Poland, the Last Leg of Our Trip
The last stop on our whirlwind tour of the Baltics was Krakow, Poland. We caught the smallest plane ever from Lithuania (it even had propellers) and landed in Krakow via Warsaw. We were only in the country for a couple of nights so really had to condense the major things we wanted to see and do in this historical city.
Our main reason for visiting Poland was to see Auschwitz. We whole-heartedly recommend that everyone should go there, but we’re glad we went at the end of our two week trip through the Baltics.
We got to Krakow mid afternoon and the weather was hot, for some reason I never expected Poland to be a warm country so I was pleasantly surprised. We struck gold with our accommodation.
We stayed at Magic Wawel Castle Apartments, and it surpassed our expectations. It’s a cute yet spacious apartment directly across from Wawel Royal Castle with amazing views of the impressive tower which was beautifully lit up once it got dark.
Krakow’s Historical Main Square
We were a stone’s throw away from the Main Square (Rynek Glowny) in the old town which has a variety of shops, eateries, bars, and St Mary’s Basilica. The Square is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and at the time of the Nazi Germany occupation was renamed Adolf Hitler- Platz.
A really well put together museum called Podziema Rynuk can be found underground the Main Square. It takes you on a journey through the history of Krakow through its archaeological displays and modern media such as holograms and touchscreens. It has a strong focus on medieval Krakow and the museum was an actual archaeological dig site. Even though we’re not history buffs it was a really immersive and interesting museum which we happily explored for a few hours.
We had dinner and a few drinks at a dinky diner called Pijalnia which was a traditional Polish milk bar (so called because they originally served cheap dairy-based filling meals). It was soooo cheap! All drinks cost 1€ and a good selection of small plates were available for 2€.
Following that we threw in tourist cheese by going for a horse and carriage ride. You can negotiate a price and they will pretty much take you anywhere; it was a bit scary riding down a main road towards the Jewish Quarter of Kazimieriz for a few drinks before bed, cars and trams were racing either side of us. We immediately felt bad. Poor horses!
Auschwitz & Birkenau Tour
We didn’t have a late night that evening; we needed to be up early for our tour of Auschwitz Concentration Camps. Auschwitz was the largest Nazi German Concentration Camp and death camp. 1,300,000 people were sent to Auschwitz. 1,100,000 were Jews, 140,000-150,000 Poles, 23,000 Roma Gypsies, 15,000 Soviet POWs, 25,000 from other ethnic groups. 1,100,000 of these people died at Auschwitz, approximately 90% were Jews. The SS murdered the majority of them in gas chambers.
The weather was rainy and depressing that day reflecting the general mood of those visiting the primary symbol of the holocaust and another World Heritage Site.
We started the tour by walking through the main gates with the infamous wrought iron sign “Arbeit Macht Frei”; only work can set you free. We walked through the housing blocks which once housed prisoners but now hold their belongings, the only things left behind. Rooms upon rooms of suitcases, photos, and even hair will make your skin crawl and your heartache about the past atrocities that happened at this camp.
The tour takes you to both Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II – Birkenau, the latter being the extermination camp and much larger than Auschwitz I. Here you will see the bathhouse, which isn’t a bathhouse at all but more a communal toilet in which prisoners were only allowed to use once a day. You will also see the original wooden barracks, crematoria and gas chambers; we’ve all read about it in our history books at school and been to various holocaust museums around the world, but actually being at Auschwitz and seeing it for yourself sends you on an emotional journey, one that neither of us had felt before.
We used Escape to Poland who provided a moving tour of Auschwitz and Birkenau. The tour includes pick up and drop off from your accommodation, entrance fee and an English speaking guide who was extremely knowledgeable, professional, and passionate, and delivered her information with utmost sincerity.
On our last day we decided to take a tour with Crazy Guides. They do tours around Krakow in a vintage Trabant (or if you’re unlucky an old Fiat when the Trabant needs a rest). We had a really sweet driver who picked us up and took us to a bar for a drink and told us about communist Krakow. She primarily took us around the district of Nowa Huta which is a centrally planned socialist district, a gift from Stalin to Poland (which was left unfinished).
The Trabant huffed and puffed and took us to the Sendzimir Steelworks (originally named Vladimir Lenin Steelworks) and the Lord’s Ark; an old Communist Church, as well as other communist buildings along the way. Nowa Huta is very different from the rest of Krakow with its large boulevards, parks and Socialist Realism architecture, which ironically could easily be mistaken for an American suburb.
Being driven around in a Trabant and learning about the communist history of Poland is a cool concept, definitely something a little bit different to do when you’re in Krakow. We only had 2 hours for this tour which cost 33€ each, but if you have 4 hours spare you can take the deluxe tour and even have a go at driving the little Trabant.
Big Baguettes Polish Style
Before we left Krakow we asked our Crazy Guide to drop us off in the Jewish quarter of Kazimieriz so we could have a wonder around and to experience a popular Polish street food called Zapiekanki, which is a giant toasted open baguette sandwich. If you love sandwiches and baguettes you need to head down to Plac Nowy and find a famous building called Okraglak. This round building houses many stalls selling Zapiekankis at around 1€ each.
These simple but delicious baguettes are usually topped with melted cheese and mushrooms, but you’ll find many varieties.
You’ll also find many cool bars around this area which aren’t as vanilla as the ones near the Main Square, and you’ll be able to enjoy a Zapiekanki as a late night snack as well as for breakfast, lunch and dinner. So yes Krakow is a cracking city to visit.