This’ll be a long one, so put the kettle on. Getting to Krakow was simple and I got on the right train this time. As soon as I made my way down the cobblestone streets of the old town center and came upon the village square, I knew this place would be different. It was touristy and full of life.
My new place https://www.hostelworld.com/hosteldetails.php/Cracow-Hostel/Krakow/13151 was atop a restaurant, and after checking in I found my 18 beds room. By far the most I’ve seen. I was dreading the oncoming onslaught of people, but the first night the room was near empty; only two other guys, with one not returning until sometime in the middle of the night. I awoke early, unfortunately, to his snoring. Holy krackers it was atrocious. I thought the ladies in Poznan were bad, but this guy was on another level of terrible. I went to yet another mall, this one even bigger that the one in Wroclaw, and picked up full ear covering headphones, as my tiny ones were not strong enough to combat his insidious act. Luckily, I never had to sleep through it, only wake up to it.
You begin to appreciate the little things while traveling. The showers here were amazing. While those in others hostels only dibbled or were cold, had clogged drains or forced you to constantly wave your hand over the sensor, this one was like my own private waterfall. Ugh, I could’ve stood there for hours. On top of that, there was a continental breakfast. It wasn’t much, (cereal, toast and tea) but it was free and ensured I didn’t have to run out early morning, or pick up something the night before.
The square was circled by a track of prancing ponies with carriages attached, trotting along the road. Outdoor restaurants and shops of every kind lined this track, with violin and accordion players at every corner. Buildings formed a border around the central hub of the city, with three churches, (the clothe thing) and the old town center tower within. A firefighter trumpeter sounded every few hour from the main church’s tall bell tower and tour groups floated everywhere.
The first tour I took was a night walk, free of course, and something I had been looking for in most previous cities. It was an hour of walking and talking, of grisly murders and ghost stories like: the vampire of Krakow, the death bells (my favorite story), a serial killer, the last monk of his order, the life of an executioner and an unnamed girl executed without cause. Great part at the end; the guild dressed in black top hat and trench coat demonstrated the art of decapitation with a sword on his hooded co-worker.
Next tour? Salt mines. After a mini-van ride to the site, along with seven others, and a descent of 350 steps, we were on the first level. Two and a half hours this time, showing off the old ways salt was excavated from the mine. They lowered actual horses into the shafts to help turn the mechanisms. Men with torches would burn away toxic gas in the air. Kings and lords visited the mines, statues of historic and fantastical figures were erected and an underground church was built. We went through 2.5km of underground tunnels of wood and rock, visited micro lakes, vast expanses and deep chasms. Our tour guild told us we had only seen 1% of the whole facility, since most of the rest of the mine was still active even 800 years later. A bumpy 10-minute trolley ride, like a child’s rollercoaster, took us to the lift, which skyrocketed us back to the surface and sunlight. It was spectacular down there and the guide imparted a lot of knowledge on the subject.
Now here’s where things get depressingly interesting. Auschwitz. I was planning to have this be an entirely separate entry on my blog, but as you’ll see, I have my reason for it to be included here. I don’t know what I was expecting, but it wasn’t what I got. Auschwitz, the death camp, which killed over one million people, was- touristy.
A tour bus took an hour to drive the large group and me out to the facility. Arriving, a massive crowd was already outside. Going through security, I figured my small bag would be ok. Nope, baggage check. Wait, what? I have to PAY to check my bag? The dollar it cost aside, how scummy is that? I totally get they have to maintain the property, but isn’t that what the entry fee is for? Not to mention the overpriced café inside the main building and the bathroom, which was also a coin to use.
The tour felt almost rushed. A group was ahead of us, a group was behind us. It was distant, like going through a busy museum with no time or silence to take it all in. That being said and coming back to respectful sympathy, there were so, so many horrific things displayed. In no particular order, there were rooms stacked nearly to the ceiling, filled with thousands of: shoes, glasses, wooden legs and crutches, ladies’ hairbrushes and luggage bags. There was a single case with one little girl’s luggage, which included most of the previously mentioned items along with her pink blouse, dirty and worn from time’s lingering touch. Torches chambers waited below each building. Their A hall was lined with thousands of faces of the first inmates, their birth and death dates stamped on the bottom. Why only the first? After a while, it became too hard to catalogue everyone coming into the camp. They were slapped with a serial number and forgotten about. Only one of the gas chambers and crematoriums remained standing, and that alone was silent, as it should have been. Yet still people took pictures.
If there was one thing that hit me, well two actually, it was the hair room. Long hair was harvested from the prisoners and bundled up, to be used like wool from sheep. The black mass of 70-year-old hair, weighing in at multiple tones from one million lost souls sent a sharp shiver down my spine. It still does. The only other oddity I felt was crossing the threshold under that famous sign and into the camp. I swear on my life I could smell smoke; a distinctive campfire smell, but in moments it went away.
There was a second section to the camp a quick drive down the road. People took more pictures, yes including me, before we went through. This place was mainly outdoors, with only brick chimneys remaining from the once wooden confines. Plaques at the end of the road read a somber memorial. Nearby the charred and collapsed remains of the gas chambers and crematoriums rested. The final piece was the waiting room; a barracks for the sick, broken and nearly dead to lay and wait their turn to be marched to the end of the road where the final solution awaited them.
I will give you a minute.
Now not to sully my last experience, but we’re not done yet. I told you this one was going to be long. Day tour of Krakow, the previous capital of Poland after Warsaw stole that honour. Battle of the poets for who was the greater, with theaters named and statues carved in their likeness. The first king, second and third (who was a girl) to the fracturing of the country leading to its eventual collapse and consumption by nearby empires: Austria, Russia and Prussia. Poland regained its independence in 1918, after WWI and the fall of all three of the previously mentioned powers only to be invaded 21 years. I feel bad for Poland. This is also the birth place of Pope John Paul II, who’s anniversary of inauguration just happened the be the same day I was taking the tour. Funny how things work out. Last was the royal castle, destroyed over time and rebuild by crowd funding of all things. The spectacular cherry on top, the bones of a real dragon guards the citadel after a shoemaker bested the beast a thousand years ago.
Oh Poland, you were so fun, but unfortunately, we must move on. Now if I could just get a train ticket to- no? Ok how about- not there either? Come on Slovakia, you’re right there, where are your trains? Fine, maybe later. I’ll just go to Prague then