Krakow was not on our initial wish list for Europe. Nor did it make it onto the second draft. Or the third. In fact, we didn’t add it until I read a blog post raving about it as a less touristy version of Prague. After a little research and watching a little Rick Steve’s we decided to add Poland’s cultural capital to our trip, mostly because when else are we going to make it to Poland? We took the bus from Budapest to Krakow with OrangeWays, which was a horrible experience. The bus was inexplicably two hours late, getting us into Krakow very late at night. Due to our late night and a heavy rainstorm we decided to take a down day and stay dry on our first full day in Krakow. After a relaxing down day we were ready for a jam-packed day of touring. We started by taking the bus out of the city to the salt mine. The only way to visit the mine is to take a tour, so along with about 50 other English-speaking tourists we walked the 400 steps down into the main part of the mine. The tour was okay. It was pretty interesting, although a little cheesy. Having so many people on a tour sucks, and we are generally don’t like paying for tours, but it was totally worth it as the mine was amazing. Everything in the mine is made of salt. The floors are salt, the ceilings are salt, and there are salt sculptures, salt inscriptions, and even salt chandeliers. People have been mining this mine for hundreds of years and the miners carved chapels inside the mine to pray in. We found the mine to be interesting and beautiful and unique. It was worth the time and money.
After the mine tour we went back into the city and caught a free city tour (the first of many we have now taken). Our guide looked like Marshall from How I Met Your Mother and was a great. We walked all over Krakow’s old town and learned a lot about the history of the city and Poland as a whole. The day was so beautiful and it was wonderful to have a break from the rain. Krakow was easily the least crowded major city we have been to and wandering the old streets was easy and beautiful.
Our next day in Krakow we found a delicious little pierogi restaurant outside of the old town and chowed down on freshly made dumplings covered in caramelized onions.
After our delicious lunch we wandered around the Cloth Market (which mostly sells amber jewelry and other souvenirs now, instead of cloth) and went inside St. Mary’s Church, which was beautiful and featured an alter with life-sized carved apostles.
Outside of St. Mary’s church we met our guide for our second free tour, this time of the Jewish Quarter. I found the tour interesting; Logan thought it was a little boring. We learned all about the Jewish population of the city, and how during World War II that population was essentially destroyed. Our guide told us that the Jewish population of Krakow was over 80,000 before the war, as compared to the 150 Jews who live in the city today. Now the Jewish Quarter is home to the majority of the city’s bars, and tons of restaurants. Before leaving the Quarter we went for cocktails and indulged in zapickanki, Polish drunk food, which is basically half a French baguette covered in toppings. Yum!!!
On our final day in Poland we caught a shuttle bus to Auschwitz (and Birkenau). The only way to see Auschwitz between the hours of 10-3 is to take a tour, so once again we joined to horde of tourists (seriously a horde, like 150 people) at the meeting point and after being divided into three smaller groups (and by small I mean 50 people) the group descended on the camp.
Our first guide at the camp was horrible. He was angry and antagonistic and spoke to the group like we were all 1940’s Nazi sympathizers who needed to be convinced that the Holocaust happened and that it was awful. I got so angry that he was turning our tour into a verbal assault that we decided to covertly change guides. Our next guide was extremely dry and boring, but was informative and we were able to better take in the site and feel however we wanted to feel about it.
It was strange to be in a place where so many people had lived and died and the piles of shoes, suitcases, glasses and hair acted as chilling reminders of the human aspect of the camp. I honestly don’t know how I felt about my experience at Auschwitz, other than being happy that we went. It’s one of those historical experiences that I think everyone must do if they are in this area of Europe, if only to help keep the memory of what happened here alive, so that it will never happen again. If we were to go again I probably would want to go before 10 or after 3 to avoid taking the tour. The information given was nothing that you couldn’t read on Wikipedia and I would have liked to have more time to take in the camp and really explore.
We really liked Krakow. Up to this point we had taken very few organized tours, and while we generally like exploring places independently it was nice to get the background and context of a city we previously knew nothing about. Krakow was not as beautiful as Budapest or as varied as Rome, but it was extremely interesting and we really saw and learned a lot. On top of that, the food was amazing and the beer cheap. Pierogi, zapickanki, meat, goulash. Yum. I don’t know if we will ever return to Krakow, but I am really glad we made the journey up to Poland for a few days.