Land of Lord Krak

Krakow Travel Blog

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6th February 2008
The Poland trip started with an early morning flight. We were up at 5.45 (Kae worrying as usual that we’d miss the plane) had a quick breaky and were ready for mum to take us to the airport by 6.30. With a quick check-in we were ready to go and heaps of time to spare, funnily enough we bumped into my agency contact who was unaware of my holiday plans it really is a small world. We boarded the plane at 7.50 and a short flight later we arrived in Krakow for 11.30am, a two and a half hour flight with a one hour time difference.
We arrived at Krakow airport and proceeded to purchase our tourist cards giving three days travel and free entry to a huge range of museums. This is where the drama started as English was nowhere to be seen and the 192 bus to the city non-existent (thanks lonely planet) we found the bus stop and took the 292 through classic European countryside of rolling green hills which got us into ‘town’ about thirty minutes later. In our unsure state we travelled right through to the last stop unaware we had already passed central. Upon leaving the bus we checked our map which made no sense and corresponded to nothing of the streets around us. We then got the 292 bus back the way we had came and jumped off at a major junction. Upon recognising a street from our map we proceeded to walk about 500m in the wrong direction before the two of us noticed we had gone the wrong way finally we found the right street and it was plain sailing from there.
We arrived at our hotel thinking the worst (having only booked a 2 star) but were pleasantly surprised to find it was located next to stunning Wawel castle and a short walk from the main square. The hotel dated to 1898 and looked every inch its 110 years. We checked in to find that yes it was very basic in its amenities but had everything we needed ie comfy beds, towels and clean surfaces. The breakfast was a pleasant surprise too.
We took a short time to freshen up and unpack our bags, then went downstairs to grab some maps and study local tourist attractions. We felt hitting the main square was a good start and we weren’t let down. On our way we began to feel increasingly hungry and found a pretzel stand as seems to exist on every quiet street in Europe. We polished that off and continued to Rynek Glowny. It is the largest medieval square in Europe and testimony to the huge presence of the Catholic Church in polish life. We were greeted with St Mary’s Basilica, a cloth hall and the town hall tower. Kae proceeded to take her usual 500 photos. Having admired in length the square we did a quick lap of its boundaries. We found a quiet side street bakery and headed in. We saw what appeared to be meat pastries and pizza bread both ordering one each only to find spoken in polish that it wasn’t meat but sweet filling.
Our tourist adventure had finally begun as we entered the Basilica; the Basilica of the Virgin Mary’s is the most famous of all Poland’s Churches. Built in the 14th century, it was a huge spiralled building, lined with huge walls and windows testament to stone masonry and architecture which in this day in age most could only dream of. The higher tower stands at 81 meters, and is a spectacle of the square. We did a lap where in the reserved section people were paying their respects to God. Annoying we had paid 6 zloty entry only to later discover it was free with our tourist cards
Next we hit the cloth hall which sat exactly in the middle of the square. Inside were various stalls selling some handmade cloths and materials, bags and animals skins alongside the usual array of tacky tourist goods like ‘ I love Krakow’ tees and shot glasses. The tower was closed to entries but provided another good source of photos. Before heading further a field we stopped back at the hotel for a short rest and to plan our tram route. The tram maps took a lot of getting used to!!. We jumped on a tram and proceeded to the Jewish quarter – Kasimierz named after the polish king of the 14th century. Most of the elements of Jewish history had now been destroyed or reduced to rubble in the Nazi onslaught. Upon our arrival in Kasimierz we found dark, quiet streets with little lighting and tried to find the Jewish museums. The guide said is opened until 10pm not 6pm as was the case. We quickly realised the area was a ghost town at night and headed for the tram stop (Kae getting rather scared!). We left disappointed at a somewhat wasted journey and headed back to the square.
We found the tram actually took us to a shopping centre and we proceeded to look around. This was a mini version of Bondi Junction with prices to match (and by the looks of things a hangout for the affluent). We looked around had a nice latte talking over the day and planning our next. We then ate here (some pasta) and proceeded to go home. As is common on our travels we argued over directions with us both believing the other wrong as we jumped on a random tram. I was convinced it took us home well we headed past the square and passed a building that bore remarkable resemblance to our hotel. I noted this and told Kae we were bout to miss our stop and got off later realising Kae was still sitting in her seat, day dreaming as she headed south. Five minutes later she re-appeared looking bemused at my prompt exit. It was time for rest and we went upstairs for some much needed rest after a 17 hour day.

7th February 2008
We woke up fresh and early at 7.30am despite a 22 hour marathon the day before. We were pleasantly surprised as our ‘2 star’ hotel catered a continental European breakfast with some ho food like scrambled eggs and sausages alongside a host of danishes, toast and various condiments with nice warm coffee and juice.
Our first full day we thought should start with a bang and boy were we impressed. We started at the castle which was conveniently located only 5 mins from our hotel, on top of Wawel Hill. People have lived on Wawel Hill for more than 50 thousand years, archaeologists have found. The castle dates back to the 14th century containing a mix of polish and Austrian architecture dating back to previous occupation of Poland in the austro-hungarian empire. We walked the ground which contained beautiful gardens and high walls. From these walls you could across Krakow including the stunning Wisla river or Vistula as it is sometimes known. They even had a huge dragon which is displayed in small statue form throughout the grounds. Legend has it that Lord Krak fought off this mysterious dragon back in medieval times to protect his people. We purchased tickets to the state rooms, royal apartment and the armoury museum. The museum contained a variety of weapons, shields and other armouries from throughout Europe from the 13th to the 18th century. The two residences were testament to the outstanding architecture and grandeur of the earlier centuries. They contained stunning artwork and amazing patterns and pillars which displayed the immense talents of stonemasons and architects of the day. The residences displayed large amounts of Italian design though no explanation was given as to this. The palace became a castle which has housed Polish royalty since the 16th century, during the second world war it was over taken by the Nazi’s and was home to Hans Frank.

After the glorious views and history of the castle which proudly states that Krakow is ‘the centre of polish history and culture’ we moved onto to more sombre surroundings in the form of the Galicia museum. This was created by Chris Schwartz in the 1980’s to pay respect to the contribution of the Jews to polish culture and to commemorate their tragic experiences. It contained photos, story cards and contributions by war survivors. It displayed severely disturbing recounts of personal experiences and provided some facts and figures. It is testament to the survival nature of man that Jews managed to survive such tragedies and teach future generations of their suffering. One of many facts included was that before the war Warsaw had 3 million Jews reduced to 60,000 after most of who fled.
As we were already in the Jewish quarter, we visited one of only a handful of remaining synagogues. It pays respect to the enduring spirit of those who died. It was used by the Nazis during WW2 as a base for military operations and intelligence headquarters. It was located in Kazamierz known as the ‘Jewish quarter’ this area housed all Jewish citizens in what became known as the ghetto walled off from society.
We headed back to the square for more sights and to grab some lunch. We found a pleasant little Italian restaurant on the square and enjoyed delightful pasta. Italian restaurants were everywhere in Krakow it seemed. We went to the National Museum in the main square thinking it was a museum of history only to find it was a display of home made nativity scenes by kids ranging from4 to 17. Very impressive were some especially given their age. Some contained mechanical parts and fancy lighting. We then decided to do a loop of the square and explore a little. The town square is surrounded by parks with walkways through the middle very pleasant walking environment. On a random walk we discovered the museum of archaeology. This was a chance to use our tourist pass and so we proceeded to undergo an education in ancient human history. It displayed mans evolution from Neanderthal to homo-sapien. Kae was convinced she is a Neanderthal given her rounded head. It also detailed ancient settlement of man to Poland and its spread throughout Europe mainly to coastal areas or on flood plains. We saw development of hunting tools and house building skills to ships used for migration to far away lands. It also contained evidence of ancient Egyptian mummies some still intact with bones on view. Makes you wonder what the rest of North Africa was doing when Egypt was kicking ass.
After extensive education in ancient history we decided to wind down the day by heading to the river to enquire as to river trips for the coming days only to find they were still in the process of removing Xmas decorations. I never realised Xmas was so big here!! We found river tours were at a minimum during winter. So, we headed back towards the hotel in preparation for a night out by stopping at the local bottle shop or ‘alkohole’ as it is locally known. Beer and beer/cola and some wine later we headed back to the hotel for a few quiet drinks. All the drinking made us hungry so we headed to the square for dinner and found a polish place or at least it sounded it. We ordered what turned out to look like giant pork/chicken schnitzels with chips and some salad. That was washed down with a cold beer and some wine. We decided time to hit the drink and went looking for pubs all of which resembled the dungeons from hostel. They all seemed to be downstairs built into the rock in the ground. They looked suss at best so we proceeded to a sports bar where there wasn’t much sports and we had a game of pool before the smoke became overbearing. We find a British pub can you believe had a few quiet voddies over a chat of all things polish. Then we headed only to find western backpackers in search of the holy grails of cheap booze. We decided one dungeon was one too many and after our last voddy quickly checked the clubs then headed home tipsy and happy.

8th February 2008
After a tasty breaky we went for a walk along the Wisla past the castle only to find there were no river tours were running probably due to winter weather. After this we took a bus to god knows where getting lost before following the path along the river to the southern part of Krakow famous for being the site of a ghetto and the location of Schindler’s factory. We toured around learning this was where the ‘locals’ hung out with some old shops and worn buildings. During our walk we came across the amazing St Jozefs which resembled a mini St Paul’s cathedral. It was pope John Paul’s former place of worship. We looked around and took in the more polish side of town before heading back to the square. Back in town we found a coffee shop or so we thought we learned that in fact we had to pass through a mini market to get into a courtyard full of bars and coffee stores. We refreshed with a coffee before heading out again

We went to a Krakow History Museum, which again made a tale of the Jewish history of Poland pre holocaust. They were a thriving business community with good links with locals. Poland has the unfortunate position of being located in between Germany and Russia and has been annexed more times than you can count. In the museum were the Gestapo cells which interrogated prisoners many of whom were intellectuals who were murdered in an attempt to eradicate any polish culture and history. He Germans had planned to kill 50 million slavs. The cells were marked with tales of survival and loss a true prisoner’s tale. Schools, unis and other places of culture and education were taken over and prisoners sent here for ‘questioning’. After this chilling experience we moved on.

We came across the galleria which as it turned out was next to central station. We had a quick skim had an ice cream then were on our way. We came across the Florian’s gate and Barbican on our way home both remnants of former defensive structures in Krakow. These we found by luck, and although the pictures sdid not come out in the dark, they were impressive. We felt hungry and found a cosy Italian place which as it turned out we basically had to ourselves and it was glamorous and very European. Set in a courtyard of which a fountain was in the centre it was walled with pictures of nature and relaxing music was played. We ordered a nice pasta and after that decided to have an early night for another busy day!!.

9th February 2008
We rose early to pack and be ready for our tour. We left at 9 for a 6 hours tour of the camps. The journey took about an hour through rugged polish countryside. We arrived to meet our guide a tiny purple haired woman who spoke in a monotone manner yet she gave a decent presentation. Upon approach you are greeted with the slogan ‘work makes you free’ a lie told to Jews to hide their real fate. The camps contained cramped barracks housing a thousand people each when really they should have held more like 50. We managed to see block 11 which remains as was 1945 with cramped bunks and interrogating halls and punishment rooms where as punishment 4 men were forced into an enclosed shower like cubicle to stand day and night without sleep. We became witness to the firing wall where dissident were executed. We saw crematoriums which ran day and night for almost 4 years until the red army liberated the camps. Around 2 millions had died in these two camps alone. Auschwitz was relatively small but contained a surreal museum, with lots or original Jewish and polish remains such as confiscated shoes, clothes and bags and most disturbingly 2 tonnes (of the 7 tonnes found on the sight) of hair shaved from the heads of people queuing for the death chambers. This hair was sold to rug stores to make cloth and material. The chambers were even fitted with fake shower heads to deceived the people into thinking they would be cleansed. After Auschwitz we moved onto Birkenau which despite being less renowned was bout 20 times the size of Auschwitz. It contained lines of barrack style accommodation which housed up to 2000 people to share 5 toilets; prisoners were allowed about 10 seconds to complete their business. What struck me was how cold the place was and this in the midst of a wild winter not the minus 20 that occurred in the forties when prisoners wore little more than bed sheets to keep them warm. In truth no words can ever convey the sheer terror and inhumanity brought upon these people. Only seeing can you truly believe man is capable of such degrading treatment of its fellow man. In the immediate post war we learned from our guide that many camp commanders tried to blend into society and only a fraction were caught and tried, many escaped to south America, the US and Canada.
After the chilling experience of the camp we needed a warm coffee to keep us going and found a charming courtyard pub that sold coffee and had a quick drink before heading out to dinner. We thought another polish meal would be a suitable end to our trip so found a quiet place with nice atmosphere; it was a folk themed polish restraint in the square. We both ordered a smoked meat to our detriment as the style did not suit our western taste buds, though the service was good and prices reasonable.
Kae worrying that we’d miss our flight got us to pick up our bags from the hotel and head to central for our airport train, we had some time to kill so skimmed the nearby shops for a browse. We then arrived at the airport as it turned out ridiculously early wit around an hour to kill before boarding for home. The flight went quickly despite the drunken youths who were rowdy and immature, even threatened with arrest back in Edinburgh. They had been on a 21st trip though so can’t be given too much bad press. We got back to Edinburgh and with a 1 hr bus arrived safely home.
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photo by: EmyG