Krakow was the first stop in our 13 days in Poland. Will hadn’t been looking forward to Poland, not for any specific reason – rather he hadn’t heard anything about it. On the other hand, it was one of the places that Sam had looked forward to the most. So we arrived with somewhat mixed emotions.
We had a total of 5 nights in Krakow in an apartment only 3 minutes walk from the train station, providing us a chance to cook for ourselves for a few nights. With its central location and access to transportation it was the perfect location for us to start to explore this interesting city. On arrival we were greeted by a cold snap, which was quite refreshing considering our previous weeks of heatwaves and discomfort. (By cold snap I mean 13-15 degrees. Nothing too bad, but refreshing none the less.)
Our apartment was about 10 minutes stroll to the old town and so, on our first full day, we duly wandered to the centre. The layout of the old town is quite interesting with a green semicircular band of trees and walking tracks following the lines of the old fortifications surrounding the city. This provided an escape from the tourist bubble within the town. Parts of the old wall and barbican are still accessible for a small fee, which most people were unwilling to pay, resulting in empty spaces to explore.
At the center of the old town is a large market square surrounded by beautiful buildings and churches with an old “cloth hall” dominating the center. The ground floor of the cloth hall is now used to house many small market stalls selling crappy souvenirs.
To one side of the market square sits St. Mary’s basilica, an ornately decorated church with a huge 14th century alter piece carved by Veit Stoss (he was some dude who is now dead). Even though we had grown weary of churches, this one really impressed and we took our time looking at all of the pretty things, painted bits, and stuff like that.
The square itself was our favourite of the whole trip so far. It was busy and vibrant, yet big enough not to feel crowded. And, unlike most of the other squares we had seen, filled with not only tourists but locals too giving a somewhat authentic feeling to the place.
Close to the old town, high up on the banks of the Vistula river, sits the Wawel Royal castle complex. The complex and some of the buildings are free to enter, but unfortunately we ventured into the complex on a Monday and found many of the museums closed. However Sigismund’s chapel was open to the public and proved to be beautifully decorated, although if we’re honest, we did not research the history before going, so at the time did not appreciate its significance. (It turns out that a bunch of kings, queens, and VIPs are buried there.) It was however interesting to see how and where additional chapels have been added over the years.
Once outside we found ourselves enjoying a quiet coffee in the gardens before more exploring around the castle and grounds where we saw many things and took many photos.
A walk along the riverbank took us from the castle to the Jewish quarter where we sampled a well deserved wine and some delicious dumplings all while listening to traditional Jewish music. (By sample I mean a carafe, which is the smallest acceptable quantity of wine).
The next morning we returned to the Jewish quarter to visit the synagogue and further explore the area before heading to the river for a peaceful picnic. Then, needing a break from people, old town buildings, and doing stuff, we headed to the botanical gardens. They were stunning, and had many plants which grew and had leaves and stems and…Green bits. There were flowers too which smelled…Flowery.
On our last full day we had booked a tour to Auschwitz and Birkenau concentration camps. Somewhat oddly, it was the part of the trip we were most dreading. We almost didn’t want to do it, but did (obviously). We toured through the camps where more than 1.5 million people were murdered during WW2. It was a very strange experience. On the drive there we were played an uncut video documenting the liberation of the camp. The video was quite harrowing and everyone on the bus started to realise the significance of where we were heading. During the tour of Auschwitz I, we went through the buildings, saw the shooting wall, saw various cells and torture areas, shocking displays of human hair, glasses, shoes, and finally the only remaining gas chamber. After a short drive, we also saw the huge Auschwitz II Birkenau camp with the famous railway platform, the few remaining buildings left, and the destroyed gas chambers.
The scale of what happened almost guarded against any strong emotions. Yes it was horrendous and shocking to see – but the thought of 1.5 million people being murdered at the site where we were is just incomprehensible. Still, it was a somber way to end our time in a truly magnificent city with so much to offer.
Next stop Gdansk.