Anyway, we arrived in Krakow at 6:00 (Sunday, 4/17) and started trying to find our hotel.
The website had excellent instructions; exit the station, cross the street, take the bus, make a few turns, sign on Left-- easy. Unfortunately, they did not specify which direction to take the bus, and we (of course) picked the wrong one. Our little mistake cost us about an hour, which didn't matter at all because by that point, it was only 7 AM! The night trains really save a massive amount of time-- too bad they can be a little bit painful. But we eventually found the hostel (this time with much less walking) and it is perfect.
The location is brilliant; nearly on top of Wawel Castle, which is right at the tip of Krakow's Old Town, only a 1.2 kilometer walk to the train station, and two blocks from the Jewish district (Kazimierz). Our room wasn't ready, but the receptionist was extremely efficient in preparing the room and helping us with all of our questions. She was pretty hilarious-- literally running around from place to place within the hostel.
But it comes with free breakfast, consisting of bread, Nutella, bell pepper cream cheese, cucumbers, tomatoes, and an assortment of different flavors of delicious cheeses. An interesting mix of ingredients, but it made for a really good sandwich (minus the Nutella). AND the hostel has free laundry machines, so we finally get to wash our clothes! I was no where close to running out, and Dad still had a few more days, but it was a relief to get it over with.
We spent the entire day wandering around Old Town. Krakow has the largest medieval square in Europe, and it is absolutely stunning.
Colorful buildings, huge churches, medieval towers, and street vendors galore. I'm not sure if there is a constant festival going on, or if we happened upon something special, but half of the main square was filled up with little booths selling an assortment on things; souvenirs, cheeses, meats of every sort, beer, flowers, etc.
We ended up eating all of our meals from these stalls! And they are so cheap! For example, we had traditional Polish Kielbasa sausages with horseradish, mustard, and beer for less than $3 US. And it was absolutely delicious, as expected. We also saw a large display of exotic meats, such as pig snouts (picture posted at the bottom). Still not brave enough to try those.
On Monday morning (4/18), we woke up early to go to the castle because it was supposed to be "free day" for one of the exhibits. It turned out to actually be closed on Mondays, which I guess is the opposite of free. But we took about 1000 pictures because the lighting was perfect and the weather was beautiful. Plus, there was this huge flowering tree in the center of the courtyard, so our castle pictures had a nice special touch.
Couldn't have worked out better. We went back to the main square to grab a little picnic for lunch, and got a huge loaf of fresh bread, smoked Polish cheese, and fresh goat cheese for about $5 US. Street food is really an inspired idea. I can't understand why more US cities don't capitalize on it. Cheap, easy, and it makes the whole town smell like delicious roasting meats. I suppose that would send the vegetarians to the moon.
Then we headed to the bus station to try and get to Auschwitz. We had checked the schedules the day before, and it appeared as though the buses ran multiple times an hour. NOT! Apparently they only run frequently until 11, then they pretty much cut down to once every few hours. So we went to the train station to see if they had better options, and they had a train leaving in 3 minutes, so we hauled ass to the platform and headed off!
The train was unbelievably slow-- I swear I could probably run faster than it was moving-- so it took about 2 hours to get there. Also, the ticket said to "Oswiecim," which is where Auschwitz is, and it appeared as though this stop was at the end of the line. So we leisurely got off at the stop, only to realize that the train kept going with multiple people still on it! Good thing we were paying attention to the stop names. Once we got out of the train station, we walked about 1.3 kilometers to get to the museum and main complex. It was obvious that Auschwitz is a huge tourist attraction, because there were signs everywhere written in English, Polish, and Hebrew. Very convenient.
Auschwitz was an extremely moving experience, but it was pretty disturbing. I actually felt nauseous though most of it.
There is a certain vibe about the camp-- almost like you can feel the energy left behind by the horrible acts committed there. The complex consisted of almost 30 barracks, each of which housed a different exhibit explaining the history of Auschwitz, and sometimes the history the specific barrack. Over 1,000,000 Jews, Gypsies, Poles, and Soviet prisoners of war were exterminated at Auschwitz between 1941 and 1945, and the exhibits were not shy about showing you exactly how many people that really was.
They had hundreds of pictures taken by the SS posted all over the walls, and there was an entire barrack devoted to giant chambers housing all of the glasses, clothes, pots/pans, shoes, and even hair collected from the prisoners. Definitely a visual that will haunt me for a while, but an important tool used to explain the extent of the tragedy. There was a beautiful memorial in front of the "Death Wall," which was where prisoners were murdered by gunshot.
We also went into one of the restored gas chambers. I only took a few pictures because the entire thing was pretty overwhelming, and it is not particularly something that I want to revisit over and over again. Once was enough, but I am very glad to have had the opportunity to experience it. Seeing something like Auschwitz really puts our lives into perspective; we are so lucky to have been born both in the US and during this time period. It seems so impossible that an act of brutality this large could have happened in the last century.
We were a little bit depressed after Auschwitz, and getting on the bus home didn't do too much to improve our moods. We waited for the last bus in order to read all of the signage/historical explanations in the museum, and there was quite a line to get on. Actually, it was more of a swarm-- as soon as the bus pulled up, everyone booked it towards the door and started shoving each other around trying to be the first on. Clearly they were very concerned about getting seats, but there was plenty for everyone. I sat next to a nice man named Antoni from Naples on the ride home, and he gave me a number of very compelling reasons to go to Naples. So we are going to try and work that into a later part of the trip, probably when Jenna shows up.
We walked through Old Town on our way back to the hostel.
So far, Europe has done a bang-up job of lighting up their cities at night. Starting with the Red Square and continuing now, the main attractions of each place are lit like works of art. The main square was absolutely stunning at night, and all of the food was still there! So we got two giant kebabs, which are basically gyros with beef/chicken instead of lamb and smothered in cucumber sauce AND hot sauce. The hot sauce is a really excellent addition to a gyro, as it is to most foods. As an added plus, the guys who worked in the Kebab booth were hilarious.
They asked us if we were American, asked us if we liked Bush, then gave us twice as much meat in our Kebabs when we said no. Ha! After eating, we walked around the big building in the center of the square because we heard a lot of shouting. Turns out that there was a giant rally going on. From what we gathered, it was due to the one year anniversary of the death of the Polish president in that tragic plane crash.
What a horrible mess-- 95 government officials/priests/important people died because if alleged "pilot error." But they marched around the city for at least an hour and there were police everywhere, so after we watched for a while we decided to head back to the hostel to avoid the commotion.
On Tuesday morning (4-19), we headed back up to Wawel castle to try going to the state rooms again. This time, the exhibits were not closed, hooray!
The rooms were really interesting-- all of the palaces we have been in so far have been extremely ornate and flashy, but this exhibit was more delicately intricate rather than extravagant with tons of gold everywhere. The ceilings were carved from wood, and the walls were made of dyed/painted leather with patterns pressed into them. One of the ceilings had a bunch of wooden heads peering down at you-- freaky! I snuck a super illegal picture while the museum lady was looking the other direction, which is particularly hard to do with my giant camera.
Then we went inside of the cathedral on the castle grounds, which contained the tombs of a ton of Polish royals. The tombs were really ornate and interesting, and there was a memorial for the recently deceased Polish president that was covered in flowers and candles from the night before. Beautiful! We also were able to climb up the bell tower, which was pretty hilarious. We had to squeeze through all these tiny little spaces and climb up really narrow stairs. An attraction like this would never fly in the US because half of the tourists would be too fat to climb up it! HAHA! But the views of the city were absolutely beautiful.
After the castle, we headed to St. Mary's Basilica in the main square in Old Town. The inside was absolutely unbelievable. We had to pay a small fee to take pictures, but it was definitely worth it. The walls were so ornate, and there was a gigantic organ in the back.
There was also a huge section in the back full of local Polish people praying, which made it pretty weird to be wandering around the front snapping photos. But we were two of probably 100 tourists that were doing the same thing, so I suppose the locals get used to it. Seems a bit odd though.
Then we headed to Kazimierz, which was the Jewish ghetto created by the Nazis to house all of the Jews during the holocaust. We followed the "suggested tourist route," which basically hit all of the Jewish heritage sights.
Once again, everything was written in English and Hebrew as well as Polish. I wonder if Israeli Jews have a trip similar to Birthright that they go on. I'm sure someone reading this blog could probably answer that question. But anyway, we went by a bunch of old Synagogues, museums, and a few really beautiful cemeteries. Everything was closed for passover, but we were able to peek through the gates and still see most of the sites. Then we headed back to the hotel, picked up our bags and took the tram to the train station.
So now we are on a night train to Bratislava, Slovakia. This is a bit of a detour from our original plan because we made a crucial mistake in the planning of the trip-- we discounted the importance of the Easter holiday. Apparently, in this part of Europe, Easter is a big freaking deal. Not because of the resurrection of Jesus, but because everyone gets a 4 day weekend and goes on holiday. More specifically, they all go on holiday to Prague, which is where we were planning on heading for Easter. ZERO availability. So we have formulated a new plan! Off to Bratislava tonight, Prague on the 25th, and figuring out the rest in between. Stay tuned, and do zobaczenia!
Couldn't be happier to be back in the EU! Ukraine was a nice adventure, but it is lovely to march into a train station and have 25 options for the train you want and a nice Polish lady that speaks perfect English to help you. I guess that's not really the point of travel ling abroad, but it's nice none the less.