Friday, December 5, 2014

Krakow - a Road Less Traveled, but No Less Worth the Trek

Krakow was the first of my more 'off of the beaten track' European trips if you will.  It was a stark contrast to the enormity of my Paris and London visits, but an extremely interesting and worthwhile experience all the same.  My friend Kevin and I landed at the Krakow (properly pronounced Krakov by the way if you don't want to sound like a tourist) airport on a Thursday evening.  With a bit of helpful advice from a friend prior to our departure, we proceeded to make our way on the to the bus outside and eventually to the main train station - walking distance to the main Old Town square and our hostel.  We stayed in the Flamingo Hostel and were pleasantly surprised to see its central location just off the square.  We got to bed as soon as we could, awaiting an eventful day ahead.

On Friday we did an all-day tour with Krakow Shuttle Private Tours to Auschwitz Concentration Camp and the Salt Mine in Wieliczka.  These are two must sees if you are around the area - it was a long day to do it all at once, but I still would highly recommend going this route with limited time. Krakow Shuttle was very professional and a great value for your money.  The visit to Auschwitz is undoubtedly one of the most moving and memorable experiences I have had over the course of my four months in Europe.  The guide our group had was by far the best I have ever had (I've included a photo with him in it below) and although it was by no means an easy visit, it is one that everyone should make.  The visit to the Salt Mines was one I very much enjoyed.  It was unique compared to most things I have done in Europe and I would definitely recommend it, especially considering it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site - it is one of the oldest working salt mines in the world, having been producing table salt for over 700 years.  We finished the night off with a delicious dinner of 'Pierogarnia' (couldn't leave Poland without having some perogies!)

Auschwitz I:

Auschwitz II – Birkenau:

Arrival and descending into the Salt Mine:

   Amazing underground church carved in the salt, the combination of three minors' work (4 pictures):
Deepest point of the tour.
Dropped off back in the Old Town:

On our final day in Poland we explored Krakow via the main route through the city called The Royal Route which spanned from St. Florian's Church to Wawel Castle.  I was sure to grab an Obwarzanki (a popular local pretzel sold throughout the Old Town at small stands), fully taking advantage of the fact they only cost 1.50 Polish zhloti, or about 44 US cents.  It was quite refreshing to actually have things available at comparably cheap prices, especially after experiencing London, Paris, and Dublin.   We spent the majority of the rest of the daylight doing a free walking tour of the Jewish Quarter in the southeastern part of Krakow.  This proved to be a great tour where we learned quite a bit about the Jewish history of the area, saw several historic locations, and even got the real story behind the well-known Schindler's List - but I won't spoil the details, you'll have to go and find out for yourself ;).  I got my favorite piece of Polish cuisine on the tour as well, called zapiekanki.  It consisted of a long piece of one half of a roll, toasted with a sea of cheese, spinach, mushrooms, corn, tomatoes, and ham.  There were too many options for topping combinations, so I just went with what the woman at the window suggested, and I definitely do not regret it. 
Old Town Square
Wawel Castle - I'm 6'2"....just for some perspective

 Start of the walking tour of the Jewish Quarter:
Sewing machine tables outside a cafe

 Where a scene from Spielberg's Schindler's List movie was filmed (2 pictures below)

An interesting memorial of chair statues - you would not realize what it was without a guide.  It is called the Krakow Ghetto & Deportation Monument and represents the thousands of Jews expelled forcefully from their homes in the area.  Our guide explained how their belongings were thrown out of the windows of their homes, including countless wooden chairs that littered the streets.  Two original homes that still stand from this time period can be seen in one of my photos - they are the brownish and green ones.

After packing up our things at the hostel upon our return from the walking tour, I admired the process of hand-making chocolates across the street (probably the only thing I found to be too expensive in the entirety of the city) before heading back up through the Old Town square to the main train station.  We booked an overnight train to Prague (more on that in my next post), but were early to the station so managed to walk a bit further north to the very large Rakowicki Cemetery (one of Krakow's oldest) where we were extremely fortunate to catch a fantastic, if not eerie display of candle-lit graves.  Every year on the nights of November 1st and 2nd, citizens adorn the cemetery's graves with thousands of candle lights for All Saints Day - which is dedicated to prayer and paying tribute to the deceased by visiting their graves.  This was an unexpected way to wrap up a very unique visit.

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