10 days in Poland to break up a long stay in Iceland was exactly what we needed. There is such a thing as too much time in Iceland and we made the decision to reduce our stay from 40 days to 30 days and spend 10 days in the country with the cheapest roundtrip from Iceland we could find, Poland. With a 12 hour stop-over in Berlin on the way, we planned for a night out of clubbing in Germany’s Capital. Now, I couldn’t tell you where we went because it was over a year ago and we drank lots of German bier in those 12 hours but take my word for it that we had a good time.
Arriving in Kraków, Poland
For a normal person the flight from Germany would have been great, leaving early morning and arriving by noon, but not for our drunk asses that spent the night sleeping on an airport bench. For the record, this is only the 2nd time I’ve done this and it’s not something I’m too proud of. Anyways, upon arriving we found our hostel then proceeded to take a well-deserved nap before exploring the city so not much happened that first day.
Kraków Old Town
The next day we set out to explore the Kraków Old Town, a medieval city under the shadow of the epic Wawel Castle. The Old Town today is one of Poland’s 14 UNESCO World Heritage Sites and quite spectacular to explore. It’s free to walk around the courtyard of the Castle and is a small fee to see the various museums and attractions within its walls.
Other than the castle itself the Old Town has lots to discover. Luxury clothing stores and fine dining establishments line the walls in the Main Market Square but you don’t have to look too far to find some cheaper eateries such as a bar mleczny “milk bar” or pierogis to satisfy your hunger. While I’m talking about the Main Market Square be sure not to miss the hourly St. Mary’s Trumpet Call made by a trumpeter on the highest tower of Saint Mary’s Church.
We spent about 3 days exploring all the nooks and crannies of Old Town Kraków and also participated in a “club crawl” which happen multiple nights a week. Don’t ask me about the club crawl, I don’t remember much. Another great site in Old Town is the Jewish Quarter, Kazimierz where Wikipedia tells me Steven Spielberg shot his film Schindler’s List. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kazimierz) To be honest I didn’t know that at the time but the Jewish Quarter was by far my favorite place to get food in Kraków. The best.
Wieliczka Salt Mine
Besides Wawel Castle and the Old Town, the Wieliczka Salt Mine is another UNESCO World Heritage Site and another one of my favorite things to see in Krakow. The salt mine is easily accessible via public transportation and a memorable tour to say the least. The mine has hundreds of dimly-lit caverns to explore but the tour only brings you to some of the highlights. Definitely surprising to see in person, the horse stables, horse treadmills, and many ropes and pulleys used to haul salt out of the mine and the elaborate carvings by miners and artists in many of the rooms, such as St. Kinga’s Chapel deep within the mine. My favorite carvings include the Leonardo’s The Last Supper carved into the wall and the carving of Pope John Paul II. One thing of note is that if you come here be sure to bring a nice flash with your camera as most of the chambers are so dimly lit that you can’t take any good photos and your phone’s flash probably won’t be enough to compensate. The only room that is an exception is the St. Kinga’s Chapel, by far the most brightly-lit room in the entire mine, pictures turn out pretty good in this room and very few others. Be sure to lick the walls before you leave.
Auschwitz concentration camp
Probably the only activity we planned in advance to visit before arriving to Krakow was Auschwitz-Birkenau, the original Nazi concentration camps used in the Holocaust. Yet another UNESCO World Heritage Site, this one really needs no introduction (hopefully) if you’ve ever read a history book about World War II or Nazis. I believe the tour around each facility was free but donations were encouraged. I can’t remember what we paid for the pickup and drop-off from our hostel but it was easily arranged (like other tours) from the front desk staff of the hostel and not too expensive either. The camps were definitely eye opening to see in-person and I would highly recommend engaging in a concentration camp tour if you get a chance. I think it’s an important lesson to remember what happens when far-right authoritarian regimes go too far.
That being said, Auschwitz I (the original concentration camp) reminds me of a school in a way but within the walls tell a different story. The tour was really well done and quite emotional (although not as much as the Killing Fields or Tuol Sleng in Cambodia). The tour brings you through a few of the buildings where they show pictures, information boards, and other exhibits along the well-defined tour route. I was quite detached from my emotions the whole time until I saw an exhibit of human hair where sacks of human hair are displayed from when the Nazis shaved the prisoner’s heads and sold the hair to textile companies. Pretty fucked up. Then my emotions hit me again as we made our way through the actual gas chamber with the human-shaped crematoria. I’d only seen pictures of the gas chambers up until this point and it was an eerie feeling that I can’t describe.
Upon exiting Auschwitz I the tour makes its way to Auschwitz II-Birkenau (a combination concentration/extermination camp) about a kilometer away where you start to understand the true scale of the operation. An estimated 1.3 million people were sent there during its existence and the place is pretty nightmarish but I’ glad I went. And that’s about all I have to say about that.
We left Poland to go back to Iceland after only 10 days but I plan on returning to see other parts of Poland sometime in the future!