Krakow, Poland

Well, as I mentioned in an earlier post, I’ve been traveling through more of Central Europe than I thought I would when I left the US.  Part of the reason is going with the flow of what feels right, but I’m also getting more adventurous as I continue to travel.  I’m spending almost four months in Europe, and it would be a shame to only do Western Europe and Scandinavia.  Poland was definitely not on my radar as a possible stop, but I found myself there in late October.  My main interest was going to Krakow and making a day trip to see Auschwitz.  I didn’t realize the camp was so close to Krakow, and was a big reason a lot of backpackers go there.  I also wanted to catch up with a friend I met while traveling in the US who was now living in Krakow.  The stay in the city was really made all the better by my choice in hostel.  I probably wouldn’t have cared much for Krakow if it wasn’t for the hostel and the interesting people I met there.  Combined with the really good Polish food and beer I had, along with the cheap prices, Krakow turned out to be good, but not necessarily at the top of my list.So a bit of history.  As with the Czech Republic, Poland was under Nazi occupation during WWII after it was invaded very early in the war (1939).  Towards the end of the war, Polish resistance fighters attempted to overthrow their Nazi occupiers.  They wanted to achieve sovereignty because they knew if they didn’t, the advancing Soviet forces would eventually liberate the city from the Nazi’s, and place a communist government in place.  The resistance failed, and after the WWII, Poland found itself in the Soviet slice of the pie.  The pre-war Polish government living in exile were ignored by the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, and a communist government was instituted which lasted until the Soviet Union and Berlin Wall fell in 1989.  At that point, they gained democracy.  In 2004 they joined the European Union. 

After staying in a really small hostel with a chill vibe in Prague, I went looking for similar places in Krakow.  I ended up finding the Football Corner Hostel and got exactly what I was looking for.  The Football reference was to European Football and not Soccer, as the owner was a big fan.  He had even named each dorm room after different leagues in Europe.  The place was basically a three bedroom, two bath apartment.  One room had 8 beds, another 6, and the other four.  The small number of people, and cozy nature of the living room space definitely made it feel like someone’s home and not a hostel.  I had the bed on the left closer to the window.  Bunk beds are so lame for a number of reasons, so it was nice to have my own bed.  The mattress wasn’t all that comfortable, though, but that’s typical for hostels.On my first night, I met a guy from London, George, who I would join on a visit to Auschwitz.  There were three Americans there as well, along with a Kiwi couple.  I already talked about the Auschwitz visit, so I’ll talk about the rest of my time in Krakow. On my second day, I woke up to snow.  At the hostel, we were all a little giddy and wanted to get out and walk around.  The kiwi couple, Rose and Sam, along with a couple others joined us on a walk through the main square and castle complex.The snow turned out to be very packable as we say back home, which means it was good for making snowmen, forts, and snowballs.  Rose got into the spirit…
One of my favorite moments of the day was when we stumbled upon this Halloween market.  They had good food and hot wine.  Hot wine is basically mulled wine and has become one of my favorite drinks.  They had it every where in Prague as well.  The market stand in the picture below had the most appetizing food, and we each ordered something different then shared so we could taste more of the food at the market.

Rose and Sam were two of the most memorable people I’ve met so far.  They had been traveling for something like six months.  They were at the end of their trip and heading back to Auckland in the next few days.  We agreed to meetup again when I get to New Zealand (probably March-ish).  Can’t wait, really cool couple and I loved hearing their travel stories.

So I mentioned meeting a friend from my US travels while in Krakow.  I met Natacha from France way back in Salt Lake City this past July.  She was one of the people on that epic day trip to Arches National Park.  We ended up meeting again in San Diego and planned to meet again when I got to Paris.  She offered to show me around which I was really looking forward to since I’ve heard it can be difficult navigating Paris with English only.  We’ve stayed in touch through Facebook, and she messaged me while I was in Prague that she had taken a job in Krakow and wouldn’t be able to show me around Paris afterall.  I was a little bummed, but totally understood.  Natacha joined our group from the hostel for our snow day walk around Krakow.  We also met up again the following day and tried to buy bus tickets.  She was looking for a monthly pass for the city transport, and I was looking for a ticket to my next city.  You wouldn’t believe it unless you saw it, but there’s a giant three-tiered shopping mall attached to the train and bus station area.  You almost can’t avoid walking through it, and it makes figuring out where to go nearly impossible for someone not familiar with the setup.  Looks like any other shopping mall I’ve seen in the US… It took a while, but I eventually found a cheap bus ticket out of town.  We never did find the place for Natacha to buy her monthly bus pass.  The place felt like a maze.  We both had a good laugh over this board pictured below with bus departures out of Krakow.  Looking at it now, it makes sense to me, but after wandering around the Glowny station for a couple hours lost, this board looked like Chinese to us.

We then went for a walk through town.There’s a green space that completely encircles the main city center.  Centuries ago there was a wall that surrounded the city, but now it’s just trees, grass and park benches.  Really beautiful site with all the snow.

We wrapped up the day with some really good Polish food at this place called Chata (pronounced HAH-tah).  I think it means hut in Polish.  The place was recommend by the hostel, and I had been there a couple days earlier.  Super cheap, authentic food within a really warm and cozy atmosphere.  Add in a pretty French girl for company and what more can you ask for?
Afterwards, Natacha and I said our goodbyes.  It’s too bad we won’t meetup in Paris, but I totally understand.  (She reads this blog, so Natacha, I’m totally serious… no worries 🙂 Congrats and good luck on the new job.  Really glad we got to hang out again in Poland.  Best wishes on your new life in Krakow.  Hope to stay in touch).

In other food and beverige news, I tried a few Polish beers, but this one called Warka (pronounced Varka with a rolling R) was my favorite.  At about $1 for 650ml, I let myself have a couple beers whenever I went out.

Another interesting food find in Poland is something called a zapiekanki.  It’s basically like a french bread pizza with cheese and mushrooms, but not pizza sauce.  The one I had was okay.  I mainly tried it out of curiousity when I heard it was a very popular treat amongst the locals.

In prior blog updates, I used to show pictures of the currency in each country I visited, but for some reason I haven’t lately.  I’ve only been in one country that was on the euro… Germany.  Poland is not on the euro but instead kept their currency… the zloty.  It’s about 3 zloty to 1 US dollar so mental currency conversions were a breeze.So that’s my story about Krakow.  Overall, it was good, but not as impressive as other places I’ve been.  If it wasn’t for Natacha and all the people I met at the hostel, the trip would have been a lonely bore.  When I first started traveling, every city would become my new favorite place.  I’d tell anyone who would listen how awesome the place was I had just been.  However, after four and half months of non-stop travel, I’m a little more discerning.  Krakow was fun for me because of the people I met, not because of the city itself.  I probably wouldn’t go back, but I would definitely recommend going there for a night in order to make a day trip to Auschwitz.  That’s a history lesson you should definitely go see for yourself if you get the chance.  So, if you’re backpacking through Poland, stop to checkout Krakow, but just don’t stay too long. I ended up spending six days, and that was probably two days too long.

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Auschwitz Concentration Camp

When I was in Prague, I had several people recommend going to Krakow and seeing Auschwitz.  In the words of one kiwi, “As a human being, you really should go see it”.  I also heard Krakow itself was a cool city, and I wouldn’t regret it.  Then I found out someone I had met in my US travels was in Krakow.  The vibe was saying Poland, so I booked a train out of Prague and headed to Krakow.

I didn’t think I would write about my experience at Auschwitz at first.  It seems like such a grave topic to write about in a blog, but it was part of my trip.  I also had a couple friends who were really interested in seeing photos and hearing my thoughts.  So here is the story of how I spent a day at the Auschwitz Concentration Camp.

On my first night in Krakow, I met someone from the hostel who was planning a day trip to Auschwitz the next day.  The camp is actually about an hour and half bus ride from the city center of Krakow.  We headed to the bus station in the morning, and took a bus to the camp.  After an hour and half, you arrive at the city of Oświęcim which is where the first camp is located.  Auschwitz was a network of camps with the three main camps being Auschwitz I, Auschwitz II-Berkenou, and a third used as a labor camp.  If you want to tour the camp between the hours of 9 AM and 3 PM, you must be a part of a tour group.  The guide reminds everyone in the very beginning that they are in a cemetery and to be quiet and respectful.  Despite the large volumes of people touring the camp, it’s incredibly silent.  It is not recommended that children fourteen and under view the camp due to some really disturbing sites.  At the entrance of the camp, you see the original sign that greeted the prisoners… Arbeit macht frei (Work Makes You Free).  The lying begins.

The tour consists of entering several blocks.  Most notably is block 11 which was a prison inside a prison.  In the basement, prisoners could be subjected to two of the worst tortures the camp had to offer.  One was to be placed in a standing only cell with three other inmates.  A person would have to work all day, and then stand all night in a cell.  Another wing in the basement consisted of starving cells.  Prisoners would be placed in there and not given and food and water.  The purpose of both cells was basically a very slow form of execution.

I didn’t take any photos inside the blocks.  It just didn’t feel right, and in some cases, you’re not allowed to take photos due to the extreme personal nature of what’s inside.  One room is filled with old suitcases Jews had with them.  Another room is filled with personal affects like toothbrushes, combs and makeup brushes.  Another room was filled with pots and pans.  When the Jews were deported to the camp, they were under the impression that they were being relocated.  They brought with them all the belongings they could carry that they thought they would need to live.

By far, the most disturbing room is in Block 4.  It’s filled with human hair from around 140,000 people.  It’s mostly from women who had their heads shaved upon entering the camp.  The Nazi’s actually used the hair to make a type of linen, and bolts of this cloth are also in the same room.

One of the last stops on the tour of the first camp is the gas chamber and crematorium. There was not a word spoken by anyone in our tour group in that building.  You’re standing in a basement like room devoid of any natural light where hundreds of thousands of people were murdered.  A memorial with flowers is setup in the middle of the room.  Here’s a picture I found online.

After Auschwitz I, you can take a free shuttle to Auschwitz-Birkenau.  I learned Auschwitz was originally built as a barracks, and then used as camp for Polish political prisoners.  Later on, a gas chamber and crematorium were eventually built on the site from an old bunker.  However, Birkenau was an extermination camp and was purposely designed as an engine of mass murder.  The gate into Birkenau…

The bunk houses stretched as far as the eye could see.  A lot of them were burned down by the Nazis towards the end of the war to hide what they had done.  Only the chimneys remained in these former structures which actually created an even more eerie scene.  With the buildings gone, you could clearly see for hundreds of yards in every direction nothing but these chimney stacks.  Typical bunk room.  Prisoners often had to sleep two to four people to a bunk bed.

One of the many Birkenau houses used as a latrine.This is the portion of the tracks just after the gate.  The front of Birkenau contained the bunk houses, latrines and other camp buildings.  The tracks here lead to the gas chambers and crematoriums which were kept in the back of the camp.One of the train cars that brought Jews from all cities in Europe under Nazi occupation to the concentration camp.There were five gas chambers and crematoriums at Birkenau.  To get the Jews into the chambers, the Nazis would tell them they were taking showers to kill parasites.  Once it was over, they would be given food and drink.  The camp guards would have everyone undress and keep the lie going all the way up to when the doors were shut, and the gas pellets dropped into the rooms.   Some of the gas chambers were detonated by the Nazi’s near the end of the war.  Here’s one of them… There are several pools of water where the ashes from the dead bodies in the crematorium were dumped.
Way in the back of the Birkinou Camp near the gas chambers and crematorium is a memorial to all the people who were murdered at Auschwitz.  There are signs in about 20 different languages warning the world that human beings did this.  We need to be ever vigilent that our species is capable of the horrific acts commited at Auschwitz.

I can’t think of a more horrible place I’ve been in my lifetime.  It’s really hard to wrap your head around what happened there.  Out of the estimated 12 million civilians killed by the Nazis during WWII, around 1.2 million were killed at Auschwitz.  An estimated 90% being Jews.  The scale of Birkenau just blew me away.  It was massive, and to think very few lasted more than a couple months in the camp.  But, the camp was always full because of new arrivals everyday.  I felt it had been a good decision to visit the camp and didn’t regret it all.  We all grow up hearing about what happened in WWII, but it was still really educational.  Once again I had that experience of putting my hands on the history and seeing things for myself.