Kraków | March 2019

Highlights

Kazimierz | Auschwitz | Polish Food

I honestly don’t think that the novelty of Bournemouth Airport will ever wear off! I only discovered the joy of flying from what I previously thought was a ‘tin can’ airport during a trip to Palma last summer. It’s great, I can literally leave my house and be checked in, through security and in departures (I say departures loosely as there is only a small bar, a WH Smith and a coffee shop) all within 30 minutes – it is THAT easy. Now, I know nothing beats the excitement of a trip to Heathrow (the Duty Free shopping at Bournemouth is also non existent by comparison 😂), but for this little getaway it was a fine choice of departure.

People knock Ryanair but for the price and the convenience I really had nothing to complain about. Of course it is a no frills airline and as long as you know that (and check their luggage policy thoroughly) you may just find that you are pleasantly surprised by them.

I only booked this trip 3 days before departure and it was definitely a last minute affair all round. Armed with very little knowledge about Kraków, or even Poland, I booked it purely because the flights were cheap and I could fly from my home town instead of having to trek to one of the larger airports. But there was also a deeper reason behind needing to take some time out and have myself a much needed adventure. I booked this trip as a means of escape. An escape from the sadness of recently losing someone who meant the world to me in the most tragic of accidents.

It was the funeral the day before I came away to Kraków and I knew that some time away would allow me to start to process everything, provide a healthy distraction and help me to refocus my mind before having to face going back to work. I have spoken before at length about how I use travel as a form of therapy. It may seem strange to some people, to go away on a trip so soon after something like this has happened, but for me it is perfectly logical.

So off I went on yet another solo adventure and as I sat at the bar in the departure lounge at Bournemouth airport I found the time to reflect upon the few weeks prior to this trip, which if I am honest, were the worst of my life and fighting back the tears I silently raised a drink to a lost loved one and made a promise to myself to not be sad or upset and enjoy my trip as much as possible.

Day 1

After a short hop over Europe, I arrived at Kraków International Airport which is located approximately 11km outside the centre of Krakow.

People are encouraged to make use of the new train service linking the airport and the town centre in order to reduce congestion on the roads. It is super easy to use and find. The new Kraków Airport train station is located near the passenger terminal, at the rear of the multi-storey car park and is well signposted once you pass through arrivals.

The connection is operated by Koleje Małopolskie. Trains are equipped with air conditioning, power outlets, Wi-Fi and ticket machines and run from the airport to the Wieliczka Salt Mine (the final stop).

The train stops at Rynek Glowny Square (5th stop) but I will be getting off at Zablocie (6th stop) as that is nearer to the Jewish Quarter which is where my hotel is located.

The timetable can be found online and the cost to the main train station in Kraków at Rynek Glowny Square is 9zl (approximately £2). You can buy a ticket from the ticket machine in the passenger terminal on level 0 (cash payment or payment with credit/debit card), the ticket machine at the train station (cash payment or payment with credit/debit card) or from the train conductor on board (cash payment only)

The journey was fairly short and after disembarking the train my hotel was a short 5 minute walk away. I was staying at Puro Krakow Kazimierz, situated in the heart of the Jewish Quarter. The hotel is fairly new, extremely modern (I am talking iPad controls for everything in the room) and has some stunning interiors (the bar in particular and the adjoining MAK Bakery). Little extras such as the free tea and coffee in the lobby where guests can help themselves and the friendly and warm welcome I received on arrival are the kind of added touches that make hotels stand out to me.

I could have easily just stayed in and put my feet up in my more than comfortable room but I realised I had to make the most of my short trip, so after dumping my bags I spent the afternoon exploring this quirky part of town. As soon I stepped back outside in to the local neighbourhood I realised that the sun had began to set and I was slapped in the face by the icy evening air. It was cold. And I mean FREEZING.

But as I began to wander down the streets I was immediately distracted by just how beautiful it was. Beautiful in an eerie, medieval way. As the sun began fade and dusk approached, a mysterious mist settled in the air hanging over the streets like a blanket, giving it an almost other worldly atmosphere.

Here trams traversed the cobbled streets, effortlessly weaving through perfectly imperfect building where towering silent synagogues are juxtaposed with cosy art cafes, galleries, traditional restaurants and quirky bars covered with the most impressive street paintings and murials.

The Kazimierz district used to be a separate city and even now, you get the feeling it is totally different from other parts of Kraków. It was once the centre of Jewish life before it was systematically destroyed during World War II.

Only 10 percent of Cracovian Jews (3000-4000) survived the war, a lot of them with the help of Oskar Schindler. The awful crime known as the Holocaust led to a truly great loss of culture and most of the Jews who survived the Prisoner of War camps sadly never returned to Poland.

But what is interesting is how the very small population of Jews who did remain in Kraków have successfully revived their cultural identity within the city and how Kazimierz has become a place of their cultural significance.

During the communist era it became one of Kraków’s dodgiest districts while gradually falling into disrepair. Rediscovered in the 1990s, thanks to the fall of the regime and worldwide exposure through the lens of Steven Spielberg, Kazimierz has rebounded and in my opinion is today Kraków’s most exciting district – a bustling, bohemian neighbourhood packed with historical sites, atmospheric cafes and art galleries. Well-known for its associations with Schindler and Spielberg, traces of Kazimierz’s Jewish history have not only survived, but literally abound in the form of the district’s numerous synagogues and Jewish cemeteries. In fact, no other place in Europe conveys a sense of pre-war Jewish culture on the continent better than Kazimierz and it certainly has a fascinating and dark story to tell.

Strolling around this district a plethora of silent synagogues stand watch over the cobbled streets to serve as a reminder of the tragedy of WWII but nowadays it has been injected with new life and vibrancy and is also home to some of the best bars and clubs in Poland.

Kraków appears to favors gloomy but gorgeous basement bars. The slightly spooky, shabby-chic establishments are adored by locals and travelers alike. Think deep reds, dark wood furnishings and fascinatingly beautiful creeping green foliage – some of the best bars in Poland, and even Europe, are found in the Kazimierz district. This is the go to place where locals will hang out and it is famous for its great food.

And it really is a serious foodie heaven here…..I soon began to panic stop at the prospect of having so little time to fit in trying all the incredible food establishments which are all centred around Plac Nowy, a small square with the most amazing street food vendors serving food from windows carved out of the circular red brick centrepiece.

This area was bustling with life, seemingly students and young people. I wandered around the circle a few times trying to take it all in, it was a little overwhelming. But after several laps I opted to get a traditional Polish Zapiekanki – an open grilled sandwich served with cheese and mushrooms topped with whatever extra fillings you wish. For 7zlt (approx £1.50), I was presented with the biggest sandwich ever at the window called Bar Oko. This one seemed to have the longest line so I figured that must be a good thing !

Before heading back to the hotel for the evening I sought out one of the famous bars that I wanted to visit called Alchemia and opted for a mulled wine to warm up. Alchemia was certainly as evocative as it sounds. Alchemist tools adorn the candle lit walls and round every corner is another secret nook where you will be able to make yourself right at home.

Stepping back out in to the streets it felt suddenly very quiet after all the chatter of the bar and even though there were throngs of people wandering about, it was almost as if they were being respectful of atrocities past with their silence. You could almost still feel the grip of oppression from years gone.

A trip around the Jewish District is a perfect way to disconnect from daily life and indulge in a completely different world….it certainly is a special part of Kraków.

Day 2

It was hard work getting out of the ridiculously comfortable bed in my hotel room. I think I snoozed through about 7 alarms. I felt like I was on a cloud. It was honestly the best sleep I had had for weeks after everything that had happened before this trip. But I finally managed to drag myself into the shower and get dressed.

But I had a good reason to be up early. Today was the day I was visiting Auschwitz. A slightly morbid prospect to some and something my friends and family found strange – me wanting to visit such a harrowing place just a few days after a funeral but I couldn’t not visit while I was here due to its close proximity to Kraków.

My iPhone kindly informed me it was -2 degrees outside so I was grateful I had packed my new quilted winter jacket. The information from the tour company had advised me that I should wear comfortable shoes and warm clothing as some areas of the camp were outside.

I managed to eat a good breakfast before leaving as my hotel had a choice of either the breakfast buffet or an amazing bakery (MAK) in the foyer. I obviously opted for all the pastries at the bakery and even got some extra to takeaway for my day out. Upon heading back to the hotel the night before I also stopped at a nearby shop to get some extra snacks and drinks so I was well prepared for the day.

My tour was booked through ‘Get Your Guide’ (recommended to me) and email confirmation was provided immediately when I booked, giving details of the local tour agency ‘Super Cracow.’ The price was £29 which included pick up and drop from my hotel, entry to both camps and a guide.

If visiting as an individual (without a tour agency) tickets must be booked in advance on the Auschwitz website – I looked at the this option but due to the fact I only booked this trip last minute all the online bookings for the English tours had already sold out. They only release a few tickets on the day and from reading several other Blogs online it seemed that the queues can get very long very early on – but by booking through a tour agency this avoids the hassle of trying to secure tickets on the day and transport is usually provided with pick up from the hotel which is an added bonus. However, public transport buses are available should you chose to not book through a tour agency.

The local tour agency emailed the day before to reconfirm my booking and give an exact pick up time and they arrived promptly as expected.

We stopped to collect a few more people along the way and then commenced the journey out to the camps. The drive was approximately 70 mins from Kraków town in a warm and comfortable minibus. Our guide Anna was excellent and she spoke very good English, providing details about Polish history on route to Auschwitz.

Security is very strict at the museum, similar to the airport. You can only take a small handbag (A4 size) inside the camps so any larger backpacks must stay in the mini bus.

Lunch was not provided and only short breaks at Auschwitz and Birkenau camps are allocated in the schedule so be sure to take drinks and a sandwich with you – bigger bags and lunch can be left in the mini bus. There is a canteen / cafe at Auschwitz but it appeared very overpriced and again the lines were long and there was definitely not enough time to have been able to get food here due to the short breaks between visiting the different camps.

Thanks to our guide Anna, I soon started to gain a deeper understanding of what the 1.3 million people who were killed here had to endure. These people were mainly Jews from across Europe. The numbers are incomprehensible. A particularly poignant moment in the camp saw a lone rose stand guard to remember the people murdered at Auschwitz at the hands of the German Nazis during WWII.

The irony did seem not lost on the fact the tourists today are herded through the camps in a probable very similar fashion to the prisoners arriving on the train awaiting to see the fate that stood before them.

I was pretty ignorant to the scale of atrocities that happened here before visiting the camps as I don’t normally have that much interest in history but I am so glad that I made the decision to come here! I was also glad that I had opted for a tour guide. She was excellent, her knowledge and understanding enabled her to give a detailed script about what life was like in the camps and there is no way I would have learnt as much as I did without her.

At Auschwitz-Birkenau all the buildings still stand (except the actual gas chambers which were immediately demolished after the war ended) to serve as a stark reminder of Europe’s dark past and I think everyone should visit here once in their lifetime to truly understand the horrors and appreciate what those poor people had to endure!

Although this was a full day trip it seemed to pass in no time at all. Again the sun began to fade and the temperatures began to drop so it was time to return to Kraków. Once dropped back at the hotel I headed straight back into the Jewish Quarter to find some more of the famous street graffiti.

I stopped for another quick drink at Alchemia but it was not long before my stomach was rumbling and I was starting to get tired.

After a long and sombre day I just wanted to grab some comforting and delicious food so I set off to find a restaurant I had stumbled upon the day before called Hamsa, which is located in the heart of the Kazimierz district. Above the doorway read a sign saying ‘Hummus is Happiness’ and I knew this restaurant would be good.

As soon as I walked through the door, the aromas and flavours transported me to what I imagine modern day Tel Aviv would be like (which everyone knows is high on my Bucketlist). Offering a range of authentic Middle Eastern specialties in a casual environment, the mezze sets are perfect for sharing (or eating all by yourself 😂) and not only give you a chance to sample a variety of delicious starters like the humus, babaganoush, labnah and muhammarah but are also beautifully presented in hand-painted dish ware. It was a delight eating here and it serves as a nice acknowledgement to the district’s Israeli Jewish history where many of the surrounding restaurants only offer traditional Eastern European Polish food.

With a full stomach I headed back to my hotel. And as I lay in my comfortable and warm bed in my nice hotel room miles away from the concentration camps reflecting back on the day, I didn’t think I would ever find the ‘right’ words to describe what Auschwitz is and what it represents. It is almost impossible to comprehend.

I was prepared for feeling a host of emotions, especially after the last few weeks, but in all honesty as I walked under the famous ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ gate where thousands walked to their deaths, I just felt nothing…..

Some people come and are completely numbed, some react with a mix of emotions, whilst others, like myself, simply walk around being able to remain completely detached. Maybe that has come from doing a job where I continually deal with illness and death.

It is certainly an odd, eerie and confusing place. At a first glance it almost looks like a ‘nice village’ with its neat red brick houses but the dark and sombre air, the barbed wire fences, the left behind belongings and the worn out faces captured on film tell a very different story. Of course it is harrowing to witness the scene where such atrocities occurred to so many innocent people but the rush of emotion I was expecting to come just didn’t materialise and I am kind of grateful for that.

Despite this, I felt that just by being there it was enough to pay the due respect to the victims and to be aware of just what human beings are capable of doing to each other. It made me feel like my problems were insignificant by comparison.

Day 3

Day 3 started with another early morning. Over a quick cup of tea whilst getting ready I plotted out my own version of a walking tour around the Old Town. This is something I do fairly frequently. I begin by making a list of buildings I want to visit (mainly the ones I want to photograph the most) and then plot out my route on a map placing them in a logical order.

I wanted to reach the Old Town early to catch the sunrise and before the throngs of tourists arrived.

The more I travel solo, the more I have realised that my daily travel habits have changed. I used to be all about staying up late drinking rum in to the early hours. Now I much prefer watching the sunset, an early night followed by an early start to catch the sunrise.

The day began with a short 20 min walk from my hotel to Rynek Glowny Square. This is Europe’s largest medieval town square, is UNESCO listed and is certainly a sight to behold. Home to the Cloth Hall, this is the perfect place to find gifts in Kraków. Essentially the world’s oldest shopping mall, this space in the centre of Kraków has been home to a trading hall since at least the 1300s. Given a 16th century Renaissance facelift, this architectural marvel boasts dozens of stalls selling amber jewellery, lacework, cloth handicrafts, wood carvings, sheepskin rugs and all sorts of Polish souvenirs and trinkets at prices that are actually more reasonable than you’d anticipate making for the quintessential Cracovian shopping experience.

Also not to be missed, St Mary’s Basilica which is located just off the square, is a STUNNING building. I was mesmerised by its sheer scale, domineering almost 80 metres high over the square like a guard standing watch. I must have spent over an hour trying to capture its beauty on camera. Built in the 14th century, it serves as one of the best examples of Polish Gothic architecture.

By now my hands were numb from the early morning cold and so I began to negotiate my way around the numerous horses and carts and in to the maze of lanes that spider off the main square. I was looking for a very specific place.

Now…..let me tell you about Karmello hot chocolate!!!!! It is by far the best hot chocolate I have ever had. I was told by multiple people that I must make a stop at this famous chocolatier and I was not disappointed. The hot chocolate is SO rich and creamy and thick that they serve it with a glass of water as it practically sticks to your lips like some kind of delicious tasting glue. This was exactly what I needed to warm up…..

After this well earned pit stop I made the 10 minute walk back through the lanes and out to Wawel Hill. As you step around every corner you honestly feel like you a taking another step further back in time. I love visiting places like this. They instantly transport you to times gone by and spark you imagination like no where else on the planet. Everyone knows that I love spending my days on the tropical shores of South East Asia but when surrounded by such architectural beauty as this I am grateful that these magnificent Eastern European cities are practically on my doorstep by comparison.

Wawel Royal Castle is open 9-5.30 daily and admission depends on what exhibitions you wish to view as they are often several on display. Grounds admission is free and the gardens are open from open 6-dusk. I didn’t view any of the exhibitions and was content to stroll around the Castle Walls.

Wawel Cathedral is open 9-5.30 daily except Sundays when entry is limited to 12.30-16.30. Admission is minimal but it is worth it just to ascend the Sigismund Bell Tower and admire the view over the city.

The Cathedral and Castle actually have different ticket offices. Tickets for the Cathedral can be purchased only in the ticket office directly opposite the Cathedral entrance. While entrance to the actual cathedral itself is free you will need a ticket to enter the adjoining Royal Crypts and Bell Tower. A single adult ticket costing 12 zlt covers both of these as well as entrance to the Cathedral Museum.

I found the Castle itself to be quite ugly but as you circle around the walls, I loved the way it seemed to hide the much more beautiful Cathedral within its grasp, offering small glimpses every now and then to the green and gold spires and domes.

I spent a couple more hours here again searching for interesting angles to photograph these famed Cracovian buildings.

To end the day I made my way to Czarna Kaczka (The Black Duck) for some authentic Polish food. Enjoying local and delicious food when I visit somewhere new is probably just behind my passion for photography. Visiting a local restaurant, eating amongst locals and trying the local cuisine is definitely one of the best ways to understand the culture. Yes here restaurants chains like Hard Rock Cafe stand side by side with small family run eateries but I never understand why you would want burger and chips when you can get that home!

This restaurant was another recommendation and it did not disappoint. Located in the southern half of Kraków’s Old Town, Czarna Kaczka is a medium-priced restaurant specialising in traditional Polish cooking in a warm and cosy environment. As the name suggests, the signature dishes mainly involve duck, but there are plenty of other mouth watering items, including potato pancakes and goulash, on the menu. The food was superb, as was the service.

Day 4

I spent my last morning back in the Jewish Quarter exploring and photographing St Josephs Church and Ghetto Heroes Square before heading off to the Wieliczka Salt Mines.

Located just outside the town, the Salt Mines are easily accessible by train and are worth a visit if you have a morning or afternoon free to spare. I had a few hours before my flight home and was intrigued about what I would find here so decided to investigate for myself.

Pre booking is not necessary but when you arrive there may be a short wait until the next English speaking tour departs. A guided tour is mandatory and is included in the admission cost. Admission to the Tourist Route was 89zlt.

As you meander around the 3km worth of corridors and clamber up and down numerous flights of stairs you are faced with magnificent chambers chiselled out in rock salt. Amazing underground saline lakes, majestic timber constructions and unique statues sculpted in salt make up the 3 hour route through the mines. This wasn’t my favourite part of the trip but it is certainly was a unique experience.

Before long it was time to jump back on the easy to negotiate train and head to the airport.

This was definitely a whistle stop tour of some of Kraków’s most iconic sights. This trip was originally just booked as a getaway so that I could escape the stresses and sadness of life. If I am honest, I didn’t really give the destination much thought and booked it purely on the fact it was cheap and convenient but I was not expecting it to be such a beautiful, awe inspiring and thought provoking city which has opened my eyes to the horror that occurred here during WWII.

Kraków has a lot of history and has seen unthinkable atrocities which must be acknowledged and respected by anyone passing through. There is an abundance of varying museums and exhibitions that document the country’s difficult past but after my somber visit to Auschwitz I was more than content just wandering the streets admiring the stunning architecture of this perfectly formed city.

Kraków is packed with appealing historic buildings and streetscapes which are a photographers dream. Kraków’s gorgeous architecture, charming town square and the glow from Wawel Castle give the city a true fairy-tale feel…..

If you believe the legends, Kraków was founded on the defeat of a dragon…..and it’s true, a mythical atmosphere resonates through its attractive yet eerie streets and squares that are filled with imposing churches and impressive facades.

Kraków definitely surprised me for many reasons. It certainly is the prettiest of cities.

I must also mention just how delicious the local food is and just how friendly the people are. So why don’t you take a look for yourselves…..you won’t regret it! 👀

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