Beautiful city, fascinating history and plenty of quirky bars
19.08.2013 - 22.08.2013 23 °C
After a two hour journey we arrived in Krakow bus station which was also a train station and a massive shopping mall. Once we had navigated ourselves out of the shopping mall we soon discovered our hostel. Mosquito turned out to be on the second floor of an old apartment block and was a small hostel with only 5 rooms, good sized kitchen and common room and plenty of free tea and coffee (always a bonus) http://www.mosquitohostel.com. The staff were fantastic and were very knowledgable and friendly getting you involved in the hostel activities only when you wanted to.
We had arrived just in time to make the free walking tour of the city, so walked the 5 mins through the last remaining city wall gate to the centre of town. We joined a group of other english speaking tourists and our guide Alijca for a brilliant 3 hour tour of the old town to learn about it's long history and tales (some more myth than fact) http://freewalkingtour.com/krakow,city,1.html. The town dates back to 600 AD and was once the capital of Poland so has some beautiful buildings ranging over the centuries. The town square was based on the rules of a medieval square with a slight modification to allow for an older church to remain in the centre. In recent years they were renovating the town square and discovered the remains of the city before the medieval rebuild and you can now go under the the main square and visit the excavations, (unfortunately they only let small numbers of people down and you need to book in advance, so we didn't get chance to see them).
Krakow also has an old medieval castle, upon the top of Wawel (Vavel) hill. Part of the castle is also renaissance due a fire caused by a king and his alchemy tests a few centuries ago. This same castle was also home to the German governor general, Hans Frank during WW2 and the German occupation. But the most interesting tale is that of the dragon which used to live in a cave at the foot of the castle, eating all the virgins of the town. This caused the king to be very angry and he tasked anyone to kill the dragon getting his beautiful daughters hand in marriage in return. Eventually a humble cobbler came to try and made a sulphur bomb to look like a sheep, which the dragon thinking it was real ate in one swallow setting himself on fire, killing him. The humble cobbler got to marry the daughter and later became king. So now if you go to visit Kraków and wonder why there are an abundance of dragon related souvenirs you know.
Originally there were two towns which now form Krakow, the other is Kazimierz and is today the Jewish quarter, we had been told that this area was a little run down but had some great bars, so that evening we headed out to explore. We eventually came across a bar called Singer which was an old Singer sewing machine factory before the war, the new occupiers have used the old Singer sewing machines as tables and converted it into a lovely pub where apparently you are encouraged to dance on the large tables inside. After a few beers we headed back to the hostel ready to do some exploring the next morning before taking part in a Jewish tour and Schindler's Factory.
The next morning after a good free breakfast at the hostel we mooched around the town taking in the sights and searching for a souvenir pencil. Due to the prices of everything being far more affordable for our budget we also stopped at a cupcake coffee shop and tried a few of their cakes. It was then time to join our tour of the Jewish Quarter- Kazimierz and the former ghetto. This tour was a little more sobering. We had a small insight in to the lives of people living there but it was largely about the persecutions of the Jewish community and how they were moved into the ghetto across the river and later to Auschwitz and Birkenau concentration camps. We ended the tour at Schindler's Factory which is now a museum on the lives of the Jewish people before and during the Nazi occupation. From letters and pictures of families to propaganda posters and flyers it was both fascinating and horrifying at the same time. You could spend hours in this museum lost in letters alone. It's well worth a visit and doesn't really have anything to do with Oskar Schindler http://www.oskarschindlersfactory.com apart from a reconstruction of his office. The next day was also to be a sobering day as we had decided to join a tour of Auschwitz and Birkenau.
Early the next day we were on a bus to Oswiecim the town the concentration and death camp Auschwitz and Birkenau are in. We were unsure about visiting another concentration camp after Dachau as this was quiet upsetting and hard to deal with people doing this to someone. However we felt you should see all the history good and bad. The journey started with a video from the Russian liberators of the camps in 1945 and showed some horrific scenes of emaciated men, women and children, doctors autopsies on small babies and the general condition people were forced to live in. By the time we arrived at Auschwitz the mood was already somber and the group silently went around the museum with our guide. Auschwitz was a place where, men, women and children lived and worked, it comprises of mostly brick houses which looks like a small housing estate, only the houses were crowded and there was a whole building just for torture and murder. This place is very busy though with lots of tour groups, which does slightly take away from the horror of it, however it is worth a visit if you have never been to a former camp before. After Auschwitz the group headed to Birkenau which was designed solely as a extermination camp with 6 gas chambers with a scary, machine like efficiency to kill people in a clean, practical way. People were told they would be going for a shower and to label their belongings as they would be getting them back later, all adding to the physiological torture they had already received. The Nazi's recycled all they could from their prisoners and murder victims. Glasses and prosthetic limbs were giving to soldiers, gold and silver sold and human hair used to make fabric and fill bedding. This was by far the worst place I have ever seen, I can't get over to you the size of it, nor can the pictures do it justice. Standing in the centre of the camp, you could not see the boundary fences, it is that large! It was row upon row of small houses which would hold hundreds of people. At one time there were 90,000 people held in the camp, it's just so hard to get your head around. After the tour a quiet bus drove back to Krakow. We decided we needed a little walk before we headed back for free dinner at the hostel.
Once showered and feeling less somber we headed to the small kitchen where that nights dinner was Zapiekanka (now Nick's favourite hangover food) this is basically a french stick cut in half then covered in mushrooms and cheese and placed the oven till the cheese is melted. You can of course add other items which the hostel did and the food was soon snatched up. Whilst eating dinner the whole common area started to chat and get to know each other and it wasn't long till we were playing beer-pong (or a version of) which I was rubbish at but Nick seemed to master. After a few games Nick and I decided we would head out for a stroll and a drink before heading to bed ready to be up early for our 10 hour train journey to Gdansk.