October 10, 2017
We arose before the sun the next morning, excited to check another country off of our ever burgeoning list of countries we have visited. Still, we were sad to have to say goodbye to Logan who was to be the last of the group of people we had started with on our journey as it was his time to fly back to the United States. It is oddly symbolic that the day our last family member was flying back west, we, at the same time were flying to the most eastern part of the world we had ever been to – it was the furthest we had ever been apart from our families.
Krakow is one of the oldest cities in Poland at over 1000 years old and is the country’s second largest. The city has a long and interesting relationship with dragons as it is said that a dragon’s lair was in a cave at the foot of Wawel Hill where the castle now stands. The story goes that the dragon was killed by a man named Krakus who became king of the city and the person from which the city got its name.
To go with this mythical animal, the aforementioned castle is straight out of fairy tales being the home of many kings and complete with an eclectic mix of all possible European architectural styles. But, if history is not your thing, the city also has the highest density of bars in the world! Side note: I promise we don’t drink as much as it looks like we do.
Upon arriving in the city we went straight to Krakow’s medieval city center/market square which is the largest in Europe. Cutting straight through the middle of the square is a market with around 30 shops selling all sorts of odds and ends, mostly souvenirs. Adjacent to the square is St. Mary’s Basilica with its imposing towers that were once part of the city’s defense system to spot attackers from miles around. The market square is immaculately clean and its historic houses and lively atmosphere make it a very charming place to be.
Shortly after arriving, we got our first taste of authentic polish food near the market square as Lauren and I shared some pierogis and goulash for lunch, both of which we found delicious and extremely affordable.
Later, for dinner we ate at a restaurant near our Airbnb named Browar Lubicz that also brewed its own beer. They made their own wheat beer, not a hefeweizen which we usually prefer, that was excellent and a huge reason why we ended up visiting again later on in the week. Though we honestly did not do that much the first day, I think that even then we were already starting to fall in love with the city and its people.
October 11, 2017
We were not sure what to do the next day but we had been recommended by Tiffany to go to the nearby salt mine to take our second visit to a salt mine on our trip thus far. If you do not remember the last time we did, it was in Salzburg, Austria, and while not terrible, it was not the most riveting of experiences so we were a little reluctant to tour another one. However, like I said, we did not know where else to go and we trusted Tiffany’s travel advice to go there so we went.
The salt mine is about 30 minutes south of town in Wieliczka. The mine opened in the 13th century and by the time it stopped producing salt in 2007, it was one of the oldest salt mines in operation. At it’s deepest, the mine reaches a depth of more than 1000ft. There are dozens of statues in the mine that are made of salt and actually crafted by miners that worked in the mine.
We were blown away by the entire tour and how different it was from the Salzburg mine we went to. The salt statues of important people from Krakow including figures such as Pope John Paul II and Nicolaus Copernicus were incredible looking and very interesting and we had never seen anything like them. There are also several caverns inside with beautiful and awe-inspiring underground lakes. Lastly, the most breathtaking sight we saw on the tour was the Underground Salt Cathedral of Poland complete with enormous chandeliers made of salt and even a picture of Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper carved into a rock-salt wall. I’m pretty sure my jaw actually dropped when I first saw it. I felt like it had been built by dwarves straight out of the Lord of the Rings.
I would definitely like to thank Tiffany for the recommendation to see the mine as it was one of the best experiences we have had on the trip thus far. This is not an experience to be missed.
October 12, 2017
We realized after the salt mine the day before and Auschwitz the 13th, we did not really know a whole lot about Krakow (besides the cheap beer of course), so we decided on a walking tour to get ourselves more familiar with the city. Luckily, there is a highly rated free walking tour that was incredibly insightful and runs several times a day. If you have never gone on one before, the tour guides get paid only through tips so they request that if you liked the tour you tip them what you think it was worth.
The tour we took was the called the Old Town Tour. There was so much information that we learned on this 2.5 hour tour that it would be impossible to list them all here, but there were definitely a few interesting tidbits. Krakow is largely a university town with the population of the city increasing from 600,000 to 800,000. The biggest and oldest in town educated several very important figures such as Nicolaus Copernicus and Pope John Paul II, both whom I mentioned earlier, but also Marie Curie. The tour guide also showed us an hourly performance atop the St. Mary’s Cathedral where a trumpeter plays a little ditty to let everyone know there is nobody in the distance coming to take the city. This tour is also where we learned all about the city’s relationship with dragons, the German occupation of the city during WWII and subsequent communist rule, and we also got to see some of the more historically significant buildings in the city.
One such significant building and one with an interesting story as well is the first McDonald’s in the city (seen below next to an old gate tower). As I said earlier, Krakow was under communist rule from the end of WWII to 1989. The first McDonalds opened in Krakow in 1993 in a 16th century building with obviously a lot of history behind it, garnering a lot of backlash. Still, for the oppressed people it was a symbol of freedom. For months and months there were lines out the door as people queued up in their best clothes and spent 10% of their monthly salary to get an opportunity to embrace Western culture and celebrate their freedom. I think that is a really interesting look into the lives and struggles of those people.
The tour is definitely a must do while in Krakow, both of the walking tours I took – the other being of the Jewish quarter including the old Ghetto and Schindler’s factory – were done with incredible detail with fantastic and knowledgeable tour guides and were, best of all, fun!
October 13, 2017
Though we skipped the last concentration camp visit to Dachau, we really couldn’t pass up on a visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau as it was the largest and most lethal camp. I feel very strongly that to really see how horrifying these places were you must see where it really was at its worst. There are two main camps, Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau, plus many more satellite camps that make up the Auschwitz as a whole. Both of these parts are open to the public and are available to be visited for free as single traveler but paid if you would like a guide.
Auschwitz I was built first and was a prison camp holding up to 20,000 prisoners in 28 buildings. This camps purpose was as a concentration camp only. Aushwitz.org succinctly describes what exactly a concentration camp’s purpose was: “[It was] predominantly a place of slow killing as the result of deliberately created, inhuman conditions, above all starvation.” Between 1940 and 1942 they began experimenting with mass extermination methods, eventually deciding on gas chambers using a pesticide called Zyklon B. In early 1942, they opened Auschwitz II nearby which was not a concentration camp but an actual extermination camp where the majority or prisoners were killed on arrival. The rest were sent to perform back-breaking slave labor. In total, by the time both camps were liberated in 1945 approximately a million people had been killed there.
If planning on going to see Auschwitz, both camps are an absolute must-see. Auschwitz I held the belongings of many camp victims including shoes, luggage, brushes, and even an entire room full of hair taken directly from the heads of prisoners upon arrival. Here you get a better feel of the humanity of all the people that were killed in the camps. It is easy to not fully grasp how much human life was lost at these places until you see their personal effects and realize that they were not just a statistic but actual human beings with their own personalities, thoughts, and feelings. It is really eye-opening.
As for Auschwitz II-Birkenau, Lauren and I were blown away at the whole size of the camp. At 425 acres or the equivalent of 322 football fields, the sprawling complex is 1 mile by 1.5 miles long and held upwards of 200,000 prisoners. It was very different from the barracks at Auschwitz I which were in very close proximity. At its peak, there were 4 gas chambers in operation at Auschwitz II-Birkenau, all of them no longer in tact as fleeing Nazis tried to hide their crimes before the camp was liberated (The gas chamber at Auschwitz I, however, was still intact and able to be walked in).
Going on a tour of a concentration camp, especially one as notorious and deadly as Auschwitz, is always a sobering and often uncomfortable experience. The stories of people like Elie Wiesel who wrote Night, and Anne Frank, who both went to Auschwitz, combined with the personal effects of the victims, and pictures of just a few of the million people who died there stir up a lot of sadness. It is a poignant reminder of the capability of humans to enact suffering on their own kind. I, for one, know that I will never forget the disquieting feeling of standing in a gas chamber knowing what happened there. A human tragedy as enormous as the holocaust cannot be forgotten and this memorial is vital in keeping the victims’ memories, and their suffering, alive.
We got our first Blabla car home from the camp by a professor at a college in Krakow named Robert. I had only briefly heard about the service before the trip but it is essentially a ride-sharing app where if a driver is going from one place to another, you can request for them to pick you up along the route and drop you off somewhere else along that route. You pay them like you would a taxi or Uber, but I have found that they are often much cheaper than others since the driver doesn’t have to go out of their way to pick you up. It cost us only 16 zloty total for the 1.5 hour trip home which is less than $5! Plus, Robert was a lot of fun to talk about so it was a win-win.
Since it was a Friday, Lauren had to work for the rest of the day – until 11pm – but afterwards we decided to enjoy some of the night life since we knew how young and vibrant the city is. We went to several different places, including another brewery that doubled as a club and had an amazing time. The younger crowd of the city is very fun to be around and also extremely easy-going and friendly. It was a perfect capstone to Krakow for us. Overall the city was better (and cheaper!) then we had ever imagined. I cannot wait to go back again sometime.
- Take a walk! There is no need to take a tour of the city on anything other than your own two feet. Krakow is small enough to walk easily and like I mentioned earlier, the free walking tours put on everyday have incredible detail and great, knowledgeable tour guides
- If you enjoy Kielbasa, every day at 8 pm near Hala Targowa there are two gentleman who sell the sausages out of a van which are widely regarded as the best in the city and are said to be life-changing.
- Bonus nightlife tip: There are 24 hour liquor stores on nearly every street in the city so there is no need to plan ahead when it comes to alcohol! Be wary though, many cities in Europe allow you to walk about with an open drink, but not Krakow.