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If you're a UNESCO nerd like me, you love discovering the cultural, historic, and natural aspects of a destination. Last spring, I hit the jackpot when I visited Krakow, Poland's former capital city, where I explored three sites that are on UNESCO's World Heritage List. Each is a treasure filled with remnants and stories that, whether uplifting or painful, serve as powerful reminders of our history.
Krakow's Historic Center
Located on the River Vistula, Krakow's walled center lays claim to Europe's largest public square, with cafes, horse-and-carriage rides, and a marketplace with locals selling wares like amber jewelry and hand-painted ceramic vases and tableware.
And there are churches. Like the 14th-century St. Mary's Basilica, with Polish Gothic architecture and an hourly trumpet signal played from the top of one of its two towers. In Krakow's Kazimierz District, the Jewish Quarter thrives, with cafes and restaurants and the 15th-century Old Synagogue. Around the Jewish Quarter's small main square, some of the apartments that used to belong to people killed in the Holocaust are still empty.
Anchoring the historic center is the 16th-century Wawel Castle, once home to Polish royalty, which is now a cultural attraction. The 14th-century Jagiellonian University is one of the world's oldest, counting some of history's most well-known figures - such as astronomer and mathematician Nicolaus Copernicus - among its alumni.
On the gate into Auschwitz, the German concentration camp built and operated by Germany, is a sign reading: "Arbelt Macht Frei" ("Work brings freedom"). But most of the 10,000-plus people who were imprisoned here nearly a century ago would never know freedom again. This was the start of our guided tour of the infamous death camp, which included Auschwitz I (the original camp) and nearby Auschwitz II/Birkenau - two of more than 40 camps that comprise Auschwitz.
While most of the barracks at Auschwitz I are off-limits to visitors, some have been conserved with original bunks and bathroom facilities, which I photographed from the hallways. Others have been converted into exhibit rooms, with thousands of confiscated possessions piled behind glass walls: suitcases, human hair, prayer shawls and mountains of shoes among them. One room we were allowed to enter was the "shower" room, where many of the prisoners were gassed.
At the larger Auschwitz II/Birkenau, we did enter some of the barracks, where prisoners slept several to a bunk with no mattresses. We also walked through the crematory, where deceased prisoners were burned, their ashes scattered throughout the grounds of the camp for fertilizer. It gave me great pause to learn that I was walking on such solemn ground.
Wieliczka Salt Mine
Located about 10 miles southeast of Krakow, the Wieliczka Salt Mine is Poland's oldest business venture, having been in operation for more than 700 years. Salt has been an important commodity over the centuries, and this mine is responsible for much of Krakow's economic growth.
Visitors who aren't afraid of descending as much as 1,000 feet underground for two or more hours walk through a labyrinth of massive underground tunnels and caverns, explore open areas with several chapels and a huge event space (where weddings, concerts, and theatrical productions take place) and see man-made salt lakes. There are even gift shops, snack bars, and a museum.
As our tour group navigated this small portion of the mine's 178 miles, we learned about the development of rock salt mining techniques in Europe and saw salt rock friezes, sculptures (including working chandeliers), and other artworks.
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