Several months ago, I booked a long holiday weekend in Krakow, Poland. (This particular long weekend was in celebration of Whitsun, or Pentecost.) At the time, I thought this would be my first trip to Poland. Little did I know that I would have a work trip to Warsaw earlier the same week! I went from never having been to Poland to going twice in one week!
My week leading up to this trip was madness. I spent Ascension weekend with friends in Macedonia, flew directly to Warsaw for work, traveled on to Dusseldorf, Germany for a second work trip, returned to Switzerland for less than 24 hours, and flew after work on Friday to Krakow. Needless to say, I was TIRED when I made it to my hotel at nearly 1:00am. So tired that I slept through my alarm and woke up at 8:15 – the time my driver was due to pick me up from the hotel! What ensued looked like the scene from Home Alone when they overslept and had to rush to get ready for the airport!
My driver’s name was Czeslaw (or Chester, in English), and he was amazing! I was trying to do two excursions outside of Krakow in the same day, and I opted for a driver to save time. He took such good care of me – telling me stories and history while we drove, picking an amazing local place for lunch, and letting me nap when I just couldn’t keep my eyes open another minute. If you ever need a driver in Krakow (or in the region beyond) or an English speaking guide, consider Czeslaw and his wife, Marta – www.privateguideinkrakow.com.
The first stop of the day was Auschwitz-Birkenau, which is located approximately 1 hour and 15 minutes outside of Krakow. I’ve been to Dachau concentration camp in Munich, Holocaust museums in Jerusalem and Washington D.C., the Jewish Museum and Holocaust Memorial in Berlin, and the Jewish Quarters in Prague. All have been sobering and emotional. However, the magnitude of Auschwitz-Birkenau was so much greater than what I saw in those other places. And while I’m sure I read it in a history book in school, it’s the first time I really understood that Auschwitz-Birkenau was an execution camp. Once the gas chambers were operational (approx. 1942), 80-90% of those who arrived at the camp were sent directly to the gas chambers. All of them completely unaware of what was about to happen.
I won’t give you a full history lesson, because there are plenty of other places you can find that. I will just share a few things that stuck out to me…
Auschwitz-Birkenau was actually two separate camps. Auschwitz was created out of old military barracks, so the infrastructure was already in place (and still is today). The gas chambers were added later.
Birkenau is 3km away. (We took a bus between the two camps.) Initially, it was created to be a concentration camp (or, a work camp). But, after they built three gas chambers, they separated the concentration camp from the portion of the camp where mass executions were taking place, so those in the concentration camp couldn’t see what was happening or warn the new arrivals of what was coming.
Destroyer gas chambers
The original Birkenau concentration camp
Several of the barracks at Auschwitz have been converted into a museum. Some of the exhibits are a collection of items from prisoners that show how little they knew of where they were going. 40,000 shoes were found when the Allies liberated Auschwitz. The exhibits also feature HUGE piles of eyeglasses, pots & pans, hair brushes, and prayer shawls. One of the most disturbing rooms had a pile of two tons of human hair (which took up the majority of the room). They explained that everyone going into the gas chambers was shaved, and the hair was used to make Nazi military uniforms.
This is also the camp where many horrific medical experiments were conducted on prisoners. While many doctors were involved, Josef Mengele was the name our guide repeated over and over again.
The guided tour of both camps takes a total of 3.5 hours. It is so hard to take in that much heartbreaking information at once, but I think it’s so important to be aware. I challenge myself to visit the hard places when I travel, so that I learn. Our guide reminded us that a visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau is a visit to one of the world’s largest cemeteries, since approximately 1.1 million people died there.
After a really intense morning, Chester drove me to Wieliczka. He took me to lunch at an adorable place called Pierogarnia Dzien Dobry, where I got to try his favorite – blueberry pierogi with cream and sugar. There were women making the pierogi by hand behind the counter, so this felt very authentic. I really liked the blueberry pierogi. And of course, I had to get ice cream for dessert – especially when I found out they had mint chocolate chip!
The next stop was the Wieliczka Salt Mine, and unfortunately, I had to wait about 45 minutes for the next tour time. I’m sure I read about it when I was planning, but I definitely didn’t realize it was a two hour tour. It was already almost 4:00pm, and I was realizing how ambitious it was to do both the concentration camp and the salt mine in one day. But, I was already there, so I went ahead with the visit.
The tour of the mine is guided. You walk down hundreds of steps and then through more than two miles of mine shafts (which is less than 2% of the whole mine). They started excavating this mine in the 13th century. In 2007, they ran out of salt. Today, it is a UNESCO World Heritage site. At points in time in Polish history, this mine accounted for large percentages of the total wealth of the country.
Wood beams are stacked everywhere in the mine to keep the roof from caving in. Over time, the wood become stronger. The way it was stacked in a lot of places reminded me of Lincoln Logs!
Throughout, there are many different sculptures – all made of rock salt. There are also several original mining tools and systems on display. There is even an enormous cathedral!
All of the crystals in the chandelier are made of rock salt!
After such a full day, I was excited to enjoy a nice dinner out on the square. I was staying at Hotel Wentzl, which is located on Market Square. It was such a great location! I enjoyed dinner at Szara. It was warm enough to sit outside on their terrace enjoying the hustle and bustle of Market Square. I walked all around the square after dinner taking in the live music, all of the people, the beautifully lit up buildings, the horse carriages, etc. It was so lively and really beautiful. I think I am in agreement with Rick Steves that it is the best square in Europe!
On Sunday, I planned to spend the day in town. After all of the driving and touring on Saturday, I was excited to have a day to meander at a more leisurely pace – exploring the city, eating, and shopping. It was such a great day!
I enjoyed a leisurely breakfast at Bunkier Cafe sitting on the terrace looking out on the Planty Gardens, which is basically a narrow park that runs around the Old Town.
After breakfast, I walked around the Old Town and saw all of the notable sites…
Barbican and the City Walls…
St. Mary’s Church (I went in during a service, so I couldn’t take any pictures, but the altarpiece is STUNNING!) – you can see how beautiful it is on their website…
Town Hall Tower and a sculpture by Igor Mitoraj, which has a twin in the CityGarden and Sculpture Park in St. Louis…
Archbishop’s Palace (Pope John Paul II was from Poland)…
St. Francis Basilica (which featured some Art Nouveau)…
and the Wawel Castle Grounds.
I walked to Kazimierz (the Jewish Quarter), stopping first for cake at Ciastkarnia Vanilla…
…and then hummus at Hamsa. I knew I would love it when it said “Hummus & Happiness” on the outside of the restaurant. I should have just ordered hummus, but I got over excited and ordered baba ghanoush, too.
There were a lot of independent shops in the neighborhood. I went into several and found a unique pair of earrings in Blazko. The man designs and makes all of the jewelry. He claimed that the earrings I bought were his favorite.
I stood in line for an ice cream at Lody na Starowislnej and tried strawberry and vanilla. The ice cream was good, but the experience felt a bit like the Soup Nazi from Seinfeld.
With ice cream in hand, I walked to Oskar Schindler’s Enamel Factory Museum. I pre-booked a ticket time for 6:00pm, and since they had sold out of the rest of the tickets for the day, there was hardly anyone there. The factory has been converted to a museum about the Nazi occupation in Krakow. Much like at Auschwitz, I learned a lot about that time in history that I didn’t know.
I took pictures of a few things that were new to me…
The Jewish ghetto in Krakow was built to look like a cemetery. They replicated the design of the wall in the museum.
They had so many letters and diary entries written by young children throughout. They were so hard to read – particularly when they were about full of concern and worry about things far beyond their years.
The type of products that were made at Schindler’s Factory.
An Uber took me back to my hotel where I changed and went for a nice traditional dinner at restaurant called Pod Nosem, near Wawel Castle.
I enjoyed walking around the Market Square again after dinner and sat people watching until I was ready for bed. St. Mary’s still has a trumpeter, which plays from the bell tower to signal the hour.
Before leaving for the airport, I had breakfast at an adorable cafe called Charlotte.
While I experienced some heavy things during the weekend, it was wonderful to be in such a lively, bustling city for the weekend. I genuinely could have spent the whole weekend in Market Square moving from one restaurant terrace to the next. Of all of the European cities I’ve visited, Krakow has the best square yet!