A day’s travel by bus and train from Prague brought us to Krakow (can be pronounced Krakov), and we hiked a few kilometres to our hostel. We soon found that this would be the best hostel we had been to in the whole of Europe and UK combined. The three of us had a six person dorm to ourselves for 3 of the 4 nights we were there, and it was well decorated – each dorm with a theme such as Japanese or African. Every morning the staff cooked us a great continental breakfast with the best apple pancake things – yum. Breakfast was free, and the hostel was probably one of the cheapest I’d ever been to. I could easily have lived at that hostel for less than renting a room in Australia or the UK, and it includes breakfast, internet, has great facilities, and is serviced once a week. What more could you ask for?
On our first night we walked into the old town centre and sat at a nice restaurant outside and watched the interesting sights go by – street performers and entertainers, a choir, that kind of thing. We of course had to try the vodka – I had a few wheatgrass infused vodka cocktails. Actually pretty good!
Now let me tell you a little backstory. Karla and I put Brett up to a bet that he couldn’t give us a good tour of Krakow. So for the day or two before we arrived he could be seen in internet cafés and on his phone on the Wikipedia article of Krakow researching facts. Our first morning I woke up to find no sign of Brett, and when he returned in time for breakfast he was looking pleased with himself and announced that he was just “convening with his fellow tour guides about a few facts on Krakow history”. And so it began – we went on our first guided tour by none other than Brett.
“What building is that, Brett?” I asked pointing at what looked like an old church with two high towers.
“Ah that’s St Mary’s Church,” he replied without hesitation. “Did you know that every hour on the hour, day and night, a man goes to the higher tower and plays a tune on a bugle which is a kind of trumpet?”
“And why would he do that?”
“Well, hundreds of years ago they used to do the same thing every time the city gate opened and closed, and also if there was a fire or some other kind of emergency in town to alert people. Also there is a legend that a bugler in the tower saw enemy troupes coming, and starting bugling but took an arrow to the throat. So now they honour him by playing all the time.”
Sure enough, it was ten minutes til the hour, and already tourists were gathering around the church to catch a glimpse of the bugler and get a wave – which we did.
We then walked across the square in the centre of town, past all the paintings for sale, and went into a big building called the cloth hall.
Back in the day this was a big trading area where you could buy just about anything. At one time there was even camels and monkeys for sale on the second floor. These days it’s a place for buying curios, spices, cloth and clothes, so at least not much has changed.
We carried on walking for a while, Brett pointed out the Google building, and the Krakow university.
“Anything interesting about the university?” I asked.
“Well, yes actually. During world war two the Nazis banned anyone from teaching here and so the whole thing was closed down. But that of course didn’t stop the professors and those ambitious students who would attend secret lectures.” Brett said astutely.
“I gotta hand it to you, Brett, good stuff!”.
Moving on to a section of garden, Brett commented that there is a garden surrounding the entire city where the city walls used to be.
“And this fountain,” he continued, “is actually an electric fountain that electrocutes you if you touch it.”
“I call bullshit!” I exclaimed and jumped into it. Lo and behold, I was fine. “I’m starting to worry about the accuracy of your facts.”
“Just keeping you on your toes,” said he.
We walked up to Wawel castle where we were met with a cool statue of Pope John Paul, who was Polish and made a pilgrimage to Krakow, to this very castle (which had a church too) once in a while.
Inside the castle grounds, we can see the church here.
“Can you tell me about the castle, Brett?”
“No, it’s outside the city centre so I don’t know anything about it.”
“Well you’re fired and you’re not getting a tip, sorry!” I said in my angry-customer voice.
“I’ll give him a tip, here’s 1 euro. You can buy a shot of vodka.” Karla offered.
Brett took the euro and turned to me. “Ha! Now I am rich! I will buy my own hotel!"
And that was the end of our guided tour that morning.
We went down into the dragon's dungeon - several flights of stairs that lead to an underground cave. Here's Karla and I posing.
When we got out there was a cool dragon waiting for us :D It actually breathes fire every couple minutes.
A nice view of Krakow from the castle.
We decided to take a walk to the museum that stands roughly at the same place where Schindler’s factory was before and during World War 2. For those of you who haven’t watched the movie “Schindler’s List” it’s great and is a good precursor to get an idea of what it would have been like to live in the area during the war. Luckily I had watched it, Brett of course hadn’t but I think he will endeavour to make the effort and watch it. The museum was fantastic, and I’m very glad to have visited it. It was mostly a museum about the war times, although it did have a little before and after too.
The next day we went to the famous salt mines of Krakow, about an hour’s drive out of town. These are very remarkable. As one might imagine salt used to be quite valuable before there were such things as fridges and cold boxes. It still is actually fairly valuable, and there is a big salt mine in central Poland producing tonnes and tonnes of salt every day for export. This particular salt mine however, is mostly a tourist attraction – although a small amount of salt is still mined and sold. This is because with maintenance of the mine they need to clear out water and excess salt build-up. The tour guide told us that there were over 300km of tunnels in the mine, and only about 1% of the mine was open to the public. The rest is closed because it's quite dangerous - and I could imagine so.
We headed down, down into the depths of the mine on a miner's staircase. I think it was over 50 storeys.
Now these photos don’t do the place justice because when you look at the salt normally the light reflects off the surface, but when you use the flash the light penetrates the salt because it is somewhat transparent so it looks darker in photos. But I did enjoy all the sculptures – all of which are done by the miners that used to work in these mines a long time ago.
They also had a few famous sculptors come in and sculpt some famous paintings on the walls in one of the main salt halls – things like Da Vinci’s Last Supper. They also did a cool light shows in places.
Here’s an interesting fact – people and horses working in the salt mines all had long and healthy lives. Most miners lived to about 90 years old which was almost double the average back in those days. The horses would live their entire lives in the mines because if they were taken out into the sun light they would go blind since they were so used to the dark conditions of the mine. So every time you breathe in that nice salty ocean air just remember it’s good for you!
The day after that we headed out to the infamous Auswitz. What a very sobering day that was. The things that happened there were truly awful. It is impossible to go there and not be at least a little affected by it all. In my opinion, everyone should visit Auswitz once in their lives, to learn from history and see what people are really capable of.
When I was walking from one building to another, it was so easy to imagine the prisoners of Auswitz walking on that very gravel road.
The area where people were brought to be shot.
Inside the old buildings they had a museum of items that were collected by the Nazis from the people that were murdered.
A few kilometres away was the train station that many train-loads of Jews would arrive. They were told that this was a temporary place to stay before moving on, but of course they would never leave alive.
One of the gas chambers that the Nazis blew up when they lost the war to try and hide the evidence.
On the outside looking in.
When we returned back to town that night, I did toast to the memory of all the people who died there. And what better way to do that than with good good vodka! Thanks for reading.