Go Back  Fodor's Travel Talk Forums > Destinations > Europe
Reload this Page >



Old Oct 9th, 2015, 07:36 AM
Join Date: Mar 2003
Posts: 10,005
Likes: 0
Received 21 Likes on 2 Posts
Budapest is on our short list, so your report is vey interesting. Hope you liked Krakow...is everyone there still under 30, tall and good looking?
Looking forward to more!

maitaitom is offline  
Old Oct 9th, 2015, 08:22 AM
Original Poster
Join Date: Jan 2008
Posts: 1,360
Likes: 0
Received 0 Likes on 0 Posts
Ginny Jo, we, too, have added Budapest to our list for a re-visit. Thanks for your continued interest in our TR.

Adelaidean, thanks for hanging in there with our long report. We experienced so much that it's difficult to condense. While in Krakow, we enjoyed a delightful meal with a couple from Adelaide. They're coming up in our next city visit.

Mathieu, Thanks so much for your positive comments on our TR. While in Budapest, we saw Gellert Hill with the prominent monument overlooking the Freedom Bridge, but didn't have time to explore it. Next time!

Regarding your comments above about the TR to Croatia: we think you may have us (Screenname: "tomarkot", Tom and Margie, confused with screenname; "maitaitom", Tom and Tracy. If that's so, we feel very complimented, because we think that maitaitom has some of the best and most entertaining TR's on Fodor's. We're sure that Tom & Tracy work as a team, as do we. Maitaitom's reports have great writing and wonderful pics, all integrated. We're not that tech-savy nor do we have maitaitom's great sense of humor.

If you're interested in Spain, Maitaitom has a wonderful ongoing TR of their trip.

Mathieu, thanks again for continuing to follow along on our journey in Central Europe.
tomarkot is offline  
Old Oct 9th, 2015, 08:42 AM
Join Date: Feb 2006
Posts: 27,468
Likes: 0
Received 1 Like on 1 Post
Enjoying your report, especially the interesting people you keep meeting! However, it sounds like you thought you had a choice between driving yourselves and taking a big group tour. Not so! The choice was really: driving, taking public transport, taking a small to medium group tour, or taking a big group tour. I have visited most of Central and Eastern Europe (I think I'm just missing Belarus, Kosovo and Azerbaijan) and I have done it entirely by public transport plus a couple of flights. The only languages I speak are English, American and some French - German (or Russian) would have been more useful. I did learn the Cyrillic alphabet, but that's pretty easy.

I have never considered taking an Insight tour, and after learning that you had to get up at 5:45, and only had two nights in Budapest, I certainly won't consider using them in the future! If I wanted a tour for Europe I'd probably use Rick Steves, who puts 24-28 people on a 50 seat bus. Or for a smaller group you might look at Adventures Abroad or Odyssey.

Whoever booked you a 55 minute international transfer at CDG should be fired! With a non-EU passport I wouldn't consider less than two hours and would probably want more.
thursdaysd is offline  
Old Oct 9th, 2015, 09:54 AM
Join Date: Apr 2013
Posts: 4,154
Likes: 0
Received 0 Likes on 0 Posts
Nice report and glad that everything worked out with Margie's luggage. FYI, Vapiano's is a German chain. And they have several restaurants in the U.S. -- the closest one to Cincinnati is in Chicago.
WeisserTee is offline  
Old Oct 9th, 2015, 03:07 PM
Original Poster
Join Date: Jan 2008
Posts: 1,360
Likes: 0
Received 0 Likes on 0 Posts
WeisserTee, thanks for your response to our TR. Yes, finding my luggage was a great relief. Also, glad you pointed out all the Vapiano locations. We like to visit Chicago and DC, so we'll look them up.

Thursdaysd, glad you're following along.

We learned a good lesson from that flight itinerary: we'll return to our normal pattern of booking our own flights.

Our purpose on this trip was to get a taste of the cities we visited, and the tour accomplished that. We may return to some cities on our own in future travels.
tomarkot is offline  
Old Oct 10th, 2015, 08:40 AM
Original Poster
Join Date: Jan 2008
Posts: 1,360
Likes: 0
Received 0 Likes on 0 Posts
Maitaitom, thanks for your comments on our ongoing TR. When in Krakow, we didn't notice an overwhelming number of young people. Maybe the universities were on break!

Hope to finish our Krakow portion today.
tomarkot is offline  
Old Oct 10th, 2015, 10:50 AM
Join Date: Jan 2003
Posts: 33,289
Likes: 0
Received 0 Likes on 0 Posts
I'm enjoying your excellent report with all the great details. This is a part do Europe we haven't visited, so eager to learn about your experiences.
Kathie is offline  
Old Oct 10th, 2015, 02:50 PM
Original Poster
Join Date: Jan 2008
Posts: 1,360
Likes: 0
Received 0 Likes on 0 Posts
Kathie, really appreciate your response as we know that you are an avid traveler. We especially value your input. Thanks for following along.

We're working on Krakow. It is taking longer than we thought, but we should have it posted tomorrow.
tomarkot is offline  
Old Oct 12th, 2015, 02:17 PM
Original Poster
Join Date: Jan 2008
Posts: 1,360
Likes: 0
Received 0 Likes on 0 Posts
through SLOVAKIA

This was an early start day: 8:30. We had breakfast on the main floor level of the Sofitel restaurant. No omelette station…but still a very good breakfast spread. And a last look outside at our wonderful location.

As we left the beautiful city of Budapest with the mighty Danube River running through the heart of it, lined on either side with architecturally gorgeous buildings, it was difficult to get a grip on its difficult history. It’s unspeakable to think that so much of it was destroyed at the end of WW II, and fathom the horrific ethnic cleansing by the Nazis of a half million Jews, in Budapest alone. This diabolical regime started in the rural areas and moved into the city with their holocaust. Following the Nazis was the communist dictatorial domination for years after the failure of the1956 rebellion. It wasn’t until 1990 (after the ’89 fall of Berlin Wall and collapse of Soviet Union) that the city could begin to rebuild. To rid Budapest of any reminders of that painful past, the city removed all the communist statues and plaques.

The above observations were greatly overshadowed by the wonderful experiences we had in Budapest. Beautiful setting, great restaurants, all in all, a city that bears re-visiting as there is so much more to experience. Budapest will be a hard act to follow!

Leaving Budapest, the weather looked beautiful. Of the entire trip, this day promised to be the most scenic, as we would be traveling through the Tatra Mountains, partly in Slovakia and extending into southern Poland. We were prepared for a long day, but the scenery would make it enjoyable. It was about two hours to the border of Slovakia. Although the roads were good, the terrain was mostly flat and not remarkable.

Entering Slovakia, the TD Erin played the country’s national anthem. Slovakia would be a “pass-through” country on our route to Krakow; however, never having been there, we wanted to know a little about it. We learned that it is the geographic center of Europe, and is completely land-locked, being bordered on the west by Austria and the Czech Republic, on the south by Hungary, on the east by Ukraine, and on the north by Poland. For people living in the countries close to the Slovakian border, and for the Slovakians themselves, the country seemed like a nature-lover’s paradise.

The High Tatra Mountains, which Slovakia shares with Poland, are rugged, having distinct peaks somewhat akin to the Alps, however at a lower elevation. Their highest peak is 8711 ft. They’re heavily frequented by skiers as well as mountain climbers. Many major winter sporting competitions are held there.

The Low Tatras, which are on our route, are known for extensive forests containing pine and spruce, wide pasture lands, lakes, and waterfalls. There are large deposits of limestone and granite, many species of vegetation, and wild animals such as bears and wolves. The area is great for hiking, and is also used for skiing. It reminded us of the Appalachian Mountains in the US whose highest peak of 6684 ft. is in North Carolina.

The hourly wage in Slovakia is low, so many Slovakians cross the border into Austria to work. Their capital, Bratislava, is only about 50 miles from Vienna, making those cities the closest capitals to each other. There are many Hungarians living in Slovakia, as it, too, was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Even though the weather on this travel day had started out sunny, as we began to see the mountains rising in the distance, it was deteriorating. It became cloudy and a drizzling rain began. As we gained altitude, visibility became less and less. We passed little clusters of homes along the road, mostly simple wooden structures, with very tiny yards. Some had a car parked right up against the house.

We made one rest stop en route, and broke for lunch a while later in the little ski resort town of Donovaly. (Don’t think Aspen or Squaw Valley!). This resort was very, very small. Of course, being September, the area seemed deserted. The TD had called ahead for assurance that the restaurant was open.

The menu of this little ski place was an “order by number.” The suggestion was for their garlic soup, but given the other menu options, Margie chose chicken soup (less spicy); Tom had sauerkraut soup; we split a #336 skewer of pork and beef which was served hanging on a wrought iron stand. And, of course, we had their good beer. The food was outstanding; 22 euro.

By the time we left the restaurant, the rain had stopped. However, it was still quite overcast, and with limited visibility, the drive seemed longer. Fortunately, the Insight coaches have Wi-Fi, which turned out to be more dependable than the hotels. We sent e-mails and began to catch up on trip notes which, for us, is a bit of teamwork. We each carry a notebook, plus we write notes on our Surface. When we return home, all this is collated and written in our report, usually by Margie, with Tom doing proofing. With the view of the mountains obscured, we got a good start on our records.

The rain was off and on as we drove route E77, encountering several slowdowns due to road construction. We did catch some glimpses of the mountains. Slovakia is known to contain a large amount of castles. On this trip we would pass only one, the Hrad Castle, near the Polish border. However, it was shrouded in clouds as we passed, making a stop less than worthwhile.

In spite of losing time from road construction, and traffic tie-ups, Tom our driver masterfully negotiated Krakow’s rush-hour traffic and we arrived at our Sheraton Hotel in Krakow about 5:15.

We were welcomed by a huge arrangement of fresh flowers in the center of the lobby, and were glad to see that the Sheraton was located with a view to the Wawel Castle Hill and the Vistula (Wisla) River across the street.

Dinner was scheduled for our whole group in the hotel. Today we had meals spread out over three countries: breakfast in Hungary, lunch in Slovakia, and dinner in Poland in the Sheraton Hotel Dining Room. Although it was nice to think of having dinner right in the hotel after the long travel day, we were wondering how a dinner with the tour group would work out. In a back room? Poor food? However, we were pleasantly surprised that it was in the main Sheraton dining room.

The meal turned out to be a delightful experience as we shared a table with Val and Mario, a fun couple from Adelaide, Australia. Our meal began with drinks, wine or beer. All four of us thought the entree of filet mignon of pork was excellent. And we were happy to have made the acquaintance of Val and Mario. In addition to being nice people, Mario had a great sense of humor and Val played right off of it.

Since the Sheraton had that great location at the southern end of the Old Town, a stroll outdoors seemed the perfect way to walk off our meals. We had to get our bearings, realizing that we were now in Krakow, the second largest and one of the oldest cities in Poland. After a short while outside, it was back to the hotel, get settled, and “Good night.”


We took a pass on the salt mine tour, which some of the group elected to do, and instead decided to enjoy exploring a bit of the area of Krakow around our hotel. Being right across from the Vistula River walkway, we took advantage of the beautiful morning to enjoy it, along with the early joggers and bikers. The Wawal Castle Hill, which we would visit later on, was part of the scenery. A restaurant right along the shore, hadn’t yet opened. But the swans and ducks were delightful, and the sun helped take the chill out of the air.

In Vienna, we learned that Franz Josef had ordered the removal of the old protective walls of the city and had the area designed as the Ringstrasse, a boulevard arcing around the city with beautiful trees and buildings. Here in Krakow, it was also Franz Josef who called for the old medieval wall to be torn down. In its place, a ring of parkland, called the “Planty”, was developed to encircle the Old Town. The promenade area along the river is a part of it. Along the Planty are many little parks and gardens.

We strolled for a couple of blocks along the river, and then headed up to a side street lined with stores, where we stopped in a bakery. Its long counters of colorful pastries looked so tempting, but after our large breakfasts, we resisted. The clerks spoke no English, except that they knew “cappuccinos.” We said “dziekuje”, one of the few Polish words we knew, and sat at their window counter enjoying our drinks and people-watching. There was activity around as the shops were just beginning to open and the trams were filled with passengers. Sometimes it’s nice just to get a feel for life among the residents in a city.

It was soon time to head back to the Sheraton. At 10:45 we would meet a local guide, Marta, for a walking tour of Krakow. (Pronounced Krock-oof by the residents)

Prior to our trip, we had read that Poland’s population is about 40 million. Its economy is doing well. Over the years, since the liberation from the Soviets, Krakow has grown and flourished. Although its Old Town is a focal point for tourists, and will be for us, the city fans out around it and has all the amenities of a modern town. Besides the government buildings, it has many museums, restaurants, banks, universities, concert venues, and sporting facilities. Poland joined the European Union in 2004 but retains its own currency, the koruna.

Since our focus in Krakow will be the Old Town, what better way to have extended our morning exercise than to head up the hilly street from the Sheraton Hotel and then make the steep climb to the Wawel Castle Hill? This outstanding site, of great cultural and historical significance to Poland, is a fortified outcrop overlooking the Vistula River, with a commanding a view of the whole town of Krakow. Wawel (Vah-vehl) Hill contains a palace, chapels, with crypts of Polish leaders, highly decorated apartments, colonnaded courtyards, and small museums.

Guided by Marta, our first stop when reaching the top of the hill was the Royal Wawel Castle, which dates back to the 1300’s. For centuries, it was the seat of Polish royalty. Important decisions determining the country and its people were made here. Within the castle is a Renaissance cloister containing Flemish tapestries, significant paintings, and bejeweled crowns and swords precious to the history of Poland. The Castle now functions as an art museum.

When the Nazis invaded, they took over the Wawel Castle, making it the 3rd Administration of the Third Reich, headquarters of their created Krakow district. The beautifully decorated apartments with the arched outdoor verandas, backed by muraled walls, became the living quarters for the Nazi leaders. Some areas of the castle, less decorative, housed Nazi military. From here they planned and directed some of the most atrocious and cruel measures against the Polish citizens and the Jews in Krakow. We knew that we would be learning more of this somber history as our trip proceeded.

On the Wawel Hill, along with the Castle, is the Wawel Cathedral which, we were told, continues to be a functioning church. Compared with all the cathedrals and churches we’ve seen, the Royal Cathedral seemed less impressive. However, it contains the tombs of many Polish kings and national heroes, and is therefore significant to Krakow and all of Poland. Even after the capital was moved to Warsaw, most kings were still crowned and buried at Wawel Cathedral. One of the earlier Polish queens was of the Hapsburg family and is buried in Wawel Cathedral. Since viewing tombs and memorials is not our thing, we were happy to bypass this opportunity of an interior visit.

A special religious monument atop the hill is dedicated to Pope John Paul II, whom the Polish revere as their native son and the one who was most influential in freeing them from the communist rule. As we continued our exploration of Krakow, we would see more evidence of the esteem which they had for him as their former Archbishop and as Pope John Paul II, recently canonized a saint by Pope Francis.

The Wawel Castle is the southern terminus of the Royal Road, which began in the Old Town (Stare Miasto). This route was followed for coronation processions, parades, escorting foreign envoys and special guests to royalty receptions, etc. As we descended from the Wawel Castle Hill, we followed this route to the Old Town, passing some of the prominent landmarks of Krakow. Marta’s commentary was very helpful in learning about many of the buildings. We wended our way from the Royal Road to the popular Florianska Street and finally into the Main Square (Rynek Glowny), which is the center of Krakow.

We learned a couple of interesting, if insignificant, facts along the way, one of which is that many of the homes had an animal relief atop the doorway. Marta explained that there were no numbers on the houses, but that people would refer to their home location by the animal form displayed above it.

We passed the Archbishop's Residence, used by Pope John Paul II when he was Archbishop of Krakow, and later when he visited the city. He worked ten years before the collapse of the Soviet Union alongside of Lech Walesa in Gdansk who was organizing labor across Poland. He celebrated Mass inside the square at Krakow and urged the people to continue to struggle. Ten years later Lech Walesa was elected the head of Poland.

When the Polish people heard that Pope John Paul was near death, news accounts reported that thousands gathered outside this residence. When his death was announced, the people in the crowd fell to their knees in silence.

During the occupation of the Nazis, and the domination of the Soviets, the citizens were not permitted to be in the square. They were told, “A rested worker is a good worker”. As we later learned, ability to work and serve the government was a criteria of the Nazis to determine life or death for individuals.

Mostly in response to questions, Marta described some of the unspeakable conditions which her family had endured under the Nazis, and things she remembers from her childhood living under the Soviet oppression. Among them, living with three families confined to one little apartment, having one kitchen and one small bathroom. There was always fear of the police. Food was very sparse. She began to say more, but got tears in her eyes. It was emotional!

The group then moved on to the Old Town Square, which along with the Wawel Castle and the Kasimierz District, was included as the first of its kind on the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

The Main Market Square (Rynek Glowny), is the largest medieval square in all of Europe. Being in the center of Old Town, it is the heart of Krakow, and is normally full of activity. Today was no exception: musicians, kiosks peddling souvenirs, people milling about. An Indian group of singers and dancers, complete with colorful costumes, had a group gathered around them.

The most striking building in the Square is St. Mary’s Church which dominates the Krakow skyline. The original building was destroyed by the first Tatar invasion in 1241, and since then it has been rebuilt several times, but always on the same foundation. It appears, at first glance, to have double steeples. In reality, one steeple is taller and is actually a municipal watchtower.

This watchtower has a small window on top where a bugler, an off-duty fireman, plays a bugle call (hejnal) each hour, stopping mid-tune. This tradition is to commemorate a bugler, who, according to a Polish legend, sustained a fatal blow with an arrow as he was warning the people of Krakow of the oncoming attack by the Tatars. The belief is that he saved the city. Each hour, many people in the square fix their gaze on that little window and wait for the bugler.

Marta guided us through the gorgeous inside of St. Mary’s, explaining so many features which we probably would not have noticed on our own. For us, one highlight of St. Mary’s is the exquisite, three-part Gothic wood-carved altarpiece. It was completed over a twelve year period by a famous Polish woodcarver. It is most impressive not only for the beautiful artistry, combining two types of wood, oak for the structural parts and linden trunks for the figures, but for the fact that the altar doors open and close, and reveal scenes from the lives of Jesus and Mary on the reverse sides.

Among other impressive features is a striking blue-starred ceiling which reminded us of Van Gogh’s “Starry, Starry Night”. And under the organ loft is a crowned eagle, the symbol of Poland.

After our visit to St. Mary Church, we expressed our thanks and farewell to Marta, knowing that we would see her the following day. The information she shares makes the history come alive!

The Old Town Square is brimming with restaurants, cafes, pubs, and shops. Before doing any more exploration, our goal was to find a spot for lunch. Several hours of walking on hills and cobblestones, and standing, spelled a need for rest and food. Selection of a place was the biggest decision.

Atmosphere won out over menu. We spotted a nice sidewalk restaurant, Steropolske, where the maitre’d found us a table near the front, good for people watching. Along the sides of the square was a long line of beautifully-decorated horse carriages, ready for passengers.

Tom’s choice of their traditional soup, consisting of white sausage, potatoes, and some other unknown ingredients, was excellent. Margie again chose chicken soup, which satisfied her. Together was their good bread and a cold beer, we enjoyed the lunch with a view as we leisurely sipped cappuccinos.

Fanning out from the Main Square are many small streets, lined with a variety of shops, cafes, and restaurants. Following our leisurely lunch, we spent some time exploring these areas. One could find shops selling anything from nice clothing to sportswear and even tattoos.

It was now getting to be late afternoon. We were aware of the Kasimierz District, which over the years had become one of the most populated Jewish areas. And we knew something about how the Nazi had systematically removed so many of its members, committing horrible atrocities against the Jews and others. But given our time frame, and the fact that we would be visiting Auschwitz the following day, and dealing with so many harrowing facts, we decided to by-pass Kasirmierz. It would have been a good 20-30 minute walk each way, giving us too little time to explore it.

We returned to the Main Square and headed for the Cloth Hall, a long building which runs along one side of the square. The Cloth Hall (Sukiennice) was so called because in medieval times the cloth merchants would come through Krakow and sell their goods in this building. No business was allowed to be conducted in the open square. The first floor of the Cloth Hall is lined on both sides by small shops with local merchants selling a variety of things, from amber jewelry to Russian nesting dolls, to woodworks, etc. and also souvenirs.

We succumbed and purchased a few things. We knew that amber was a special stone in Poland, coming from the shores of the Black Sea by Gdansk, so Tom insisted on buying Margie an amber pendant. No resistance there! And Tom, true to form, bought a t-shirt and souvenir bottle opener. The fun of the experience was the conversation with the two delightful young girls who were working at the amber jewelry booth. They both spoke very good English and seemed to enjoy the encounter. One interesting note was their reaction when we asked about their I.D. cards, saying that they would never go anywhere without them. They were surprised when we said that if we’re not driving, especially Margie, we often don’t carry our licenses, our IDs.

After our Cloth Hall visit, we exited through the attractive colonnade which runs the length of the Hall. We were off to explore a bit more of the square. To the left of the Cloth Hall, is a 200 ft.Tower, the only remaining part of the Town Hall from the 14th century, built when Krakow was the capital of Poland. The tower looked impressive, but contains only a stairway to the top displaying a small exhibit of Krakow history along the way. We read that the view from the top isn’t that impressive, so we gave that a pass.

Near the south end of the Main Square is the very small St. Adalbert Church, dating back to the 11th century. It is named after a man who wss martyred on the Baltic Coast near Gdansk. It contains only four pews, but has great acoustics. We wished that we had visited the church earlier as we found out only too late that we had missed a Chamber Music concert.

Tempted by a nice table along the square, we decided that it was time for another cappuccino, followed by a second visit to St. Mary’s Church.

Krakow is well-known as a university town, the oldest and most famous being the Jagiellonian University. This prestigious center of learning was begun by King Kasimierz in 1300, because of his conviction that to flourish, the city needed educated citizens. Through the years, with changes of leadership, country partitioning, economic downturns, etc. the university has struggled. The Nazis tried to destroy it, executing almost 200 professors. The Soviets suppressed learning at all levels. Through all of the trials and tribulations, Jagiellonian University (UJ) today has colleges in every conceivable field, each with a beautiful campus. It claims among its famous graduates Copernicus and Karol Wojtyla, later Pope John Paul II. We were disappointed that we did not have time to explore it.

It had been a long day, and we thought about heading back to the hotel, but not before having a small dinner. The girls in the Cloth Hall helped us locate a restaurant whose name we had written in English, and fortunately it turned out to be very near. It was one of their famous “cellar restaurants” named POD SLONCEM RESTAURACJA. It’s an odd feeling going down the several steep flights of stone stairs and finally entering a warm, welcoming eatery. We thought we’d try pierogi; after all, it’s part of the cuisine of Poland. Never realizing how filling a pierogi with meat would be, we ordered one serving to share. In addition, Margie ordered a dinner salad and Tom had soup. We left half of the pierogi on the platter, explaining to the waitress that they were tasty, but just too filling!

It was now almost dark and high time to head home because we had to rise early in the morning as we would visit Auschwitz and Czestokowa en route to Warsaw. The walk back to the hotel was at least 20 minutes; it was now raining lightly. Too dark to see a map! We walked through the little streets, and struggled to find the correct turn at the castle to arrive at the Sheraton. Luckily a nice cab driver pointed us in the right direction.

We arrived back about 8:30, and needed to pack in order to be ready for a 7:15 departure. Erin arranged to have the hotel breakfast begin at 6:15. It was always more pressuring on an early departure day!

On our last evening, we were aware that we had only scratched the surface of Krakow. We focused our time on the Old Town, realizing that, in that area alone, we had missed museums. In addition to the Old Town, there’s the remainder of the city which has developed over the years. In light of the bombings suffered by so many other cities, it's very fortunate that Krakow escaped this fate!

We really liked Krakow and would hope for a return visit.
tomarkot is offline  
Old Oct 14th, 2015, 10:59 PM
Join Date: Jan 2015
Posts: 3,493
Received 19 Likes on 4 Posts
Thanks Tom, very interesting.
Adelaidean is online now  
Old Oct 15th, 2015, 02:48 AM
Join Date: Nov 2006
Posts: 2,807
Received 26 Likes on 5 Posts
I was looking forward to your Krakow impressions; the city is one of my favorites in Central Europe. You really did only scratch the surface! We have decided to spend Christmas there this year; being of Polish descent, I'm excited for all of the festivities.
fourfortravel is offline  
Old Oct 15th, 2015, 05:03 AM
Join Date: Sep 2009
Posts: 1,058
Likes: 0
Received 0 Likes on 0 Posts
Thanks, Tom! Poland is on the docket for us for 2016, so it's wonderful to have this preview.
GinnyJo is offline  
Old Oct 15th, 2015, 08:56 AM
Join Date: Jul 2006
Posts: 17,303
Received 22 Likes on 4 Posts
We have also recently returned from beautiful Krakow. A highlight for us was seeing da Vinci's "Lady with an Ermine" , on display at Wawel Castle, a separate ticket. I hope you got to see this masterpiece too. We have visited Vienna, Prague and Budapest in the past, but enjoyed Krakow even more.
It looks like tour didn't include a visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau. I recommend that you include it on your next visit. Tragic but part of our world history and the guides treat it with respect, as a visit to a cemetery to pay your respects to those who perished.
Thanks for your informative report!
HappyTrvlr is offline  
Old Oct 15th, 2015, 09:08 AM
Original Poster
Join Date: Jan 2008
Posts: 1,360
Likes: 0
Received 0 Likes on 0 Posts
Ginny Jo and Adelaidean, thanks for your continued interest!

Fourfortravel, you're right, we did only scratch the surface of Krakow, as with so many cities, even in the US. Since you live in "the vicinity", Christmas in Krakow sounds a perfect place. A far cry from Krakow, but we plan to enjoy the great holiday festivities in NYC.

HappyTrvlr, following Krakow, we did visit Auschwitz-Birenau, a very emotionally draining experience. It's the most difficult part of our trip to write about.
Thanks for following along.
tomarkot is offline  
Old Oct 15th, 2015, 06:58 PM
Original Poster
Join Date: Jan 2008
Posts: 1,360
Likes: 0
Received 0 Likes on 0 Posts
Addendum to Krakow: We forgot to add that stones from the Wawel Castle are imbedded in the façade of the Chicago Tribune Building in honor of the Polish population there. They're
surrounded by fragments from many important sites from around the world, including the Berlin Wall which we'll visit later in our trip.
tomarkot is offline  
Old Oct 15th, 2015, 08:04 PM
Join Date: Mar 2003
Posts: 10,005
Likes: 0
Received 21 Likes on 2 Posts
Terrific report. We were quite enamored with Krakow. I'll be interested in your impressions of Warsaw, as we nixed that part of our trip due to time constraints.

maitaitom is offline  
Old Oct 16th, 2015, 08:27 AM
Original Poster
Join Date: Jan 2008
Posts: 1,360
Likes: 0
Received 0 Likes on 0 Posts
Maitaitom, we're glad that we went to Warsaw. But as far as realistic opportunities for a future visit, it is much farther north than any other destinations on our radar. We really liked Krakow, and could see that in our future plans.
tomarkot is offline  
Old Oct 16th, 2015, 02:00 PM
Join Date: Jan 2003
Posts: 33,289
Likes: 0
Received 0 Likes on 0 Posts
I'm catching up with you again. Interesting to read your impressions of Krakow, as friends of ours visited last year and really liked it.
Kathie is offline  
Old Oct 17th, 2015, 10:27 AM
Original Poster
Join Date: Jan 2008
Posts: 1,360
Likes: 0
Received 0 Likes on 0 Posts
Kathie, yes, Krakow is a wonderful city, and it's difficult to imagine how anyone would not find it to be so.

Thanks for following along with us! We're working on our next installment; albeit the most difficult, as part of it includes our visit to Auschwitz. But then we traveled on to explore Warsaw! Stay tuned.
tomarkot is offline  
Old Oct 20th, 2015, 06:24 PM
Original Poster
Join Date: Jan 2008
Posts: 1,360
Likes: 0
Received 0 Likes on 0 Posts
Wednesday, September 9, 2015 Auschwitz visit
Czestochowa: shrine

7 AM departure. Wow! Can be tiring and anxiety provoking to be on a tour. Amazing how many people were at breakfast ahead of us as we thought we were a few minutes ahead of schedule.

On this morning we experienced very mixed emotions as we would be visiting the Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration and Extermination Camp. This is a place which we dreaded visiting, but thought that we must.

One purpose of our trip to Central Europe was to gain more insight into the history of the countries we visited, especially the impact of the Nazis and subsequent Soviet domination. Though we have watched documentaries and visited museums, and last year visited Berchtesgarten in Germany, we wanted to get a more complete understanding of this most notorious period of history. We know local people who themselves or their families were impacted by the Nazis as well as the Communists.

Although Poland has been a Catholic country for many years, and remains heavily Catholic today, the country has had a long history with the Jews, much of it very positive for both. Poland and the Jews became acquainted in about the 10th century when Jewish merchants stopped by as they traveled on trade routes to Kiev. Traders were required to spend a couple of nights in Krakow selling their goods.

The first permanent Jewish community was established in 1085. Poland welcomed the Jews, and appreciated their craftsmen. Their skills contributed to the needs of the people by providing such services as fur-making, tanning, and tailoring, shoemaking, etc., while creating income for them. They helped to form a middle class in a country of wealthy landlords and poorer peasants.

Over the years, the Jewish population grew. Poland offered the Jews freedom of worship, trade, and travel. Around 1330, King Kasimierz the Great was especially welcoming to them. Over the next century, there was a huge migration from other countries such as Spain and Austria. By the middle of the 16th century, ¾ of all Jews lived in Poland. It was considered to be the spiritual center of Judaism.

The relationship with the Polish government seemed to be one of mutual gain: the Jews could live in an accepting environment and the country could benefit from their industriousness, craftsmanship, and knowledge of commerce. In the 16th through 18th centuries the Jews began to be recognized for their interest in learning. They became journalists, teachers, lawyers, and doctors. Someone described the Jews as “a virtual galaxy of intellectual figures.”

But anti-semitism had been raising its ugly head in many areas of the world over a long period of years. It rose to a fever pitch when Hitler came into power. Before the Nazi invasion, Poland contained 80% of the Jewish population. We learned so many of the horrible details about the unspeakable cruelty and killing of Jewish people, as well as Polish citizens, as we moved along in our trip.

Not only was Hitler’s plan to eradicate the Jews, but his plan also included no place for the Christian Churches. Since the Catholic Church has been a leading force in Polish nationalism, and against foreign domination, the Nazis targeted clergy, monks, and nuns in their terror campaign with mass executions. Many other Poles, mostly Catholics, were shot.

The drive from Krakow to Auschwitz was about 75 minutes, during which we passed the Polish countryside with the typical small farm houses. We could see the infamous railroad tracks which were only a part of the hundreds of miles of networked tracks around the whole area which served the Nazis in their goal of total extermination of the Jews and any others whom they considered “undesirable”, such as the infirm, mentally ill, Gypsies, religious leaders, and “intelligentsia”.

During the drive, Marta, our guide, shared a lot of information about the situation in Poland from the late 30’s through the end of the War. We had no idea of the large number of camps spread all over German-dominated land, described as “Labor Camps” such as Dachau, to “Labor-Concentration Camps” such as Auschwitz, to totally “Extermination Camps” such as Treblinka. Auschwitz-Berkenau was the largest and most notorious.

The territory of Poland became a virtual prison-island, with several hundred complexes of state organized terror. In these camps, it is estimated that nearly 6 million people died, either by extermination, firing squad, starvation, illness, and other means of torture. Among them it is estimated that there were between 2.7 to 2.9 million Jews, 2.77 ethnic Poles, and the others among Hitler’s “undesirables”.

Auschwitz is a sobering experience! Marta made it even more impactful as she is native Polish and lived under the Communist “liberation”/oppression. Her parents lived under the Nazis.

The end of WWI created the Versailles Treaty which greatly reduced the size and power of Germany. This fact enraged Hitler! He intended to realize a plan of territorial expansion and massive settlement of German colonists, giving explicit permission to his commanders to kill all men, women, and children of Polish descent or language.

This plan was carried out very systematically: different dates for killing Polish nobles, clergy, and Jews; then intelligentsia, finally all Poles. There are so many harrowing stories about how the Polish and Jewish were rounded up and sent to concentration camps, never to return. Rewards were offered to Germans who would turn people in. If anyone hid a Jew or Pole, the threat was death to the whole family.

The world economy in the early 30’s was poor and jobs were scarce. The Jews were not active in agriculture, etc. but were more business-oriented. They bore the brunt of Hitler’s wrath for the poor economy and hence fueled his goal of ethnic cleansing. The Nazis promoted hatred of the Jews. They indoctrinated the German public with the falsehoods that all evil came from the Jews. Even children’s textbooks promoted these vicious lies.

This process of gradually ridding the country of Jews was a well-calculated and gradual process, begun in the early 30’s. They pulled the Jews out of rural areas and overcrowded them in the ghetto, taking over their business and assigning them to hard, manual work. When moving them to a “camp”, they tricked (i.e. lied to) the Jews to manipulate them into the camps by promising them a better opportunity. They were instructed to bring their valuables with them, and each one had one suitcase which they were told to label. It was all a farce. The new location was Auschwitz!

Auschwitz was out “in the sticks” as we would say, but very strategically located on a rail line and within the vicinity of a river. As we pulled up the long driveway which led to the barracks, the expanse of the so-called camp was striking. As we entered the main building we were met by a guide specific for Auschwitz. Our group for the tour consisted of 16 people.

As we entered the compound, that infamous sign “Arbeit Macht Frei” couldn’t be missed. It was the same lie that was used at Dachau, the first concentration camp, originally established for political prisoners. Work and production was the only value of people. If you were younger or weaker, you were slated for extermination.

Auschwitz had been an army barracks prior to the concentration camp. When it became a camp, the living conditions became harsh. Bunks, three high, with several people squeezed in each bed; heat turned to minimum with thread bare covers; clothes turning to rags as they were never washed. Food very minimal. The sanitary conditions were horrible; disease was rampant.

“Arbeit macht Frei”…if you could work, you had value to the Nazis, if not you were put to death.

Other disturbing cruel tactics were the separation of families, the immediate orders to execute children deemed too young to work, the so-called hospital where painful and disgusting experiments were performed on a variety of individual, including babies, with the aim of developing that perfect race.

Prisoners were often starved to death, made to stand in a small damp cell until they dropped and eventually died, hanged, and shot by firing squads.

To learn that the people were stripped of all humanity; even their hair was cut and used to make cloth, was revolting. And, of course, those valuables which they were told to bring were all confiscated. Even gold teeth were removed.

Men determined to be able-bodied were housed together, given very meager (and gross) nourishment, e.g. soup with rotten vegetables, sawdust mixed in with rations. They were expected to do very heavy labor from dawn to dark. For those deemed not to be working hard enough there were beatings and floggings, and other torture tactics.

The men were given colored, striped prison garb: yellow for Jews, green for criminals (who were required to do a lot of the unsavory work that the soldiers disliked, as in executing people), pink for homosexuals. Many lived but a few weeks under the conditions. Then a new influx would be brought in.

Living in such squalid and insufferable conditions, a promise of a shower was made to groups. They were told to remove their clothes, and remember their numbered hook, in order not to arouse suspicion of where they were actually going. They were then escorted to the “shower”, the gas chamber, where a capsule was lowered and 20 minutes later they were all dead by strangulation. Bodies were piled up and burned; this most odious labor being done by other prisoners.

The number of people killed is uncertain, as only the workers were registered and thus known. Three hundred clergy (many Franciscans) were put to death in Auschwitz; the numbers they quote are broken down by countries and are staggering!

In the later years of this murderous camp, prisoners were tattooed with a number. That number is visible today on some people who were fortunate enough to be freed.

The administrator of all this diabolical treatment of fellow human beings at Auschwitz was Rudolph Hess. He was constantly trying to find better and cheaper ways to exterminate as many people as possible. And to camouflage what was going on there, a sweet scent was added to the gaseous mix.

Another fact totally inconceivable to us: his wife and five children lived in a villa right next this camp where the mass murders took place!!! Following the war and a trial, Rudolph Hess was later hanged at Auschwitz, suffering the same fate of many men whom he had caused to be hanged. Before his death, he poisoned his wife and children.

An experience which hit close to home for us was seeing the small cell #18 where Maximillian Kolbe, a Franciscan priest, was starved to death. A threat was held over the prisoners that if any tried to escape, ten others would be killed as punishment. Maximilian volunteered to take another man’s place and died of starvation in a tiny dank cement cell. Maximilian Kolbe was canonized by Pope John Paul II. A new parish in our area in Cincinnati is named in his honor. With such a long name, people refer to it as just “St. Max’s.”

As we left Auschwitz, it was with the hope of “Never again!”

Following that very disturbing tour, it was a relief to board the coach and have a couple of hours or so to ponder the overwhelming experience while en route to Czestowschowa. There we would visit the Jasna Gora Monastery, Poland’s greatest place of pilgrimage. There was almost silence on the coach as we made our way to Czestochowa, about an hour’s drive. We combined the stop with a short lunch.

In Czestochowa is the most famous shrine to the Virgin Mary in Poland. It contains the most important icon of Mary in Europe, and is widely credited with many miracles. In 1994, it was listed as one of Poland’s official national Historic Monuments.

The icon is a painting on wood of Mary with her hands pointing to the Christ Child, and is widely known as the “Black Madonna of Czestochowa” because of the dark-skin on their faces. Its origins are debated. Legend has it that it was painted by St. Luke, one of the Gospel writers, on a cedar table top from the house of the Holy Family. There are a couple of stories surrounding its travels. But art historians agree that the original painting was a Byzantine icon, with an estimated date of around the 6th or 9th century. They also agree that Prince Wladyslaw brought it to the Monastery in the 14th century. The “Black Madonna” icon is credited with miraculously saving the area from a Swedish invasion. Many people claim to have been cured through their pilgrimage to the shrine.

The monastery, Jasna Gora, was built by the Pauline Fathers who lived in the area, to safeguard the icon. It is kept in the monastery church, which is quite beautiful, and “unveiled” three times each day. We were in the chapel during one of these ceremonies, at which there were hundreds of people. There was standing room only. It began with quite an impressive trumpet call, a selection by a chamber music group, and an organ piece. This musical introduction was followed by a homily and prayers by the priest, after which the picture, which is about 4 ft. in height, was revealed above the altar. Since the service was all in Polish, we did not understand the words of the ceremony, but from the prayerful atmosphere in the church, the devotion of the people was well understood.

Having learned so much of the ongoing trials and tribulations which the Polish people had endured for so many years: wars, partitions of their land, the Nazi atrocities, the bombing of so many cities, the years under Communism, etc.,our thoughts were that perhaps it was their faith that enabled them to endure.

Following Czestochowa, it was another three hours of travel, including a restroom/coffee stop, to reach Warsaw for a two-night stay. No matter the means of transportation, whether by car, train, or coach, the scenery was flat and fairly uneventful, providing more time to reflect on the visit to Auschwitz. The stop at Czestochowa helped take off some of the edge, but the experience would linger on. How such horrendous actions could happen in a civilized society, when our parents/grandparents were alive, is incomprehensible!

After that long drive, we entered Warsaw, a very large city, during the busy work traffic. But again, Tom our driver handled it like the pro that he is. Erin told us that we would stop for dinner en route to the hotel. Along with the meal, there would be a demonstration of pierogi-making. This demo and meal was a bit outside of town in what appeared in a kind of lodge. Of all of our trip so far, this is the only stop that we might not have chosen.

We met Olga, who would be doing the demo and would be our Warsaw guide. Olga asked for volunteers for the pierogi-making, and while they labored, several of us just relaxed with a glass of wine, watching from a distance. Since pierogi-making is labor intensive, Olga admitted that many Polish make them in larger quantities and freeze them. (Costco sells them frozen; that’s more our style!)

The main meal course, including pierogis, was probably the least appealing of the trip, but the beer and wine were fine. And the dessert was tasty.

We were happy to arrive at the Sheraton Hotel by about 8 PM. Warsaw’s Sheraton was even nicer than the one in Krakow! It was located in the area of many Embassies, so there were ample nice restaurants nearby. However, we were very close to a main artery which was lined with many restaurants and shops. We were glad to have two nights in this nice hotel, as we were worn out from the long day, and welcomed the sleep. We would save our exploration of Warsaw until the following day.
tomarkot is offline  

Thread Tools
Search this Thread

Contact Us - Archive - Advertising - Cookie Policy - Privacy Statement - Do Not Sell or Share My Personal Information -