When my friend, Hayley, and I, were looking at places to visit during our travels, Krakow was not the first place that came to mind.
I had never been to Poland, and neither had she, but when we realised we were practically on its doorstep in Germany we made a last minute decision to spend a few days there. Our primary point of interest was Auschwitz, but of Krakow – the nearest city to Auschwitz – we had absolutely no idea what to expect.
After boarding the plane in Berlin we spent about half an hour getting over the fact that the woman with garish blue eyeshadow, in jeans, a puffer jacket and wearing a bright hot pink cap, was actually our air hostess. Oh and look, there’s another one. Though we had booked with Air Berlin, we assumed Air Niki and it’s fashion forward hostessed were partner airlines. Gulp.
At any rate, after some deliberation we came to the conclusion that yes, we were on the right plane, no, we were not going to die, and holy crap, we’re going to Poland where we don’t speak the language or know anything about the country.
With this in mind, on arrival we found the first strangers that spoke English and, naturally, agreed to walk with them down a deserted unlit road in the middle of the night to find the nearest “train station” (I use air quotes because it wasn’t so much a train station as a bus stop next to what looked like train tracks). Admittedly, this wasn’t the smartest of moves, but fear not. Our new found friends were the loveliest Irish couple you could meet on a deserted road in an unknown country. And really, if you can’t trust an Irishman then surely the world is doomed anyway.
By the looks of the overgrown weeds sneaking over the train tracks and that eery silence you get when you just know there’s no train coming for a good long while, we agreed that we could potentially be waiting for some time. It was at this point that a taxi drove up, assumedly anticipating hopeless travellers such as ourselves, and offered us a lift into town at a very reasonable price. A price that was later revealed to be ridiculously high for Poland, but never mind.
We arrived in town safe and sound and said farewell to our Irish companions. To get to our hotel we had to walk through the centre of town, and thank goodness we did.
By night it was breathtaking.
The Christmas markets were still out, as were the festive lights that lit the cobbled streets. People were gathered in friendly groups around food stalls and warming themselves with mulled wine. It wasn’t busy, but neither was it empty. The main square felt as if it were a large garden party, where everyone knew each other and all were just casually catching up on the latest gossip or taking pleasure in good food. They walked around serenely, admiring markets and chatting away in Polish. The atmosphere was wonderful.
Most of our time in Krakow was spent wandering around that main square and down the streets that snaked off it. The old town reminded me of Edinburgh, with its beautiful architecture, cobbled streets and historically preserved character. I was enamoured by the statues that stood tall outside churches and was captivated by the legend of the city being built on the ashes of a great dragon.
During one of our trips through the markets we noticed everyone walking around eating these odd little pastry-looking things. Now, I’m willing to admit I’m a fairly fussy eater, which means I’m not one to jump at trying new foods. But Poland had worked its magic on me and I decided to try one, with no way of asking or understanding what it was. It turned out to be grilled cheese. So simple, and so delicious. It came served with cranberry sauce, and I have no idea if it is particular to Krakow or Poland, but it comes highly recommended by this fussy eater.
After that I tried everything, and surprisingly liked everything. It wasn’t difficult to do when prices in Poland are ridiculously cheap. And I mean cheap. One night we ‘splurged’ at a fancy restaurant, buying the most expensive thing on the menu, which also happened to be the best piece of steak I’ve ever had. It still only came to $10.
We also partook in one of the free walking tours of the Jewish Quarter, where we were taken to Schindler’s Factory, places which were used in the film Schindler’s List, as well as to Synagogues and a particularly heartbreaking square, where the Jews had been rounded up before being taken to concentration camps or to be killed.
We were shown a building at the corner of the square that used to be a pharmacy. During WWII the Germans told all the Poles to move from the quarter so they could contain the Jews there. The Pole who owned the pharmacy requested that he stay under the premise that he could help the Germans with medical supplies, but really so he could help the Jews. We were told that he would regularly bare witness from his shop window to Jews being shot in the square, and even more tragically as they were taken away and asked to leave their belongings behind with no idea that they would never be returning to collect them. He wrote a book called Cracow Ghetto Pharmacy, which I have yet to read but which I hear is quite a moving account of one man’s attempt to aid a few.
The square is now a memorial to all those who suffered there.
What I found amazing was that the Jews were once treated very well by the King in Poland, before it was infiltrated by the Germans who spread lies and encouraged the Poles to disassociate from them. Of course its proximity to Auschwitz is an unfortunate reminder of what took place there less than 70 years ago, but in a city where 68,000 Jews used to live happily, there are now less than 200. Two hundred! The mind boggles at the ramifications that still echo from the brutality that took place during the Holocaust.
Despite this tainted part of Poland’s history, it far from dampened my visit there. On the contrary, I felt it a very friendly and cheerful place and could have hugged each and every one of them that spoke perfect English, which was practically all of them.
Krakow was definitely the surprise treasure of the trip. It came second only to Edinburgh of my favourite places and I only wish I had spent more time there to discover its secrets. But really, what better excuse than to one day return?
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