When most Indians thinks of Europe for travel – they think of London, Paris, Rome – Italy , Switzerland and maybe Amsterdam. All these are great cities and I have loved visiting them but Krakow, Prague and Budapest have been on my to do visit list for long – and finally I managed a weekend trip to Krakow.
A little bit about Krakow & Poland
- The history of Poland results from the migrations of Slavs who established permanent settlements on the Polish lands during the Early Middle Ages – around 966 AD. The country adopted Catholic Christianity.
- Around 1795 after a series of invasions and partitions of Polish territory carried out by the Russian Empire, the Kingdom of Prussia, and the Austrian Habsburg Monarchy Poland ceased to exist as a country till 1918. After 21 years in 1939 Russia and Nazi Germany invaded Poland and demolished the country during WW 2.
- Till 1990 Poland was part of the East Bloc – a communist country – the country has flourished since 1990 under a open market – thanks to their hard work ethics.
- Krakow is the 2nd largest city in Poland after Warsaw – its history goes back to 966 AD and over the last 1100 years it has miraculously avoided and destruction – though it was the Capital of Poland for more than 700 years. Poland today has a population of 38 M – and Krakow a population of less than 1M
- The Polish language – with close similarity to Russian was developed around 1600 – Poland has many neighbours – Russia, Lithuania, Ukraine, Czechoslovakia, Belarus, Slovakia and Germany
- Krakow can get seriously cold in winter ( – 20 Degrees) July to Oct is the best time visit – days are long from 5 AM to 10 PM and the weather is a pleasant 25 Degrees
- 1 Polish Zloty ~ 17 INR , the city is very affordable. Salaries are still low and the average salary is $ 600 / month for a school teacher , bank / hotel front office staff.
Why did I want to visit Krakow
For some strange reason I have been wanting to visit the Nazi concentration camp at Aushwitz. WW 2 fascinates me and having read a lot about Aushwitz – its been on my must visit last for the last 5 years. But lucky me Aushwitz was interesting – but Old City Krakow and its charming localities were more fascinating.
Getting to Krakow
Its a 2 hr flight from London – Ryan Air and Easy Jet have many daily flights from Stanstead airport (The cab fare to Stanstead from Central London can be more expensive than the air fare) – there is a 1 hr time lag – so my 8.50AM flight reached Krakow at 12 Noon – and I was in the Sheraton by 1.15 afternoon. Krakow airport is small – Schengen Visa – and the distance from the airport to the city centre is 15 – 20 min. The Sheraton is a lovely affordable property in the centre of old town – facing the river front – 100 m away from the Castle. ( Sheraton Krakow rooms were ~ $90/night)
What are the main things to do in Krakow
I would say 3 must do activities – of which the 1st and the 3rd are UNESCO world heritage cites.
- Old Town tour
- A visit to Aushwitz and Birkenau
- A Visit to the Wieliczska Salt Mine
1. The Old Town tour will take 3 – 4 hrs and most of it can be covered by walk. Important areas to visit include the main market square, St Mary’s Basilica, The University (where Copernicus studied) and Wavel Castle. You must also visit the Schindler Museum, Old Jewish Town (And here is where you have an Indian restaurant) and the Ghetto area.
The town is charming – cobbled streets, nice shops, lively crowd – the evening the shops and pubs are brimming with energy – there is live music in the square. I took a guide – because language is a problem and I wanted to make the most of the limited time I had. Some snaps of this picture perfect Old Town. The Town Square is large – imagine the vision to design something liked this a 1000 years back.
I started at 2 and was done by 6 – a Bit rushed at the Schindler museum where I could have spent more time – but we covered everything – 80 % by walk and a few short rides by Cab. After some rest – I was back at the Market square at 7.30 for nice dinner with live music and back in my room by 9.30 at the lovely Sheraton that is located centrally opposite to the Castle
Main Market Square and Basilica
Lots of fun stuff happening in the streets
Old Jewish town at Szeroka
2. Aushwitz & Birkenau
Day – 2 was very busy. I started with a early morning walk by the river and reached a beautiful park that surrounds the old town. It was fresh and green and quiet – all to myself at 5.30 AM. A sumptuous breakfast and we ready for a group tour to Aushwitz. Its a 1 hr drive from Krakow.
Although called Aushwitz – there were two Camps Aushwitz and Birkenau. They were the largest Nazi concentration & death camp where about 1.1 Mn – mainly Jews died. Aushwitz was smaller – 6 hectares and Birkanau was 25 times larger. But Aushwitz had a higher density.
People to these camps came from Poland (Political Prisoners) , Russian Prisoners of War , Jews from Poland, Hungary , Austria , Germany and Gypsies from Hungary and Romania. Many came from Hungary packed into Trains – 80 to 100 in a wagon – long journeys of 2 – 3 days. The journey was a torture and many died in transit. They were lucky.
On reaching Birkenau they were sorted – the old, weak, pregnant, small kids – who could not work where sent directly to the gas chambers and the others to the concentration camps. Work was gruelling – 11 hrs , and food was hardly any – 2 cups of coffee in the morning , a bowl of soup for lunch and few slices of bread and a small piece of meat for dinner – all put together less than 1000 calories. Bitter cold of Poland, poor sanitation and back breaking work – hardly anyone survived for more than 6 months. The message was work hard – “work will set you free”
At Aushwitz there were 700 – 1200 people in each building , each bunker was shared by 2 people, and there were 20 toilets and 1 washroom to be shared in a building. Punishment for the smallest of crimes was cruel and people were banished to suffocation rooms, starvations cells and many were shot or hanged at the slightest provocation. Inspite of this some survived when the red army came in 1945 – and of them 300 survivors came to Birkenau last year to celebrate the 70th anniversary of freedom.
Over 1500 people were terminated in the Gas chambers in one shot – took 20 minutes for the deadly gas to take effect – post that their bodies were picked dry, hair was used for making mats, gold teeth were extracted, and the cremated ash was used as fertilisers.
The scale of death and pain is unimaginable and it was done with German precision – extermination of Jews with 6 Sigma precision.
We reached Aushwitz at 9.30 and after the tour of both the places was back in the hotel by 3 PM – just in time to grab a quick lunch and then rush on a private tour to the world famous salt mines. The hotel had arranged a brand new Merc and the driver entertained me with nuggets of Poland and local history on the 20 min drive.
3. The Wieliczska salt mines are almost 500 years old. At one time they provided 30% of the country’s revenues. Salt was as expensive as gold in 1600 – 1700. A tonne of salt could buy a village with 200 people. Salt was important to preserve meat and food. Right from the Roman times a cup of salt was a form of currency – and the word Salary owes its origin to the humble cup of Salt.
The mines are deep – almost 1000 feet deep – but the guided tour takes us down to about 400 feet. You walk down and come up a lift – a lot of walking in the 3 hrs you spend at the mines – almost 3 – 4 kms. It is tiring – but you are welcome to lick the salt on the walls anytime to regain some energy – or take a deep breath in the pools of crystal clean green water saturated with rich rock salt. Excavation results in the mine becoming unstable – hence each cavern after excavation is propped up by logs – in all 1 M cubic foot of wood has been used to prop up the mine.
The creative part – lots of amazing sculptures are visible – any famous visitor and those from biblical times are prominently exhibited in the caverns , chapels and alleys. There are about 300 kms of tunnels – a labyrinth of pathways deep down – in the 3 km we walked we probably did not cover even 1 %. But that itself was fascinating and tiring. The entire route is very well maintained, well lit and worthy of a UNESCO heritage site.
I finished the mine trip by 7 PM and headed back to town – a lovely dinner at the Indian restaurant ( I was famished with so much of walking) and back in the room at 9 PM – it as a long day but I wanted to get done with the blog as my memory was fresh.
One last thing – the people of Krakow are soft spoken very professional and helpful – when they start talking in Polish they accelerate and run like a train at 100 mph – and Monika at the concierge was the perfect example of a local citizen. I was in touch her a few days back trying to get my bookings done for the tours etc – she was super responsive and very articulate on email and when I met her I could see energy and professionalism gushing all over – and she has been at the same job for 10 years – hats off – wish more Indians could have her work ethics. Thank you Monika – you and the Sheraton were the perfect hosts for these 36 hrs – and thank you for making this a memorable trip