During my first trip to Krakow nearly twenty years ago, as the train rattled through Austria toward the Polish border, the thought came to mind that these tracks were likely the same used to transport the Jews and other so-called enemies of the Nazi state to Auschwitz. When the air conditioning went out that warm day in late June, I could scarcely muster a complaint thinking of the terrifying conditions others had experienced in boxcars on the way to meet their death five decades before. Like most Americans without Polish ancestry, my knowledge of Poland was limited to Pope John Paul II, the movie Schindler’s List and a few stray details about life behind the Iron Curtain. Little did I realize then, as that hot train rattled along, the fascinating and enchanting world I was about to discover.

For the next four months, in build-up to World Youth Day, I will be chronicling all things great and small about Krakow. Much of the city’s history and the sites close to the heart of Pope St. John Paul II are chronicled in the book City of Saints that I co-authored with George Weigel, but there is so much more that we simply couldn’t fit in the book: day trips, cultural quirks, eating, praying and people that will fill this blog until World Youth Day Krakow kicks off on July 26, 2016.

In the meantime, it is important to give some essential context about Krakow, Poland. Of course, World War II and the Cold War are important elements of Polish history that I will talk about in the coming weeks, but there is much more to know about Poland and the city that is at its heart, Krakow. An overview of the city’s history is the best place to start to give context

Poland, referred to by many as the “heart of Europe,” is truly a crossroads. Few countries can attest more the notion that geography matters. Its unique character has been honed through millennia of trade, where east meets west. Even their language reflects this blending -- a Slavic language from the east written in Latin alphabet from the west.   

Poland’s easy trade routes, however, also made the country highly susceptible to invaders and marauding armies who pillaged Poland, usually on their way to bigger prizes beyond it’s borders.

The many invasions, the country’s ever expanding and contracting borders, and deep devotion to the cross of Christ, (which Poles have experienced keenly), have marked the Polish character with a melancholic cast. It is reflected in their music, literature, and art.

Krakow is the former capital and second largest city in Poland, although it is really the heart and soul of the country. The earliest settlements date back to the fourth century on the banks of the Vistula River. As one legend has it (there are many legends in Polish history), the town’s name comes from the brave and clever knight, Krakus, who was able to vanquish the menacing dragon that lived in the cave that one can still visit today at the base of Wawel Hill. While other brave warriors had tried to kill the dragon, Krakus knew that his fiery breath would kill any man who got close enough to attack him with a sword. Instead, he filled bags with sulphur and then put them in the carcass of an ox and left it for the menacing beast. After quickly eating the ox, the combination of his fiery breath and the sulphur lead to the dragon’s quick demise, leaving only a heap of ashes. The grateful towns folk immediately made Krakus the king and named the city after him.

It has been said that history is to Poland what food is to the French and Krakow as a city is no different. It is dripping with memories – imprinted in the very stones, from the footprint in concrete attributed to St. Jadwiga (1384–99), to the remaining barbican that once defended the city against frequent invasions, to the Jagiellonian University, one of the oldest in the world, that maintains the city’s collective wisdom. Even in small ways, the city remembers. Every hour on the hour, a reminder of the 1241 invasion by Tartar raiders rings out: A trumpeter plays the Hejnal Mariacki, a warning tune of impending attack, from the bell tower of St. Mary's Church. The song, however, abruptly ends mid-melody, never to finish – a reminder, according to legend – of the Tartar arrow that pierced the medieval trumpeter's throat as the city came under siege.

For all the focus on the past, Krakow has seen tremendous change since the fall of communism, steadily recovering from its grey, hungry days under the domination of the Soviet Union. The city itself is a jewel of architecture, history, piety and culture. The old town is ringed with what is called the planty – a walking path around the city on the site of the old ramparts that protected it from invaders for centuries. Inside the ring are the Wawel Castle and Cathedral, the Jagiellonian University, dozens of churches and homes to religious orders, the Archdiocese, and the main square, one of the largest in Europe. Few cars are allowed, making it a pedestrian haven.

Today the city gleams after massive efforts to repair the damage from both World War II and the Soviets. If you look carefully, however, you can still see vestiges of the days when the grey buildings were literally crumbling from pollution and neglect.