If you’ve been following my blog, you may have noticed that it’s been a while since I’ve posted about a trip. My first excuse was midterms, but those have long come and gone. In fact, finals start in two weeks. My current excuse is life, which isn’t really an excuse. However, a trip almost every weekend with classes, homework, and laundry to fit in between each trip is exhausting and all I want to do during my limited free time is watch Netflix and sleep.
But I finally decided – no more excuses! If this blog is going to be consistent, I have to make time for it in my life, no matter how busy it is. A few minutes ago, I hesitated between clicking the next Gossip Girl episode or finally starting this blog post. It’s not that I don’t enjoy blogging at all; I do enjoy writing this blog quite a lot. But I decided that it’s time for a new post format.
Rather than go through each detail of my trip, I’ve decided to just play you the highlight reel. The length of my past posts made me put off writing this one, which is not something I want to feel about my blog. Now with the excuses out of the way, let’s talk about Kraków!
I left for Kraków on October 22nd… yeah I’m a month behind on posts. But I am determined to catch up! Anyways, my friend Margaret and I took the 10-hour overnight train from Budapest to Kraków, which was not that bad because we got beds and slept the whole time.
Right when we arrived we walked through the park surrounding the city center, which made a great first impression. People were running, biking, walking their dogs, and taking their kids to school. The foliage was full of beautiful yellows, reds, and oranges. Definitely take time to just walk around the city through the park, especially if you visit Kraków in the fall.
Our first activity was a visit to Schindler’s factory; if you’ve seen the movie Schindler’s List then you know what I’m talking about. Oskar Schindler was a German member of the Nazi Party during WWII who saved 1,200 Jews by employing him in his factory. The factory is now a museum and provides a great history about Kraków during WWII, however it doesn’t resemble a factory anymore aside from the outside and only briefly mentions Oskar Schindler. But it is a good activity upon arriving to Kraków if you want a nice historical overview.
The Old Town Square is the heart of Kraków and features St. Mary’s (Mariacka) Basilica, Cloth Hall (a market hall full of high quality but overpriced souvenirs), a tower you can climb the steep steps of to see a cool view of the city, many restaurants and bars, horse drawn carriages, and a CRAP LOAD of pigeons. I’m not kidding when I say that the amount of pigeons in Kraków is frightening. What we Chicagoans see as street vermin, the Poles are feeding out of their hands and letting land on them. I honestly don’t understand.
I also recommend taking the free tours that meet in front of St. Mary’s Basilica. We toured the Jewish Quarter on our first day and saw some areas where Schindler’s List was filmed.
My favorite part about Kraków is that everything is in walking distance. As a tourist you really don’t need to rely on public transit at all. The city is super cute and quaint so your eyes never get bored while walking around. We ended our first day with some cheap Polish food (everything in Poland is really affordable) and went on an uneventful pub crawl with our hostel.
The main event of our second day was our trip to Auschwitz and Birkenau. Entrance is free but it is a 1.5 hour drive from Kraków so we bought a ticket that included a van ride there and back and a tour while we were there. As I’m sure you already know, Auschwitz was the site of a concentration camp during WWII. Birkenau is usually lumped together with Auschwitz (it is even called Auschwitz II) even though it was another camp a few miles down the road. In fact, it was actually much larger than Auschwitz and sadly was built because Auschwitz was too full.
I’ve had trouble putting the experience of going there into words, but I think I’ve come up with a few. I mean, how are you supposed to respond when someone asks you, “How was seeing Auschwitz?”
“Good” obviously isn’t the right response. I usually just reply that it was a heavy experience and I learned a lot. But it was more than that. It made me truly appreciate all that I have been given in my life and how fortunate I am. When we were there the weather was actually quite beautiful. The blue skies were such a contrast to the ground I was walking on. It was hard to imagine the events that occurred there because they were so inhumane that it doesn’t even seem possible. It’s impossible to put yourself in the shoes of the victims because what happened is so hard to fully grasp and understand.
I also felt conflicted about “sightseeing” there and how people travel from all over the world to see a site of such atrocities. However, our tour guide ended the tour with a quote, “Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.” It helped me understand that by allowing the public to see these sights, hopefully nothing like it will ever happen again. Here is another good quote that a friend of mine posted after she visited Auschwitz a few weeks later:
The Holocaust illustrates the consequences of prejudice, racism and stereotyping on a society. It forces us to examine the responsibilities of citizenship and confront the powerful ramification of indifference and inaction. – Tim Holden
When we finished the tour I thought, how am I supposed to go back to town after this and try to enjoy my night? What am I supposed to do after seeing something like this?
But on the way back our van driver said something that I wrote down because it stuck with me, “This is not Poland. In Poland we drink and dance and drink some more. We don’t talk about it. We shush anyone who tries to talk about it. But we don’t forget – just never again… Never again.”
His words helped me move on from the experience as something to appreciate and always remember, but also recognize that we should enjoy the life that we are lucky enough to live.
So that night Margaret and I went to the Jewish quarter for some traditional Middle Eastern Jewish food that was so delicious. Definitely check out the restaurant Hamsa if you find yourself in Kraków; I recommend the fish soup and the lamb with apricots and couscous. How can you not love a restaurant whose motto is “hummus & happiness”? Later we met some French, Australian, and Croatian friends at the hostel and went out for drinks with them which turned out to be a very fun night.
On our last day we took the free walking tour of the Old Town Square and Wawel Castle. The castle is beautiful and a must-see while in Kraków. As usual with free tours, all the guides request is a tip. Try some Wawel hot chocolate or just regular chocolate while you are at the castle if you need a sweet pick-me-up.
Speaking of food, obwarzanek stands are everywhere throughout Kraków; obwarzanek is a traditional bread roll – think of a bagel but with a larger hole. They are great for a cheap and filling snack. Another Polish pastry is the paczki, which is basically a filled donut. But before you buy one you really should ask what the filling is. Margaret got lucky and bought one with chocolate filling. I struck out twice and ended up with filling that tasted like perfume… not so pleasant to eat. After some googling I found out that it was probably traditional rose hip jam. I’m probably the least picky eater you will ever meet and I wasn’t a fan.
If you want some cheap traditional Polish food you should check out the restaurants U Babci Maliny and Pod Temida. Another Polish sweet to try is Papal Cream Cake. It used to simply be called cream cake until Pope John Paul II (who grew up in Poland and studied in Kraków) expressed his love for it when he was young. So now it’s got a new name.
Margaret and I ended our last day studying for midterms in a Starbucks unfortunately, but it had to be done. Funnily enough, we rode back to Budapest in the same train car as the couple we were with on the way there. We arrived home Monday morning at 9am and thankfully I made it to my 11:40 midterm exam!
Kraków is full of history, charm, good food, and plenty of other friendly travelers. Don’t let the connotation of “Eastern Europe” ever get in your way of visiting Poland (or any other country for that matter). Everywhere has a story and something to see!
On Thursday morning I leave for Kiev to visit a friend. Hopefully I can catch up on my blog posts before I leave Europe, but until next time, Szia!