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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.