Long, profuse descriptions about the magic and beauty of the medieval city of Krakow have already been overdone by many writers and travel publications, but for once I tend to agree. Krakow, once the capital of the Polish-Lithuanian kingdom and still the spiritual capital in the heart of the Poles, enchants even the most skeptical of souls. I arrived in the city ready to be overwhelmed with a tourist trap sensation and instead found myself in a daze of wandering the atmospheric Old Town. If you only have time for one city in Poland, Krakow is the clear choice.
Krakow is home to a compact, but authentic Old Town, the best nighttime people-watching in all of Eastern Europe, with centuries of fascinating history lurking in every brick and cobblestone. A beautiful old church appears around every corner – Catholic Poland is one of the most religiously observant countries in Europe and the numerous young clergy I saw everywhere give the city a dash of energy. I happened to be there for the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi, and the huge concert in Main Market Square drew a huge enthusiastic crowd including young nuns and priests eager to celebrate as the energy crackled around us.
This is a city for walking aimlessly, losing yourself in the dusty corners of time as you imagine the desperation of the town watchman bugling out the hejnal from St. Mary’s tower to warn of the Tatar’s approach, or the royal procession as the king entered the city gates and proceeded to his royal seat on Wawel Hill. So arrive without an itinerary, take a deep breath and tread your way through Krakow’s story – she has much to share.
Photo Gallery: Krakow October 2009
Blog Posts about Krakow
- And the Fibro Rears Its Ugly Head…, October 1, 2009
- Auschwitz, October 2, 2009
- Unexpected Polish Surprises, October 5, 2009
- The Haunting Hejnal of Krakow, August 25, 2010
Krakow started as many medieval cities did, as a trading crossroads for much of the region. As Krakow grew in prestige and wealth, she became the capital of the Polish kingdom, with the king’s castle overlooking the vital Vistula River from Wawel Hill. Constantly under threat from raids by those who wished to plunder her wealth, Krakow developed into a classic medieval city, with a wall around the town’s core, protected by a moat and watchtowers to scan the horizon for danger. A section of the wall remains today on the northern end of Old Town, along with the Barbican just outside which was used to store weapons. The moat can also still be found, only now as a peaceful park ringing the Old Town.
Probably the most beloved of Krakow’s many stories is that of the brave bugler who warned of the Tatar attack in 1241. As he sounded the hejnal through his bugle from the tower of St. Mary’s Church, an arrow pierced his throat. Today tourists – Poles and foreigners alike – crane to look up as the haunting melody of the hejnal drafts out over the square every hour, ending abruptly at the moment the arrow struck back in 1241. This was the invasion that left the city in ruins and spurred the people to carefully rebuild with a wall, moat and a huge market square that is still one of the liveliest in Europe.
As the royal seat of Poland’s king, Krakow witnessed the reign of beloved Kazimierz the Great, who oversaw Poland’s Golden Age in the 14th century. He encouraged a flourishing of the arts and intellectual learning, especially the sciences and philosophy, building the prestigious Krakow (now Jagiellonian) University which still educates Poland’s brightest and whose alum include Copernicus and Pope John Paul II. Eventually, with a new dynasty in place, Poland’s capital moved to Warsaw, but Krakow continued to brew with intellectual ideas, even as its prominence faded.
The 20th century has been surprisingly kind to Krakow – somehow the city escaped the devastating destruction of World War II that touched much of the country. Even Soviet control could not alter Krakow’s soul. A new planned industrial community called Nowa Huta was built outside town, and while the pollution was horrendous, medieval Krakow and her historic buildings were mostly left alone, unlike many other historic Eastern European cities.
Krakow is also known for being the home of the late Pope John Paul II, revered by his fellow Poles for not only ascending to the papacy, but for serving as a symbol of hope as they struggled against the crushing burden of Communism. He was vocal in his criticism of the Communist government and supportive of the efforts of Solidarity. Today, a giant photo of the pope waving happily to the crowds has been placed in the balcony of the archbishop’s palace, as he was once the Archbishop of Krakow.
Krakow has cleaned up, her Communist-era factories shut down or cleaner than in the past, and the medieval gems receiving much-needed conservation work. Evidence of her Golden Age still stands, waiting for the intrepid traveler to explore her secrets.
Greg & Tom Hostel – northeast of Old Town, a 5 minute walk from the Florian Gate and Krakow’s train station. Ulica Pawia 12/7.
Located just outside the Old Town and only minutes from the train station, this ramshackle hostel is perfectly situated. This is a comfortably chaotic place, more like a house than a hostel. The rooms are spread over several floors of the building – be prepared to tackle a couple flights of stairs. The dorms feel crowded, although with no more than 6 beds to a room, and the bathroom is littered with donated toiletries. Dorms are coed, so don’t expect a lot of privacy. Pack modest pajamas and earplugs. Think of it as a house full of college roommates and you’ll understand the vibe.
The amenities more than make up for the clutter. A free breakfast that is unusually hearty for Eastern Europe, with an array of breads, meats, yogurts, and cheeses. Free Internet at two computers. A super friendly staff that is eager to advise you on the best sights and nightlife the city has to offer. The lockers are big, the beds are actual beds, and the price is beyond affordable – I spent an unbelievable $15 US a night. If you enjoy hostelling, this is a great value. If you already feel fatigued just reading this, you want to look for accommodation somewhere else.
FOOD & RESTAURANTS
Self-catering is not as easy in Krakow as other cities if you are based in or near the Old Town. There seems to be a lack of grocery stores. However, if you book accommodations with a kitchen, make an effort to locate a grocery store by hopping a tram into the outskirts of the city. If anything, you’ll get to experience a slice of everyday Krakovian life! Some of my grocery standbys are bananas, fresh fruit, muesli mixed with a drinkable yogurt for breakfast, freshly baked breads (a fantastic selection), pasta and tomato sauce.
Eating out in Krakow can be surprisingly affordable, as long as you know where to look. Seek out a typical Polish milk bar (see my Country Guide to Poland for details) and you’ll eat traditional Polish fare with the locals for a fraction of the price you’d spend in a tourist-filled restaurant. There’s even a milk bar in Old Town, just steps away from the market square. Another avenue for cheap, hearty food is to head into Kazimierz, a traditionally Jewish neighborhood that is now home to a working class population. Queue up with the locals at lunch time in Plac Nowy at the food stalls and you’ll relish traditional sausages for a couple dollars. Find a bench or eat standing up as you explore the neighborhood.
Bar Grodzki – a milk bar in the heart of Old Town that is unusually simple for tourists to figure out. Unlike most cafeteria-style milk bars, this one has a menu of dishes that can be made fresh to order. Frequented by Poles and tourists alike, the menu is written in both Polish and English. For 17 zlotys (about $6 US), I feasted on fresh potato pancakes with mushrooms and a salad from the cafeteria-style display. Salads here tend to be shredded cabbage and carrots tossed with a vinaigrette. The food isn’t extraordinary by any means, but tasty and filling. Milk bars are the best way to stretch your zloty and still eat well. (Open for lunch and dinner. Ulica Grodzka 47, Old Town.)
McDonald’s – Before you fall out of your chair in shock that I would recommend an American fast food joint, please hear me out. Locate the stairs down to the basement dining area and allow your jaw to fall open. Then proceed back up the stairs to order standard greasy fries and burgers so that you can brag to all your friends that you dined on a Big Mac beneath the beautiful medieval Gothic arches. No joke. When the McDonald’s was renovating, they discovered the foundations of a Gothic building beneath the current one and left the brickwork in place for the most ambient fast food dining experience I’ve ever encountered. Expect to spend around 13 zlotys for a value meal ($4 US). I would reserve this place for when you need a break from adventurous cuisine and are seriously craving a taste of home. (Ulica Floriańska 55, Old Town)
Many of Krakow’s Old Town establishments are expensive and touristy, especially the ones lining Market Square. Unless you have deep pockets, avoid these obvious choices and head to Kazimierz, only a 15 minute stroll away. Here the restaurants cater to the local workers, as well as the small remaining Jewish population. Prices are lower and the value greater.
BagelMama – A surprising taste of home in the heart of Kazimierz. If you just want something cheap and filling, or if you’re experiencing a bit of homesickness, drop into this hole-in-the-wall behind the Old Synagogue. An array of homemade bagels and toppings await your exploration. I tried the chive cream cheese on a hot toasted bagel, washed down with a Fanta, all for 12 zlotys (about $4 US). (Open daily. Ulica Dajwór 10, Kazimierz. Bagel with drink ~12-15 zl)
Pierożki u Vincenta – It’s easy to overlook this eatery, tucked into a quiet back street, but make the effort, even if you end up circling the block a few times like me! Inside they serve up some of the best pierogi of my trip. It’s a tiny place – only 4 little tables and the counter. Choose from a huge selection of fillings and find a place in the cheerful dining room – the restaurant is named for artist Vincent Van Gogh and the place is decorated like one of his paintings, with walls and mismatched furniture expressively painted with broad, bright strokes. I tried a plum, cream, and cinnamon-stuffed pierogi – a symphony for my taste buds. A great value for only 7 zlotys (Ulica Bożego Ciała 12, Kazimierz. Pierogi dishes ~10 zl)
Arka Noego – If you’re looking for a taste of Old World Krakow in the heart of her historic Jewish neighborhood, this rambling restaurant is an okay choice. It’s much more expensive than most Kazimierz restaurants, but don’t expect to be wowed by the food – tasty, but average. Your real reason to be here is to sample traditional Jewish dishes, like herring in various sauces. While my side dishes were only so-so, I ordered a main dish that made the expense worth it – a smoked chicken in a wine sauce that was savory and moist. Everything else paled by comparison. The décor of this rambling Old World –style restaurant reminds me of the classic grandmother, with frilly laces and chintz everywhere. During the height of the summer tourist season, you can dine to live klezmer music, but unfortunately I happened to be there in October when the lack of tourists also meant no live music. My advice – only worth it if there will be a concert with dinner. Call ahead to check. (Ulica Szeroka 2, Kazimierz. Meals ~60-80 zlotys, 20 zlotys more with live music.)
Gruzinskie Chaczapuri – This rustic restaurant is an exception to my avoidance of dining in Old Town. A Georgian restaurant serving hearty platters cooked in the style of the rugged Caucasus Mountains, this was the perfect break from Polish fare. The crowd is still mostly tourists and there is some debate over whether the food is authentic Georgian, but it is tasty and affordable. I dined on lightly seasoned flame-broiled beef dipped in a garlic sauce and paired with sauerkraut for only 23 zlotys ($7 US) – a fantastic value! Ask for seating in the loft-like second floor – the atmosphere is cozier. (Ulica Floriańska 26, Old Town. Meals 20-30 zlotys.)
Krakow may have a healthy café scene, but I didn’t discover it in my three days of exploration. If you love your java, drink up before leaving your hotel or hostel (my hostel provided free coffee) or seek out the one exception I stumbled across just outside the park ringing Old Town.
Massolit Books & Café – I can safely say this is my favorite café/bookstore hybrid in all of Europe. It’s a bit out of the way, but take your map and make the attempt, because this musty little bookstore of floor-to-ceiling used books is worth the effort. Massolit is what every bookstore wants to grow up to be. The inventory is all in English and English-language newspapers litter the little café tables. Browse for reading treasures or head straight to the back and order a coffee from the small café run by a friendly retinue of young Poles. The four tables are nestled into the shelves – it’s a bit like sipping coffee in someone’s ancient library. The style is time-warp 1940s, enhanced by Billie Holliday crooning over the sound system. Take time to chat with the staff – they love visitors and taught me some Polish phrases. (Open Sunday-Thursday until 8 p.m., Friday-Saturday until 9 p.m. West of Old Town on ulica Felicjanek 4. Coffee 5-7 zlotys.)
The nightlife in Krakow’s Old Town is more subdued than other big European cities. The place to be is Main Market Square. During the day expect a boisterous festival of market booths overflowing with souvenirs, crafts, and flowers. Make no plans and mingle, taking in some of the best free entertainment in Europe. You never know what you will encounter – tourists dancing to foot-tapping accordionists, statues coming to life, a photography display of serious subject matter, even film crews turning back time as they shoot period films against the backdrop of St. Mary’s. When the sun sets, an intimate romance descends. Musicians encourage couples young and old to waltz on the cobblestones. A group of Polish soldiers led a crowd in boisterous singing, inviting everyone to join in. I even found myself in the middle of masses of Poles as they celebrated the Feast Day of St. Francis with a huge symphonic concert attended by the Archbishop of Krakow and broadcast live over Polish TV.
Krakow’s drinking scene is laid-back, like shrugging into a favorite sweater. Pick the right bar and you’ll find yourself kicking back a few beers while chatting with the locals. Polish beer is a great value – dirt cheap by American standards and well-crafted. Be aware that the serving size is huge. Pace yourself. Beers come in half liter mugs, about the equivalent of 2 beers in the States. Try one of the local brews on tap, like Żywiec. If you’re looking for a hearty drinking scene, Kazimierz is the place to head to.
Propaganda – Of all the bars I visited, this one is my favorite, a smoky, casual den of locals, many of whom seem to be regulars. The vibe is eclectic, friendly, and low-key. Sit at the small bar to converse with the regulars or engage in a game of darts. The crowd spans the generations, from students to old men with stories to share. The bar takes its name from the Communist kitsch lining the walls – old uniforms, knickknacks and propaganda posters, a tongue-in-cheek play on nostalgia. (Ulica Miodowa 20, Kazimierz)
MY SIGHTSEEING MUST-SEES
Walk the Royal Way – This path through Old Town served as the main thoroughfare for the king on his way to Wawel Castle during the height of Krakow’s power as the royal seat of medieval Poland. Forget the corniness of hyperbole and stroll in the footsteps of ancient Polish kings. My favorite times of day for this walk is either early in the morning when the city belongs to the locals or in the evening, as the daytime crowds melt into the shadows. Start just outside Florian Gate, on the northern end of Old Town. Here the last remnants of the wall still stand that ringed the city to defend against further Tatar invasion. The large detached brick building was the Barbican, a defensive fort that housed soldiers and weapons and was connected to the Florian Gate by a drawbridge across the moat.
Pass through the Florian Gate into the city and walk along Floriańska Street towards Main Market Square. A number of touristy, overpriced shops and restaurants line the way. Ignore these and enjoy the ambience of the street. You will emerge into the gigantic Main Market Square, one of the largest in Europe. It is impossible to capture the immense size in a photo – you really need to see it to believe it. Here was the pulsing heart of medieval Krakow, where merchants sold their wares and the people of Krakow lived and worked. The size of the square manages to engulf a number of historic buildings – a tiny church called St. Adalbert, which is the oldest in Krakow, the large Cloth Hall that bisects the square, and the Gothic tower, all that remains of the 14th century Town Hall. Standing noble watch over it all is St. Mary’s Church with her tower of hejnal-sounding firemen.
Once you’ve taken in all the life the square has to offer, find Grodzka Street and continue walking towards Wawel Hill. Along here are more restaurants, shops, churches, and even a humble and affordable milk bar for the budgeter. The churches along this route offer a great lesson in medieval architecture. The ornate Baroque church advertising concerts is the Church of Saints Peter and Paul, while the humbler brick church is the Romanesque St. Andrew’s. A square dedicated to Mary Magdalene was the original main square for Krakow.
End your journey in the manner of Polish kings, with a climb up the ramparts to Wawel Castle on its perch overlooking the Vistula River.
Wawel Hill - This is the heart and soul of Poland, once home to the Polish royal family and crowned with the national cathedral. Mingle with the legions of Polish tourists and schoolchildren to take in the compact, but beautiful castle grounds. Most of the museums here are of little interest unless you can read Polish. Instead, gaze out over the Vistula River for views of modern Krakow and explore the castle, including the intriguing ruins of a Gothic church, now grass-covered foundations. The entry and exit procedures for the castle sounded stringent and complex in my guidebooks, but are actually fairly simple. Enter up the long ramp to the Heraldic Gate with the cathedral on the other side. Visit the cathedral, explore the grounds, than go out the gate on the other side near the Inner Courtyard. The Inner Courtyard itself is very different from the rest of the castle – a pure harmony of symmetrical form, influenced by the Italian Renaissance. Look up to spot the paintings on the walls and the fun dragon spouts dotting the roof that serve as drains for rainwater. If you’re lucky, you might even witness a group of musicians in Renaissance-period dress on their break – an unexpected dash of time-warp ambience. (Castle grounds free and open daily 6 a.m. until 5 p.m. Museums 7-17 zlotys each – buy tickets early during summer tourist season before they run out. Museums open daily with limited hours on Monday.)
Wawel Cathedral – If you haven’t had a chance to learn the various architectural styles and periods of medieval European architecture, now is your chance, as Wawel Cathedral is a hodgepodge of distinct styles. Before going inside, stand outside and take in the exterior construction. Wawel was added to over time with new towers and chapels and the various styles of each addition’s time period is visually obvious. The church itself is 12th century Romanesque and over the centuries Gothic, Baroque, Renaissance and Neo-Classical elements were added. Inside is just as eclectic – a soaring nave of simple Romanesque and Gothic construction overlaid in layers of ornate Baroque with lavish tombs and gold chandeliers. This is a sacred space for the Polish people as the national cathedral in a very religious nation. Most of Poland’s important rulers are buried here. Imagine if the United States had a cathedral with the tombs of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and all our other founding fathers. That is the spirit of this space for Poland. The lavish silver tomb under a huge domed canopy holds the body of Poland’s first saint, Stanisław. Others entombed here in prominence are the great Polish king Kazimierz and Saint Jadwiga, a fascinating historical figure. She was “King” of Poland in a time when women rarely ruled and was known for her strength in uniting the Polish-Lithuanian Empire and fighting off the troublesome Teutonic Knights.
Above the altar hangs a soaring Renaissance masterpiece, a somber painting of the crucifixion. Here you can also see the seat of the Archbishop. Also be sure to climb the bell-tower for sweeping vistas of Krakow. You’ll climb up a steep, rambling staircase through a series of large bells, much like crawling through an old attic, before you reach the top. From here you can see all of Krakow and fully appreciate the true size of Main Market Square. It’s a tight and claustrophobic climb, only for those in decent shape. (Cathedral free. 12 zloty ticket includes admission to crypt and bell tower. Buy ticket at building across from cathedral entrance. Limited hours on Sunday. Wawel Hill.)
St. Mary’s Church – This red brick Gothic beauty stands sentinel over Old Town Krakow and the Main Market Square. You cannot miss seeing this storied church even if you tried. The interior is a feast for the eyes – dazzling paintings of geometric designs and saints on every corner of the walls and vaulted ceilings that fly in the face of our dark and brooding Gothic stereotype. The walls are alive in a colorful exaltation of God. Take time to savor the altarpiece, a large carved masterpiece by Veit Stoss that tells the story of Mary’s life and assumption into heaven. The intricate details of the people’s expressions bring the story to life.
Outside, gaze up at the two mismatched towers. The tower on the right is a simple bell tower, but the one on the left is technically the municipal watch tower. Here lies one of Poland’s most precious historic moments. From this tower, the watchmen would keep an eye out for threats to the city. In 1241, when the Tatars invaded, the watchman sounded the hejnal on his bugle to alert the town and was cut off mid-note as a Tatar arrow pierced his throat. Today, in remembrance of his heroism, the firemen who continue to staff the tower sound the hejnal every hour, abruptly ending the melody at the moment when the arrow hit centuries ago. The hejnal is even broadcast over Polish national radio at noon. The haunting strands of the melody will follow you throughout Old Town. (Free for worshippers, 6 zl for tourists. Buy ticket at church office across the small square and enter church from side entrance. Open in the afternoon.)
Kazimierz – This historic Jewish neighborhood was hard hit by the horrors of the Holocaust and World War II, but a few families still live here and today the mostly working-class neighborhood is an evocative place to explore both the past and the everyday Polish life of the present. A short 15 minute walk from Old Town across the tram tracks and you will be off the beaten tourist track. Some of the most affordable eating options are here, as well as cozy bars to sip a beer with the locals.
Small synagogues sprinkle the neighborhood, many still functioning for the local Jewish community. Most are humble spaces of learning and worship, but the Tempel Synagogue is a luxurious space, rebuilt after the war and dazzling in rich colors and fabrics. Most of the synagogues will allow you to poke around for a small fee; just remember to be respectful and quiet. These are still places of worship and many of the hushed groups are from Israel, returning to see the homes their families were forced to leave.
The graveyards are also worth a gander. The Old Cemetery attached to the Remu’h Synagogue feels spacious and orderly, mostly as a result of being renovated in the 1950s after the Nazis desecrated it. For a more spine-tingling experience, head to New Cemetery. The road there will go under an overpass, a tight fit if a car is coming and slightly eerie-feeling, but persevere because this cemetery is truly evocative. The rambling cemetery is overflowing with gravestones, many stacked and leaning against each other, all resting beneath a dense canopy of trees and layered in ferns and undergrowth. You will feel as if you’ve stumbled across a neglected cemetery deep within the woods. However, this cemetery has not been forgotten – the large monument at the entrance to the victims of the Holocaust is made up of broken headstones vandalized by the Nazis that were beyond repair.
If you’ve seen the movie Schindler’s List, Krakow was the home of Schindler’s factory and the Jewish families he helped survive the war. The gravestones from Old Cemetery were actually used as paving stones by the Nazis at the concentration camps, as depicted rather memorably in the film.
As well as harboring glimpses of the past, Kazimierz is a living neighborhood, so take time to explore and observe everyday life. The best place to start is the neighborhood’s main square, Plac Nowy. Here you will find food stalls that serve up a cheap filling lunch and a small antique market.
Aimlessly Wander Old Town – The best way to experience Krakow is to walk her streets without a plan and see what you discover. Most of the cobblestone roads are pedestrian only, making your exploration worry-free. Tucked into the streets away from the Royal Way and Main Market Square are some pieces of Krakow’s story worth seeking out. Along the tram lines within sight of Grodzka Street are the Archbishop’s Residence and St. Francis Basilica. From the window of the archbishop’s home, Pope John Paul II would often wave to his fellow countrymen when he visited from the Vatican. Once the Archbishop of Krakow himself, the people of Krakow adore him. Today, in honor of his memory, there is a photo of the pope propped in the window, smiling and waving. Across the street is the small, but glorious St. Francis Basilica. Inside is muted compared to some of Krakow’s other churches, but the walls are still colorfully painted in greens and blues. This holy space feels much different from Krakow’s other churches. After a fire in the 19th century, local artists in the Young Poland movement (a local school of thought within Art Nouveau) redecorated the church, including Stanisław Wyspiański and Józef Mehoffer. The stained glass windows by Wyspiański are breathtaking – motion in glass. At the back of the nave, find the wooden pew with a little plaque on it – here is where Pope John Paul II would kneel and pray every day when he was archbishop.
Continue exploring and you will come across one of Europe’s oldest universities, founded by King Kazimierz the Great. Jagiellonian University is crawling with students on its ancient academic grounds, all walking in the footsteps of Copernicus. Take a breather in the Planty, the park circling Old Town on the footprint of the old moat. The best times to explore are early in the morning before the hordes of tourists descend and in the evening as golden light bathes St. Mary’s and the noble arcade of Cloth Hall.
Cloth Hall – This large building bisecting Main Market Square was once home to the cloth and textile merchants who helped make Krakow wealthy. Today it houses souvenir merchants and craftsmen. While this can be a very touristy place, it’s worth browsing the gorgeous wood carvings and amber jewelry. Know that the prices here will be higher than elsewhere in the city and Poland. I found high quality amber jewelry in Gdansk for a fraction of the price here.
DAY TRIP – AUSCHWITZ
A somber day trip to a Nazi concentration camp may seem strange in the midst of your sightseeing, but I firmly believe everyone should at some point in their life bear witness to the atrocities man is capable of. Auschwitz, probably the most infamous of the camps to most Americans, is only a short distance from Krakow, making it an easy day trip. Come prepared mentally and emotionally – this is a gut-wrenching experience that impacts each person differently. In my case, I stayed detached, as if walking through a movie set and not fully accepting the reality until I stood in the middle of the train tracks where families were forever divided upon their arrival. That moment I allowed the horror to break through my shield and accept the physical realness of the place, even if I can never fully understand the why. If you go, you will have your own reaction.
There are three ways to visit Auschwitz – by renting a car, allowing you the freedom to explore the region at your own pace, by taking a bus or train, which can be time-consuming and confusing for non-Polish speakers, or joining up with one of the many bus tours that leave from just outside Old Town Krakow. I opted for a bus tour to avoid the headaches of coordinating public transit schedules, but in doing so, I gave up flexibility to wander the camps at my own pace. Numerous bus tours go to Auschwitz – I went with the one my hostel recommended for 90 zl ($30 US).
Auschwitz and its museum are free, although guided tours are offered in several languages, including English, and the local guides are knowledgeable and excellent at placing everything you are seeing into its historical context. They will take you through a series of exhibits inside the brick barracks, many of which are disturbing – piles of shoes, hair, suitcases confiscated from the prisoners. Sleeping barracks, solitary confinement cells, the only crematorium still standing at Auschwitz. The gallows where Rudolf Hess, the commander of the camp, was hung in 1946 by Polish authorities. You will be struck by the strange peacefulness of the camp and the permanence of the buildings – this section was originally an army barracks.
Enter the camp through the same gate the prisoners were marched out of every day on their way to back-breaking manual labor. Above the gate is the infamous sign “Arbeit Macht Frei” (Work makes free). Not even a month after I visited, the sign was stolen in the cover of night. The authorities apprehended the thieves and discovered the sign had been cut into three pieces. It should be back in place by the time you visit.
The second camp Auschwitz-Birkenau, about two miles away, is the camp that has become iconic to Americans through movies and documentaries. You will be dumbfounded by its size. Most of what remains are ruins and foundations surrounded by the barbed wire fence and guard towers, with a few rebuilt barracks. The looming guard tower that appears to devour you as you enter the camp was the gate through which every victim passed as their train pulled in. If you visit Auschwitz with a bus tour, you will be allowed to go up into the tower for a view of the camp that allows you to see the scale of the camp. Most bus tours only allow 45 minutes here – not enough time to really explore and contemplate. If you come on your own, you will be allowed to wander freely, with time to walk out to the ruins of the crematorium. To reach Auschwitz-Birkenau, a free shuttle bus runs almost every hour from Auschwitz I during the tourist season.
Feel free to photograph as much as you want outside – they want you to remember and share what happened here. However, the museum asks that you do not photograph inside the museum exhibits at Auschwitz I, as the large crowds and tour groups going through become bottlenecked in small spaces if they allow photography.
If you have the time and energy, visiting by yourself is the most rewarding way to experience Auschwitz, allowing you time to contemplate your own reaction to the evidence of the Holocaust. However, for those with fibromyalgia or a chronic condition like me, opting for a bus tour may be smart – you give up flexibility for comfort and ease of transportation, which can be vital to avoid wearing yourself out. (Camp grounds and museum free. 3 ½ hour English guided tours 39zl. Located in the town of Oświęcim, 50 miles outside Krakow. en.auschwitz.org.pl/m/)
Population – (2009) approximately 755,000
Krakow is well connected by public trams, although tourists rarely need to use them. The Old Town is compact and walkable, with many pedestrian-only streets. You will stumble across trams near St. Francis Basilica and on the walk to Kazimierz. Buy tickets from kiosks, automatic machines at select stops or from the driver. Be sure to validate your ticket. If you are carrying luggage or will be making a transfer, you need to buy a bilet godzinny. Prices have probably changed since I was there in 2009 – at the time these tickets were 3.10 zl and a non-transfer ticket was 2.50 zl.
The train station is just north of Old Town, only a 5 minute walk away, making arrival into Krakow convenient, especially for Old Town accommodation.
ADVICE FOR FIBROMITES
Krakow, as a historic medieval city, brings with it all the magic of pedestrian cobblestone streets and quirky old buildings – part of the charm that makes you want to visit. However, if you are struggling with fibromyalgia or another chronic condition like I am, these same charms can bring added frustrations.
If you need to carefully monitor your diet, try to arrange lodging that provides you access to a kitchen. A number of small family-run hotels, as well as independent hostels with private rooms among their dorms, are good options. Cooking for yourself gives you more control over your health. If you despair at the lack of fresh fruit or salad in restaurants, just head to the local grocery store – the strange lack of fresh produce in the restaurants is not due to a shortage.
There is a lack of markets within Old Town itself, but eating out is feasible on a budget with your diet needs in mind. Take advantage of the liberal use of cabbage and sauerkraut in Polish cooking, especially at milk bars. The variety may not be what you’re used to, but sauerkraut and cabbage are extremely healthy, especially if you have fibromyalgia. When it comes to pierogi, choose fillings wisely. A little spicy sausage may be okay, but too much is hard on fibromites; gravitate towards fruit-based fillings and spices such as cinnamon.
When researching lodging, do not assume there is an elevator. Most European budget accommodations are in older buildings. Be prepared to lug your luggage up stairs, ask for a first floor room or look for a place with an elevator. It’s important to clarify which floor you are on – in Europe, the ground floor is the first floor and the first floor is actually up one flight of stairs.
If you are hostelling, always ask if they have real beds or bunk beds. I found that I often slept better in a real bed. If bunk beds are unavoidable, try to snag a bottom bunk. If all this talk of hostelling sounds exhausting, then you probably should allow yourself to spend a little more money and find a more comfortable hotel.
To pace yourself (especially important with fibro), relax the way the locals do and make your rest a part of the experience. Krakow’s Main Market Square is ideal for an entertaining break of people-watching. You can pay a lot to sit in the square’s restaurants and cafes or rest for free by sitting at the base of the statue of Polish Romantic poet Adam Mickiewicz. Another great spot to rest is on Wawel Hill with gorgeous views of the river and cathedral. Churches make ideal places to allow your feet a break – while sightseeing in St. Mary’s, Wawel Cathedral or any of Krakow’s other numerous churches, find a quiet pew and take in the splendor of the nave from the viewpoint of a worshipping parishioner. Or find a bench in peaceful Planty, the park circling Old Town.
Krakow’s Old Town is intimate and walkable – it only takes a 10-15 minute stroll from the Florian Gate to Wawel Hill. This is a city perfect for leisurely exploration. However, the uneven bricks and cobblestones of some of the older streets can be hard on your feet – wear comfortable walking shoes with good ankle and arch support.
TO BE CONTINUED
Krakow is an intimate, romantic medieval city that lives up to the tourist brochure hype. To risk being guilty of clichés, I was thoroughly enchanted by her meandering medieval lanes, eclectic collection of churches in various architectural styles, the workaday streets of Kazimierz and its whispered memories of a once thriving Jewish community, and the haunting song of the hejnal. It is a city that slowly unveils its stories of the past – of great wealth and glory, Polish pride in her seat as heart of the Polish kingdom, of tragedy and horror that has swept her streets throughout the cycle of history, most recently in the unspeakable horrors of the Holocaust. Be prepared to come face-to-face with her past, cheer her triumphs and weep at her distress. Cliché it may be, but in Krakow you walk arm-in-arm with the muse of centuries of history. I cannot wait to go back.