Krakow, Poland


“Travel makes one modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.”
Gustave Flaubert

11th August 2016

I had long wanted to visit Poland, but from the United Kingdom, surprisingly it has always been very expensive.  So, I took the opportunity to do a 4 day long weekend to Krakow, in July 2016.  This aimed to maximise my time there, for the least amount of cost.

I booked my day-trips before departure from London, through a website suggested by the Novotel hotel chain:

This website is excellent, although you do have to print your vouchers before you travel.  Otherwise you will be stuck. I booked three top tours:  the city tour to get my bearings, Auschwitz-Birkenau Camp & Museum, and the salt mines.  I stayed at the Novotel City West, which is close to the airport, but just a short bus ride away from the city centre.

The meeting point for the city tour was the Sheraton Grand Hotel, which has a lovely view of Wawel Royal Castle, and the Vistula River.

I took a taxi from the Novotel which was 21 zlotys.  I was the only guest on the city tour but the mini-bus carried 3 others to the Jewish Quarter, as they were doing the 2 hour Jewish Quarter Walking Tour. The guide explained that Krakow was never a ghetto  in the way we understand ghettos as exclusion areas.  When the Jewish people came to Krakow they wanted their own space, and were granted this area in which to live.  Krakow was originally 5 cities.  Some were under the rule of the Austrian Empire before unification.  This is a photo of Wawel Castle and the amazing sky that day.

Krakow was never decimated by the Nazis the way Warsaw was, during the Second World Ward.  The street at right angles to where I took the photo below, is the street where the little girl in the red dress is filmed in the movie ‘Schindler’s List’.  Anyone who has seen this movie will recognise what I am talking about.  In the restaurant next to the plaque, is where director Steven Spielberg had his ‘office’ – the front table to the left on the ground floor of the restaurant. The plaque below is dedicated to beauty icon Helena Rubenstein, who was Polish, and emigrated to Australia.

The highlight of the city tour was Wawel Castle.  Not overly impressive from the outside but once inside, it is really stunning.  A beautiful garden sits within the forecourt, and it is the most historically and culturally important site in Poland.

The rooms inside the castle are sparsely, but richly furnished.  The furnishings include beds from England [similar  to what Henry VIII slept in], ornate chests from Italy, beautiful leather padded walls, artworks including Reubens ,and the biggest collection of  amazing tapestry from one workshop in Europe [Flemish tapestry from Brussels].

By the time we left the castle the queues for buying tickets was extremely long – tip of the day:  go there really early in the morning if you are buying tickets, or take a tour where tickets are included [much better].  Otherwise you will waste so much time queueing up.

We then headed up one of the long streets which lead to the famous Market Square.  This square is allegedly the largest of its kind in Europe.  It reminded me of the main square in Barcelona.  

Here, the tour guide left me to find my own way back to my hotel, which was a bit worrying as it is a pedestrian area – no buses or taxis.  I found my way back to the Sheraton Grand Hotel and then to the bus stop to take a bus back to the hotel.  The problem with taking public buses, though, is that you are not sure which ticket to buy on board, how to even stop the bus and particularly how to get off!  I watched several buses [not mine] go by, and observed the locals.  When my bus finally came, I was an expert on how to get on and off the bus, but had no clue how to buy a ticket.  A city guide told me to ask the bus driver which worked the first time I took the bus.  But on subsequent trips the driver just pointed to the automatic machine and I had to ask a local which type of ticket to buy!  Luckily I found someone who spoke English. 

As a tip, if you are just going a few stops buy a ‘normal’ ticket for 5 zlotys and make sure you validate it in the machine on board the bus.  The city guide informed me that bus inspectors have no mercy for tourists, and fine you if you have the wrong ticket or don’t get it validated!

The second day in Krakow I took an emotional tour to the Auschwitz-Birkenau Camp & Museum.  To be fair, there are no words really to describe the impact of this tour on people, as it is different for everyone.  There are some that say, once they have visited a concentration camp, then one is enough – but each camp is different, housing different internees, resulting in a different place in history.  Auschwitz and Birkenau are two completely different sites, which are about 15 minutes away from each other by road.

I couldn’t bring myself to take photos of the gas chambers in Auschwitz because they were still in-tact, and somehow it all seemed too ‘real’.  In Birkenau, they were pretty much destroyed and for some reason, it was much easier to take photos.  I cannot explain this, but the whole experience had an emotional impact.  We must never forget for we can never let this happen again.  The fact that there are some people in the world who believe The Holocaust is a conspiracy theory is truly shocking to me.

On day 3 I took a tour to the Wieliczka salt mine, which was really amazing, and is a UNESCO World Heritage site.  It was opened in the thirteenth century and produced salt until 2007.  The geological make-up of this site, to allow this to happen, is truly unique in the world. 

It takes a couple of hours, deep underground, to tour the salt mines.  There are amazing salt sculptures, which were were made by the salt miners in their own time, after work.  Owning salt in the early days, was like owning gold - people became very rich because of the salt resources.

There is also an amazing, deep underground, chapel where even the chandeliers are made of salt.  There are incredible salt reliefs of The Last Supper and The Nativity.  Below is one of the salt sculptures.

It was a quick march, though, after the tour, to leave the mines, which required walking very quickly to exit for another kilometre [half a mile].  I thought if I didn’t keep up I would be sent to Siberia!  However, it was a very worthy experience and the best advice is to wear warm clothes as it can be quite cold deep underground.  My legs ached for a few days afterwards!  I have to say that I saw more of what the city centre had to offer, on the bus journey back to the centre of town, than I saw on the city tour.  This is a sign I must return one day!

Poland, as a country, has a lot to offer outside of Krakow, and I really hope to make a return visit soon to visit Warsaw, and the Tatra Mountains.  I hope you are inspired to take a similar trip.

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