Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Poland - Kraków and Auschwitz-Birkenau

Wavel dragon, St. Mary's Church in Main Market Square
Free Hug Day, Oskar Schindler's Factory


PART 4 of a 5 part series

In June 2011 my friend Alvin and I took a month long backpacking trip through Europe to visit 8 cities in 5 countries. Our entire itinerary was:
  • Munich, Germany - 2 days
  • Salzburg, Austria - 3 days
  • Vienna, Austria - 3 days
  • Budapest, Hungary - 3 days
  • Kraków, Poland - 3 days
  • Prague, Czech Republic - 5 days
  • Dresden, Germany - 2 days
  • Berlin, Germany - 2.5 days
We arrived in Kraków on an overnight train from Budapest, Hungary - please read about our time in Hungary in my PART 3 blog post Hungary - Budapest, Szentendre, and an amusing Thai massage experience. In this PART 4 blog post I'll cover sites we visited in Kraków, Poland.


Day 1: Kraków - Aschwitz-Birkenau

Alvin and I only decided to visit Kraków after we were able to get tickets on a first class sleeper cabin that had a door that locked. The ticket agent confirmed they had cabins available so we bought tickets and scrambled to find accommodations in Kraków. Train tickets were 26,460 forints total/US$74 per person.

We had been staying in hotels but after some convincing, I was open to giving hostels a shot. I won't lie, I was biased against them, assuming that they were dirty and loud. And the thought of sharing bathrooms with a bunch of strangers didn't appeal to me. I decided to jump in the hostel deep end and booked us in a 12-person MIXED DORM. The cost was US$43.20 for 2 nights. You can't beat getting lodging for US$10 per person per night! Go big or go home, right? Reviews of High Life Hostel on TripAdvisor.

Neither Alvin nor I slept on the train ride - even with ear plugs and a sleeping mask. The train de-coupled and joined another car sometime in the middle of the night and the clanging and sudden movements were super jarring. Needless to say, we were both a little crabby when we arrived in Kraków. We lugged all our luggage and roamed the streets, looking for our hostel. This was 2011, before you could get mapping directions on your phone with no cell phone coverage. Alvin had to use a map from one of our guidebooks to get us to the right area. I'm directionally challenged and totally useless with navigating so I just followed him, crossing streets and crossing back. Alvin is an expert backpacker so he only brought backpacks - he was able to carry everything he brought. I had a small backpack, a tote bag, and a small rolling piece of luggage so I had a harder time moving as quickly. By the time we arrived at the hostel I was more on edge.


Found our hostel in Kraków! (Photo courtesy of Alvin C.)
Found our hostel in Kraków! (Photo courtesy of Alvin C.)

We got to our 12-person dorm and picked our bunks. Now that we were settled, we had to get money so that we could eat. New country, new currency. We decided on the trip Alvin would charge everything on his card since his didn't have foreign transaction fees and I would take money out from ATMs because my bank didn't charge ATM fees. I was super tired and felt disgustingly grimy so I wanted to take a shower. Alvin is the hit-the-ground-running type of traveler who wants to make the most of his day. We just arrived in a new country so I'm sure he wanted to go exploring. I needed a break and wanted to take a it slow. He waited for me to take a shower and when I came back, he talked about wanting to get cash from an ATM again. We'd been talking about it for a while so I finally snapped, "Yes. We. Will. Get. Money." That didn't go over well.

Our crankiness erupted and we got really huffy with each other. Alvin told me that he was going off on his own today so that he could travel at his own pace. I started panicking thinking I would spend all day wandering around and getting lost. Alvin took off and I took my time slowly getting organized.

It was still very early in the morning so I had time to cover a lot of ground. I decided to visit Auschwitz-Birkeanu, a destination which required the most planning. I went to the hostel front desk to inquire about directions and transit. I met Jina and Yoon, a couple visiting from South Korea. They happened to also be heading to Auschwitz-Birkeanu so we decided to go together. I don't remember the specifics but journey took us about 2 hours - we walked to a bus station and took a bus to Auschwitz-Birkeanu. The first part of the tour was Auschwitz. Reviews of the Auschwitz-Birkeanu State Museum on TripAdvisor.

The German phase "Arbeit Macht Frei" meaning "work sets you free" seen above the entrance to Auschwitz. This is a replica of the original but it's said that the sign was made by prisoners who inverted the "B" in an act of defiance. (Photo courtesy of Alvin C.)
The German phase "Arbeit Macht Frei" meaning "work sets you free" seen above the entrance to Auschwitz. This is a replica of the original but it's said that the sign was made by prisoners who inverted the "B" in an act of defiance. (Photo courtesy of Alvin C.)

Auschwitz grounds
Auschwitz grounds

Cans of Zyklon B - cyanide-based pesticide used in the gas chambers at Auschwitz
Cans of Zyklon B - cyanide-based pesticide used in the gas chambers at Auschwitz

Leg braces and prosthetics of the victims of Auschwitz
Leg braces and prosthetics of the victims of Auschwitz

Enamelware dishes brought to Auschwitz by the victims
Enamelware dishes brought to Auschwitz by the victims

Victims' luggage
Victims' luggage

Shoes worn by victims of Auschwitz
Shoes worn by victims of Auschwitz

Prisoners slept on these bunk beds
Auschwitz - Prisoners slept on these bunk beds

Auschwitz - electric fences
Auschwitz - electric fences

It was surreal walking around Auschwitz. It's a place I had learned about in my high school history class but it was very different actually being there. I stood on the grounds and listened to the wind rustling through the trees. Walking through empty rooms and seeing exhibits of mountains of shoes, luggage, leg braces, dishes, and hair sent chills down my spine. These articles belonged to people who had names. Lives. Families. I imagined the fear they felt, for themselves and for their family members. They must have experienced so much pain and heartache even prior to their arrival at Auschwitz. Once at Auschwitz I wondered what went through their minds. Did they hold out hope that people in the nearby town would stand up for them? Did they focus on just getting through the day? What happened to their families? Did their minds stay free even if their bodies were not? How long did their thoughts stay free until giving over to crushing reality?

We saw a wall against which prisoners were executed. A cell where prisoners were starved to death and learned about a man who volunteered to take another man's place. We walked inside a still-standing gas chamber. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up when I walked in. I held my breath and looked at holes in the ceiling through which guards dropped pellets of Zyklon B.

We saw living quarters of high ranking officials who lived at Auschwitz with their families, including children. It defies logic that people treated other humans so inhumanely. That anyone could live a relatively normal life with his family among hundreds of thousands of prisoners who barely survived in horrid conditions, ordering mass executions yet returning to his family for dinner.

When we finished our Auschwitz tour we took a quick bus ride to the other camp Birkenau.

Bunks in the barracks in Birkenau
Bunks in the barracks in Birkenau

Toilets in Birkenau
Toilets in Birkenau

Train tracks in Birkenau (Photo courtesy of Alvin C.)
Train tracks in Birkenau (Photo courtesy of Alvin C.)

Train tracks that ended at Birkenau
Train tracks that ended at Birkenau

Rows and rows of barracks in Birkenau
Rows and rows of barracks in Birkenau

Memorial plaque for the victims
Memorial plaque for the victims

Memorial erected at the site of a gas chamber in Birkenau
Memorial erected at the site of a gas chamber in Birkenau

I thought a lot about life during my journey back to Kraków and suddenly the argument Alvin and I had seemed so silly. In the end, the time we spent apart did us some good. We cooled off and were each in a better mood but we still kept our distance. That evening we took a little walk with our hostel mates Jina and Yoon and all grabbed dinner together.

We recapped our days and I gave Alvin the high level logistics for Auschwitz because he planned to go the next day. Alvin knew that I love walking tours. Sometimes I love moving at a glacial pace on a pre-determined path and hearing the history about a place straight from a local. Alvin is more of a free spirit and he likes going at his own pace and poking around, reading from guide books, getting lost, and discovering. While he explored the city on his own, Alvin came across a free walking tour and he was kind enough to pass on the meeting time and place information to me. Perfect. I would do that the next day!

I got to meet some of my mixed dorm roommates later that night back at the hostel. There were travelers from China (who assumed that Alvin and I didn't understand or speak Chinese so they talked a little crap about us), Australia, and the Netherlands. As I talked with the other backpackers, I realized that I found a community of like-minded people! I was pleasantly surprised to find people sharing tips for the various Kraków sites they visited and even witnessed folks coordinating schedules so that they could sightsee together with people they just met. It probably didn't hurt that I also met a super down-to-earth guy from the Netherlands who was probably the most attractive non-celebrity I had even seen. He stayed in hostels! 

All of my dorm mates got ready for bed and settled in for the night at a very reasonable hour. This wasn't a party hostel - everyone was there to experience the culture and sights of a new country. My mind was blown. All of a sudden a new world of lodging and people opened up for me, all thanks to Alvin.

I vowed to include hostels in my future travels and I haven't been disappointed once. A year later, I planned my solo trip to Spain and I stayed in hostels in San Sebastian, Barcelona, and Granada. I met and spent time with amazing individuals in each city and I'm so grateful for the experiences.

St Mary's Church (Photo courtesy of Alvin C.)
St Mary's Church (Photo courtesy of Alvin C.)

Kraków streets
Kraków streets

St Mary's Church at dusk
St Mary's Church at dusk

Main Market Square
Main Market Square

Town Hall Tower
Town Hall Tower


Day 2: Kraków - Old Town free walking tour

On our second day, Alvin went to Auschwitz while I stayed in town. I went to the designated Main Market Square meeting spot for the morning Old Town Kraków walking tour run by Kraków Free Walking Tours. A sizable group of about 30 people were gathered. Our guide went over a list of sites that we would visit as part of our 2 hour walking tour:

  • Main Market Square with St Mary’s Church
  • Cloth Hall and Town Hall Tower
  • Remains of medieval city walls with Barbican and St Florian Gate
  • St Francis Church
  • Bishop’s Palace and "papal window"
  • Wawel Hill with Cathedral and Wawel Castle
  • Wawel Dragon

Our guide was very animated and knowledgable and at the end of our tour he gave us recommendations for lunch and a map of notable sites to visit at our leisure. We each contributed what we felt the tour was worth and broke off to explore more on our own. Reviews of Kraków Free Walking Tour on TripAdvisor

Spotted in the Main Market Square: I've heard of yarn bombing but I'd never seen anything like this crocheted bike. How do you ride it?!
Spotted in the Main Market Square: I've heard of yarn bombing but I'd never seen anything like this crocheted bike. How do you ride it?! 

Barbican and St Florian Gate
Barbican and St Florian Gate

Barbican and St Florian Gate
Barbican and St Florian Gate

Members of a local seminary school
Members of a local seminary school

Palpal window
Palpal window

Wawel Cathedral
Wawel Cathedral

Wawel Castle
Wawel Castle

Wawel Castle
Wawel Castle

Wawel Castle
Wawel Castle

Wawel Dragon - it periodically breathes fire!
Wawel Dragon - it periodically breathes fire!

I had lunch at Polakowski, a place recommended by our walking tour guide. I ordered a variety of dishes - pierogi stuffed with meat, pickled veggies, and kompot, fresh fruit boiled in water with sugar. I also tried borscht for the first time, a beetroot soup with sour cream and potatoes. It didn't look appetizing, being bright pink and all. It was DELICIOUS. I've ordered borscht again in various restaurants but nothing has come close to that bowl at Polakowski. I should've gone back again the next day. I still dream about it now. Reviews of Polakowski on TripAdvisor.

Borscht soup with sour cream and potatoes
Borscht soup with sour cream and potatoes

Pickled vegetables
Pickled vegetables

Jina and Yoon checked out of the hostel later that night so we saw them off
Jina and Yoon checked out of the hostel later that night so we saw them off


Day 3: Kraków - Oskar Schlinder's Museum, Free Hug Day!!, travel to Prague, Czech Republic

Alvin and I hung out on our last day in Kraków. We decided to visit Oskar Schindler's factory and museum (entrance fee 15,00 złoty/US$3.80). Reviews of Oskar Schindler's factory on TripAdvisor.

On our way to the factory I broached the subject of our argument. I wanted to understand what went wrong so that we wouldn't go through it again but Alvin didn't want to discuss it. I tried bringing it up in a different way but he stopped me again. I couldn't understand how we could get past it without discussing it. He said something that stuck with me - not everyone operates the same way so I shouldn't expect him to resolve issues the way that I do. I let it sink in and then dropped it.

Entrance to the Oskar Schlinder Museum
Entrance to the Oskar Schlinder Museum

Photos of some of the 1200 Jews saved by Schlinder
Photos of some of the 1200 Jews saved by Schlinder

Plaque outside the Oskar Schlinder Museum
Plaque outside the Oskar Schlinder Museum

Oskar Schlinder's desk
Oskar Schlinder's desk

A memorial containing some of the pots, bowls, and plates produced in Schlinder's factory
A memorial containing some of the pots, bowls, and plates produced in Schlinder's factory

We had lunch near the museum - I ordered borscht and potato pancakes. That borscht didn't come close to the bowl I had at Polakowski. Sigh.

Borscht
Borscht

Potato pancakes
Potato pancakes

After lunch Alvin and I split up to go to different sites. He visited the Remuh Cemetery while I went to the Museum of Municipal Engineering. On my way back to meet up with Alvin I passed by the Ghetto Heroes Square in the Jewish Quarter. 33 lonely chairs made of cast iron and bronze stood as a memorial for the Polish Jews who were imprisoned in the Kraków Ghetto and then murdered in German death camps.

Cars at the Museum of Municipal Engineering
Cars at the Museum of Municipal Engineering

Pictures of probably the smallest BMW I've ever seen
Pictures of probably the smallest BMW I've ever seen

I got a kick out of seeing the Popemobile escorted by guys wearing suits and leather shoes
I got a kick out of seeing the Popemobile escorted by guys wearing suits and leather shoes

Ghetto Heroes Square in the Jewish Quarter
Ghetto Heroes Square in the Jewish Quarter

Ghetto Heroes Square in the Jewish Quarter
Ghetto Heroes Square in the Jewish Quarter

Alvin and I met up and he took me to Plac Nowy, a flea market in the Jewish Quarter. On his first day in Kraków, he had discovered a stand called Endzior that sold zapiekanka, a long baguette topped with cheese, mushrooms, and your choice of toppings. He brought me to visit Endzior so that we could get a yummy snack. Reviews of Endzior on TripAdvisor.

Zapiekanka from Endzior (Photo courtesy of Alvin C.)
Zapiekanka from Endzior (Photo courtesy of Alvin C.)

We decided to walk through the Main Market Square and stumbled upon what I considered the highlight of our entire Europe trip - Free Hugs Day! I know not everyone likes being touched but I LOVE hugs. To me there's nothing that lifts the spirits more than a hug, even from a stranger. I first noticed random strangers hugging on a side street leading to the Main Market Square and when we ventured into the main square it was like a free hug explosion. As Alvin likes to say, I went free hug CRAZY.

I grabbed a piece of paper and a marker and made my own FREE HUGS! sign and ran around like a giddy teenager. Alvin was a little more apprehensive because a majority of the people giving out free hugs were... teenage girls. I didn't even notice. He stood off to the side and hesitatingly received some hugs but then his worst fear was realized when he was swarmed by a group of teenage girls. HAHA! I joined a group photo for the Free Hugs Kraków group and Alvin and I even made it into a few photos that they posted online! Free Hug Day is organized by the Free Hugs Kraków Group - check out their Facebook group page.

Alvin gets swarmed by a group of teenage girls! (Photo courtesy of Free Hugs Kraków)
Alvin gets swarmed by a group of teenage girls! (Photo courtesy of Free Hugs Kraków)

My handmade sign which I still have to this day (Photo courtesy of Alvin C.)
My handmade sign which I still have to this day (Photo courtesy of Alvin C.)

I can't stop smiling!
I can't stop smiling!

Everyone is all smiles
Everyone is all smiles

Smiles are infectious
Smiles are infectious

 It's like a demonstration, except for happiness (Photo courtesy of Alvin C.)
 It's like a demonstration, except for happiness (Photo courtesy of Alvin C.)

Alvin hugs one of the event organizers
Alvin hugs one of the event organizers

All smiles
All smiles

I have to hug the organizer too (Photo courtesy of Alvin C.)
I have to hug the organizer too (Photo courtesy of Alvin C.)

Going free hug crazy (Photo courtesy of Alvin C.)
Going free hug crazy (Photo courtesy of Alvin C.)

I remember getting an extra long hug from this guy. He wouldn't let me go! (Photo courtesy of Alvin C.)
I remember getting an extra long hug from this guy. He wouldn't let me go! (Photo courtesy of Alvin C.)

 Still going free hug crazy (Photo courtesy of Alvin C.)
 Still going free hug crazy (Photo courtesy of Alvin C.)

Looks like everyone loves free hugs! (Photo courtesy of Free Hugs Kraków)
Looks like everyone loves free hugs! (Photo courtesy of Free Hugs Kraków)
  
Massive group hug (Photo courtesy of Free Hugs Kraków)

Alvin and me all smiles (Photo courtesy of Free Hugs Kraków)

Free Hugs Kraków group photo! (Photo courtesy of Free Hugs Kraków)

This lady isn't so sure

Ultimately she takes a free hug

I had to tear myself away from the free hug frenzy so that we could go back to the hostel to check out and head to the train station to catch our overnight train to Prague, Czech Republic. I was on a free hug high for the next few hours and I couldn't stop raving about the experience.

Main Market Square at dusk
Main Market Square at dusk

Alvin grabbing his luggage from our 12-person mixed dorm
Alvin grabbing his luggage from our 12-person mixed dorm

My first hostel experience was a success
My first hostel experience was a success

High Life Hostel was a win!
High Life Hostel was a win!

Our overnight train cabin to Prague (Photo courtesy of Alvin C.)
Our overnight train cabin to Prague (Photo courtesy of Alvin C.)

We even had a sink in our cabin! (Photo courtesy of Alvin C.)
We even had a sink in our cabin! (Photo courtesy of Alvin C.)

Train carriage with first class cabins (Photo courtesy of Alvin C.)
Train carriage with first class cabins (Photo courtesy of Alvin C.)

Alvin got the top bunk on this train ride
Alvin got the top bunk on this train ride

We had better luck on this overnight journey to Prague, Czech Republic and managed to get in some sleep. Our overnight first class train tickets were about US$243 for 2 people. We arrived in Prague super early and navigated to the city center with the help of a couple named Joe and Orla from Ireland. I'll cover our travels in Prague in PART 5, Czech Republic - Prague and Kutná Hora.

In addition to Poland and Czech Republic, we covered 3 other countries during this backpacking trip. Please read about them here:
If you enjoyed reading this travel blog please check out my other trip posts:

Happy traveling and thanks for reading!

2 comments:

  1. Loved reading your blog, especially about Free Hug day!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you! It was a great day, indeed! Easily the highlight of my entire trip.

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