Krakow Trip Report -- May 2019

Jun 12th, 2019, 09:56 AM
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Krakow Trip Report -- May 2019

Krakow Ė May 1st-5th

There werenít many trip reports here that helped me in planning for my stay in Krakow, so Iím sharing what I learned on my own. I combined 5 days in Krakow with 5 days in Munich. This report will just cover Krakow.

Weather: it was coolish (50s to low 60s F for the most part) and a bit damp, enough for a jacket. Some light rain some days, definitely needed an umbrella but some delightfully sunny days too.

Flights: I flew Lufthansa over on United miles, BOS-FRA-KRK. Flights were seamless and it was an easy connection at FRA. I cleared immigration in Frankfurt and was traveling carry-on only, so deplaning in Krakow meant heading straight from the plane to my ride into the city. I flew Lufthansa KRK-MUC and it too was quick and easy.

Getting to Krakow: I pre-booked KrakowShuttle after seeing strong reviews for it on TripAdvisor. The driver did not speak English, but he held a sign with my name on it in arrivals and we were on our way. The car was very nice and clean and the driver was polite and safe. They also picked me up for my return to the airport and were prompt and efficient. It was about US$22 each way. www.krakowshuttle.com

Hotel: After a bit of research, I knew I wanted to stay around the Stare Miasto (Old Town Square) area. I had a few options and ultimately chose Hotel Wawel, which is about a 5 minute walk from the square, but off the crowded main street on a very quiet side street. Leaving the hotel in one direction youíd get to the square in 5 minutes, Wawel castle in about 10 minutes, the national museum in about 15 and Kazimierz in the other direction in about 17-19 minutes. Uber isnít allowed in most of the old town area, but the closest permitted pick up spot was about 2 minutes on foot. I really liked the hotel. My single room was plenty of room for me, more ample than other singles Iíve stayed in. The bathroom was a bit stingy on counter space but there were shelves that made up for it a bit. The hotel was quiet and I heard no other guest noise. The staff were very friendly and helpful. I ended up with quite a bit of free time on my last day so they booked a last-minute day trip for me with a local agency. Breakfast was included in the daily rate and it was fine. Not top notch but a decent breakfast selection that kept me going until well after lunch. Wifi was also included and reliable, even with my room a great distance from the wifi hotspot. Plenty of restaurants in the area as well as being a very short walk to just about everywhere. The hotel more than met my expectations and requirements and a single room was a mere US$115 a night. Hotel Wawel w Krakowie

Restaurants:

Iíve made a habit lately of taking Secret Food Tours in whatever cities Iím in just for fun. So far theyíve worked out well for me and Iíve uncovered some hidden gems (or at least something Iíd likely not find out on my own). It turns out that they just started Secret Food Tours in Krakow and the day I signed up was the first one. Iíd never have known that. Mat, the guide, was just as knowledgeable and entertaining as other SFT guides Iíve had and I ate just as well (even as a vegetarian!) I highly recommend Secret Food Tours here, or just about anywhere else. Iíve not been disappointed. https://www.secretfoodtours.com/

It was from the SFT that I found my favorite restaurant of the trip. Morskie Oko is a traditional highlander inn in design and teeters on being a bit overly-touristy in approach, but the food is amazing. We had on the tour the potato pancakes with garlic butter and the grilled sheeps cheese with cranberry jelly along with a very nice Polish rose wine. When I returned to this restaurant on my own, I had the same appetizers but also the sheepís cheese and spinach pierogi with fried onions on top. My entire meal with wine and bottled water cost less than US$25 and it was excellent. I tried a few times to make reservations after I discovered it and they were booked Thursday through the weekend for dinner. I stopped in mid afternoon on a Saturday (around 2:30 p.m.) and was able to be seated right away. Morskie Oko | morskie oko

A vegetarian friend of mine suggested another restaurant quite nearby (and also just off the main square) called Zalipianki Ewa Wachowicz. I was thrilled by the amount of vegetarian options (I actually ate quite well in Krakow) and the service was just as good. I started with the vegetable carpaccio, which was beets, zucchini, carrot and turnip with a pear mousse. It was wonderful!! Nice fresh veggies hit the spot! My main entree was dumplings (pierogi) filled with sheep's cheese and topped with beets and balsamic vinegar. Dessert was the chef's own apple pie. It was a very good meal. There is a nice assortment of vegetarian options and they felt well-thought through, not just lame substitutes like you sometimes see. I highly recommend this for veg and non-veg diners in Krakow! Another meal under US$25 Zalipianki Ewa Wachowicz - ul. Szewska 24, Krakůw

After an emotionally charged trip to Auschwitz (story on that coming later), I needed a unique way to decompress. I tried a few different things before I decided to pop into a wine bar Iíd passed near my hotel called Enoteka Pergamin. Iíd intended to just have a glass of wine, but as it was only 4:30 p.m. and they were slow, the sommelier offered to do a full wine tasting of Polish wines with Polish cheeses to match! She even brought out a map to show me the regions, explain the terroir of the wines and why they match with the cheese. I tasted 7 wines and had a full pour of the one I liked best, along with 5 cheeses, all for US$27 Strona G?ůwna - Enoteka Pergamin

General impressions: Before I get to all the sightseeing, Iíll just state up front that I was surprised by how incredibly affordable Krakow was. I took US$1000 in spending money and spent just shy of US$300 in 5 days! I found the people friendly once I got to talking to them. Most everyone in tourist industry speaks good English but I did use my Google translate app a few times to point out particular words that werenít getting across. Krakow itself is very compact and walkable; I only took Uber once, from my hotel area to the Oskar Schindler Factory, which would have been a 40 minute walk for me. I did walk back from there, spending time in the Jewish Quarter and stopping at other sights along the way, so itís completely doable. I really enjoyed my time in Krakow and wouldn't mind going back, although I felt I exhausted what there was to do and see in the city itself in 5 days (so if you're reading this and wondering how much time to allot to Krakow, there you go). In hindsight I wish now I'd kept the trip in Poland and gone on to Gdansk or Warsaw, but there's reason enough for a return to Poland!
amyb is offline  
Jun 12th, 2019, 11:21 AM
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Rather than step day by day through all my travels, I’ll just highlight specific sights.

Wawel Castle Complex -- Once you climb the hill either from the river-side (less steep but longer) or the city-side (steeper but shorter) there are a few things you can see in the castle complex. There is the cathedral itself, which has a relic of St. John Paul (formerly Pope John Paul, he’s the favored son here, so get used to seeing him!) on the altar: a rather big vial of his blood. The interior of the cathedral itself is worth a look. They’re holding a spot for St. John Paul to be buried, but it’s unlikely that’ll ever happen. Also in the complex is the cathedral museum, which is interesting for its collection of John Paul items, like his papal wardrobe and various jewelry and silverware. A climb up the very narrow belltower is worth the trip if only to see the massive bells on the way up.

Franciscan Church – between the Old Town Square and Wawel Hill is this very pretty church (probably my favorite of all I went into in Krakow) where Pope John Paul worshipped when he was in town. It’s across the street from the Bishop’s palace where he would stay when in Krakow. Indeed, there’s even a mosaic of him in the window he used to sit at and just chat with locals when he was home. The church is pretty both inside and out and also has a relic of the Shroud of Turin, which is interesting (in theory it touched the original shroud, which in itself makes it a relic; but it appears to be a replica of the original shroud). It is best known for its stained glass work and murals of Stanlislav Wyspianski which are beautiful.

Old Town Square – this is a beautiful square and indeed the largest in Europe (the Cloth Hall in the center makes it feel smaller). St. Mary’s Church, the large twin-towered church, is known for its trumpeter. Historically a trumpeter has played a song from the top of one of those towers on the hour. But many years ago, the trumpeter was killed in battle up there when he was struck by the enemy, cutting his song short. Today the ritual continues and on the hour a trumpeter plays the same song from the top of the towers in each of the four cardinal directions, and cuts off the song at the same point in the song at which the original trumpeter was slain. Random trivia: today’s trumpeters are also firefighters and they stay up there for 24 hours at a time to do this job. There are plenty of shops and restaurants (mostly overpriced and/or chains) around the square. Cloth Hall takes up the center with its stalls of handicrafts and goods from local artisans. While the restaurants aren’t necessarily the best and are overpriced it is a good place to take a seat and people watch over a drink or coffee. It seems as though everyone passes through here at least once a day if not more!

Oskar Schindler Factory – I prebooked entrance for this well ahead of time and wanted to be first of the day to avoid the worst of the crowds. This seems to book up every day so it’s smart to plan ahead for this visit. The area the museum is in isn’t a place I’d normally go as a tourist (it was after all a factory and is still in a very industrial area) but no worries, there were plenty of people there. As we approached the museum, I saw a lot of groups of people all dressed the same, and realized it was four bus-loads of tourists all waiting to visit the museum. Thankfully I pre-booked the ticket. When I left the museum around noon, a sign was posted saying that tickets for the entire day were sold out.

The Schindler factory is now one of the best places to learn about the history of Jews and the Holocaust as it took place in Krakow. Very little of the museum is about Schindler himself. It was here though that I was reminded of the shortcomings of my public school education...so much I don’t know and embarrassing to admit it. So I ended up learning a lot, particularly about the build up to WWII and why Poland was a target. Their resistance was impressive though and they are a tough lot. The exhibits really stepped me through what happened in Krakow, almost to the month from 1939 through to the end of the war. How it all happened and how people survived it continues to perplex me. I’m not sure I’d be that strong.

The factory itself is in the ghetto area and what made Schindler unique is that he housed the Jews who worked for him on the grounds of his factory, and fed them better than Jews in camps and also provided medical care when needed. At one point the authorities were trying to force him to make his employees live in camps, so he built a camp nearby where they would live, but treated them as well as the employees who lived on site. What makes this all the more remarkable is that Schindler was a German Nazi himself. He was only in Krakow to make money.

It was interesting to see the room that was the office in the movie (I’d just watched it in preparation for coming here) and also his actual office (which was not in the movie).

At the entrance to the Schindler Factory, there is a 35 minute documentary film about the genesis of the Holocaust here in Krakow. As I was one of the first people in the door and eyeing the massive crowd on the sidewalk behind me, I opted to skip the film and head straight through the exhibits. That paid off well. I don’t know how I’d have managed otherwise. There were lots of labels with densely packed text. Had the rooms been even half capacity, navigating and reading what I wanted would have been near impossible. About half-way through I could look through a glass wall to exhibits behind me and they were bumper to bumper people. I made the right call. I got through most everything before the large school groups and tour groups caught up with me (they clearly weren’t reading everything!)

A sad part of the Schindler story though is that for all the people he saved by keeping them on his payroll (not just his employees but all the generations that resulted from them staying alive), he died poor after several failed businesses. He was buried in Israel at his request, but received posthumous commendations for his efforts.

Kazimierz walking tour – I followed Rick Steves’ walking tour on the way back from the Schindler factory. My first stop was Ghetto Square, where there are 68 chairs set out in the square, one for each 1000 Jews deported from this square (either to work camps or death camps). It was chilling to think that the “selection” or sorting process took place right here. Also on this square is the Pharmacy Under the Eagle, which was run by Tadeus Pankiewicz, who aided the Jews even after his pharmacy was caught within the boundary line of the ghetto. He did everything from hiding belongings for safekeeping to funneling money and communications in and out of the ghetto for the Jews inside it. This was an interesting little museum with a very interactive display quality to it. They encourage opening drawers and doors (where stories or artifacts or photos are hidden), sniffing bottles of “pharmaceuticals”, picking up books or newspapers, etc. everything but “consuming them”. Ha!

From here I ventured further into the neighborhood and found an assortment of food trucks (there were several clusters of them around here). I had a pressed sandwich that had falafel, salad and french fries all together in it! That’s efficient. It was quite good (and massive!) but very filling. Just the right energy to keep me going.

I continued on with the walking tour. I went through a few squares and passed through the passage made famous in Schindler’s List (you’d know it if you saw it, it hasn’t changed a bit). There was one more square with several food stalls and some vendors selling used goods, everything from old military medals, knives and handicrafts to used vinyl albums by a favorite of mine, The Smiths!

The first synagogue I went to was the Isaac Synagogue. It was very simple and stark, but had a lot to say for itself. The walls were painted with the prayers for those worshippers who couldn’t afford the books for themselves, much like the stained glass windows in Christian churches. The most impressive synagogue though was the Old Synagogue, which was sunken down so that its foundation was below street level, but on purpose since no Jewish building could be taller than a Christian building. I must have spent over an hour here, reading everything that was posted about the history of Judaism in Krakow as well as the tenets that make up Judaism and its holidays. Again, not something I knew before, but I was soaking this all up like a sponge. My travel guide says this is the oldest surviving Jewish building in all of Poland, built in the 15th century. It was fascinating.

My walk continued past the building where Helena Rubenstein (the cosmetic magnate) was born to the Old Cemetery. It was used from the mid 1500s until the 1800s and having buried a significant number of Jewish intelligentsia here, is considered one of the most important cemeteries in Europe. Yet it was totally destroyed in the war and excavated and reconstructed in the 1950s.

It was a gorgeous day, high 60s and bright sun, the kind of day we wait for all winter in Boston and only get a couple of before spring flips to summer and it’s 80 and humid. I skipped the tram back to Old Town and walked, and made it in the same amount of time as I would have if I took the tram (I literally met it at the stop closest to my hotel).

National Museum – I walked about 15 minutes from my hotel to the National Museum which is temporarily exhibiting Leonardo da Vinci’s Lady with Ermine, which I’d not seen before. Its home museum is under restoration and rather than keep it off view or send it out on loan, the museum decided to display it here. In all my museum going, I’ve never seen such a succinct, streamlined exhibit but it was perfect for the significance of this painting. There was one corridor in a jewel-tone purple leading to the room the painting was in. There were two panels of explanatory text (how Krakow got the painting, it’s current condition and what scholars think of previous attempts to restore it) and then the darkened room where the painting itself was, set into a wall at eye level. Three guards kept watch and no photos were allowed. It was all quite dramatic but the overall effect was wonderful. Being among the first in the door this morning meant that there was no crowd yet so I got to stand and admire her practically alone. Of all the da Vincis I’ve seen, I think this is the most beautiful. Well worth the trip. The rest of the museum seemed to be all temporary exhibits and no others interested me at the time.

The Europeum -- I decided to pop over to The Europeum, the national museum’s European painting collection. It was only 4 rooms and their prized Rembrandt landscape is on loan to Warsaw (dang it) but I did stumble quite literally over a Vigee Lebrun! I love seeing her portraits and I was thrilled to see an old friend in her here.

Auschwitz-Birkenau -- Let’s get the logistic out of the way. You can’t visit Auschwitz I without a guide from the museum there (there are early hours pre-opening that you can tour on your own but those are limited and I did want a guide). I signed up with a local tour agency to take a bus to the site and from Auschwitz I to Auschwitz II (Birkenau) and back to Krakow. That part worked out fine. So for those considering going to Auschwitz from Krakow, it really doesn’t matter which company you go with, as they’re only driving you there and facilitating your entry to the sites (reserving your spot and paying your admission). The guide who takes you around the site is employed by the museum. I chose to go with Grayline, which was a massive coach jam packed with half Spanish and half English speaking travelers. So we heard everything from the Grayline guide twice, in English and Spanish. This was only for the rides to and from though, once we got to Auschwitz we got a separate guide for each language. Everything else written here was written the day I visited.

The tour starts at Auschwitz I, which was primarily used to house Soviet prisoners. There are 28 barracks and the camp held “only” 15,000-20,000 prisoners. It is disconcerting to say the least though to see how well landscaped it is, with new (since the camp was closed) trees and lilac bushes. Combining the landscaping with the bright blue skies and brilliant sun when visiting on a day like today almost feels wrong. I felt like it should have been overcast. And cold. At one point I saw a pigeon gathering straw to build a nest somewhere nearby and marveled that life is going on there in light (or in spite?) of all that has come before.

Our guide led us through several of the barracks that helped him weave his story. Indeed, they were mostly quite effective. He explained how the Zyclon-B gas was tested here, how the barracks were originally one story and the prisoners built the second stories on them. There was one corridor with the official intake photos of some of the prisoners (about 200 or so) with their newly given prisoner number which would become their identity for the rest of their stay here. It was hard to see the photos of them, knowing that they were being told this was all temporary...yet all of them had a date of death on them too.

There was a room of photos that were taken by prisoner who were working at the crematoriums. They’d snuck cameras and film and were able to document women being forced into the gas chambers. They played such a role in proving that this all actually happened. I wondered if they could even believe it themselves.

There was a very large scale display of “prisoners plundered” which was all of the belongings taken from the prisoners. When they arrived at either camp, they were told to leave their belongings, mark up the bag if they must, but that they’d get the belongings back after a disinfecting shower and some food. Of course none of that happened, and for some new arrivals at the camp, their shower was really the gas chamber, because the weak or useless prisoners were killed upon arrival. What we saw were immense piles of eyeglasses, prosthetics and crutches, prayer shawls, brushes, cookware and horrifically enough, two tons of human hair. The Nazis kept all the hair that was shorn off the prisoners for reuse in textiles. Two tons of hair? That had to have been from an ungodly amount of people. It was horrifying. To think that what we were seeing, these ridiculously large piles of belongings, were from only a small set of prisoners is mind-numbing. And sad. It puts humans behind the numbers, and the result is chilling.

We were taken into a barracks that had cells in the basement for punishments. Some were just solitary confinement, some were starvation cells. The point of either was to drive the prisoner crazy or have them die under inhumane conditions. In the basement it was so narrow that it was one line of people weaving through the hallways. It was somewhat sign-posted for way-finding but we were meant to be following the guide. At one point, the young twenty-something in front of me took a wrong turn in the dark and we (half of our group of 30) lost our guide, and we were doing the same circuitous route we’d just done. We were wearing remote headsets so we could hear him no matter where we were within range and by now we’d lost him. He and the first half of the group had made it outside and were moving on. He never stopped to count his charges or wait for us. I finally got us outside and he was already two barracks away, and we had to run to catch up. I thought we were all there and started to pay attention to him again, wondering what I’d missed in this 5-7 minutes of lost time. Suddenly an elderly Jewish-American couple came up and she yelled at the guide, “you need to wait, you can’t just leave us.” Her husband yelled “I’m angry, you had no right running off on us, I lost people here and I’m not even getting to see it, you’re going too fast.” The guide was completely nonplussed and said in his monotone drone “there are groups behind us we must keep moving.” The gentleman countered “I came here to learn too, I deserve to see.” At this point a younger guest said to the guide “we asked you to slow down, we told you we’d lost the group.” Ugh. The older couple were both so visibly upset, my heart just broke for them. It had to have been bad enough to be here at all, to be reminded of what they’d lost and how, but then to add insult to injury. It took every part of me to swallow that down and refocus.

We ended this part of the tour by seeing the only gas chamber and crematorium still standing in either Auschwitz camp. The larger ones at Birkenau were destroyed by the Nazis as part of their attempts to destroy the evidence. It was more than a little bit creepy to be in the gas chamber and then see the adjacent ovens. While the Nazis claimed Zyclon B was the most humane way to kill, it certainly didn’t sound that way to me.

We had a quick break before we boarded the bus to Birkenau (for people not on a tour from Krakow there is a free shuttle between Auschwitz and Birkenau). Thankfully they don’t make us walk the 3km between camps. Who knows who the guide would have left in the dust on that walk. During the break I let our tour operator know what happened and that the couple was very upset and I found what had happened inappropriate. She said she’d reach out to them.

Auschwitz II or Birkenau was much larger. And completely desolate. The land is barren. You see the tell-tale main gate and the rail road tracks leading to the sorting platform, and then it’s nothing but barracks or destroyed barracks as far as you can see. This camp was massive and bleak. As the largest in the camp system, it had 300 barracks. Towards the end of the war there were over 99,000 prisoners here and 3,500 Nazi workers. I think of everything about this experience, I was just not prepared for the scope of it, how large it actually was. We saw the ruins of the gas chambers and crematoria and walked past many of the barracks. We were allowed in one to see the three-high bunks and how primitive the structure was. How anyone lived in there in the winter is beyond me. Even today I found it cold in there. To say that this is all beyond comprehension is really an understatement. Even reading back all that I’ve just written, it doesn’t seem to do the experience justice at all.

I found it difficult to “shake off” this visit. I’d read not to plan to do anything else after visiting Auschwitz and now I know why. Nothing felt right. Once I got back to Krakow, I tried to go to a museum, walk along the river (water usually grounds me), people watch in the main square. Nothing worked. Quite frankly, I went back to my hotel room and had a good cry and then went to the wine bar at the top of the street. That sommelier turned my day around. I needed friendly, relaxed and something that interested me. But the shadow of the day lurked over the rest of my trip, to the extent that I did not go through with my planned excursion to Dachau when I got to Munich. I couldn’t handle another concentration camp (and I’d been to Sachsenhausen and Terezin before). It was the one and only time while traveling alone that I have wished there was someone with me.

Wieliczka Salt Mines -- Now in an effort of full disclosure, I’ll admit that this wasn’t even on my radar for this trip. I read about it and thought it looked sort of kitschy and not my thing and I had plenty else to do here. And then I had Sunday free and I’d seen all I’d planned to, so that’s when Wieliczka Salt Mines came into play. I was picked up at 8:50 by Comfort Tours Krakow for Wieliczka Salt Mines, arranged by my hotel. Oh how nice it was being escorted around in a Mercedes SUV with just four other guests. Yesterday’s nightmare of the massive tour bus full of 60 passengers was long gone. The driver dropped us off at the entrance to the mines with the appointed English speaking guide and saw us off on the tour. We joined a group of about 20 other English speakers with our one Wielickzka guide.

The carvings and chapels and grottos in the mine have been built over the last 200 years or so by miners who wanted to memorialize themselves and their time down there. Rock salt was extremely valuable to the Poles at one time (more expensive than gold) but now the miners who still work down there are primarily maintaining the chambers and features of the carvings.

The entire system is kept at a constant 57 degrees which is what is best for maintaining the salt. The earlier exhibits (all made of salt!) explain how the mining worked, showed how the horses moved the salt that was quarried out of the shafts and the role salt played in history. The statues are of people from mythological characters to religious scenes, politicians, poets and Pope John Paul II. We saw two grottoes or lakes that are as salty as the Dead Sea. One they used to let guests take a boat on until 7 soldiers went out and started to dance in the boat, the boat capsized and yes, I know what you’re thinking, that’s ok because you float in that water, right? Well, no, not if you’re stuck under the capsized boat. They died and ruined the fun for the rest of us.

Anyway, the tour group makes its way through a series of tunnels that keep heading downward. Everything is rock salt except for the wooden beams and structures supporting the shafts and everything around it. Wood is used instead of metal because it doesn’t corrode like metal does in the presence of salt. There were long sections of tunnel that were split by doors periodically. Due to the air pressure in the tunnels, we’d all have to get into one closed section and close the door behind us before we could open the next door in front of us. I was surprised by how temperate it was, how not grossly humid and how fresh the air seemed. I wanted to ask the guide if her hair or skin benefit from the constant exposure to that environment but she’d disappeared at the end before I had a chance.

The grand finale before a series of gift shops was a large chapel that had to be four stories high and so ornately carved and decorated, it was breathtaking and at the same time hard to realize that it was all below ground. They also have a pretty large function room and a few smaller chapels. The guide said people frequently get married there (and they take advantage of an elevator installed for the handicapped guests so no one is traipsing down 800 stairs in a wedding gown).

It really is its own little village down there. There were a few toilet stops, at least two snack bars and a larger cafeteria. And somehow, credit cards worked in the gift shop. Hmmmm....

The guiding there is really well choreographed (Auschwitz could take tips from them on this). They let the groups enter about every 4 minutes. None of the explanations at any of the caverns took much longer than that. The groups were kept tightly together (especially when it came to the pressurized doors) and any stops for toilet, snack, souvenirs or photos in the largest rooms) were strictly timed. That meant it was never really crowded at any stop and that we didn’t have to wait for an elevator to resurface like the general public has to if they go on their own.

So I came away suitably impressed. Who knew? I'm now a believer in Wieliczka!
amyb is offline  
Jun 12th, 2019, 11:29 AM
  #3  
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Summing up...

One thing I forgot up above was a tiny hole in the wall bar I passed every time I walked to and from my hotel to the town square. I'd see bunches of people standing at tables drinking this dark red drink. Curiosity eventually got the best of me so I stopped in and bought a glass. It was cherry-flavored spirit and very enjoyable, particular on a cooler, damp day. Small bottles were for sale. The name of the bar is Pijana Wisnia.

Overall, I'm really glad I got to Krakow and saw what I did. It wasn't an "easy" vacation with its focus on the Holocaust but I think it's unavoidable there. I didn't go to drink and party, I went to learn about the city and I think I accomplished that. I loved the walk-ability and ease of navigating on foot in Krakow as well as the architecture and the people. I'll likely return at some point and include other destinations. I hope Poland resists the move to the Euro and remains this affordable!
amyb is offline  
Jun 12th, 2019, 06:09 PM
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Thank you for sharing such a great report. I was very moved by it.
indyhiker is offline  
Jun 13th, 2019, 05:32 AM
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Thank you for writing this detailed report which brings back memories of our day at Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Our female guide was the opposite of yours, caring and compassionate. She reminded us often that we were visiting and paying respects to those who had lost their lives in these camps.
For others going to Krakow, our hotel arranged transportation to Auschwitz in a small van for about 8 people who were taking an English speaking tour.
HappyTrvlr is online now  
Jun 13th, 2019, 06:12 AM
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Thanks for the report. I liked Krakow enough (in 2004) I went back (in 2006), I believe it's a lot more crowded now. Good to be reminded it's still on my revisit list.

Agree about the effect of visiting Auschwitz/Birkenau (and my guide was fine). I was on my own too, and it took me several days to recover. While I am glad I went, I will not visit any more Holocaust sites. (I had done a lot of reading on WWII and the Holocaust some years before my visit, but it didn't lessen the impact.)
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Jun 13th, 2019, 06:18 AM
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Originally Posted by amyb View Post
What we saw were immense piles of eyeglasses, prosthetics and crutches, prayer shawls, brushes, cookware and horrifically enough, two tons of human hair.
This sight never leaves you. Even now, years after visiting the camp, I can still see it when I close my eyes. Shocking to the core.
deniseoliver86 is offline  
Jun 13th, 2019, 06:30 AM
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Originally Posted by thursdaysd View Post
Agree about the effect of visiting Auschwitz/Birkenau (and my guide was fine). I was on my own too, and it took me several days to recover. While I am glad I went, I will not visit any more Holocaust sites. (I had done a lot of reading on WWII and the Holocaust some years before my visit, but it didn't lessen the impact.)
I'd done a significant amount of reading before I left too. From Christmas onward I was on a pretty strict diet of Holocaust-related books and none of it really prepared me. Even having been to others, I was still very effected. I think it's the immense scope of Auschwitz that is just so disturbing.
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Jun 13th, 2019, 06:36 AM
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Originally Posted by HappyTrvlr View Post
For others going to Krakow, our hotel arranged transportation to Auschwitz in a small van for about 8 people who were taking an English speaking tour.
I think that only lessens the herd-like mentality on the bus to/from Krakow. Once at Auschwitz, unless you pay for a private tour with an Auschwitz-employed guide (I'm not even sure that's an option), you're still put with others to round out a large-sized tour group run by one of their guides; our English speakers on the Grayline bus were combined with other English speakers who were not part of our bus. They don't allow externally-employed guides to tour there. I've since learned that the 6-hour study experience is a lot smaller and not as rushed, but I'm not sure I'd have had the stomach for it.
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Jun 13th, 2019, 01:15 PM
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Nice report, thanks for posting!

It does sound as if Krakow has become very crowded, although maybe it just happened to be so when you were there. I went in the summer of 2013 or 2014 and we didn't pre-book anything and didn't need to. We went to the museum at Schindler's Factory and walked right in. We called for private transportation to/from Auschwitz-Birkenau the day before we visited.

Fortunately or unfortunately, it was the tourists who were misbehaving on my Auschwitz-Birkenau visit, not the guide, who was excellent. Regardless, it was a harrowing visit and one I will never forget.

Side note: what did you think of the Veit Stoss altarpiece in St. Mary's? I happened to be there when they opened the doors and it took my breath away--I wasn't expecting it.
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Jun 13th, 2019, 02:01 PM
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Great report - we really enjoyed our 5 nights in Krakow 2 years ago and could return for a longer visit.

Re Auschwitz private guides - we did hire an authorized guide for a private tour. He was excellent and it was very reasonable (and I'll find his name and post it here).

We met at 9am (we stayed at the hotel across the street from the main gates as we were on our way from Prague to Krakow with a car - but you could also arrange it coming from Krakow for the day) --- he suggested starting at Birkenau as the crowds would be thin as the tours start at Auschwitz 1. There are no words to describe it.....but being virtually alone there was haunting. We went all the way over to the far side to where the buildings where the confiscated possessions were sorted. This is the description:

"The possessions and precious belongings of the Jews transported to Auschwitz-Birkenau were left in the train carriages and on the ramp as their owners were quickly put through the selection process.When the selection process was complete, a work group of prisoners called the ĎKanada Kommandoí collected the belongings of victims and took them to the ĎKanadaí warehouse facility for sorting and transporting back to Germany. To the prisoners, Canada was a country that symbolised wealth. They, therefore, gave the ironic name Kanada (the German spelling of Canada) to the warehouse area as it was full of possessions, clothing and jewellery."

I'm Canadian and was fairly well schooled (I thought) about the holocaust. This was a gut punch. The country I love so much; that symbolizes so much good (IMHO) ... was a reference point in this horror (yes I understand it was the prisoners who named it such, nonetheless it was awful).

By the time we got back to Auschwitz 1 the big crowds had moved on over to Birkenau and we could spend as much time as we wished in the buildings.

Amyb's descriptions of Auschwitz 1 are exactly what we saw and felt. I would add that we were shown the area where the last Camp Commandant was hanged ... near the gas chamber, when the allies arrived. Suitable he was hanged there, amid the lilacs.

My husband wasn't sure he could go - he is a great student of WWII but just wasn't sure he could do it. I was resolved to go so left it to him to decide whether to accompany me or not. He did - and has become a fervent advocate for visiting Auschwitz or another camp. We have to bear witness we think.

(a couple of pics - sorry if I'm hijacking AmyB but your trip report just caused me to go back to our photos - thank you)








Last edited by Elizabeth_S; Jun 13th, 2019 at 02:19 PM.
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Jun 13th, 2019, 03:10 PM
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I really enjoyed your report. We visited Krakow in October 2003 and immediately fell in love with this beautiful city. It wasn't crowded at all in 2003. We, too, visited Auschwitz-Birkenau. Contrary to the weather you had, we visited on a gray, dreary, rainy day. Which we felt was appropriate for such a horrible and depressing place. During that trip, which included Prague, we had cool, crisp, beautiful, sunny days, except for the day we visited Auschwitz. I remember our hotel made arrangements for the tour. It was a small group tour in a small van with an English speaking guide. And I am quite sure she guided us through the camp; I don't think we had a different guide. I have no desire to visit another concentration camp. That was enough for me. You gave a detailed history lesson, very well written. BTW, I recently finished reading "The Tattooist of Auschwitz" by Heather Morris, which I highly recommend if anyone is interested.

The Weiliczka Salt Mines was one of the highlights of our visit! And we loved the food! I am Polish-American, and grew up eating Polish food, so it was really enjoyable having pierogi, golompki, etc.
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Jun 13th, 2019, 03:14 PM
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Also want to mention that i agree with Leely2's comment about the Veit Stoss altarpiece at St. Mary's church. We didn't know anything about the church, and just happened to wander in, and were blown away by the gorgeous altar piece.
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Jun 14th, 2019, 03:01 AM
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Originally Posted by amyb View Post
Rather than step day by day through all my travels, Iíll just highlight specific sights.
Historically a trumpeter has played a song from the top of one of those towers on the hour. But many years ago, the trumpeter was killed in battle up there when he was struck by the enemy, cutting his song short. Today the ritual continues and on the hour a trumpeter plays the same song from the top of the towers in each of the four cardinal directions, and cuts off the song at the same point in the song at which the original trumpeter was slain. Random trivia: todayís trumpeters are also firefighters and they stay up there for 24 hours at a time to do this job.
Not many people even in Poland know that when Polish soldiers visited Kazakhstan during WW2 on their way from Russia to Middle East they were told almost same legend about the trumpeter. Just from theopposite side - invaders (there were Kazakhs and many other Asian tribsmen in Mongol army in 13th century).
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Jun 14th, 2019, 06:29 AM
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Originally Posted by KarenWoo View Post
Also want to mention that i agree with Leely2's comment about the Veit Stoss altarpiece at St. Mary's church. We didn't know anything about the church, and just happened to wander in, and were blown away by the gorgeous altar piece.
As luck would have it, the altarpiece was under renovation and almost entirely covered by scaffolding and tarps. Hence, the need to return to Krakow! ;-)
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Jun 14th, 2019, 07:00 AM
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Renovation of Veit Stoss Altar is expected to continue till December 2020.
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Jun 14th, 2019, 07:02 AM
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Originally Posted by Alec View Post
Renovation of Veit Stoss Altar is expected to continue till December 2020.
I'll plan my return trip for after that! ;-)
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Jun 14th, 2019, 12:12 PM
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This is a perfectly timed report for us! We will be there in September and Iím starting my day-to-day planning now. Already have a hotel booked.

Iíll certainly be checking out the food tour company you mentioned as we always enjoy a food tour. Iíve already reached out to our hotel who has offered to get our Salt Mines and Auschwitz-Birkenau trips booked for us.

Thanks for the information!
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Jun 14th, 2019, 01:18 PM
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Originally Posted by patandhank View Post
Iíll certainly be checking out the food tour company you mentioned as we always enjoy a food tour. Iíve already reached out to our hotel who has offered to get our Salt Mines and Auschwitz-Birkenau trips booked for us.


Definitely do the Secret Food Tour. Mat is very sweet (he's the Krakow manager) and I've continued a conversation with him since. A really, really nice guy. And the food was awesome, even as a vegetarian. I'd share more, but then it wouldn't be a secret food tour!

In the "if I had it to do over" category, I would definitely use a small vehicle, small group trip like I did for the salt mines. I'm not what I'd consider "old" but I learned I'm not cut out for big coach tours anymore, even if it's just the getting there and back. Comfort Tours Krakow uses Mercedes SUV's which suits my style quite nicely. Hopefully your hotel will hook you up accordingly!
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Jun 16th, 2019, 12:43 PM
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[QUOTE=amyb;16936920In the "if I had it to do over" category, I would definitely use a small vehicle, small group trip like I did for the salt mines. I'm not what I'd consider "old" but I learned I'm not cut out for big coach tours anymore, even if it's just the getting there and back. Comfort Tours Krakow uses Mercedes SUV's which suits my style quite nicely. Hopefully your hotel will hook you up accordingly![/QUOTE]

Weíre right there with you so Iíll look at their site.
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