Poland – Kraków, Wieliczka, & Auschwitz-Birkenau 

From Vienna, my sister and I took a bus all the way to Kraków, Poland. I was very excited for a few reasons. I had met multiple travellers in the past who have said that Kraków is their favourite city in Europe, so I was ready to see what all the hype was about. I had also never been to Poland before, and I was ready to explore some new places.

We stayed in a hostel on Floriańska Street, which is a famous street that runs from St. Florian’s Gate to the main square.

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The location of the hostel was absolutely perfect, we were a 2 minute walk away from this central square. Unfortunately that was where the good points ended, because this hostel was a nightmare. The WiFi didn’t work, and neither did the air conditioning, so the windows were left open at night. This hostel happened to have a giant pile of garbage just outside their back window, so instead of a nice cool breeze we were treated to the warm smell of garbage. That’s not even the best part. There were two old ladies who seemed to be permanent residents in our room who seemed to both be friends and hate each other. They enjoyed such fun activities as having loud phone calls early in the morning, staring in disapproval at any new guests, and of course screaming at each other after everyone had gone to bed. One girl in the room had gotten sick and was trying to sleep when they came thundering into the room, and she had had enough of it because she started yelling at them to shut up and go to sleep. Moral of the story: if you go to Kraków, don’t go for the cheapest hostel you can find; it’s just not worth it.

Anyways, like any other day the most important first stop was a coffee shop. There was a cafe called Out of Africa just around the corner that was fantastic. They had coffees from all over, and let you choose how you wanted it made. It had been a while since I’d had good Sumatran coffee, so this became a comforting place to flee to from our hostel.

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The main square in Kraków really is something special. The entire Old Town of Kraków is listed as a UNESCO site, and this is the heart of it. The first thing you might notice is the imposing Basilica of St. Mary and its uneven towers. It seems that brick buildings are a feature of Polish architecture, and I love the colours.

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Across from the basilica is the equally iconic Cloth Hall. When Kraków was the capital of Poland and a center of trade, the hall was at the heart of it.

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Since it was cheap and we were looking to get out of the sun for a bit, we climbed to the top of the town hall tower to get a better look at the square. The entrance was guarded by a sleepy lion.

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Without a destination in mind, we began wandering through the city. The old town is such a beautiful place, we had no trouble finding more and more interesting places to explore. The atmosphere in the old town is nice and lively, so just walking around in it is enjoyable.

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We made our way through town to Wawel Castle, the former seat of Polish royalty. It was a short climb up the hill to the castle complex, and we spent some time sitting in the shade enjoying the chance to rest and watch the comings and goings of other tourists. Being Canadians with more experience with cold than heat, and being somewhat exhausted after a sweaty night in our hostel with screaming roommates, our motivation was at the point where sitting in the shade was all we intended to do.

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Kraków is honestly an incredible city. It’s beautiful, it has a great atmosphere, and it has its own unique look. I didn’t connect with it enough to rank it as my favourite European city, and I don’t quite see how others easily rank it so high, but I am happy to sing its praises and say that I enjoyed it. I wonder how my opinion would’ve changed if the coffee wasn’t so good though. I think that Kraków is a lesson to me as a traveller that I need to evolve past always taking the cheapest option. Some things are worth paying a little extra for.

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Another nice thing about Kraków is that aside from being worth a visit in its own right, there are a few places nearby that can be easily reached from the city. One such place is the Wieliczka Salt Mine.

The Wieliczka Salt Mine was in operation for hundreds of years, and was one of the oldest operating mines in the world before being converted into a museum in 2007. I was skeptical that a salt mine could be worth getting up before 7 to see, but we booked our tour anyways and took an early train to the town. We both got a pretzel while we waited for our tour time, and it was pretty terrible as I think it was almost entirely made of salt. Points given for being on brand, points taken away for the pretzel being 50% salt.

Now that we were somewhat more salinated than when we arrived, it was time to descend into the mine. Honestly, after a few days of walking around Kraków in the summer heat, the cool temperature in the mine made the excursion worth it. Temperature aside, the sculptures and chandeliers made entirely of salt were incredible!

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The Last Supper, but saltier.

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We were told that it was completely sanitary to lick the walls, because bacteria can’t live for long on salt, so that was interesting. The best part of this though was when we came to a pool of running brine. Brine is water with a high concentration of salt, with the highest possible concentration being 26%. The brine in this mine was 26%, and we were allowed to give it a taste. At first nobody in the group was going for it so the guide kept talking. Madeleine is braver than your average person though, so she was the first to give it a try.

I really want to convey how wonderful this was.

Since the guide wasn’t paying attention, the amount of brine tasted was up to Madeleine’s discretion, so she just took a handful from the pool and drank it.

Have you ever gone swimming in the ocean and gotten a mouthful of saltwater? Pretty salty right? Well, ocean water has a salinity of about 3.5%. Madeleine drank a handful of Poland’s Finest 26%.

I should give her some serious credit though. She said it was gross and did a bit of coughing, but that was about it. When the rest of the group decided to give it a try, everyone just dipped their finger into the water and licked their finger. That was enough for the taste of salt to take over your taste buds. Madeleine basically did a salt cleanse. She must’ve ingested enough salt to cure an ox.

After walking through the cool tunnels among the salt crystal chandeliers, and with more entertainment than I had expected that day, our tour was ended and we headed back to Kraków.

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While in Kraków, we also did a day trip to the concentration camps of Auschwitz and Birkenau. It was a one of a kind experience. You learn so much from the tour guide, which makes it fascinating, but the content leaves you with anger and sorrow. I know it’s a cliché, but there is such a difference to hear about something and to actually be there; to hear how many people were forced to live in one tiny building and then to actually be in the building yourself. There are so many horrible things about this place that I can understand, but not truly comprehend.

There is a series of plaques there, all in different languages, that send a pretty clear message.

FOR EVER LET THIS PLACE BE A CRY OF DESPAIR AND A WARNING TO HUMANITY, WHERE THE NAZIS MURDERED ABOUT ONE AND A HALF MILLION MEN, WOMEN, AND CHILDREN, MAINLY JEWS FROM VARIOUS COUNTRIES OF EUROPE.

AUSCHWITZ – BIRKENAU

If there was ever a place that could be called a cry of despair, this is it.

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“Arbeit macht frei” – “Work sets you free”
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One of the remaining crematorium chimneys.

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The entrance to Birkenau

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It extended like this on either side of the tracks. This camp is enormous.
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A freight car used to transport people.

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It was a profoundly sad place to visit, but I’m glad we went. There are some things you can’t learn from a book.

There is a lot more to the camps than what I’ve included here. I didn’t take many pictures outside, and none inside any of the buildings. There are rooms with empty Zyklon B containers that were used for the gas chambers, piles of shoes, bags, even human hair. The Auschwitz museum tells the story of the real people who passed through the camp; it’s an extremely important place. I left with that same mixture of sadness, anger, and the desire to learn more.

 

We did a little more exploring from Kraków before moving on to Warsaw, but that’s for the next story!