Pole Dancing!

Feature, Poland, Travelogue — By on April 1, 2012 at 7:12 am

We arrived in Krakow on the overnight train from Prague at about 7am.  This actually turned out to be perfect because we felt rested, as the accommodations in our sleeper car were surprisingly cozy, and ready to start the day.  So rather than find a hotel right away we put our backpacks in the locked storage at the station for the day, and set out to find tickets to Osweicim ,about 70km from Krakow, where the prison camps of Auschwitz and Birkenau loom.

We felt that getting an early start would give us maximum time at the camps as they are huge and they reduce the visiting hours in the winter months.  You can take a train from the station in Krakow or a bus (also from the train station), we found that the mini bus is a better option as they stop directly in front of the museum and entrance to the grounds.  If you take the train you will find yourself still having to take a bus or taxi from the train station in Osweicim to the museum.  The mini bus takes a little over an hour and costs very little.  If you go in the off season, you can roam the grounds on your own, entrance is free but if you go in the high season, you will have to take a tour which does cost money and be warned, the throngs of tourists will certainly impede any moments of reflection you may wish to have.

For more on our visit to Auschwitz and Birkenau, please see our blog on Auschwitz, or click here.

We returned to Krakow late in the day, cold and deeply moved to point of being speechless.  Nonetheless, we carried on.  We got a last minute Internet deal and stayed at great little hotel called Wielopole, a short walk to the old town square.  But first, Wodka!

Vodka certainly isn’t my favourite drink and likely one of my last choices for a beverage after a long day, but we couldn’t go to Poland and not sample some sips!  We found ourselves at QUBE in the lobby of the Sheraton Hotel.  We were here because they boast over 240 brands and over 80 flavors and types of the fabled fermented spud.  Some are even served in a glass made of ice.  Hazelnut was a favourite, honey…not so much.

Krakow is one of the oldest cities in Poland and was ‘lucky’ to escape severe destruction from the war (only because the Nazis used Krakow as their central hub for government activity).  It is also noted as the biggest medieval town square on the continent and at one point was renamed “Adolf Hitler Platz” during the occupation.  In the centre of the massive square is Cloth Hall.  It is a 14th century building and was the hub of textile trading and now home to souvenir merchants.  Around the main market square are churches and buildings dating back to the 10th century.  Notably, St. Mary’s Church towers over the people and similar to Prague, a trumpeter appears every hour and blasts out a short tune.

With hot chocolates in hand, we followed the “Royal Road” from the square to Wawel Hill.   The road was the coronation and parade route for kings, queens, princes and princesses on their way to the royal residences at Wawel Castle.  For a fee, you can visit the royal apartments where royalty resided and also where esteemed guests would stay while visiting.  Also on the hill is Wawel Cathedral.  Most of the cathedral is free to visit and you can see the burial chambers of kings, saints and other important historical figures who date all the way back to the eleventh century.

Just east of Krakow, a stone’s throw really, is the town of Wieliczka, home to the famous Wieliczka Salt Mine.  Organized tours are the only option here and for good reason.  This mine is more than 700 years old with underground churches, hospitals, horse stables, lakes and a breathtaking chapel completely carved out of salt.  Even the chandeliers and sculptures with all their intricate patterns are crafted from mere salt crystals.  The salt is thick in the air through the entire visit and many with respiratory ailments seek its health benefits, some will stay up to two weeks in the underground hospital.  The tour points out evidence and dioramas depicting genius mining practices through the centuries from how they dealt with toxic gases to simply transporting the salt, and themselves out.

The mine tour isn’t cheap but worth every penny.  The tour ends in a modernized section deep in the mine where you can get an underground pint of beer or even check you email!

A local girl recommended a couple watering holes around the Jewish quarter and after dinner we headed out to hunt one of those addresses down.  She said one of the best places is really hard to find, as there is nothing distinguishing about it because it’s a house.  It’s called Alchemia and the dimly candle lit gem is growing in popularity.  It lays in the Kazimierz district which is/was the Jewish community until WWII and even if you’re not up for a drink, it’s a great area to stroll around if you have the time.

A new museum in the city is the restored former factory of Oskar Schindler.  The same WWII hero subject of the book Schindler’s Ark and the more widely known film, Schindler’s List.  The former German enterprising playboy turned courageous lionheart, helped save many Jews from certain death by categorizing them as necessary workers.  The museum is more of a walk through war time Krakow than an attribute to the man himself but a worthwhile history lesson if you have room for one more.  Regardless, it is interesting to learn more about the real person behind all this, especially sad is how he was treated post war and how life was for him leading up to his death in 1974.

Also in Krakow are the mysterious mounds but being pressed for time on this trip, something had to give.  They are affectionately called Krak’s Mound and the pictures look amazing and definitely peculiar.  If you’ve got the time, they can’t be missed and should be explored, but regretfully they were not in the cards for us up yonder was Warsaw so it was back on the iron horse for us!

Wawel Cathedral, Krakow, Poland

Old Town Square, Krakow, Poland

Wawel Castle, Krakow, Poland

Krakow, Poland

View from Wawel Hill, Krakow, Poland

Pick your poison, Krakow, Poland

Poison, Krakow, Poland

St. Mary's, Krakow, Poland

Schindler's Factory, now a museum, Krakow, Poland

Alchemia, Krakow, Poland

In the salt mine, Wieliczka, Poland

The chapel in the salt mine, Wieliczka, Poland

In the salt mine, Wieliczka, Poland

Salt chandelier, Wieliczka, Poland

Inside Cloth Hall, Krakow, Poland

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