Visiting the creations of Wieliczka Salt Mine and Wawel Castle on subsequent days after Auschwitz was the perfect balance I was looking for. From viewing the remnants of senseless destruction and horror to basking in amazing and inspired creations, we spanned the human spectrum all in one short trip to Poland.

Something else worth mentioning is that Poland, at least the southern portion we saw, is very inexpensive. The prices, from hotels and apartments to the numerous offerings in souvenir shops and food, were very economical, especially by European standards.

Chris Hale is an aviation maintenance technician for a major airline and has traveled extensively with his family. In his spare time, he writes novels inspired by places he's been. Find out more about his books and other articles at chrisahale.com.