I flew to Krakow, Poland, on Friday night 21st August on my own. It had been booked out of frustration that I was not travelling my last summer in Europe (Phil either had no passport or could not leave the UK as would not be let back in!).
Krakow was a really really (sadly) romantic town. Seemingly the old town centre (delineated by the encircling tree lined park) was untouched by the war – evidenced by all the lovely old buildings some complete with religious frescos. Beautiful horse drawn carriages pranced their way from the main square to the Castle and back. The nights were warm and a folk festival ran each day till dusk.
I was staying in the Good By Lenin hostel near the main square. It was decorated with much psychedelic graffiti had free breakfast and internet (score!).
Being so close I went out for a walk around the main square the night I arrived. There seem to be music coming from everywhere. The most intriguing was one air vent that seem to be the only visible entrance to a South American salsa session presumably in the basement of the a closed shop.
There were two things on my hit list for Krakow:
2) Wieliczka salt mine
Saturday I headed to Wieliczka and went on a 2 hour English tour of the salt mines. The sheer volumne of tourists and the at times somewhat tacky lighting let down the overall visit to this amazing little place. The mine only stopped working as a mine in 1996 when, I assume, the money coming in from the tourists brought in more than the money made mining the salt. Only a small fraction of the mine is open to tourists (2% I heard) and this portion is easily accessible with all the new steps and paths that have been installed.
To gain entry you must first go down 360 steps which just keep going and going. Looking up/down the central chasm gives the only indication of how far you have come and have to go.
The stairs lead to the second level and the path winds its way past various ‘rooms’ carved into the rock salt with a mixture of professional artists carvings (political/historical) and those of the miners (lots of gnomes). The highlight is really the underground cathedral. Completely carved from the grey rock salt, including the chandeliers, and still used every Sunday for services.
Yes I did lick a wall. :p
In Krakow itself I partook in some market browsing and folk music/dancing watching. I was lucky that there was some folk festival on to provide free and culturally relevant entertainment – well except for the Polish choir singing American gospel. I picked up a beer with generous squirt of raspberry cordial and enjoyed the warm afternoon. My only non consumable purchase was a set of red plastic beads tied at the back with a red ribbon like the dancers in their traditional dress had been wearing.
I visited a few churches and think that Krakow really has the best stain glass I have seen. Maybe they are all post war additions but they seemed quite art nouveau and colourful. As the Franciscan Church they were filled with flowers and cast a beautiful light.
Sunday I headed out early to Auschwitz-Birkenau. The bigger camp, Birkenau, was killing 8000 people a day in its gas chambers. Most new arrivals went straight there. My mind just recoils from the idea. How can people have allowed this. And it wasn’t so long ago. Looking at the photos at Auschwitz they really were no different to us. Could have been us for any arbitrary reason. My mothers maiden name is Jewish in origin so who knows maybe that would have been enough. It is good that these camps survive as a reminder but sad that they exist at all. Most of Birkenau is gone. Apparently destroyed by the SS to destroy the evidence as they fled. Many of the photos at the Auschwitz camp came with date of arrival and date of death/departure. So many people didn’t make it more than 2 months. Really horrific and yet still there are people living right beside the camp. The inmates had been forced to work in factories or in the surrounding farm land.
After such a sober morning I headed out to find myself a patch of grass in the sun on which to sit and found myself up at the Castle. I visited the church and hung about outside watching a hot air balloon. I went back into town via the old Jewish quarter and joined a queue for what appeared to be an item of food. Getting to the end of the queue and not speaking any Polish I picked the only one that I figured from the name would contain meat and spice: “Diablo”. Hunger may be the best sauce but I thought it was sensational. It turned out to be a half baguette bread with bacon, cheese, pickle, spicy mayo, chives and crunchy onion (?).