We grabbed an evening bus from Prague to Kraków, Poland, thinking we could sleep on the way and be fresh to explore. Well, between the drunk singing in the back of the bus and an overly friendly/socially imperceptive guy thinking our closed eyes meant we were really interested in what he had to say, I wouldn’t say we felt “fresh” hopping off the bus. After a transfer to a quiet but strange little mini-bus (basically a mini-van where they give you a free bottle of water), we arrived into Kraków early in the morning. Off we went to check-in to our hostel in the Old Town. Lucky for us we could check-in right then and there and get some of the sleep our bus friend stole from us before adventuring out into the city.
First stop: perogies. Or as the Polish say, pierogi, a.k.a. delicious dumplings descending from heaven onto a plate of sour cream, fried onions, and sauerkraut. After a refreshing nap we ran around the corner to the nearest bar mleczny (milk bar) for a plateful of the most delicious pierogi I’ve ever eaten. Milk bars are cafeteria-style places serving dairy-based meals and other traditional foods at cheap prices to the public. At one stage in history, meals at a milk bar were actually included in the wages of many workers whose workplace didn’t have its own canteen. A few have carried on after the fall of communism, now giving us the chance to eat mountains of pierogi and die happy.
Kraków is beautiful. During World War II Kraków became the centre of Germany’s General Government, and unfortunately had large role in the history of the Holocaust. Schindler’s factory, commemorative monuments, and somber, crumbling pieces of the wall that formerly surrounded the Jewish ghetto are all reminders of the painful history the city has endured. On the surface though, the city is thriving. The main town square was always swarming with booths selling obwarzanek (a bagel-like bread) and flowers, buskers, and just general humanity. We had a great time one afternoon having a cup of coffee on top of the Cloth Hall (a funky market, mostly selling kitschy souvenirs, but with a few booths selling furs and beautifully decorated boxes) overlooking the square and just people-watching.
During occupation by the Austrians the majority of the medieval town wall was levelled, which sucks, but replaced it with a beautiful park ringing the Old Town. Walking along the paths in Planty park was a nice way to relax and get around. The lingering effects of a hard transition from communism to democracy were more obvious to see here unfortunately, with many of the benches filled with sleeping people who had come on hard times.
Walking around the city, we felt like we never ran out of things to see. We spent a full day exploring Wawal Royal Castle, finished off with a descent into legend through the caves below. Walking farther around the Old Town, Kraków Barbican sits on guard just outside of Planty park. As I mentioned in “Five Things I Loved in Poland“, I loved visiting St. Francis’ Basilica. As an ecologist and general nature-loving enthusiast, I felt so at home in the floral patterns and bright colours. The Art Nouveau stained-glass windows are the perfect finishing touch to Stanisław Wyspiański‘s masterpiece.
As every visitor to Kraków should do at least once, we made sure to visit Auschwitz-Birkenau. During the time we were there all visitors to Auschwitz had to join a guided tour, which I felt gave us a more complete appreciation for the atrocities so many people suffered there. In the blogs I had read and of the people I had spoken to, most warned about how moving (and disturbing) they found the exhibits featuring the suitcases, heaps of human hair, and piles of glasses. I found myself totally unprepared for how gutwrenching it was to walk down the hallways lined with pictures of so many of those that had been interred in the camp complete with their dates of arrival and death, many with as little as three months in between. In a heartbreakingly simple act of remembrance and respect, a small vase of flowers sat on the floor of the gas chamber, which brought at least one girl in our group in tears.
We were allowed to roam freely at Auschwitz II-Birkenau. The sheer scale of everything was staggering. The rows of chimneys from burnt barracks stretched on and on across the fields. If you go to Krakow, visit Auschwitz-Birkenau. Hearing about the suffering, the numbers, and the cold efficiency is entirely different from seeing it with your own eyes. And be respectful. This is a place of incredible suffering and loss that still touches people’s lives today, not simply a tourist stop.
With much to reflect on, it was going to be nice to settle down for a little bit in the country. We arranged to help out on a little property in northern Poland, fairly close to the Lithuanian border. Ola and John made us feel right at home on their beautiful eco-property (check out their blog Under the Linden Tree for lots of great stuff!). They had renovated a traditional Polish home, complete with lovely painted detailing on the façade. Looking around their wonderful, little home it was hard to imagine it as the run-down building in John’s pictures when they had first arrived. Ola had designed a beautiful, circular garden which was going to be spectacular in full bloom. We spent a portion of our mornings helping around the garden and chopping wood, then the rest of the day was ours to spend cycling to the nearby lake for a swim or heading into the nearby town of Sejny. Our evenings were filled with good food and great company, followed by an entertaining wrestling match between Maya (a gorgeous husky) and one of the guys.
My brother had mentioned to Nathanael about a famous Teutonic castle on the coast of Poland that he had always wanted to see. After a bit of research, and feeling semi-recovered from castle-exhaustion, we knew we had to check it out. Malbork Castle was just a short ride away from Gdańsk and pretty affordable, so we decided to use Gdańsk as a base for our castle adventure.
Gdańsk is a beautiful port city, though we didn’t know it after our first night. Originally we had planned just one night and were staying in a somewhat run-down area of the city. We had arrived late, so it was dark and the city didn’t look like much as we walked to our hostel. Were we ever wrong! In the sunshine the city centre and old town sprang to life. The city has had a complex run, and over its history has been ruled by the Polish, the Germans, and by the city themselves, with two periods as a self-governing Free Imperial City. Eventually joining modern Poland in 1945, it became the birthplace for the Solidarity movement that would play a large role in ending Communist rule across Central Europe. It’s really a beautiful city, and we were so glad we stayed an extra night so that we could explore the old town and harbour front.
Malbork Castle was so cool! It’s a massive brick structure with seemingly endless passageways, innumerable rooms, and courtyards filled with relics from the original building. World War II left the castle in tattered ruins, but thorough restoration work over the past several decades have brought the castle back to its former glory. Don’t forget to visit St. Anne’s Chapel, which is the tomb chapel for the grand masters of the Teutonic Order. The tower is an extra few zloty, but the view over the rest of the castle and landscape is really cool so it’s well-worth it. We felt a bit like a number of places were closed for reasons we didn’t understand (no one seemed interested in trying to communicate), but I felt we still had so much to see that I was content with everything. Don’t forget to walk around the dried out moat! See if you can spot the elusive night watchman 😉
Arriving back safe and sound at Ola and John’s we spent a few more days in the countryside before beginning to pack for our next adventure. Is that the Baltics I hear calling our names? To Lithuania we go!