You may have read my blog about the train trip I took up to Yorkshire to visit a friend over the Easter break … well, I’d only left myself 7 hours to travel back to London to pick up my car from my parents (and of course stop for a cuppa), then home to pack for a week’s worth of uncertain Polish weather before racing through to Stansted Airport … and, somehow, I did manage to do all of this in good timing!
Why Poland? My parents visited Krakow the year ago and couldn’t, and still, can’t stop talking about the trip they had. They’ve even been there again since! The photos they showed us on their return just sold it to me.
We stayed in the Jewish Quarters, a 15-minute walk from the centre of Old Town Square. The hotel we stayed in was lovely and ticked all the boxes (clean, friendly, comfy) but, oh was it a creepy hotel! The building was old and dark, with tall, solid doors. At night the room and the street were dark and utterly still. When you took a moment to appreciate the silence, you could really feel the sense of history around you, very eerie, but inexplicably comforting.
First night on Krakow
On our first day we met up with a friend who used to live in London and we explored Old Town Square. We stopped for some food – proper Polish cuisine, of course! I tried a plate of mixed dumplings which I enjoyed so much I tried them a few times over our stay. We wandered some more and found The Galleria (a huge shopping centre), stopped for some drinks before making our way back to the hotel for an early night – at this point, apart from cat-napping on the plane, I hadn’t had any sleep for over 24 hours.
An experience that will stay with me forever
If you know anything about history, especially the tragic times of World War I & II, you will have heard of the concentration camps at Auschwitz where over a million people were starved, tortured and murdered. Well, on our second day, we took a trip to Auschwitz and Birkenau. We didn’t know what to expect, apart from seeing some ruins, to be honest.
As pre-arranged, the lovely Alice (Alicja) picked us up from the hotel, giving us a brief history lesson on the way and then a personal tour of the camps. It was snowing when we began the tour. Walking through Auschwitz II-Birkenau, freezing even in our coats and hats, we wondered how these poor people managed to survive in little to nothing clothing. We took the same path that the prisoners had walked once departing the train and, don’t be fooled by what you see on TV, this camp is massive! We walked through the showers, where prisoners would be stripped, shaved, mass showered and humiliated, left cold, naked, vulnerable and separated from their loved ones with no idea if they were alive or dead. This process alone was devastating and left me feeling quite heartbroken.
We walked around the remains of what was left of gas chambers 1, 2 and 3 after the Germans attempted to destroy the building before the Russians landed. They really were hard to see, you could still smell decay in the air. To stop and think millions of human beings were murdered here, it’s an unimaginable number. To put it into perspective, the population of London alone is just over 8 million!
Though most of the huts of Birkenau were closed to the public for preservative reasons, visitors are given access to possibly two of the worst huts; a Mother and Child hut and a Women’s hut. The Mother and Child hut was, as implied, where women and children slept, but, since children were seen as useless as they were unable to work, so the SS soldiers would take a handful of children away at a time to be killed while women were sent out to work during the day. If you take the time to stand still, really take in the surroundings, how dark and muddy it is, 70 years later, and how awful it must have been then. It’s not hard to imagine the sounds that would have come from this hut; mothers desperate to look after their poorly and hungry children, not being able to do the simplest of tasks like breastfeed. The cries from the children who are scared, hungry, cold, sick and confused. It brought tears to my eyes to think that such thing could even be humanly possible or allowed. The second hut was where women who were unable to work were left to die. If they were too old or too sick they would be put into this hut with no food or water, left to starve to death, disease or to be eaten alive by rats. Again, this hut was hard to take in and I found it painful to imagine what it must have been like to be allocated here.
What we did notice while we wandered around the grounds was that there were no animals in sight. You can hear birds chirping in the distance, but we didn’t see any which felt kind of sad like maybe they could sense the decay and tragedy?
We then moved on to Auschwitz I, which has become a museum, joined a tour and learned many chilling facts about things like the medical experiments that doctors such as Josef Mengele performed on prisoners. Towards the end of the tour, we viewed a series of huge glass rooms which were full of the personal property that had once belonged to the prisoners. There was a dedicated compartment for shoes, then glasses, then bags, pots and even hair! It was so disturbing to see the huge piles of these personal items, it really put it into perspective just how many lives were taken. To see a new side of the World War was an eye-opener, but definitely worth a visit even just to appreciate the freedom we take for granted today.
What I would like to say here though, today’s habit of photographing everything we see, eat or visit did ruin this tour for those who are trying to take in an awful experience and capture a small part of history or pay their respects. To see visitors climbing onto bunks where so many had cried, bled, slept, died, consoled each other just to take goofy selfies really did break my heart. By all means, take the photo, but do it with a sense of respect, of reverence, please. But to just climb all over such a dark moment in history and take senseless photos just to gain bragging rights without even gaining a new sense of appreciation for what these people went through, honestly, it just feels wrong to , it angered me and I can only imagine how it must feel to those who have a true emotional or historical connection.
Some more history
The following day we took a walk across the Jewish Quarters to Oskar Schindler’s factory. The factory is now a museum and the only original piece left of the factory is the iron gate. It was interesting to read the case studies of the Jews Schindler saved so, of course, we had to watch Spielberg’s take of this, Schindler’s List when we returned home.
Opting for a light-hearted, but still full of history, activity we toured Wieliczka Salt Mine, a beautiful 13th-century underground world created entirely of salt. Miners excavated the minerals but also craved beautiful chapels and sculptures that tell wonderful stories such as that of Princess Kinga. While exploring it’s easy to forget your several feet underground. A truly breath-taking tour and the gift shop is just as enchanting. You can even book wedding ceremonies and conferences there!
Alice kindly took us back to town and treated us to a popular café, Milkybar, an ex-Socialist canteen, almost fast food restaurant, where we had a selection of food and watched all walks of life come in to dine.
Alas, the journey ends
We spent the rest of our holiday wandering around the Jewish quarters, Jewish ghetto and Old Town for shopping and food. Krakow is a beautiful place, rich in history and wonderful architecture. A trip I would definitely take again, maybe in the warmer months though as I imagine sitting outside in Old Town Square with a coffee, just watching the world and stunning horse and carriages pass by, it would be total bliss.
If you are interested in a trip to Krakow I highly recommend booking Alice from Krakow 4 U as she made our tours and travel so perfect. Alice is full of knowledge and is a wonderful story teller!
Hope you enjoyed hearing about my trip, let me know if you have been and what you thought? Or if you have any recommendations when my return.
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