Europe | Poland | Krakow – Just say ‘yes’ to Krakow
My time in Krakow has come and gone, but with everything there was to do there, I had a hard time finding a chance to write. Where did I leave off? Oh, the scary night train, that actually ended up being fine.
So after I disembarked from the train from Berlin, I found myself in Warsaw. The trick now was to figure out how to get myself to Krakow. My railpass isn’t valid in Poland, so the first order of business was to buy a train ticket. The Warsaw train station is a monstrosity…there are about 20 ticket booths, 5 of which had people working at the counters. The lines were about 15 people deep. I dragged my tired self to a line and worried about not being able to speak Polish. Finally, I wrote my request down on a piece of paper (phrase sections of guidebooks come in handy sometimes) and gave it to the ticket lady. A few minutes later, I had tickets in my hand…for a train leaving in 3 minutes!! I did a weird hobbly jog (due to backpack) to the platform and flung myself on the train…just made it. Whew.
Arriving in Krakow was an interesting experience. Three different women accosted me while still in the underground part of the station, trying to get me to rent one of their rooms, but I’d already booked at Nathan’s Villa Hostel. Coming out into the sunlight was strange. After exiting train stations, you might find yourself in the shadow of a gigantic cathedral (Cologne) or you might see a handy tourist info center across the street (Copenhagen). After leaving the Krakow train station, I was plunged into a flea market maze of people selling bracelets and drinks and these nifty round soft pretzels (that were supposedly the first bagels). What the?! Somehow I found the number 10 tram stop, bought a ticket, and squashed myself onto the tram for the short ride to my hostel. Finally at my ‘home’, I relaxed and took a shower, then headed into the Old Town to explore a little. The Old Town Square is enormous…I think I read somewhere that it’s the biggest town square in all of Europe. The evening was coming on, and the buildings were lovely in the light of the sunset. Birds filled the air near one of the cathedrals, swarming like bees. Buskers were everywhere, having varying successes at parting people from their zloty. I wandered around for a good long while before returning to the hostel.
That evening, I met a couple of Finnish girls, Noora and Linda, and we decided to go together to Auschwitz the following day. I’ve been to Dachau (near Munich) and Terezin (near Prague) in the past, so I thought I knew what to expect. What I hadn’t realized was the sheer size of Auschwitz, where all the greatest terrors of the concentration camps were realized. Linda, Noora, and I bought the small guidebooks, as there was an hour and a half before the next guided tour. We walked under the ‘Arbeit macht frei’ (‘work will set you free’) gate before looking through the different blocks, former bunkers and now home to the Auschwitz exhibitions. The exhibitions were excellent, and were extremely effective at putting things into perspective. There were rooms of different displays…hundreds and hundreds of suitcases, thousands of shoes…even the tons of human hair that had been found upon liberation of the camp, ready to be sold to German fabric manufacturers. It is so difficult to explain the feelings you have when you see all this. I didn’t eat much that day. When you are bombarded with horrific images and information, it is impossible to know exactly how to process it all. I think it is necessary to put yourself in an uncomfortable situation such as this sometimes…to remind yourself that history is never dead…that it is a living thing which demands respect and recognition.
Later, after a very heavy day, the three of us went to listen to some live music, which helped lighten our spirits.
Noora and Linda left the next day, and so I decided to take…you guessed it…a bike tour. We cycled all over the city, taking in fantastic views and sites that corresponded with the history of Krakow, concentrating on Jewish history. We visited the New Cemetary, a Jewish cemetary that is eerily beautiful…Krakow had a population of 35,000 Jews before WWII, but today, there are only about 100 Jews in the city. As a result, the cemetary is unkempt, with broken headstones and weeds wrapping themselves over the graves. There are simply no decendants to take care of the cemetary. Some headstones mark entire families that were killed in concentration camps. We also visited several sites where portions of the movie Schindler’s List were filmed, including the Jewish ghetto area of Krakow, and the old Jewish neighborhood of Kazimierz, where unclaimed buildings are slowly decomposing. Later we went up to the highest point in the city to look down on the beautiful countryside. On a clear day, you can see all the way to Slovakia and the Ukraine. Managed to not kill myself on the way down from the hillside, which is exciting. Wrapped things up by stopping by Schindler’s factory, prominantly featured in the film. All in all, a very informative and interesting 4 hours. Later in the evening, I went to have a Polish meal with some people from the hostel…I tried the pierogi ruskie (sort of like cheese ravioli without the sauce) and liked ’em!
The next day was a day of relaxation and making travel arrangements for my next destination. Did a lot of wandering, and had fantastic ice cream with two English girls from my hostel, Emily and Mim. They had heard the stories of the night trains as well, and had decided to take the once-weekly bus to Budapest. I had thought long and hard about it…but decided that 12 hours on a bus was quite a lot, and decided I’d go to Olomouc in the Czech Republic instead (where I am writing this!).
On Sunday, I said goodbye to Mim and Emily as they departed for Budapest. I’d planned to go to the Salt Mines in Wieliczka during the day, and ended up going with three guys from my hostel, Marcus and Magnus from Sweden, and James from Australia. We took a minibus to the mines and bought tickets for the English tour. I just cannot describe this place. As the miners dug, they carved elaborate rooms and chapels, crafting statues, tiles on the floor, altars, even chandeliers from rock salt. You think you’re walking on cement…nope, it’s salt. Some chambers even have saltwater lakes. Our guide instructed us not to touch the carvings but invited us to lick the walls, Willy Wonka fashion. It was just fantastic. After returning home, I had another dining-out experience, as I can actually afford to eat real food in Poland, hooray!
The next day, I left on a train to Olomouc…where I am at the moment, and which I should get outdoors and see!