Travels in Krakow

Six weeks into our Big Adventure of a Lifetime, we touched down in Krakow and hopped in an airport transfer to a beautiful little airbnb, right in the heart of Krakow Old Town. The apartment was possibly the nicest airbnb we’ve ever stayed in.

Wow. Krakow. What can I say? The second largest city in Poland, down in the southern part of the country. And very proud of its well preserved history that managed to dodge much of the destruction in WWII. Alive with the sound of tourists and vendors and the clippity clop of horse drawn carriages.

The Old Town is gorgeous (hint – when traveling, if there’s an old town, stay there!) So many beautifully preserved buildings and cobblestone paths. And churches. Churches absolutely everywhere. All stunning inside and out, and free to enter. One lays claim to being the most beautiful church in Krakow. I beg to differ. It looks like a small child went wild with gold leaf then glued on the plastic heads of angel dolls.

The church I personally found most beautiful was St Mary’s Basilica, in the heart of the Old Town. Inside is beautifully ornate and full of admiring visitors. It’s also renowned for a bugle call, which came to my attention early one morning, while sitting on the balcony of our apartment enjoying a cup of tea.

The Krakow signal bugle call, or Hejnal Mariacki, dates back to the Middle Ages when it was announcing the opening and the closing of the city gates…The melody abrupt ending is said to commemorate a trumpeter from Krakow who was shot through his throat by a Tatar archer in 1241 when the Mongols besieged the city. Every full hour a golden trumpet shows above Krakow’s central Grand Square in the west window…of the Basilica of the Virgin Mary’s. Then a characteristic signal trumpet melody…resounds all over the city’s Old Town…Next the same bugle call is played towards the east, the south and the north.

That’s 168 times per week. Four fanfares each time. I think trumpeters in Krakow will never be out of work. The golden trumpet emerges from the window on the hour, the fanfare plays, then the trumpeter waves to the crowds below. It’s really quite entertaining.

Then there was the Corpus Christi Basilica, just 100 meters from our apartment. Another stunning church fully embracing gothic architecture, and like a lot of the prominent sites in our trip, covered in scaffolding. It was truly gorgeous to look at so I can only imagine the awe when it’s fully restored.

We spent most of our days in Krakow wandering the streets, admiring the architecture, and taking in the heady atmosphere. We explored the Jewish Quarter and cemetery, saw the synagogues, and partook of a most delightful lunch at Hummus & Happiness. We wandered aimlessly around the Wawel castle and cathedral. We enjoyed the leafy parks – former moat – encircling the Old Town.

Then of course there was the obligatory day trip to Auschwitz, Auschwitz-Birkenau, and the Wieliczka Salt Mines. Another sordid window into the worst of humanity.

Everyone else does the obligatory trip too, creating a juxtaposition of crass tourist trap exploitation (is crispy chicken really appropriate?), and the dark intensity of visiting a site where millions of people were enslaved and murdered. The tour groups have 20-30 people and run to a tight schedule. I saw no individual tourists wandering about, but perhaps solo tours are possible. The tour guide provided so much information and insight, so while it felt like we were part of a large herd of cattle being rushed through history, I was glad for the overview.

The camps are huge. Auschwitz I is brick buildings, barbed wire, and freshly cut green grass. There are glass cabinets full of confiscated prisoner belongings. A huge showcase of shoes. Of suitcases. Hand creams, combs, prosthetic limbs. The most sobering cabinet was a wall to wall display, filled with women’s hair. Then there’s the gas chambers. We all know they’re there – it’s the most famous bit of Auschwitz. They’re not large – we only visited one. A large empty underground room, with plain concrete walls, a simple floor. and stark lights hanging overhead. Next to the room full of giant ovens. A dark, sordid window into the past.

After Auschwitz I, we drove to Auschwitz II – Birkenau. The expansion concentration camp when the decision was made to exterminate people on a larger scale. We’re greeted with a large brick building with train tracks running through the middle. An efficient method of herding people to their final destination in an orderly manner. Birkenau is now fields of chimneys. While some of the buildings were brick, and remain standing, many were timber and are no longer there. Just fields and fields of chimneys where prisoners once lived and died. The women’s quarters are still standing – a brick building with no flooring, filled with triple layer bunks that each housed as many women as could fit in the bunk. The camps are an endless display of the depravity mankind can inflict upon his neighbour when politicians rally the masses into a frenzy.

After the unimaginable horror of the Auschwitz camps, we visited the Salt Mines. I knew nothing about them before arriving – assuming it was somewhere salt was mined. Which is technically correct. The two hour tour apparently covers just one percent of the mines. Which seems extraordinary. First we traveled down 380 steps. It takes quite a while in a large group. The air is cool, with a constant temperature of 14-15c. A lovely change after the heat and humidity above ground. Rock salt comes from salt mines. The walls and ceiling are moist and salty – I tasted it to be sure. We learned so many fascinating facts about this salt mine that operated for over seven hundred years until it was closed in 1996. The lowest point is 327 meters below ground, and the entire network of caves is over 287 kilometers long. So it’s kinda big. It has 40 chapels and churches, countless salt carvings, and was listed as a UNESCO world heritage site in 1978. So many accolades. And so interesting. Did you know horses used to live in the mine? The chandeliers hanging in the larger churches are made from rock salt chunks. They are really stunning.

That was it for our guided tours. We are the kind of travelers who just like to walk around and see things, take photos, eat delicious food, and put our feet up in the apartment. That’s exactly how we spent our six days and it was totally awesome.

I hope to go back to Poland one day. While Krakow was fantastic, there are so many other bits of the country I’d like to see – most especially Zakopane and Morskie Oko. I want to go hiking and see the countryside. I’d go back to Bosnia and Poland in a heartbeat. But with hiking shoes and a hiking partner. Next time…

 

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