We were not sure what to expect from Krakow before arriving. It wasn’t initially on our travel list but after talking with a sorority sister, she had told me that if time allotted, we needed to add this city to our list. There is something Rich and I stand true to when traveling, if a fellow traveler tells you not to miss something- you make it happen and boy are we happy we did. Krakow is an amazing city.
The train from Budapest took nearly all day, but we enjoyed having some time to put our feet up, read, and relax after all the walking we have been doing for the past three weeks. We arrived to the modern train station/ mall and were happy to find out at the tourists desk that Old Town, where we were staying, was less than a mile away.
Krakow’s old town was one of my favorites ( I know I’ve probably said that about every city now). A beautiful green belt path encompasses the cobble stone streets and large open town square. The center of old town was the largest and most open we had seen so far. There were endless things to look at and amazing people watching. Turns out Krakow is a popular destination for people from the UK- apparently the cheap beer, vodka, and lively nightlife entices them to come for stag parties and whatever else reason they have to drink, soccer seemed to be a big reason that weekend.
Turning in a circle in the square you see the beautiful old buildings, a wonderful church, the town hall tower, an indoor market hall, statues, outdoor market, and many horse-drawn carriages. Along the circumference of the square are countless restaurants, cafes, and bars; between that and the street entertainment, you can keep busy people watching for hours. Right away we noticed the beauty and charm of this 13th century city. Luckily it suffered little to no damage during WWII, and Poland clearly takes pride in its upkeep; it is so beautiful I told Rich it almost looks fake like it belongs in Disneyland. It’s no wonder Rick Steve’s uses Krakow’s image for the cover of his Eastern European book.
We arrived late so the first evening really only allowed us to check into our hotel, wander the town center for a bit, and grab a bite to eat; but the next morning we would take full advantage of our time. We woke up and enjoyed a jog around town on the green belt. We managed to get slightly lost as we approached the castle and the path took us along the river. We were happy though because it was really nice down there and full of locals and school children. Since we built up an appetite we took to the streets to find a local place to get breakfast. We found this awesome place along the river and went in. Turns out it was more of a bar than a restaurant but we couldn’t pass up the ambiance so we decided to stay. The servers didn’t speak English but we managed; I ordered a zapiekanka, which is like the Polish style of a french bread pizza, Rich ordered the sausage. I came up with a saying while at this restaurant, “Eating with the locals is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get…”
Rich came out with a sausage, two pieces of bread, and a few thick slices of cheese. He told me to feel the sausage- it was ice-cold. Turns out he had to cook it himself over the open flame. And I thought it was just a fire pit from the night before… We laughed and had a great time as he cooked his own meal. We next visited the Wawel Castle and enjoyed the magnificent views atop the hill the overlooks the city. We were able to enter the Wawel Cathedral, which we agreed was the most beautiful we had entered thus far on the trip. Almost 1000 years old, this church’s beauty and history stands out from the others. It is the Polish national sanctuary and traditionally has served as coronation site of the Polish royals as well as a resting place for many royal sarcophagi. We went back down the hill towards old town to find the Wodka Cafe. Here Rich was able to taste over 7 delicious different polish vodkas. Since vodka and I are not the best of friends I passed on this opportunity. In the evening we left the old town and walked through the Jewish district just past the green belt. We found an amazing restaurant and had one of the most tasty meals of the trip. Rich had wonderful lamb dish and I had an apricot stuffed pork. Walking back to the hotel, we crossed through plac Nowy and outdoor market, where the former Jewish market once stood. We were surprised to see a line, probably about 40 minutes long, for ice cream. Apparently it was famously good, Rich asked one person if there were diamonds in it which gave everyone a good laugh. We headed home, but admittedly we were curious if it was THAT good- we’d possibly find out tomorrow.
Once again we enjoyed a refreshing morning run before taking to town once again. To fuel ourselves for the day we went to near by Milk Bar. Milk Bars are cafeteria style restaurants that imitate those that were common during the Polish communist times. Here you can get a good heavy traditional Polish meal for dirt cheap. We tried to explore all the little streets in old town before going back out to the Jewish district. This time we went further than just the restaurant from last night and crossed the river. Here was where the Jewish Ghetto was located during World War II. We wandered the area until we reached Schindler’s Factory. Unfortunately tickets were sold out to see the museum inside, but we were happy to have been able to at least see it. On our way back to town we walked through the old Jewish district and found ourselves back at the market. With no line, we decided to give the famous ice cream a shot. Chocolate coconut, yes it was good, famously good? I don’t know…
We had an early night that day to rest for a busy following day.
We had a night train out of Krakow which was nice because it gave us a full day to make a necessary trip. After a lovely breakfast, we boarded a bus and took the 1.5 hour drive to the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum. Visiting these two concentration and extermination camps was a very somber experience. Walking through the gates that all the prisoners once did gave you a feeling of unease. Visiting the blocks where prisoners were once slept in over-crowded, starving, sick, and infested with lice and varmints conditions made you sick. Staring into the eyes of some of the prisoners’ as you walked past their portraits and saw their camp entry and death dates recorded made your heart heavy. Walking through the basement where Nazi’s tortured and first tested gassing the prisoners with zyklon-b gave you the chills. Witnessing 2 tons of human hair that was shaven from deceased prisoners and used for military fabric made you want to scream. Viewing the stolen luggage, 20 thousand pairs of left behind shoes, pots, pans, and hair brushes made the sheer numbers come to life. In Auschwitz, walking down the stairs into the gas chamber and looking up into the holes where zyklon-b was poured down on the innocent lives then seeing the crematory that was almost assembly line like made you wonder how people could really do this to someone. Walking the rocky dirt path in Birkenau that nearly one million people once did as they stepped off the train and were marched straight to their death in the gas chamber made you cry. Seeing the complexity and the vastness of these two camps, knowing these were just two of many was unimaginable. Sharing this experience with many people, including countless tours of young teenagers gave you hope.
Approximately 1.5 million people were murdered at these two camps, mainly Jews. The trip was not enjoyable, how could it be? But it was meaningful and we are very glad we did it. Throughout the trip we had seen many memorials and sadly enough it was these two camps that many of the people were sent to.
It is so important to make sure these acts are never forgotten and truly, the only light of the day was seeing the number of youth having this experience as well and knowing that this generation of lost souls will not be forgotten and hopefully a horrendous act like this will never be repeated.
*most of Birkenau was destroyed by the Nazis to hide evidence prior to its liberation.