If there is only one thing to learn from my blog, let it be this: Go. To. Krakow. Right now. Stop whatever you’re doing, book a ticket and get to Poland immediately.
To be honest, I never would have chosen Poland as a vacation destination. I have nothing against Poland, but it just didn’t top my list. A bunch of my friends even went during my year in Freiburg, and I passed. When Amanda and I were planning our trip, though, she had only one demand. “The only thing I have to do is visit Auschwitz,” she said, so after Berlin, it was off to Krakow. When I told people in Germany that I was going to Krakow, they all swooned and talked about how much they had loved their time there. I was intrigued. Now I get it. In Krakow, our hostel was kind of awful, it rained, hailed and snowed the whole time, and we had a snafu with our train tickets. We still had the best time ever and fell madly in love with Krakow. Get a drink, grab a snack, and saddle up; this post is going to be a long one.
Getting There: There is a great bus company that has routes leaving from Berlin and going all over Europe. Amanda and I snagged tickets to Krakow for only 49 Euros each! The only problem was that the trip took 9 hours. Still, it was only slightly longer than the train trip and much, much cheaper. I also think that our bus experience made for a better travel story that a ride on the railroad would have. For example, travelers leaving Germany are forced to readjust their notions of concepts like punctuality and formality. The bus left 45 minutes late. In fact, it had not even arrived by the time it was scheduled to leave. No one at the information desk knew why. I should also point out that the only people who seemed bothered by disregard for time were Amanda and I. Here are some notable highlights from our bus trip:
In addition already starting late, we stopped constantly so that the driver could and his assistant could chain smoke for 10 minutes before continuing on. The border crossing was slightly scary, since a bunch of armed border patrolmen boarded the bus and took a random sampling of passports; they took mine, but not Amanda’s. Then they got off of the bus, disappeared into a building for about 15 minutes and returned our passports without a stamp or ceremony. The bus trip had two highlights. The first one happened when they turned on the televisions and started a movie. Although I was still buried in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, my neck needed a break from reading. I was happy to see an American movie start, but that happiness disappeared when the sound began and dubbed-over Polish voices blared from the bus’s speakers. Amanda and I exchanged glances and burst our laughing. Still, my favorite part of the trip was when we pulled into a McDonald’s parking lot in Breslau. The driver got out of the bus with no explanation, grabbed a black garbage bag from the luggage compartment and placed it in the back seat of the a woman’s car in the parking lot. (The woman was presumably his girlfriend.) Then he kissed her, got back on the bus, and we kept going. I would love to know what was in that bag.
There: Somehow, 10 hours later, we made it to Krakow. After withdrawing some zlotys (Polish currency), we set out to find our hostel, Butik Hostel. In Berlin, Amanda had been pleasantly surprised to learn that hostels aren’t necessarily horrible. Any confidence in my hostel choosing abilities were quickly dashed by the Butik Hostel. The staff was incredibly helpful, friendly and proud of their city. We could book our trips to Auschwitz and the Wieliczka Salt Mines with the See Krakow Company at the reception desk, and there was free Wi-Fi in all of the rooms. However, the rooms were sort of grimy, the walls were paper-thin and the shower head kept crashing down mid-shower. The hostel also sits atop a bar, a bar that apparently has karaoke night on Thursdays. Breakfast the first morning was scary, but it was better on the other days. Although the first night was god-awful, the others were merely mediocre. We survived.
Amanda and I had three full days in Krakow. We spent our first day at the concentration camps Auschwitz and Auschwitz-Birkenau. I had never been to a concentration camp, nor did I ever intend to go, but I am glad that I went. It is a difficult thing to visit a camp and try to comprehend what happened there. It is also difficult to try to comprehend why we visit, what we hope the gain from the experience and how we discuss it. I think that the topic is important enough to warrant its own space, so I will deal with it in my next post. I did not take many photos, which I will also discuss in the next post, but the ones I did are here. That afternoon and evening, we ate, wandered, shopped and took photos. There is so much to see, so much to taste, so much to take in. We ended up at this hotel bar that was old-world fancy with a friendly bartender. He told us about the local beverage (Krupnick Honey Vodka) and let us sneak into the swing dancing party in the ballroom to have a look.
On our second day, we went to the Wieliczka Salt Mines. When some colleagues suggested, nay, insisted, we visit the salt mines, I thought they must be very boring people. Still, we didn’t know of anything else to do, so we booked a tour and went. It was SO cool! I don’t mean to sound like a pre-teen girl, but there’s no other word for it. The mines were in operation from the 13th century until 2007. That fact alone is completely insane. The ingenuity and skills that the people developed to get the salt out of the ground is so impressive. And the scale. It’s huge! I can’t describe it; it’s just massive. Then there’s the artistry. Because the workers spent so much time there, they built chapels, halls and churches in the mine, all made entirely of salt. Some of the things added after tours started are a little too far in the Disney direction, but it is still damn impressive. Our tour guide, Beate, was excellent, and Amanda and I are convinced that the mine elevator is safer than the one in the hostel. After the mines, we set out for another afternoon and evening of aimless wandering. We happened to run into a British couple we had met on the tour of Auschwitz and spent the night tearing up the town with them.
Enter the Great Train Mix-Up of 2012: When I booked everything, I did it all at one time so that I didn’t mix up any dates. Everything went through, except for the hostel in Krakow. The one we wanted was booked solid, so I had to find another. I did the booking a few days later and got confused. I had booked us a night train to Dresden that left at 11pm, so the date changed while we were on the train. (See how that works?) I mixed it all up and we accidentally were double-booked for hostels on the night of April 1. Luckily, I was able to cancel one of the nights at our Dresden hostel and change the train tickets without much drama or expense. The end result was one more day in Krakow, and one fewer day in Dresden. I think we both agree that the situation turned out for the best, and we spent our extra day seeing everything we had not already seen: Kazimierz (the Jewish quarter), the Wawel castle, the fire-breathing dragon statue and a brief glimmer of sunshine. We also went into St. Mary’s Basilica, the main church in town. Unfortunately, photos are prohibited, but I have never been so awestruck in my life. It was the most colorful, wonderful building I have ever seen. These people know how to worship.
Of everything we did, I can confidently say that our favorite parts of Krakow were the food and the marketplace. We went to the market at least twice every day. It is fantastic! There is pottery, jewelry, art, forged iron, handmade candles, crafts, etc. Because of the exchange rate benefits those of us earning dollars (3:1) and Euros (nearly 4:1), we can afford everything at the market. (Keep in mind that for Poles earning zlotys, Krakow is an expensive city. Just don’t go around yelling about how cheap everything is and you won’t be an ugly American.) In addition to stuff to buy, there is stuff to eat, and it is all GOOD. Pierogies, pork knuckles, sausages, sauerkraut, potatoes, cheese, waffles, sugared nuts, grilled veggies, kebab, candy, cake, beer, coffee, hot chocolate, the list goes on and on. In fact, the entire city is filled with delicious places to eat. We got the tip on the pizza-like fast food favorite called zapiekanki from Micha, who worked at our hostel.
The only word of warning I can offer is this: due to cheap flights from the UK and Ireland and an excellent exchange rate from euros and pounds to zlotys, Krakow has become something of a European Las Vegas for stag parties (bachelor parties). A lot of the hostel booking website specifically list “no stag parties.” While Amanda and I didn’t mind seeing 15 drunken, kilted Scotsmen singing and drinking at breakfast in our hostel because we were already awake, I’ve heard some horror stories from friends involving a 10-person room and vomit. Just something to keep in mind.
To recap: Whether you’d like to just visit Europe, or if you’ve done the whole 10 countries in 10 days style tour of Europe and need something new, go to Krakow. Immediately. The city is gorgeous, there is a lot to do, it’s an inexpensive European trip and the Poles are really friendly. You won’t be disappointed.
- Berlin Linien Bus
- Hotel Zaczek (the one my colleagues recommended)
- Butik Hostel (where we stayed)
- SeeKrakow tours
- Wieliczka Salt Mines
- Photo of the inside of St. Mary’s Basilica (found in a Google image search)
- Kolanko No. 6: Crepe cafe in Kazimierz. Mediocre crepes, but excellent tea selection. Warm.
- Wawel Castle
- Get a phrase book. Most people know a little English, but it’s nice to at least learn “thank you,” “please,” and “cheers.”
- Guidebooks are nice, but you don’t need one for Krakow. Most of what the city has to offer is available to be seen. Do some research before you go, get a map, and just walk around.
- Don’t get tickets for public transportation. Krakow is small, walkable, and you can see so much just by wandering. You cannot get lost.
- The folks at our hostel told us about this town in the mountains near-ish Krakow called Zakopane. In the winter, there’s skiing, and in the warmer months, there’s hiking and horseback riding. Zakopane also produces its own EU licensed cheese. Just like how you can only call it “champagne” if it’s from France, this cheese can only be made in Zakopane. The photos are gorgeous. To go there, spend some time, and come back to Krakow is a whole day affair. Had we known in advance, and had it not been so bitter cold and damp, we would have gone. The insider tip is to skip the booked tour and just get the bus at the train station. It’s cheaper and just as easy.