This week we crossed over the border into Poland from Slovakia and a few miles in stopped to pick up two hitchhikers.
‘Do you like Poland?’, they asked. We couldn’t really say – we’d only been in the country five minutes. But, Hania and Damian, one week on and the answer to your question is a definite ‘yes’. Krakow felt really special from the minute we arrived at the Rynek Glowny, the huge medieval square at the heart of the city.
There was a real buzz and energy about the place. A jazz band was playing in one of the many restaurants lining the square. There was a steady stream of colourful horse drawn carts clip clopping across the flagstones taking tourists around the Old Town.
The historic buildings framing the square looked magnificent as too is the Kosciol Mariacki, the beautiful St Mary’s Church. We’d been to Warsaw before and seen how the historic centre which had been totally destroyed by the Nazis had been reconstructed using the paintings of the artist Bellotto (nephew to Canaletto) as a guide. But here in Krakow, we were looking at the original buildings which had survived the war unscathed because the Nazis decided to make it a key city within the Third Reich.
Admittedly, it was initially strange to see the signs everywhere promoting guided tours to Auchwitz as though it was another tourist attraction. But we resolved we wouldn’t leave Krakow without going there to visit this important memorial.
Nightlife in Krakow:
Krakow proved a great place to celebrate my birthday which we marked with a few beers and a few of these…
…which made posing with the beer mat seem like a really good idea…
….and going to a salsa club (where we were by far the oldest there) seem inspired. It wasn’t. The next day was a total write off. We cancelled the birthday celebration lunch reservation at a restaurant which had a string of gushing reviews on Tripadviser and spent the day on the campsite sitting very, very still.
But the day after, with the lunch reservation at Starka reinstated, we were back in action. Stuart – still feeling a tad fragile – opted for the vodka tasting platter without the vodka.
Here it is…herring tartare, black pudding with horseradish sauce, lots of different cold cuts, sausage and loads of pickles..
And I opted for pork with apricot washed down with chilled hair of dog which we then worked off on a long walk across the river.
We were headed to the Oskar Schindler factory. It’s now a museum and only a small part of the exhibition deals with the story of how Schindler, a German military intelligence officer and industrialist succeeding in saving his 1200 Jewish employees from the gas chamber. The rest tells the story of Krakow under the Nazi occupation up to it’s capture after World War II by Soviet forces.
We spent an engrossing two hours there and emerged to a line of electric cars offering city tours. We were persuaded to hop in to one, as much interested in the lift back to the centre and shelter from the impending rainstorm as for the tourist commentary.
Our enthusiastic guide refused to let us off away with being jaded tourists. Despite our weak protestations that actually we’d been travelling for eight months, had seen loads of churches and were really quite cool about not visiting anymore today, she insisted we came here to the Church of St Joseph….
…for which we are very grateful or otherwise we would have missed out on the beautiful sounds of the two trumpeters on the balcony.
We finished our tour back in the Kazimierz district where we heard about the tragic history of what was once Krakow’s Jewish district before being destroyed and it’s population systematically exterminated by the Nazis.
Today it is a vibrant place to visit filled with cafes, bars and restaurants including one named after Helena Rubinstein – the very one – who was born on the street.
And hurrah, it was a chance for more wedding stalking….though this lovely couple were very happy to pose…
…until the heavens opened.
Next day we were back into the city for another tour – this time to see Nowa Huta which is now a sprawling suburb of Krakow but was originally built in 1949 by the Soviets as the model proletarian city. It is apparently one of only two planned Socialist Realist districts ever built in the world.
It sounded intriguing.
But first, there was time for lunch and we stumbled upon this restaurant ….
…opposite the Grunwald Monument.
It turned out to be the perfect place to try some traditional Polish food at unbelievably low prices.
Like this dish of pierogi ruskie… the dough filled parcels filled with potato and cheese and served with a layer of onions were delicious.
For Stuart though, this meal of kazanka (black pudding) saur kraut and onion ranks up there as one of the top meals he’s had on our travels so far.
Then it was tour time. We heading out to the suburbs in a convoy (well two) of Trabants. Here’s our companion in black.
Trabants are real throwbacks to a bygone era. The tiny two stroke, twin cylinder, engine is in the front together with the fuel tank!
Our guide Isabella says when she first started driving round Krakow in it for her job as guide, she thought all the attention was for her and she felt like a film star. Nope, it was for this car which attracted attention from everyone as we clanked along with her wrestling with the controls when it almost stalled at every set of lights. Everyone loves a Trabbi.
And this is what a proletarian paradise looks like at the plan stage….
…and here’s one of the happy workers attracted to live in the worker’s utopia. Actually it turns out he’s a happy actor who picked up the role of acting like a happy worker in the communist propaganda film to attract people to Nowa Huta. The name means New Steel Works after the nearby Vladimir Lenin Steelworks which was once Poland’s biggest steel factory, employing 40,000 people.
With the fall of communism, not only has Lenin’s name gone from the plant – now renamed and much reduced in size by new owners Arcelor-Mittal- but Lenin’s statue which used to grace the main square has been shipped off to a Swedish Wild West amusement park. As we are heading that way, we may well catch up with him on our future travels!.
And the Socialist Realist architecture cinema is now a branch of Tescos.
Our guide recalled her grandmother used to refer to Nowa Huta as a godless place as when first built the design deliberately omitted any place for a Roman Catholic church. But after many years of sometimes violent protest and with the support of Krakow’s favourite son Karol Wojtyla, the future Pope John Paul II, the Communist authorities relented and the Lord’s Ark church was built.
Mass was on when we arrived at the futuristic looking church so we could only have a quick peep inside but the Atlas Obscura description of the Lord’s Ark was pretty apt – ‘a lone Catholic spaceship adrift in an inhospitable Orwellian system.’
Then it was back into our Trabants …….
….and back to the city where our last day was spent wandering around Wawel Castle and well, it was hard to resist looking for the spot to feel the famous ‘chakra’.
According to believers Wawel Castle is one of only seven places in the world where this energy force can be felt. Apparently the authorities don’t encourage this New Age tourism so we didn’t feel comfortable asking any of the security guards where to stand to feel the force. But actually there was no need….to find it just follow the stream of self-conscious tourists to this doorway, then watch as one by one they took turns to stand in this porch like Scottie waiting to be beamed up.
Yes, of course I joined them.
Auchwitz and Birkenhau:
Everyone taking the 3 pm English tour at Auchwitz was given headphones through which we could hear only the voice of our guide.
She led us through the main gates….
…and through room after room, all the while relaying in a rapid, monotone voice the facts of the Holocaust.
The number of victims …
….where they had travelled from to reach the death camp…
…and the events leading up to their arrival there.
For some of the places she took us, there was no commentary. The displays said it all, like the mountains of human hair, the piles of shoes, the displays of personal things, like cans of shoe polish or cooking pots, brought by those who had arrived to the extermination camp still believing they would be going on to a new home somewhere.
One night in Wroclaw:
Wroclaw looked a good place to stop on our route north to Gdansk. We didn’t realise it would be this good….
….and were charmed by the beautiful city which was full of locals out strolling or sunbathing in the deckchairs on the mock up mini beaches in the marketplace…
…or cooling off in the water fountain…
We had a few beers….
….and resolved to come back again. Top choice for a short break.