Trip Start Jun 10, 2007
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Poland  , Southern Poland,
Sunday, November 9, 2008

Krakow, in southern Poland, is said to be the new and hip star in the Polish tourism industry. It has only been a few years that the word has gotten out about this lovely and vibrant town. The have managed to fully embrace the past and use it to progress into the future with grace. We arrived in the evening and found our hostel in a fabulous location strategically located between the Old Town and the Kazimierz, the old Jewish Quarter. We dropped our things and headed for the Kazimierz. This area has had an interesting development. On the eve of WWII, 68,000 Jews lived in the area. Today only around 100 practicing Jews remain. The Kazimierz has managed to keep a great deal of its Jewish cultural traditions alive. It is full of cafes and restaurants with many dishing out traditional Jewish fare. It has an active tourism industry with plenty of opportunity to visit the many synagogues, museums, and cemeteries. Each year it hosts a Jewish Cultural Festival that has become quite popular. The area is now the stomping grounds for Krakow's artists, intellectuals, and students breathing a youthful vibe into a place with a centuries old character.
The next morning we headed into the old town making our first stop at Wawel Castle. We were told that this was the thing to do and arguably the most impressive sight in all of Poland. It is also the hardest ticket to get. They only make 10 tickets available every 10 minutes, so even in low-season it can be an issue. Luckily we were early enough to basically walk right in. That is once we found the ticket office. The castle is absolutely massive made up of 71 chambers, a cathedral, and enormous squares strewn about everywhere. We chose to visit the Royal Apartments. Our mandatory guided tour was quite informative. It seemed like our guide could write a book about each artifact, tapestry, or piece of furniture in the place. Although it was well put together and housed a large quantity of treasures from around the world, we were both a little underwhelmed considering the legendary status that it had preceding our arrival. Maybe we are just becoming Castle snobs or something, but we have seen many other places that left a more lasting mark in our sightseeing memory bank. From there we walked into the Rynek Glowny (Main Marketplace). It is at the centre of the Old Town and is the largest square in all of Europe. We mean it is startlingly big. You could probably fit some of the towns that we have visited in this square. At the centre of it is the Sukiennice (Cloth Hall), this was the first shopping centre in all of Poland. It now houses a museum on the top floor celebrating its past and the main floor is home to every souvenir anyone could want from Poland and beyond. After a long stroll around the Old Town, we built up an appetite looking in at all the "Milk Bars" (Bar Mleczeny). These are no-frill-bare-bone cafeterias that are Communist era holdovers and have remained popular. The reason for their popularity is said to be the incredibly delicious and bang-on traditional Polish cuisine that they serve up everyday. We tried to head into one for dinner, but there was not a seat to be had. These Milk Bars are also not very tourist friendly as the menu scrawled on a chalk board is usually only in Polish and the staff dishing up the treats can't help too much with any translations. We found a restaurant that was having a "Pork Knuckle Festival". We were (read "I was") so excited we went in. We became big fans of the Pork Knuckles last year at Octoberfest in Munich and Megan has made them a few times since (just as fabulous of course). They are heavenly... not heavenly enough to pay the price that they were asking so we passed. We did however dine on very reasonably priced, and the definition of deliciously tasty, Pierogies. These magnificent little dumplings are filled with all sorts of goodness (mushrooms, cheese, potato, cabbage, meat...). Pierogi is also THE traditional Polish dish. Rightfully so and we didn't even need teeth they were so tender. One squish of the tongue and your mouth is instantly filled with joy... sigh... ok, moving on, I am rambling about food again.
Although we were quickly becoming hooked on the vibrancy and beauty of Krakow, we couldn't ignore what is just 70 km outside of town. The Auschwitz-Birkenau Nazi death camps are certainly a sobering reminder of the atrocities committed only a few decades ago. For practically this whole trip we have debated whether or not to visit the camps when we finally made it to Krakow. It was only a couple of days ago when we made the decision to go considering the immense impact these camps had not only on Polish history, but world historical development as well. We started our guided tour at Auschwitz I, the parent camp. Originally this camp had 20 buildings, yet grew as the war went on. Today Auschwitz I acts as the museum depicting life here during the war. Walking under the gate and seeing the "Arbei Macht Frei" (Work Shall Set You Free) sign is an eerie feeling. What really made us think was the terrifyingly personal look at some of the Nazi atrocities that are on display in the barracks here. They have rooms, LARGE rooms, full of shoes, eyeglasses, suitcases, toothbrushes and shaving instruments. They even have 7 tons of human hair that the Nazis were selling to horrible people who made blankets and fabric from it. Everything was for profit. The Nazis knew that the prisoners were bringing only their most valuable possessions with them as they were told that they were being 'relocated'. Upon arrival at the camps as families were being separated, all of the luggage was thrown into massive piles to be sorted. This was done by prisoners in the "Canada" barracks. They used this term to describe the sorting process and it was also the most sought after assignment in the camp by the prisoners. Their job was to sort through the money, clothing, jewels, food, silver, and other treasures that made up the bulk of the belongings. It was called "Canada" because at the time Canada was a place that many Polish people felt was a land of opportunity full of all of the wonderful things anyone would ever need. Being assigned this job meant that you had the opportunity to go through many wonderful things and for example maybe find some food hidden in the luggage that you could eat or put away to keep you strong... it would at least give you a better chance of survival than say lavatory or crematoria cleaning for 12 hours a day. From here we traveled the 3 km to Birkenau. Birkenau was built to make a more 'efficient' way to kill the condemned prisoners and it is massive. It had over 300 barracks on 425-acres of land (remember Auschwitz I had 20 barracks). This is where they also got the idea to bring the train tracks right into the camp directly to the gas chambers (previously the tracks stopped outside the camp at the gates). This would make it easier to 'process' those to be executed. It was exceptionally creepy and somewhat disturbing to walk into the gas chamber and try and imagine what was going through the minds of the prisoners about to be murdered. Once they had Birkenau running, they were able to gas, cremate, and dispose of 1,400 people a day. An estimated 1.5 million people were killed here and countless more suffered unthinkable horrors. We left trying to come to terms with the evil that man is capable of. We can only try and imagine what it must have been like for those condemned to live and die dealing with such oppression and horror.
Overall our visit to Krakow proved to be enlightening in many ways. It's a beautiful city and our visit helped us to appreciate it on numerous levels.
We are now moving on in Poland to Wroclaw before we head to the Czech Republic.
Megan and Kevin
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