The Europe saga continues in Krakow, Poland. Shanna and I had a lovely eight hour bus ride to Krakow from Prague. A bus ride that had a rather large man sleeping on my shoulder for the good majority of it. He ended up being very friendly though! We talked near the end of the trip about languages, and had fun talking about the different languages we knew and were trying to learn.
Our hostel was on a very busy street almost right in the main square of Krakow. We got into Krakow pretty late and were looking forward to sleep, though we did do a bit of exploring nearby. We soon found out why the front desk to our hostel handed out free ear buds though – the street below us was insanely loud through the whole night! Closing the windows was not an option either; we relied on a breeze coming through to keep the room cool. Alas, though we didn’t get much sleep that night we were still very excited for our first major excursion in Poland the next day. We were going to Auschwitz.
It felt weird to admit that I was excited to visit Auschwitz, but what I really wanted to do was see this place with my own eyes and pay my respects to the victims that lived and died there. I am fascinated by WWII history, and love learning everything I can about that time period. I knew that visiting Auschwitz would be an emotionally draining day for me (I fully expected to be in tears for the majority of the tour), but I knew I had to be there. I had to walk those grounds and see the history for myself.
I could talk for a long time about my visit there, but I will try to keep my story to a brief summary for the sake of keeping this post at a reasonable length. We started out in the section of the camp where soldiers lived, but also prisoners as well. Many of the barracks/houses had been re-purposed as exhibits to showcase artifacts from the war, and to illustrate the history of what happened at the camp. So in a way, it felt like walking through a museum.
We stood in front of mountains of shoes that were taken from victims, we stood in front of mountains of baby shoes, clothes, suit cases, we even stood in front of mountains of human hair. And even though the volume of these materials was massive, it was still only a small sliver of a percentage of the true percentage of things that were taken from the victims of the camps.
We stood in front of the ‘killing wall’ where victims were shot and killed, and we heard story after story of the atrocities that happened on the very soil that I was standing on. It was a heavy day.
I learned that day that the Auschwitz camp was actually more of a complex, made up of three separate camps. There was Auschwitz 1, Auschwitz 2, and the Auschwitz 3 camp that made up the complete camp of “Auschwitz.” After touring Auschwitz 1 we got on a bus to visit “Auschwitz 2” or the camp called Birkenau. This was the camp that everyone who arrived to Auschwitz first visited. It includes the long line of train tracks that go to a platform where men and women were divided into two separate sides upon exiting the train cars. At this camp we walked through many of the actual sheds that prisoners were kept in. We saw a beautiful memorial of the war in the far corner of the camp next to an old burned-down gas chamber. I was informed that once the war had ended the Nazis who survived burned much of their camps to the ground in an effort to destroy evidence of their crimes. That is why much of Birkenau was burned down and in ruins. Across every Nazi concentration camp all of the gas chambers were burned down by Nazis – all except one. The only remaining gas chamber was at Birkenau and our tour walked us right through it.
Every single person was completely silent as they went through. My emotions came over me, and I can tell you it was a haunting experience to be inside this chamber, knowing what happened inside it, and how many lives it claimed. The most haunting image of all, was probably looking over to one of the concrete walls at one point inside the chamber and seeing the claw marks all over it. I looked away as soon as I saw that detail, and the image still remains with me to this day.
After visiting Auschwitz Shanna and I desperately needed some happier adventures. We spent that night back in Krakow exploring the old down square, seeing the castle lit up at night, walking down by the river, and seeing all of the cool street performers and art that was around every corner.
The next day was my BIRTHDAY and I was so excited to be in POLAND for it! I am Polish myself, my whole family is Polish, and I still couldn’t believe that I was in Poland this year on my birthday. My number one priority for the day? Find a vendor selling perogies and PIG OUT. I kept joking with Shanna that it was my goal in Poland to “gain 10 pounds from eating perogies alone.”
Before I could find my street vendor though, we had another exciting day activity planned. We were going to go on a tour of one of the largest salt mines on earth! Now I know what you may be thinking, that doesn’t sound very exciting, but trust me when I say – it was! For starters, our tour guide had a wonderfully sarcastic and dry sense of humor, it was very fun to listen to him!
When I say that these were one of the largest salt mines on the earth – I meant it. Our guide starts off by telling us that by the end of the day we will have been exploring the Wieliczka Salt Mine for 5-6 hours, and we will have seen less than 1% of the entire mines. They go on for miles and miles in every direction. First we crammed ourselves 6 at a time into this tiny “super elevator” that shoots you way down into the mines. Then you walk through a series of air-tight chambers to get to the first “big” chamber of the mines where the guide starts talking. Right away we start seeing sculptures and carvings everywhere on the walls. We were informed that all of the artwork we saw down there was done by miners, not artists! It was just something miners had learned how to do in their downtime in the mines. I thought that was very cool.
Deeper and deeper we went. We eventually came across a massive cathedral down (The Chapel of St. Kinga (Fun fact: Kinga was a Polish princess who later became the patron saint of the mines. St. Kinga Day is July 24th, the day we were down in the mines – also my birthday!)) in the mines that had a full alter, pews, tables, chairs, carvings on the wall, statues, even massive chandeliers hanging from the ceiling – all of it was made of salt. We saw underground lakes (and listened to Chopin music at one of them), we came across gift shops way down there, at the very very end there was even a bar! By the end of the tour we were two miles below the surface of the earth, and we had to take the super elevator to get back up. I’ll say it again, it was very cool, and it was fun to learn about the history of the mine and how each different chamber had its own unique stories. I learned that 12 weddings a year happen down there in the St. Kinga Cathedral, also the deepest underground bungee jump record and hot air balloon record happened in those mines.
After our mine tour we went back to Krakow and did some shopping around for souvenirs. I got a beautiful polished flint necklace (traditional Polish jewelry) and an amber necklace (another traditional piece of jewelry from Poland). I did find my perogie street vendor that had 10 DIFFERENT perogie flavors! It was 10 for 10, so naturally, I got every flavor. 🙂
That night we went to dinner (Italian restaurant – for some reason I was craving Italian for my birthday dinner, ha!) with some of our hostel roomies (a group of three rowdy Brits who were very funny and fun to hang out with) and then we went on a bar crawl with them and many other people from our hostel. We went to multiple bars and clubs in Krakow and had a great time.
The next day we did some more souvenir shopping and then went to Schindler’s Factory – another WWII museum/exhibit that Shanna really wanted to visit. I remember being very impressed with the quality of the exhibits at this museum. I also learned that while Oskar Schindler saved many lives – he was also sort of a gerk in person. But the saving lives thing is what matters most.
Our day ended with me finding one more street vendor for kielbasa, kapusta, and of course more perogies. We then headed to the bus station and hopped on a bus to take us to Budapest.
Closing thoughts about Krakow:
- There were street performers everywhere – similar to Prague. I even got to hear one very talented accordion player perform phantom of the opera
- The city NEVER sleeps – similar to Prague, there were people out and about at all times of the night
- The food, omg don’t even get me started on the food. All of the authentic Polish food I had was the best I’ve ever had. It reminded me of my grandma’s Polish cooking from when I was a kid. I was in heaven!
- Native Polish people were SO friendly! Our tour guides were extremely friendly, the staff in our hostel were extremely friendly (one waiter even brought me a brownie with a candle in it when he found out it was my birthday, so sweet of him!). Shanna and I had to do laundry one night in Krakow and it was a few blocks away from the hostel. While slightly lost trying to find the laundromat (everything is in Polish around us) we bumped into an extremely friendly man who went above and beyond to try and help us find this laundromat. Everyone was friendly.
- I saw some magnificent churches in my time in Europe, but the most beautiful one of all was in Krakow. It stood out from the others because of the blue ceiling! No other church had colors like this one
- Random story: I was in a random souvenir shop and I overheard K-pop playing in the store (no joke) and I geeked out. It just made me love Poland that much more <3
- There was not one thing about Poland I didn’t like. Krakow was amazing, and I loved my time there. Shanna and I can’t wait to go back!