Krakow: A Must Visit before the tourists invade!

Trip Start Feb 06, 2011
Trip End Sep 15, 2011

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Flag of Poland  , Southern Poland,
Monday, June 27, 2011

The bus was late leaving from Budapest and I didn't arrive in Krakow until 10pm.  Unfortunately, the 8 hour bus ride left me completely disoriented and the directions to the hostel were completely useless.  To top it off, the man working in the ticket booth spoke no English.  Welcome to Poland!  I decided to wander and luckily I was able to find someone on the street who spoke English.  He not only tried to help me locate the hostel by asking the cab drivers if they knew where it was, but he also made sure the cabbie didn't rip me off in the process.  I was still suffering from jet lag so I woke up at the crack of dawn and walked to the nearby outdoor market to buy some fruit.  It was so cute to see all the Polish grandmas and grandpas buying groceries.  I definitely got a few "WTF is this Asian girl doing here at 7 in the morning" stares.

I walked back to the hostel for the free breakfast and met a Chinese girl currently on a work placement in Warsaw and was visiting Krakow for the weekend.  I did the free city walking tour as well as the free Jewish walking tour (about 8 hours in total!) with her and enjoyed some hearty Polish fare as well!  Polish pierogies are not like the perogies we get back home.  The skin is very thin (similar to won tons) and contrary to popular belief, they don't just fill it with potato, cheese and bacon.  You can choose anything from spinach to mushrooms to fried beef to even fruit like strawberries or apples!  The place we visited in Jewish quarter of Kazimierz had over 30 different kinds of dumpings and they were delicious!  We found out from the walking tour guide that the Wianki festival was going on that evening and none other than Wyclef Jean would be headlining the music celebration!  Every person from Krakow was there and it was packed to the brim but nothing beats a free concert!

The next morning, I walked to the Old Town square (the largest open square in Europe) and enjoyed a coffee and people watching before attending mass at St. Mary's Basilica.  I didn't understand a single word but it was nice just to hear the choir and the priest sing the various hymns.  I wandered to the Sunday flea market which was more like a really ghetto collection of garage sales.  There were people trying to sell everything from nails to walkmans.  There was one lady who sat there with only thing to sell: an accordian.  Very random!

In the afternoon, I joined a tour to Auschwitz-Birkenau.  This was the site of the largest Nazi concentration and death camp.  Over a million lives were lost.  As we walked through the "arbeit macht frei" (work sets you free) gate, I could feel death in the air.  I had visited Terezin, a concentration camp close to Prague about 6 years ago, but this one felt different.  Just thinking about the sheer monstrosity of this operation sends shivers down my spine.  Roll call was conducted twice a day.  The prisoners would have to wake up and stand outside the barracks in the freezing cold for up to 4 hours while the guards tallied the numbers.  After a long day at work, the process would be repeated in the evening.  They even built tiny shelters for the guards when the weather got really bad.  The longest roll call lasted for 18 hours after one prisoner attempted to escape.  As we walked through the barracks, we were given visual evidence of what the Nazis pillaged from the prisoners.  80,000 shoes, 3800 suitcases, 40 kg of spectacles, etc.  The most horrific display was the almost two tons of human hair shaven from women's heads and stored for future production of socks for German soldiers.  It was difficult not to shed a tear as we walked through the camp.  It's important to remember that it wasn't just Jews who were targeted.  Over 200,000 Poles, Roma (Gypsies), Soviet POWs, Jehovah's Witnesses and gays were sent to Auschwitz.  Interestingly enough, before the prisoners were shipped to the camp, they were told to bring all their belongings so they could be stored in warehouses called "Canada".  The Germans ingeniously deceived the prisoners into thinking that they would actually resettle in a better place since Europeans often associated Canada with "freedom" and "opportunity". 

I asked the guide what it's like to conduct tours about this dark time in history on a daily basis.  She had been a guide for 7 years and she explained that everyday is different.  She said that sometimes it was very challenging when survivors or victims' children visited the site.  You can't really say anything to console them.  There was one Argentinian guy on our tour who was looking for information on his grandfather who was one of the few who managed to successfully escape Auschwitz.  Unfortunately, he never discussed the details with his family and passed away a couple of years ago.  

Walking through Birkenau was just as sobering.  Ten times the size of Auschwitz, the camp was designed to fit over 200,000 prisoners.  There isn't much left of the camp as the Nazis tried to burn and destroy as much evidence as possible when they realized that they had been defeated.  However, the vast emptiness of the land is just as powerful.

 Krakow was a very charming city with an amazing Old Town and Jewish quarter.  It's not quite on tourists' radar yet just like the last time I visited Prague.  However, I'm sure things will change in the next few years and it will become a tourist hotspot.  My advice?  Go to Krakow before it reaches that stage and enjoy it!
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