The Unsuspected Charm of Krakow

Posted on 13. Dec, 2010 by in Destinations, Europe Travel, Poland

I’ve always been a World War II buff. I’m completely fascinated by the propaganda methods, the stories that almost seem unreal, and the major events. Europe is undoubtedly the best place to explore the WWII legacy and Krakow only seemed like a natural stopover.

Krakow architecture St.Mary's Basilica

After checking into my hostel (Gardenhouse Hostel, 5 Floriańska St) I tried to make the most out the little time I had on my hands by walking around and enjoying the exterior beauty of the city, gazing at the unfamiliar architecture. I ended up in RynekGlowny, the medieval square, which was undergoing renovations (the downside of Europe - everything’s incredibly old and needs regular maintenance), and I decided to sit at one of the many terraces facing the beautiful Saint-Mary’s basilica, sip a local beer and do some people watching while trying to decipher the language (which I did not succeed at).

I also visited the tourist-free Kazimierz neighbourhood, overflowing with severe looking facades, slightly neglected, victims of time. I slowly made my way up Wawel Hill and finally entered Wawel Castle, famously regarded as a classic “Princess and dragons” kind of castle. I especially liked the solemn statue of Pope John Paul II, who watches over the city, silently.

Wawel Castel

Shortly later, the sun had already set. There was only one thing left to do: shopping! I was lucky enough to find leather gloves for 6 zlotys - take that, Canadian dollars! I was soon too hungry to go any further and decided to try a restaurant strongly recommended in my guide book. It actually is an ancient secret hide-out for Orthodox dissidents. I wondered if the chef’s recipes were just as secret… because the food was amazing. Raspberry camembert, handmade periogis and decadently chocolate dessert. Yummy!

But as I said earlier, my presence in Poland wasn’t intended to be about shopping and eating - it was supposed to be about history. Krakow being so close to the sadly infamous Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, it was only predictable that I went there. Next destination: Oświęcim. The bus ride was eventless, as the Polish countryside is vast and tranquil. Cement bus stops, Holy Marie statues here and there, unkempt houses. It almost seems uninhabited.

Auschwitz-Birkenau

The bus finally parked near the entrance and the remaining passengers stopped talking. There’s something about this place that make you feel like anything you have to say is pointless. Visiting a concentration camp on a sunny day is an incongruity. Almost hypocrite. The wind blows, the birds sing. Life has come back to this place, even though it deserted it for a couple of years. Describing the Nazis with strong and powerful images is easy, but when you set foot in Auschwitz-Birkenau, sensationalism is futile. Words are not enough to describe the feelings that fill your heart. The camp, despite its troubled past, is a place filled with respect and sobriety, that leaves you more speechless than outraged. It does not put up a show. It reports, one by one, the many chapters of its tormented history. Each barrack is dedicated to a particular subject, women, children, gypsies and such. In each of them, walls are plastered with old pictures of anonym, numbered prisoners, sometimes decorated with a flower, sometimes the object of tears of passers-by. The effect is poignant.

Visiting, or rather experiencing a place like Auschwitz-Birkenau is profoundly upsetting. It questions the fragile balance in which we live, it questions the impact we have on other people, it questions the very foundations of life itself. Are we more protected against this kind of event today that we were back then? So many questions that filled my thoughts on the way back to Krakow, in the totally silent bus. The second leg of the journey seemed much longer than the first, each step feeling heavier than the one before.

Krakow

I had to eat something before getting on the plane back home. I ordered a typical Polish pizza (potatoes and onions). Still lost in my thoughts, I didn’t realize that I was an hour late as my flight departed in less than two hours. Sh*t! I jumped in a cab and yelled “Airport, FAST!” to the driver, who apparently got these English words very well, and he did not argue. I closed my eyes, trying not to think about the car’s speed and the fact that my life was in the hands of a Polish taxi driver. I threw him all the zlotys notes I had left, which was probably way too much, and checked in, only to learn that I was actually an hour early. My watch wasn’t on time. Great. I cursed myself for spending that much money on nothing and then remembered the cheap exchange rate. I never loved zlotys more than at that very moment!

Krakow

I spent the remaining hour eating a salty bagel near the gate, thinking about my trip. I just wish I had more time to visit Schindler’s factory, amongst other things. The positive outcome of this last minute rush: at least I got the first choice of seats in the plane.

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15 Responses to “The Unsuspected Charm of Krakow”

  1. Veronique

    13. Dec, 2010

    Ha… I loved loved loved Krakow! I didn’t expect anything but it ended up being one of our favorite city breaks. My favorite part I think were the many bars and cafés different vodkas! We also went to Auschwitz and like you, I asked myself a lot of questions on the way back. I’m glad I went.

    I talked about it here, if you are interested.
    http://humeursdemelodie.canalblog.com/archives/chroniques_polonaises/index.html

    Reply to this comment
    • Marie

      13. Dec, 2010

      Same for me, I didn’t expect anything much about the city (I was a bit overwhelmed by Auschwitz) but I was pleasantly surprised by the architecture and the food. Gotta love these travel surprises!

      Reply to this comment
    • pete

      04. Apr, 2012

      Hi, quite late reply, but this is just when I found your blog.
      I’m from Krakow and since six years I have lived in Preston, UK. But I’m always coming home full of energy excited about my city, little caffes and bars which loved exploring do much while being a student. I have this lucky that my mom lives just 10 minutes tram ride away from city center so it’s just a jump from my sofa to sitting in a secret garden of “Re club” sipping beer or tokay.
      And I love that Krakow been so famous and loved by people in the World whose are coming and to see natural history of last 600 years.
      From my personal point of view I found that there is not much information abroad about the city, culture and food and there is much more rather than only Main Square, beers and Aushwitz.
      Krakow is a culture capital of Poland with numbers of galleries, museums, theaters, concerts, jazz clubs, etc. this is all what I miss to and what I don’t have in Preston.
      The food is not well known around. Well, I should say it’s not known at all. And I’m not going to say it’s the best in the World, because probably it’s not, but with over 1000 years of history, human movements, all of wars which had place on Poland’s territory, armies going south, north, west and east through my country, borders changes, migrations, and connections, Polish cuisine is a mix of traditional Polish, German, Lithuanian, Hungarian, Czech, Italian tastes celebrated and developed by the years. It’s full of flavors, rich and surprising. It’s not better or worse than others, it’s just different and it’s tasty. I guess you can find some information on Google about polish dishes or you can easily buy something in number of Polish shops around UK.
      Anyway, feel free to come to Krakow and explore the city. try to lost your way, forget about the guide and follow your own paths, go into dark gates and find secret gardens, leave crowded tourist spots and find your own magical Krakow.
      Good luck and see you then on August! :)

      Reply to this comment
  2. Steve

    14. Dec, 2010

    Hey, it’s better to be early than late. I can imagine how powerful visiting Auschwitz would be. That will be my stop when I go to Poland. Looks like you had a lot of fun. Plus, a potato and onion pizza just sounds so good.

    Reply to this comment
    • Marie

      14. Dec, 2010

      Food was actually my biggest surprise in Poland. I didn’t expect anything and my stomach was very happy! (so was my wallet)

      Reply to this comment
  3. Cam

    16. Dec, 2010

    For some reason, Poland keeps coming up recently. It’s one of the countries that often gets overlooked on the European circuit. I’m very intrigued by it and think it’ll be making the next edition of Bucket List 2011! Thanks for sharing. Auschwitz-Birkenau seems like an intense experience

    Reply to this comment
    • Marie

      17. Dec, 2010

      Intense is a euphemism. No words can describe what it feels like to be there!

      Maybe Poland keep coming up because people are less “scared” to visit Eastern Europe now as opposed to the 90s or early 2000s. And it’s a great thing because there are wonderful things to be seen in Poland and other countries like Ukraine, Czech Republic, Romania and such.

      Reply to this comment
  4. Veronique

    17. Dec, 2010

    Also, I remember that while in Krakow, I was talking to a young woman working in bar and she said that the govt put a lot of money and effort in the Polish tourism industry. They gave free formation for people working in tourism offices, they gave free English courses, they gave courses on how to organize tours, etc. And I think it paid off. I remember it being incredibly professional, amicable and fun. So maybe that has something to do with it. The word is spreading.

    Reply to this comment
  5. anonymous

    27. Dec, 2010

    I agree with Cam, Poland is really an overlooked destination. It may not have much to “show off” (nothing like the Louvre or la Sagrada Familia), but it still is a very pretty place, with charming people, good food, a laid-back atmosphere. What’s not to like about it? :)

    Reply to this comment
  6. CheshireBurt

    28. Dec, 2010

    A great review with lovely photos.

    Reply to this comment

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