Munich: The Beer Capital of the World, Apparently

As our bus lumbered south towards Munich, I was pleasantly surprised to see the gray, overcast weather give way to snow-covered landscape. Although the weather was warmer as expected, I didn’t foresee snow being a part of the equation. The farther south we drove from Berlin, the more interesting the landscape became. Flat, undeveloped land slowly became hillier, and dotted with villages and estates.

It was immediately clear that Munich was much smaller than Berlin. In Munich, all of the metro, bus, and trains are centralized around a main station that was only a five-minute walk from our hostel, making it incredibly easy to get around. In Berlin on the other hand, there are several different major transportation hubs scattered throughout the center so that it sometimes took around an hour to navigate between them.

After arriving at our hostel, we decided to go to a brewery. Since Munich proclaims itself the “beer capital of the world”, I had very high expectations. In addition, the breweries in Poland had impressed me so much that my expectations for German beer became further elevated as a result.

After inquiring at the front desk of our hostel, we got a fairly comprehensive list of breweries to check out. On the first night we decided to head to a microbrewery called Giesinger Brau, which our hostel receptionist had proclaimed as having the best beer in Munich.

After taking the metro and wandering through a mostly vacant area, we found Giesinger Brau. Unfortunately, their kitchen was already closed, but we decided to have some beers anyway. Before we ordered we were approached by a very inebriated German woman who swore to us that this was the best beer in Munich, which seemed like another great sign.

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Microbrewery we visited the first night

We ordered a flight (a small sampling of five beers), before ordering individual pints. The beer was fine, but nothing remarkable or interesting. I was honestly very disappointed; if this was supposed to be the best beer in Munich, then what were the other breweries like? After several beers, we got a quick bite before heading back to the hostel.

The next day we headed to Neuschwanstein Castle. Being a two-hour train ride away, we woke up fairly early and groggily got onto the train. The ride was very nice and relaxing, and as we came closer to the Bavarian Alps it began to snow.

The train unloaded everyone in a town a few miles from the castle, so we all piled onto buses to be dropped off at a village near the base of the castle. As the bus approached the village, Neuschwanstein became visible – looming over everything amid snow-dusted mountains. In many ways, the first sight of the castle was the most breathtaking, as it looked exactly like a scene out of a snow globe.

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Neuschwanstein with the Alps backdrop

After we were dropped off in the village we piled into an enormous line to buy entry tickets. I had not realized that the Hohenschwangau Castle was also within sight of the village, along with a museum about former Bavarian Kings. Nonetheless, we decided to simply buy tickets for Neuschwanstein, as the others did not seem interesting enough to justify the elevated price.

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Hohenschwangau Castle
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Lake at the base of Neuschwanstein

After waiting in line for an hour, we finally got our tickets. Unfortunately, the soonest entry time to the castle was at 4 PM, and it was only noon. Wet and cold from standing in line for an hour in the snow, I was less-than-happy with the news. To kill the time, we wandered around the small village, which was predictably full of overpriced restaurants and stores with touristy trinkets, before finding a bratwurst stand.

We somehow managed to pass the rest of the time by walking around the whole area and checking out the outside of Hohenschwangau Castle. As our entry time approached, we hiked up the hill to the castle and queued for our tour.

The closer we came to the castle, the less impressive it looked. Although it is definitely beautiful architecturally, it is much different than I had expected. It looks and feels very new, and given its completion in the late 19th century, it feels much more like a mansion or palace designed to resemble a castle, than an actual castle. Nothing about it felt rugged or militaristic to me, and its fairy-tale like atmosphere made it feel much more like the fantasy of an eccentric millionaire than a medieval castle.

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It was snowing fairly heavily at this point

The interior was even more bizarre and fantastical. King Ludwig II, the king who built the castle, was obsessed with the composer Richard Wagner, so many of the rooms were painted with murals depicting various scenes from Wagner’s operas. I had heard the interior of the castle was less-than-impressive, and I certainly agreed.

After finishing the tour, we quickly scurried back towards the bus and then onto the train, happy to be getting out of the snow and returning to Munich.

That night we decided to go to the Paulaner brewery. Again, the brewery was interestingly situated in an otherwise vacant part of town.

Built in the traditional beer hall style, it was nearly empty when we entered. We received a very cool reception, as several of the waiters clearly saw us yet made no move in our direction. I finally flagged a waiter down, who seemed immediately resentful.

As we were being seated, he handed us menus and said something about the food. I immediately explained that we were only ordering drinks, which immediately caused him to pull the menus away. I asked for a drink menu, which he scoffed at and replied, “We serve beer. Normal types of beer”.

To recap, this brewery was almost empty, our waiter seemed angry with us for no reason, and he had no menu explaining the beer selection (did I say this was a brewery?). Looking back, I should’ve just taken the obvious hints and left, but we were already there so we decided to order beers anyway.

As we talked and drank, I put the moody waiter out of my mind, which wasn’t too hard as he didn’t return to attend to us. Finally, he returned some time later to give us our check. He turned to me and asked if he could ask me a question. It’s never a good thing when something wants to “ask you a question”, but I thought for a second that maybe I had misread him, and he was making a last, futile attempt to be friendly.

He asked where I was from. His (somewhat clever, extremely passive-aggressive), follow-up was, “They tip in California don’t they?”. Wow… even in the U.S. where we always tip, I have never had someone ask so bluntly for a tip. On top of that, this was literally the worst service I have ever had. Even if I had been in California I would not have tipped him, or would have given him the absolute minimum tip and then notified the manager. Needless to say, I didn’t tip him, but proceeded to get out of there as quickly as possible before he tried to shank me in the parking lot.

Still somewhat frazzled the next day, we decided to take another free tour. Perhaps my expectations were too high given how much I had enjoyed the alternative tour in Berlin, but I was excited for the tour of Munich. I even explained to our guide my interesting tipping experience before the tour, looking for reassurance that I had been in the right (she concurred that I was).

However, I felt a creeping anxiety as she began explaining that although the tour was free, we basically had to tip. Uh oh, is this some form of weird déjà vu? She had literally just told me that in Europe tipping was not “a thing”, and this was nonetheless a “free” tour. I understand the point, if a free tour is very interesting and informative, I will gladly tip (as I did after the alternative tour in Berlin), but I do not see tipping as an obligation (otherwise why advertise it as a ‘free’ tour?).

I nipped my concerns away, and decided to enjoy the tour. Most of the city had been predictably destroyed during WWII, and then rebuilt to replicate its historical style. We walked around the center very quickly as it only covered a small area, and saw the famous cuckoo clock in the new City Hall which was comically out of tune.

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New City Hall
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The Cuckoo Clock. Longest half-minute of my life.

The tour itself was decent; our guide tried a little too hard to be funny and oversold her jokes, making it obvious she said the same spiels every time but at least she was trying to make it enjoyable.

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Sign commemorating the Beer Purity Law

However, the end of the tour was amazingly awkward. Our guide made a horrible joke that most of us did not even realize was a joke, then remarked about the lack of laughter and that the tour was over.

She asked for tips, and it was clear looking at the group that all tips were given begrudgingly. I realized I only had big bills, so I asked Ben if I could unofficially split his tip. He had a €5 note which I thought was a reasonable tip between the two of us. The tour had not been too long, and I felt like we were tipping more out of obligation than because we enjoyed the tour. As Ben gave the guide our tip, she gave us a dirty look, confirming my initial suspicions.

Again, I felt frazzled by the weird reception to tipping. My concept of tipping in Europe is normally very clear; tipping is not a normal custom, so I do not feel obligated to tip unless I receive good service. That being said, I have still tipped at a number of different places, so it was bizarre to encounter this forceful push to tip even for poor or abysmal service that I have only ever encountered in Munich.

Nonetheless, being our last night in Munich, we decided to go to Hofbrauhaus (HB). Hofbrauhaus is easily the most-trafficked beer hall in Munich, and I was hoping to have a better experience there than at the previous places we had visited.

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the Hofbrauhaus beer hall

Thankfully, I actually enjoyed the HB beer hall. Our waiter was surprisingly nice and helpful despite the crowded atmosphere, and we promptly received giant liter mugs of beer.

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Liters of beer
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In awe of my giant mug of beer

It was interesting to see the various giant platters of Bavarian food rotating around the hall, but having already eaten we simply watched the plates go by. Thinking back on the horrible service we had received, I made a note of giving our waiter a generous tip as he managed to be attentive and friendly even given the large crowd.

After a few beers, we left and headed towards another beer hall that served beer brewed at a nearby monastery. Fortunately, this brewery ended up being my favorite in Munich by a long-shot.

The brewery, Kloser Andechs (Andechs Abbey), had been brewing beer since 1455. Their wheat beer was particularly delicious, and was the only great beer I had in Germany.

Given its history and current status as “beer capital of the world”, Munich left something to be desired. I find that self-proclaimed title disingenuous at best, especially given the complete lack of variation in beers due to the city’s old, archaic beer purity law. In my opinion, a much better title for the city would be the “historic beer capital of the world”.

The beer issue aside, the sights outside of Munich seem very beautiful, but the city was a bit disappointing.

Altogether, the trip was much different than I had been expecting. Since it was primarily my idea to go to Germany, I had high expectations for Germany, but basically no expectations for Poland.

Because of this, Poland completely surprised me and I really enjoyed everything about it. Its history was very rich and interesting, the food was somewhat unique, and the beer was great. Even though the people were generally unfriendly, I could usually laugh it off as it was mostly the “don’t talk to me” unfriendliness (rather than direct rudeness, like we experienced in Munich).

In contrast, Germany was pretty disappointing. While I enjoyed some things, like the alternative tour in Berlin and some of the breweries, the cities lacked charm and the sites didn’t impress me as much I had been expecting. While I did encounter some very rude, horrid people, I also encountered many very nice, incredibly helpful people.

Looking forward, I feel satisfied with what I saw in Germany and can say that I don’t feel any need to return anytime soon. I am also satisfied with what I saw in Poland, but enjoyed it so much that I could visit again.

For me, this trip also reasserted the importance of having a good travel companion. Besides the numerous, obvious advantages of traveling with someone, a good travel companion encourages you to see places you wouldn’t have wanted to on your own, to try different foods, to do different things, and to venture outside of your comfort zone. I have been lucky to find such a great travel companion in Ben, as he has certainly added many different layers and insights to my travels.

Berlin: New Year’s and the Alternative Scene

After our stressful ordeal at the Wrocław bus station, we arrived into Berlin around midnight and managed to check into our Airbnb without any problems. Our apartment was actually very nice and spacious. Since we were staying in Berlin over New Year’s, hostels turned out to be very expensive (mostly over €100 a night), so staying in our apartment was actually the cheaper option. We were in a quieter part of former East Berlin, in Neukölln, but had quick access to the metro and could easily venture into the city.

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Our Airbnb apartment

The next day was New Year’s Eve, so we weren’t sure how many places would be open and simply decided to walk around and explore. Although I knew Berlin had been fairly destroyed during WWII, I was surprised by how different it felt from other Western European cities I had already seen. While it did have some of the European charm, it felt more subdued, and sterile as well. The gloomy, overcast weather didn’t help either, but in a lot of ways Berlin was less inviting than I had been expecting.

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Nonetheless, it was still interesting to walk around and explore. Unfortunately, one reality that the trip was quickly making clear was that I had not packed adequate clothing for the cold weather. To be fair, I had packed all of my winter clothing, but realized that my real cold weather clothing that I had relied on during Colorado winters was idly hanging in my closet in California. I tried to push the numbingly cold weather out of my mind, but found myself craving the advanced floor heating system that lay dormant in our apartment every time we wandered the streets.

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Horrible picture of Brandenburg Gate

Still, it was interesting to explore the city. Berlin definitely felt much larger than Madrid; the center of the city seemed to cover an incredibly expansive area that was well connected by public transport, but still took a while to navigate. After walking around most of the city, we decided to prepare for that night (New Year’s), and bought some beers from a grocery store.

Although I had been initially planning on celebrating the night with my friend Maria, she was out of town unexpectedly, so Ben and I were on our own. In addition, while my initial enthusiasm about New Year’s was high, the weather quickly became colder, making the realities of the situation come into clearer focus.

I knew that the most popular spot to ring in New Year’s was on the massive grass field behind the Brandenburg Gate. I briefly considered heading over that way, but realized I would be fighting endless crowds and increasingly cold weather, and nixed the idea. I also thought about going to a nearby bar to celebrate, but decided against that after realizing there weren’t any interesting bars near our apartment and that it had begun to rain as we were finishing dinner. Since we already had beer in the apartment, we ended up just going back and ringing in the New Year with wheat beers and stand-up comedy.

The next day we decided to do a walking tour of the city. Although we had already seen most of the main sights, we heard about an “Alternative” walking tour which promised to go to graffiti spots, squat areas, and interesting places that were important during the Cold War. Having always had a fascination with graffiti and knowing that Berlin had some of the most interesting graffiti in the world, I was very interesting in seeing the most famous graffiti and interested to learn more about the history of the city during the Cold War.

To begin the tour, we congregated at the base of the TV tower at Alexanderplatz and were introduced to our guide. Although my guide had been living in Berlin for about twenty years, he was actually from San Francisco. We headed by the metro to our first spot, a former train repair station that had been abandoned before being reclaimed by squatters, skaters, and now by cafes and other semi-legit businesses that pop-up in the space.

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The tour was altogether very interesting, but I was literally freezing my face off the whole time. The cold was so intense that our guide suggested that we stop in several different cafes and shops just to escape the frigid weather for a few minutes. I had no qualms about ending the tour if the cold became too intense, as it was free, but found it so interesting that I willed myself to tough it out.

It was certainly worth it; besides learning about the inspiration behind many different pieces of graffiti, we also talked about important spots in both East and West Berlin, saw spots where people made the desperate attempt to cross the wall, and ended the tour at the wall itself. One of my favorite neighborhoods we saw was Kreuzberg, in former West Berlin. Kreuzberg grew from a small, insignificant neighborhood in West Berlin to the center of the “alternative”, hipster, and rap scenes today.

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Astronaut representing the Cold War in Kreuzberg (former West Berlin)

It was also interesting to learn that the wall was built to follow old zoning maps of the city. This meant that the wall was far from straight; there were some sections that curved far more than others. This also meant that although it was suicide to cross the wall at most spots, there were actually spots where the “no man’s land” in between the wall was out of sight of soldiers, giving more of a chance for a safe crossing.

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The Western side of the wall
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The Eastern side of the wall – fenced off for some reason

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The tour was fantastic overall. Although I had felt less than enamored by the city of Berlin, the alternative tour greatly increased my appreciation and understanding of what the city had been through, and its evolution towards the future.

After giving our guide a tip, we quickly scurried back to the apartment to soak up some heat. I took a shower and finally felt the chill in my bones start to lessen, and ease into full body warmth. I was silently grateful to be living in Spain rather than Germany, as I knew even the coldest days in Madrid were nothing in comparison.

After a quick kebab dinner, our cheap standby, we headed to a bar that I found intriguing. The bar was chemistry and laboratory themed, so all of the drinks were served in test tubes and beakers. I was also intrigued by their homemade absinthe, which I ended up ordering while Ben got an intense Bloody Mary.

I was somewhat at a loss at the correct way of pouring the absinthe; I was served the absinthe in a glass with the customary “spoon” and sugar cube on top with a glass of water on the side. I figured I was supposed to somehow dilute the sugar with the water into the absinthe, but when I poured water onto the sugar cube it instantly dissolved completely into the absinthe which didn’t seem like the intended idea. I downed the absinthe shortly after, which tasted like black licorice combined with rubbing alcohol, and we headed back.

The next day we hurried to catch the bus to Munich. Although I really enjoyed the alternative tour in Berlin, I couldn’t help but feel a little let down by the city. In part, I knew that I had enjoyed Poland so much that I had very high expectations for Germany, but I also realized that New Year’s had been lackluster and the city less enthralling than I had hoped.

Still, I had fairly high hopes for Munich. The city seemed to have more going on culturally, it was situated near the Bavarian Alps, and of course, Neuschwanstein Castle was only a short distance away. To my surprise, the weather was also forecasted to be warmer than Berlin, so I packed my bags onto the bus, happy to be escaping the cold, infinite gray expanse of Berlin.

Wrocław: A Vibrant, Up-and-Coming City

Our next stop was the city of Wrocław (pronounced “Frot-slav”), Poland. It is the biggest city in Western Poland and located conveniently between Krakow and Berlin. However, Wrocław greatly exceeded my expectations and ended up being one of my favorite stops of the trip.

After saying goodbye to the other travelers at our hostel, Ben and I caught our train. Fortunately, the train ride was only three hours so it did not eat up the entire day. Although we got into town in the late afternoon, it was already dark (it got dark around 4:30 pm).

We made our way to our hostel, before setting out into town. Wrocław is situated beautifully on the River Oder, and has many different islands. One of the islands holds only a large park which is used for festivals and concerts during the summer.

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The University at night

Wrocław also immediately felt much different than Krakow. Krakow seemed to get many more tourists, and was centralized around its old town. Wrocław, on the other hand, didn’t get many tourists, had a younger, more vibrant population (because of several local universities), and while still easily walkable, had more interesting sights around the city. Overall, I found the city much more interesting and full of character than Krakow.

One interesting aspect of Wrocław was the numerous (exceeding 300) small dwarf sculptures strewn through the city. The dwarfs pay homage to a Polish anti-communist movement started in Wrocław called the “Orange Alternative”. During this time, the police painted over many anti-communist slogans throughout the city. After these areas were painted over by police, different anti-communist figures painted dwarfs on the covered spots, continuing the protest in a whimsical fashion and indirectly continuing the anti-communist sentiment.

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During my time in Wrocław, it was fun to find the dwarves scattered everywhere, many times cleverly arranged to mimic and poke fun at the city around them. They also undeniably added to the city’s character, which was quite charming overall.

On our first night, we crossed the river and walked through the university to the Market Square and old town. The Market Square was surprisingly huge, and covered with lingering Christmas decorations and a giant stage constructed for their coming New Year’s celebration.

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Market Square

Throughout the city, there are many cheap restaurants called ‘milk bars’ that are basically cafeterias serving cheap, hearty food. Although I was initially hoping for something out of Clockwork Orange, the milk bar we tried the first night was very good, and was a great way to get cheap Polish food.

We really only had one full day in the city, so the next day we just decided to take it easy and meander around. Since there weren’t a ton of sights to see, we just figured we would explore the city and make a leisurely loop past some of the more prominent landmarks. We basically made our way across the city to a few different cathedrals, one of which we ascended for a nice view of the city.

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Wrocław from above

One of the more interesting sights in the city was definitely the Racławice Panorama. The panorama is basically a giant 360-degree circular painting depicting the Battle of Racławice, in which Polish soldiers defeated the larger Russian army. We were given audio guides describing the various people and events depicted in the painting, so we walked slowly around the circle while the audio guide explained what was happening.

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Racławice Panorama from outside

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After seeing the panorama, we walked around more of the city before stopping in a brewery right in the Market Square. While not quite as good as C.K. Browar in Krakow, we still had a few tasty beers before calling it a night.

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Oldest Island of the city

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The next day we packed up, and headed to the bus station to go to Berlin. Despite the incredibly frigid weather, there was nowhere we could wait for the bus inside, so we just stood shivering in the wind. The time of our buses’ departure came and passed, and we became nervous without any sight of our DB Bahn bus (many buses from other companies came and went).

I also became somewhat panicked, as I figured that there wouldn’t likely be anyone nearby who could speak English to help us out. I flagged down a security guard and showed him my ticket, which caused him to vigorously shake his head and point at his watch before striding away. While I met a few nice Polish people, they generally seemed to get immediately frustrated and impatient with any interaction, and rarely wanted to help.

As more and more time passed, it became clear that we had somehow missed our bus, and I was going insane in the freezing weather. Finally, we found a woman and two other men who were in the same situation as us. Luckily, the woman spoke Polish (although she was Finnish), and talked to the security guard again to figure out what had happened.

In the end, it turned out that our bus company (DB Bahn), collaborated with a Polish bus company to use a different company’s bus for this journey. While it said nothing of this on our ticket or reservation (and we used the same bus company to get into Poland without this occurring), they apparently made an announcement in Polish and German at the station. Out of thirty-two booked passengers, seven missed the bus but apparently it was still our fault.

I was pretty pissed off; after taking buses all throughout southeast Asia I figured it would be much easier to travel around Europe, but apparently that isn’t always the case.

Fortunately, we were lucky to have run into the Finnish woman, as she also needed to get back to Berlin the next day. After we confirmed that there were no other buses to Berlin that day, we headed to the train station. With her help, we were eventually able to procure train tickets to make it to Berlin just before New Year’s Eve.

Thankful to have made it out of the city, I was still pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed Wrocław and Poland overall. Although the people were generally unfriendly and it was always freezing, the sights and history of Poland are interesting enough that I could visit again.

Krakow: A Look into the Past

For our trip over the winter break, Ben and I decided to go to Germany and Poland. Although our first stop was Krakow, we flew in and out of Berlin because it was much cheaper.

After spending the night in Berlin, we took a bus to Krakow on Christmas Eve. Unfortunately, we made our first of several miscues on this trip when we mistakenly assumed our bus’s departure was later than it turned out to be, forcing us to take a later bus. Nevertheless, it all worked out and the bus took about eight hours over the gentle rolling landscapes of Germany and Poland.

Although we arrived around six in the evening, it was already very dark as there was much less sunlight than in Spain. As we attempted to navigate to our hostel, we met a young guy from Dubai named Rumi who joined us, as he was also looking for a place to stay.

I liked our hostel immediately; they gave us hot spiced wine when we arrived, and invited us to join in a traditional Polish Christmas Eve meal. It turns out that Christmas Eve is a more important holiday than Christmas Day in Poland, so most people were celebrating with their families and having traditional dinners. This also meant that we arrived in Krakow having not eaten since breakfast, and basically everything was closed. Although we had been invited to have some of the leftover food from the Christmas Eve meal at the hostel, we were not sure how much would be left so we set out to try and find something.

We ended up stopping at the first open place we passed which served doner kebab. Having eaten doner kebab all over Spain, we were intrigued to taste the Polish take on the readily available dish. We were appalled quickly to learn that the Polish interpretation of kebab included pickles and gloopy, vaguely-flavored sauces. Still, it was nice to put something in our groaning stomachs.

Since the next day was Christmas, we figured almost nothing would be open and decided to just take a free walking tour of the Jewish quarter. After breakfast at our hostel, we headed over to old town where the tour group was meeting.

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We walked around old town for a bit, and grabbed another mediocre kebab before going to the tour group meeting point.

During the tour we walked to the Jewish quarter, saw some of the oldest synagogues in Krakow, and even saw a few places that were used to film the movie Schindler’s List. Although there are not many Jews living in Krakow today, there used to be a large Jewish population as evidenced by the nine synagogues and fairly large Jewish quarter. The tour ended outside of Oscar Schindler’s factory, which has been converted into a museum.

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The first Synagogue in Krakow
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The house where Helena Rubinstein was born

After the tour, we walked back to the old town. There was a traditional Christmas market set up in the market square, which we meandered through before heading to a nearby bar. Since we were not yet hungry, we decided to get drinks and relax for a while.

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Old Town at night

I ordered a hot spiced beer, while Ben got a hot spiced wine. Not really knowing what to expect, I was surprised that my hot beer was actually somewhat good. It tasted just like a hot lager with a few sweet spices thrown in. However, about three-quarters of the way through I threw in the towel after deciding the sweetness was a bit much. Still, I was surprised that a hot beer was nowhere near as horrible tasting as I had expected.

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Hot, spiced beer

 

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Making pierogies
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Baklava and Polish desserts

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After leaving the bar, we went to a traditional Polish restaurant. Although it looked great, my pork cutlet dish turned out to be fairly blasé.

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Port cutlets with rubbery green things

The next day, we had booked tickets to see Auschwitz Birkenau. Being one of the primary things to see outside of Krakow, we decided to see Auschwitz first to get the depressing sight out of the way. After an hour and a half bus ride, we arrived outside Auschwitz.

Although the sky was clear and blue, it was very cold and windy. We signed up for an English tour, and waited for the tour to start.

The former concentration camp consists of three different sites: Auschwitz I, Birkenau (or Auschwitz II), and Auschwitz III. The main bulk of the tour was within Auschwitz I. For the last hour of our tour, we took a short bus to Birkenau, where the tour finished.

It was pretty surreal walking through the camp. Almost immediately after starting the tour, we walked under the infamous “Arbeit macht frei” sign (‘Work sets you free’). Within the buildings were different exhibits with documents and pictures from the camp, but no audio or video recordings.

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As the tour continued, our guide explained how there was an ongoing discourse about the best way to provide and present information within Auschwitz. It seemed that the main idea behind the Auschwitz museum at present was to display everything as it is, avoiding any reconstruction or interactive exhibits.

While I understood the motivations behind keeping the camp as original as possible, I almost felt like the experience was too muted. It was chilling seeing the collections of hair, glasses and shoes, but I did not feel as emotionally affected as I had when visiting the holocaust museum in Jerusalem. For me, the main thing missing in the Auschwitz museum was some kind of movies or audio recordings. Maybe if I had not already visited the museum in Jerusalem I would have felt differently, but I expected to be as emotionally drained if not more.

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Still, it was definitely worthwhile to see the camp. After the bulk of the tour in Auschwitz I, we finished up in Birkenau. While originally much larger, Birkenau is now mostly destroyed, and almost all that is left of the camp are lone brick chimneys and blown-up ruins of crematoriums. It was a little bizarre to me that there was a town visible from Birkenau, so that some of the houses faced the old camp. I don’t know how someone could enjoy living somewhere where a bleak reminder of the area’s ugly history is just a glance out the window.

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Birkenau

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Nevertheless, I was glad that I was able to see the former concentration camp, and looked forward to the next few days, which I figured would be more uplifting.

Our final day in Krakow, we decided to see the Wieliczka Salt Mine. Just outside Krakow, the mine operated for over seven hundred years. During its long history, the miners dug out many different interesting passages and chambers including a large church, several chapels, and an underground lake. Today, the mine is used for many different events besides tourism, including concerts and health clinics. Although our tour lasted over three hours, we saw less than one percent of the total mine, which is clearly immense.

The mine was incredibly interesting, and it was amazing the numerous rooms and sculptures carved out of salt. While the guide encouraged us to lick the walls several times to taste the salt, I decided to abstain and took pictures instead.

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Statue of an old Polish king inside the mine

In a few chambers, there were even large chandeliers made of salt as well as engravings and reliefs. There was also a restaurant and several gift shops several hundred feet underground.

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Church inside the mine
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Basically Moria

While we descended around eight hundred steps during the tour, we took a lift back up to avoid the arduous climb. The salt mine was so unique and interesting, it lifted our spirits after the day at Auschwitz and was a nice end to our time in Krakow.

That night we went to a local brewery called C.K. Browar. I had read about the brewery serving unpasteurized, unfiltered beer and became curious. The brewery was also underground and carved in the traditional cave-like Polish style giving it an interesting ambiance.

I was shocked at how delicious the beer was; it was actually the first time I enjoyed drinking a wheat beer. I don’t know if it was the lack of pasteurization or just how it was brewed, but it had very strong flavors that Ben and I both enjoyed. After tasting the selection of beers, we headed back to the hostel and got ready to leave for Wroclaw in the morning.

Overall, Krakow was a very interesting, charming city that I enjoyed much more than I had expected. While there were several times I was less than enthralled with the Polish people we met, I loved exploring the city and seeing the interesting places a short trip away as well.