However, as my friend Sarah said to me, “A writers response to emotion is to write, so you keep her lit”… So without further ado, let me crack on talking about Kraków (that’s an awful attempt at a joke and I apologise now for it).
My attempt at being artistic
Day 1 – Tuesday
For once, my travels didn’t begin with a horrific early flight. We took off from Belfast International around 10am, landing in Kraków at 2pm local time. We opted for travelling via the recently opened train station from the airport to the city centre, which cost us an incredibly reasonable £3 each. After arriving at the main train station, we hopped in a taxi which took us to the Hotel Santi.
After checking in, we left our bags in the room and headed to Wawel Castle to purchase some tickets to see around the castle in a few days’ time. However, tourists obviously aren’t a major priority, as we found out that the ticket office closes at 3pm each day.
By this stage, after having walked up a fairly steep hill to get to the castle, we were ready for a quick coffee break before we headed to the main market square and the Easter Market.
We sampled a few local delicacies before heading to a lovely restaurant (and incidentally rated number 1 in Kraków on TripAdvisor) called Introligatornia Smaku for dinner. The restaurant is in the old Jewish Quarter of the city and serves some amazing food. I opted for the Russian dumplings, burger and raspberry filled ravoli for dessert – it sounds weird but was amazing.
Day 2 – Wednesday
After breakfast we headed for Wawel Castle (again) to book tickets to visit on Monday. After being successful this time, we headed back towards the old town and walked a few streets and did some shopping.
We stopped at Magnes restaurant for lunch and I opted for the daily special – onion soup and chicken pasta for the equivalent of about £5.
We then headed to the beautiful St Mary’s basilica, home of the famous Altarpiece of Veit Stoss. This was carved between 1477 and 1489 but was stolen during WW2, hidden in the basement of Nuremberg Castle and was found in 1946. It underwent major restoration as it was found in over 2,000 pieces (it took 6 months just to lay all of the pieces out) and it was finally returned to the church in 1956.
The amazing altarpiece
We headed back to the hotel for some coffee before heading on our tour to the Wieliczka Salt Mine. We had booked through a company called Auschwitz Tours which meant we were picked up from outside our hotel, which was great.
The salt mine first opened in the 13th century and produced salt continuously until 2007 and it is now a major tourist attraction, attracting over 1 million visitors annually. There are over 200km of corridors and 2,040 caverns throughout the salt mine over nine levels.
Our tour began with us descending 378 stairs (I thought we were never reaching the bottom) before a 3km tour underground. It was an amazing sight and I would highly recommend it.
The salt has started to take over the wooden supports
We were back at the hotel for around 8pm and opted for dinner in the old town… at a McDonalds. Sometimes something cheap and fast is the best as we were all very tired.
Day 3 – Thursday
We were up very early as we were getting picked up at 9am by the same company as yesterday to head to Auschwitz.
There is very little I can say about the place except for that it was a very humbling and moving experience. The most moving thing for we was a corridor full of photos of prisoners who arrived in early 1941. Only the first few transports were photographed after which the Nazi’s stopped this due to the time and expense associated with it.
Just a small bit of the corridor. Some of the photos show people who look absolutely terrified and I even managed to find a photo of twins.
After a quick ham and cheese baguette, provided by the tour company, we headed to Birkenau. This again was a humbling experience and I was incredibly shocked at the sheer scale of the site.
Taken from where the Jews were off-loaded at Birkenau
After the hour’s journey back to Kraków we were in a bit of a daze over what we had seen so, so headed back to the hotel room for some coffee and a bun.
Afterwards we headed to Kraków’s main shopping centre, the Galeria Krakowska. It has 270 shops and restaurants and over 55,000 square meters of retail space. It is mostly visited by tourists and while it was an experience to see it, I will definitely not be rushing back.
We headed to the Old Town Restaurant and Wine Bar, rated at number 4 according to TripAdvisor. I went for potato rosti, beef loin and a halvah cup for dessert. It was nice food but not as good an overall experience as dinner on Tuesday was.
Day 4 – Friday
We started today with a visit to the Rynek Underground museum which is under the main square in Kraków. The museum goes though the early history of Kraków and tells the story of daily life in the city hundreds of years ago.
We then walked a few streets of the old town before option for the Café Camelot for a spot of lunch. I went for a salami baguette and hazelnut hot chocolate. This is the first drink that I have ever had to chew as it was packed with nuts and tasted amazing.
One of the best hot chocolates I’ve drank (or eaten) in my life.
We walked a few more streets around the old town before making to the Starka restaurant for dinner. I went for dumplings, chicken breast and walnut cake for dessert. A lot of the TripAdvisor reviews mentioned their home-made vodka, so it would have been amiss of me to to sample some. I opted for their pineapple vodka which was sweet but lovely.
The range of vodkas offered at Starka
Day 5 – Saturday
We took a very comfortable tram to our first stop of the day, the Schindler Factory museum. The title is a somewhat misleading as there are only two rooms dedicated to the story of Oskar Schindler and in fact the vast majority of the museum tells the story of the Jews who lived in Kraków during the Second World War.
The famous entrance to the factory.
It is a very good museum but is let down by some very simple things – we stood in the queue for over 20 minutes despite having booked in advance, there was just one person selling tickets, only one male and one female toilet and accessing the museum shop meant pushing past those standing in the queue.
However, it was amazing to read some of what the Jewish people went through under the Nazi occupation and it is definitely worth a visit.
After the museum we went to see the only remaining bit of the ghetto wall before heading to the Eagle Pharmacy museum. This tells the story of the only Polish resident of the ghetto, the pharmacist Tadeusz Pankiewicz, who was instrumental in saving the lives of hundreds of Jewish people. He dispensed medicine 24 hours a day, often at no cost, to those who needed it and was credited with improving the quality of life inside the ghetto.
Replicas of the bottles used by Tadeusz Pankiewicz after the originals were thrown out in the 1960’s.
I left my dad in a hotel as his foot was sore and my mum and I headed on a walk, as recommended by the Lonely Planet book, around the area. The map wasn’t overly accurate but I eventually found the Krakus Mound which was a pagan mound and is the oldest structure in Kraków.
I then went on a bit of a trek around the edge of the Liban quarry (as used by Steven Spielberg when he was making ‘Schindler’s List) to the site of the old Plaszow Concentration Camp. The area is now a nature reserve and the only display of its horrid past is a simple sign.
The only evidence of the Plaszow Concentration Camp which was a killing ground for thousands.
Dinner was back at Introligatornia Smaku as we enjoyed it so much the first time and I liked what I ate so much that I ordered exactly the same again… and it, again, didn’t disappoint.
Day 6 – Sunday
Easter Sunday is a very big deal in Poland and as a result we knew that there wasn’t going to be anything to do in Kraków. So we took ourselves away with Cracow Local Tours to the Tatras Mountains and the village of Zakopane. Our driver, Lukas, explained that one of the most important meals of the year for Polish people is the Easter Sunday breakfast. He has missed it this year to allow us to see the mountains and while of course he was getting paid for it, it was lovely that he did that.
We drove the 90 minutes or so, getting higher and higher and with more and more snow lying on the ground. When we got to Zakopane, Lukas pointed us in the direction of a cable car which took us up the mountain to a height of over 1,000m above sea level.
Taken from the top of the mountain.
After taking in the view for half an hour, we headed back down the mountain and into the St Clements Church and the aptly named Old Cemetery.
Zakopane Old Cemetery
We then headed into the village for some traditional Polish food, as recommended by Lukas, before we headed back to Kraków. As we were back earlier than we had been expecting due to a severe lack of traffic, we headed to the main square to join one of the free walking tours. There are different tours which run on a daily basis and we went for the tour of the Jewish Quarter, led by Lee. He took us all around the area and it was a very informative experience.
Recognise the stairs?
After the tour we headed back to the hotel and as we had eaten a big lunch, dinner comprised of some crisps and chocolate. The photographer in me then realised that it would be nice to get some night-time photos of the main square, so that was the evening’s entertainment sorted.
The main market square by night
Day 7 – Monday
We headed to Wawel Castle this morning to see the State Rooms and the Crown Treasury and Armoury. There was no photography allowed inside but the interior of the rooms was amazing (the earliest dates from the 1500’s) and it was again a good place to see.
After the castle, we headed on the city bus tour. Although we had seen most of the city on foot, tickets were only £7 each and it gave us a different perspective to the city. After the bus tour, my mum and dad did some more walking around the old town while I headed back to the Introligatornia Smaku to collect a charger that I had left on Saturday night.
We then headed for another free walking tour of the old town led by Anna. This again was very informative and I’d highly recommend doing one of you are in a city for more than a few days.
Part of the Jagiellonian University which is the the oldest university in Poland and the second oldest university in Central Europe.
However, apart from my starter of mushroom soup, the whole meal could be described as adequate and my parents weren’t overly impressed with what they had ordered. When my mum mentioned that she hoped dessert would be nicer than her main course was, the waitress just walked away, but she definitely understood what my mum had said.
We went back to the hotel to commence the joyous task of packing.
Day 8 – Tuesday
We headed back to the main square to get some Polish bread to take home and looked at a few final shops before getting our taxi back to the airport. While the airport has been open for over 50 years, it was renovated in 2002 and is undergoing major work again. Despite a half hour flight delay (it could have been worse as the Bristol flight was delayed by 3 hours) it was still an enjoyable flight.
Whenever I travel, it’s always nice to be home and that’s the last of my travels until July.