The central square in Kraków is stunning
Fate decreed that this was to be the year of Kraków for me – whilst Mum and Dad had already arranged a trip to the Polish city in June for Cat, I and them, it turned out to be the destination for the stag do for Paul that Rich organised too, this time at the turn of February into March.
What a beautiful city it is though, and the different emphases of the two trips combined with the different seasons made the two visits in quick proximity not in the slightest bit problematic. Indeed, I’d be very surprised if I don’t return to the place again in the future – there were still a few parts of we didn’t get to visit that I’d like to.
The first trip was cold – there was lots of layers, there was lots of huddling in the network of underground bars the city is full of. Finding them was both a challenge and an adventure at times. We found some great places to enjoy the excellent local beer, and whilst rarely at the fabled ridiculously low prices people quote, considerably less expensive than we’d pay here!
We also took a trip out to shoot some guns, including a glock pistol, a magnum style pistol, an AK-47 and a pump-action shotgun. I’m not a huge fan of guns, but it was really enjoyable nonetheless – although I can’t help but think had the gun range chosen to breathalise some of the party it might’ve been a somewhat different experience.
The only duplication between my two visits was the final day in both cases, so I’ll cover that at the end, as it is where the trips changed from a holiday to something different.
Fast forward to last weekend and the weather was beautifully warm – temperatures from mid 20s to touching 30 by the time we went home is well within my ‘ideal weather’ zone. A trip with the family is a very different proposition than a stag do, so I wasn’t too fazed by already having been there.
Indeed, having met the company that helped Rich organise such a great stag do it gave me a great head start. By emailing ahead I was able to secure transfers to and from the airport as well as a couple of excursions we knew we wanted to do ahead of time, and do so for a ridiculously competitive price all in.
If you go to Kraków then the first thing you should do is contact Amazing Kraków – thanks to the arrangements I’d already made by email with Rafał upon arriving at the airport all we needed to worry about was, well, nothing really. Maciej was waiting for us and took us to our hotel whilst pointing out local points of interest.
Our hotel was around five minutes from the central square, which is a nice balance to have – close enough to reach, not too close to be disturbing if you’re trying to sleep! The staff were awesomely helpful and friendly and they let us have one of our rooms early to dump our cases before we headed out to find some food.
We found countless places providing decent food and drink for very reasonable prices, even those favourably located right on the square. Vegetarian food was sometimes tricky to find, but by no means impossible – and once we found places that catered for non-meat eaters the quality of offering was very good.
We armed ourselves with a degree of orientation on the first afternoon by taking a tour on an electric cart (for about a third of the listed price after minimal haggling!). This was a great way to get a glimpse of things you might want to spend more time viewing. There’s a lot of these kicking around – definitely bargain for a better price – we paid 220PLN for the four of us to do a two hour tour taking in four ‘zones’.
Unlike on the stag do we were able to pack in quite a bit more culture – we visited the Wieliczka Salt Mine, which was completely awesome. Not only the scale of the mining, but the creativity of the miners to carve statues of impressive scale and intricacy. To see a rendition of Da Vinci’s last supper rendered in Salt with a chisel was deeply impressive.
Thanks partly to the electric cart tour we opted to walk to the Jewish quarter for something to eat, and latterly to found the Human Body exhibit and the close-by former factory of Oskar Schindler on foot. The latter now operates as a museum giving extra context to wartime Poland and the appalling events that unfolded by the Nazi occupiers.
We didn’t rush around too much and spent plenty of time eating, drinking and mooching around the place. Given more time I’d have liked to have spent more time exploring the castle and the garden that surrounds the city where the original walls used to stand. Maybe for another visit!
Looking back at the entrance to Auschwitz II / Birkenau
The final day was a mirror for both trips – and marks a definite switch from recreation to something very sombre indeed. Which is why I think it makes sense should you make the trip to do this visit at the end, in our case combining it with a transfer to the airport.
In both cases Rafał collected us to take us to the former concentration and extermination camp of Auschwitz and Birkenau. It’s difficult to express in words really – people regularly say that it’s something people should visit, and I agree – but it’s not to understand something, because some things are beyond comprehension.
By attaching yourself to a tour guide you get a real insight into the purpose and horrors that took place in the buildings you are walking around. Artefacts from prisoners detained or murdered suddenly blasts throught the objectivity of numbers we’d have learned in history lessons as school to reveal real lives, real people.
To reel off however many hundreds of thousands or millions of different nations people perished in these camps during the second world war is of course upsetting, but the numbers are beyond what we can comprehend in real terms, numbers are by their nature objective, dispassionate, inhuman almost.
Seeing a pile of glasses, all of which a person’s eyes looked through, thousands of pairs of shoes, suitcases with names on them, tools of business, shoe polish and collections of childrens clothes – these are the fragments of real lives – in bulk – that puts human beings, not numbers, at the centre of your conscious mind.
Having a mind naturally predisposed to rationalise and understand, you can’t help but spend time here with an unquiet mind. You learn how through unfathomable ideological aims the Nazis productionised death for Jewish people, with the same kind of mechanistic considerations anyone who works in business would be familiar with – increase efficiency, reduce cost.
I am glad I’ve been, even twice in quick succession – we must never forget the depths to which we can sink as a species. Augmenting what we learned here with our visit to the museum at Oskar Schindler’s factory and the former Ghetto area in Kazimierz gave more context to the horror that people underwent still within living memory.
The original booking of the trip by my Mum was driven by a conversation we had about a morbid – what’s the right word, desire? no. Wish? no. Ambition? not quite either – let’s stick with an intention to to visit Auschwitz. To what ends I’m not sure for either of us, but I’m pleased to have done so – even if it simply asks more questions than it can ever answer.
So I do agree with those people who say that people should definitely visit what has become a combination of a museum, a memorial and indeed, a final resting place – but if you were to ask me why I have that conviction, then I would struggle to find the right words to justify the conviction. But you should go.