Krakoff, Krako, Krakov, I am still unsure about the correct way of pronouncing the name of the city, but what I am sure about is that Krakow, Poland is a cracking city. If Poland (especially Krakow) is not on your list of countries to visit, I would recommend to add it on, before it becomes a tourist haven. It’s a beautiful city, with picturesque architecture, extremely friendly, polite and accommodating locals and cracking weather, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg! Mrs FOMOist and I visited Poland over a long weekend last week and absolutely loved it. Poland was definitely not on our travel list either, until one of Mrs FOMOist’s workmates (native Polish) suggested that he’ll meet us there if we visited and now I am so glad that we didn’t miss out.
We arrived in Krakow on Thursday night and received a very cold shouldered welcome from the immigration officer who leafed through every single page of our passports (twice) and was bewildered that we looked Indian, had Kiwi/Aussie passports, lived in London and were visiting Poland – surely we’re not the first ones, but hey! After clearing the immigration, our pre-arranged cab driver was nowhere to be found for 30 minutes, after which another guy apologised profusely and took us to our apartment in the Old Town.
Anyone going to Krakow for such a short time will be faced with a choice of whether to go out to Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum or the infamous Wieliczka Salt Mine or both. While planning we heard conflicting recommendations and glad we opted to dedicate an entire day to do both. As confronting as Auschwitz is, as a human being I think one should definitely “face-the-music” at least once in their lifetime. It shows the inhumane side of humans. As monstrous as the people of the SS forces were, they were still made of the same blood and flesh as the ones they “exterminated” like insects in camps such as Auschwitz. Without giving too much away, I would like to highlight only a few things that completely moved me:
- Given the grimness of the place and since every visitor will feel the emotional turmoil, I had to ask the tour guide how she kept going with such a job, money aside of course. She told me that her grandparents were actually at Auschwitz and were lucky enough to survive. She talked about her grandmother with fond memories who had died in the last 6 years. She has two children who she feels need to know about their family history, so while it is a job as good as any, it is more for her family.
- I overheard the guide tell others in our group that the camp was closed in 1945 and as soon as 1947 it was opened as a museum and the initial workers were the people who survived. Again it shows the strength and determination of the people who chose to come back to the grounds where they were once prisoners, to ensure their story gets told.
- People who were exterminated (I still find the word gut-wrenching) at the concentration camp came here because they were promised a new life. There is an exhibit that has stacks of suitcases with owners’ names and other details, with an adjoining exhibit displaying the contents of the bags that included basic kitchen utensils like plates, pots, pans, etc. Considering that we have now relocated a few times, these two exhibits really tore my heart out of my chest. I know the feeling of apprehensive excitement one feels when moving to new territories and to be raped of not only your loved ones, hopes and dreams but your life, is indescribable for me.
The above are only a few things that moved me, but the feeling of walking on the ground that was fertilised with human ashes will always stay with me. Even though you may not want to visit such a
depressing camp on a holiday, I still think it deserves a few hours out of your day to at least acknowledge the past.
After the Auschwitz, we were provided with a hearty lunch while we drove from Auschwitz to the Wieliczka Salt Mine. Some may not realise (we didn’t), that now just a commodity, salt was a treasure back in the 13th century. The workers of the mines were well-rewarded and recognised members of the society, who went 135 meter underground to mine for shards of salty crystals. The Wieliczka Salt Mine are a UNESCO World Heritage site and for a good reason. Things that we particularly enjoyed included, licking the salty walls, walking through over 2kms of different parts/chambers of the mine (out of 200km of passages) and the magnificent cathedral where everything and I mean EVERYTHING is made out of salt, even the massive chandelier!
The next day, we had the opportunity to explore the Krakow city, starting with the Free Walking Tour of the Jewish quarter. It is about 1.5km away from the Main Market Square but definitely worth a visit, because this is where majority of the fun resides, with selection of 200 bars coupled with daily street food market serving Zapiekanka to soak up the alcohol. The walking tour pointed out a number of spots featured in the 1993 classic Schindler’s List and pointed out the most number of synagogues I have ever seen in our travels so far.
So without further ado, I think I’ll get to the highlights from the trip:
- People, they can really make or break your experience of a city. Polish population we met in Krakow were amazing, extremely intelligent and so worldly! We did not meet anyone who did not speak perfect English, which meant we became completely complacent even to try a few phrases in Polish.
- St Mary’s Basilica in the Old Town is worth paying £2 for. The inside of the basilica is possibly the best I’ve seen (after Sagrada Familia – which is a cathedral anyways). The dark blue ceiling littered with golden stars is angelic.
- While we didn’t pay to get in because we wanted to stay out in the sun, the grounds of Wawel Castle are free to wander around and are definitely worth a visit. We spent about an hour meandering through castle grounds, gawking at the beautiful selection of buildings.
There is a lot more to Polish food than grilled sausages and meat. To really know all the must-eat spots, read through Emily’s Guide to Krakow. Her blog was like a friend holding our hand, guiding us to the culinary (and alcoholic) wonders of Krakow. Some of the spots we did manage to check out are as follows:
- Gospodo Koko. A must-visit to try pierogi, traditional Polish dumplings, filled with meat, vegetables or fruit! We both got a main each with soup, salad, chips and a pint of beer each for under £9. Money aside, the meal was so delicious that I may have told a fellow traveller to definitely go visit.
- For a French inspired breakfast, visit Bistro Charlotte. The food is good, but unfortunately same cannot be said about the service. It was really busy when we got there, waited at our table for 15-20 minutes and when asked for an English menu, got told by one of the waiters that our table was not in his service area so he didn’t even get us the menu.
- A good spot we discovered (not on Emily’s list yet) is called Gossip Café. Not far from the Main Market Square, the staff was super nice and attentive, my green cocktail of apple, mango, spinach and ginger was delicious and so was the food. Plus, if you visit their Facebook page and look through the pictures, you’ll see me being an idiot while they are trying to take a picture of their creation.
- If you like libraries (like we do), a must-visit is Massolit Books & Café. About a 10-minute walk out of Old Town, this café doesn’t have an impressive menu of food and when you walk inside, seems a bit underwhelming. But then if you ask to go to the toilets, you discover this other door behind the counter, pointing to “more books” and that’s when you find the literary haven this place really is.
- For locally brewed beer, loud Oktobesfest-esque feel, two pints, a beer tasting platter and a shot each for under £9, visit CK Browar. Even though the next table over, full of Swedish bois (middle aged men) weren’t impressed by beer that (according to them) tasted like flowers, the Wheat Beer and the IPA were delicious. The only issue however is that you can’t get served unless you have a table, which should be easily found if you wait around for 10-15 minutes.
- A beer garden around Plac Nowy that is worth a visit is Mleczarnia. We went at night and it was lit up with overhead fairy-lights and little tealight candles on the tables. Even though it was full, it felt really intimate sitting under a tree in the, facing each other in the dim light.
- A must-visit (at least in spring/summer) is Forum Przestrzenie. It’s a large street-market type bar, spread over 3 – 4 empty containers and a large warehouse converted into indoor food and clothing market (very much like Brick Lane). In addition to the selection of food and drinks, Forum Przestrzenie is located on a green patch, next to the Vistula River, with a magnificent view of the Wawel Castle. If I had the time, I would have liked to spend at least a good part of a sunny day just sitting on the grass, drinking beer at this place.
Overall, Krakow is a place that still remains undiscovered by the large hordes of tourists, hens and stag parties. It has a very young, intellectual, friendly and inviting vibe about it. A place that is on one hand trying to rediscover it’s history while embracing it’s dark past with a strong head on its shoulders. I said it to Mrs FOMOist on a number of occasions that it is a place where I can really see myself living in (but that won’t be happening anytime soon).