My second stop in Poland beat its predecessor hands down. Kraków was lively, interesting, historic, authentic. I had been recommended the city by a number of friends and it certainly didn’t disappoint. Arriving early afternoon, my first day was spent wandering aimlessly (a pastime I would definitely recommend for your first day in a new city), making my way through the Old Town and stumbling across the Wawel (which I like to pronounce with the British ‘W’ because… well, it’s just more fun that way). The grand castle consisted of numerous paid rooms and exhibits (I wasn’t willing to pay for anything), so I wandered around (aimlessly) and took in the magnificent grounds. It was like a real life fairy tale castle with beautiful brickwork and stunning greenery, and quiet enough by this time in the afternoon that I wasn’t swamped by herds of children on school trips (a daily occurrence in Poland, from my little experience). I was beginning to tire and headed back to the hostel, via a bar for a glass of wine, naturally. This cheered me up and brought back my razzmatazz. (Can you tell I’ve had a beer before writing this?)
The hostel I was frequenting was very social and like a great big family, with home-cooked dinners, team games and a group night out each evening. A bit too much ‘organised fun’ for my liking, but it did make it very easy to meet fellow travellers, and the ones I met here were second to none. Both in quantity and quality. They really were great. Harriet from Melbourne (I think?!) (defo Australian) was LITERALLY the funniest person I have EVER met. EVER. I swear I must have lost weight just being in her vicinity due to constant hysteria. I wish I could take her in my backpack for the rest of my trip. (I would have a banging body come November.) California-based Sophie (Kate Upton lookalike) was a total sweetheart. Just graduated from college (in American accent) she was travelling around Israel (a fellow Jew-by-default), Asia and now Europe before starting her career. We shared a bottle of red wine post-Auschwitz (we needed it) and anyone who is up for sharing a bottle of red wine has got to be a friend for life, right? Intimidatingly cool American newly-graduated interior designers Ayla (A-luh not I-luh) and Meave turned out not to be intimidating at all, but quirky, creative and brainy. (We had a wonderfully intelligent discussion about world politics over dinner, and a bottle of red…) And not forgetting Justyn (not a typo) who fooled Hilarious Harriet into believing he was 37 (he is 26) and who did his back in sharing my umbrella in the rain (he is about 7-feet tall). So, all in all, a great bunch of lunatics!
Along with a plethora of cafés, restaurants and bars (serving, among other delights, a large array of wódka), Kraków was a base for lots of cultural and historically important sightseeing and trips, most notably to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Nine from our hostel went on the day trip together which started out, ironically, rather comincally. Our minibus driver was a middle-aged, rotund Polish guy who insisted on telling each and every one of us (one at a time), in broken English, the exact instructions for what was going to happen once we arrived at the concentration camp (which was a two-hour drive away). This tickled us all no end. We finally set off (once we were all well versed in the afternoon’s itinerary) in two separate cars (Ayla & Maeve missed out on the party bus (my bus obviously)), and the two driver’s proceeded to call each other semi-frequently (we knew they were talking to one another as we could see the other driver on his phone out the rear windscreen), talking a whole lot of Polish that we did not understand. A little dubious as to what was so important that needed to be discussed continually, while the journey seemed to be taking far longer that expected, and worrying whether we would ever reach Auschwitz, we did eventually make it and made our way to the entrance (not before being told the afternoon’s itinerary). (I figured the drivers must have just been catching up on last night’s TOWIW (The Only Way is Wódka).)
Auschwitz itself was not what I was expecting. It was very much a tourist spot which I feel lessened the impact it could (and should) have had. Without doubt I think it is vitally important for us to be knowledgeable about our history and learn from past mistakes (monstrosities), but the sites were so well set up for hoards of visitors and guided tours that you immediately felt detached from the stories and the people whom the memorial is for. It was very interesting and shocking to see the appalling conditions and hear about the horrific treatment the prisoners were subject to while standing in the very rooms, courtyards and pathways within which the unforgivable events took place. A huge glass display case filled with deteriorating hair cut from an estimated 140,000 victims was an overwhelming sight which I think would struggle to leave any visitor unaffected. But the headsets that we had to wear to hear our tour guide speaking through a microphone (when stood two metres away) and the constant photographing (me included) took away from the solemnity thatthose who suffered at these camps truly deserve.
Along with Auschwitz-Birkenau I visited Schindler’s Factory (a bit of a let-down as I was hoping to explore and learn more about Schindler’s Factory (too presumptuous?!) and it was in fact a museum about the war in general (and rather over crowded); followed by next-door MOCAK (the museum of contemporary art) which was super duper (positively overbalanced the disappointing morning); and on my last full day Kościuszko Mound which was, literally, a big grass mound that we paid to climb up, but was actually a really good and different trip which gave great views overs the whole of Kraków (and great selfie stick opportunities).
I have now left Kraków (but totes gunna go back) and am in Wrocław. Pronunciation (not what you expect) and my take on the city to come…