today I’d like you to join me on a tour through the beautiful city of Krakow in the South of Poland.
After just a brief train ride of two hours and nice evening at the hostel, chatting to my roommates from Canada, England and Poland, I’m happy to start my walking tour in the morning sun.
Right at an old gate of the Old Town, I join a freewalking tour and explore the city a bit more. Interestingly, Warsaw and Krakow have a connected history and having seen Warsaw the day before, it’s easy to compare both cities. Despite the high number of students living in Krakow, the city only has about 800,000 inhabitants. It’s also located along the Vistula river and has been the Polish capital until King Sigismund moved it to Warsaw in 1596. Due to its minor importance though, the city was lucky enough to remain mostly intact during the World War II and thereby the Old Town has been preserved and is still a vivid place. Furthermore, locals as well as tourists highly recommend visiting Krakow over Warsaw for its cultural vibrance and atmosphere.
On the busy central plaza of the Old Town, Rynek Główny, you’ll find flower markets, monuments, horse carriages to show you the city, an underground museum showing the levels below the surface as well as two major tourist attractions: Church of Our Lady Assumed into Heaven and The Cloth Hall. Krakowians say if you come to the city as a tourist, you have to buy a souvenir from the Cloth Hall or you haven’t been there – I’m sure it’s just a marketing gag, I bought some nice amber earings anyways. Furthermore, the Cloth Hall has a long history and goes back to the days when Krakow was still the capital. It’s been an important trading place and on the walls, you can still see the regional crests from the different parts of Poland.
The Church of Our Lady Assumed into Heaven is well-known for its different towers and one of the best examples of Polish Gothic architecture. First completed during 14th century, it has been partially destroyed only a few decades later and during the reconstruction the North Tower was raised to be used as a Watch Tower. Apart from the beautiful interior there is a nice tradition you can observe every hour: In order to honour the 13th century trumpeter who managed to warn the entire city before the Mongol attack while being shot in throat, a trumpeter plays the same signal melody from the Northern Tower. He breaks off suddenly to mark the moment when his famous colleague was shot.
The Old Town is located at the foot of Wawel Castle hill and nowadays surrounded by lovely green park along the former city walls. While the wind is chilly, the sun warms our hands and we enjoy our walk to the castle hill. On the way, we pass along a well-known monastery which used to be the place where the Polish Pope John Paul II stayed during his rare visits of Krakow. Apparently it became a tradition, that he even talked to the people in front of his window and celebrated mass with them – when he died many Polish came to the meadow in front of the monastery to mourn together.
Finally, my first day in Krakow gets to an end and I enjoy a little concert in a very small old church on Rynek Główny. I am really looking forward to some classical music that night, unfortunately I’m a bit disappointed. Luckily, the night is still young enough to meet some other travellers from the hostel I’m staying at again and we go out for a few beers.
The next morning, I have another early start to take a train to Auschwitz which is nearby. To me, it’s a very weird place to go and I feel quite tensed going there and being confronted with that part of German history all by myself again. I only decided to go there the day before, even though I thought about it before. As recommended on the website, I book one of the last spots on a tour in German and make my way on the ground. It’s a small group and we start our walk through the exhibition. Even though, I already know what I’m about to see and I learned all about during history lessons in school, it is a totally different thing to see the actual place and many more pictures, hear stories of this particular place and see remnants of such horrible actions.
I have my camera with me, like I always do during traveling, but I don’t feel like taking pictures. The exhibition ground is crowded with people – almost everyone is documenting the buildings and surroundings with their phones and cameras but I’m only able to listen to our guide and observe the situation. It feels like it’s not a proper thing to do to turn a place with such an history into a tourist attraction. There are many school kids as well, I heard they are from Israel and the visit is part of project. Some of the buildings are so overcrowded that we have to wait in lines not being able to move in any direction. It’s of vast importance to never forget about what happened and still I’m irritated by the high number of people and the atmosphere the tourists create in such a place.
Around lunch time, I’m so full with information and impressions that I decide to take the train back to Krakow instead of extending the tour to Birkenau.
This visit has been quite a lesson for me that is still resonating. I’ve not come to a full conclusion yet but I found it hard to describe what I’ve seen to people who haven’t been at the place themselves. I hope you could still gain from my personal view.
Back in Krakow, I take a little break to eat and write some postcards back home. Before I hop on the night train to Prague at night though, I want to see another reknown part of the city: Kazimierz – the Jewish quarter.
After the great walking tour through the Old Town the day before, I’m about to join the Jewish Quarter tour of the same group, meeting at the Old Synagogue.
This part of the city is of a similar age as the Old Town and still looks pretty different. Wherever you go, you’ll see Hebrew on houses and signs, the Magen David, various Synagogues and monuments that relate to the Jewish history. Alongside with the stories and details, it becomes a diverting walk gaining an additional perspective to what seems to be an old but vivid Polish city neighbourhood.
Nowadays, the small Jewish community of Krakow is one of the very few which doesn’t need Police protection against newly rising antisemitism.
After having been to Auschwitz, this tour fills some gaps of what happened before the concentration camps and makes me aware of future Jewish districts and their history in the cities I’m visiting during the following days and weeks.
It’s already rather late when I arrive back at the hostel to get my backpack and take the night train to Prague. At the station, I’m struggling a bit to find the right platform since they changed the final destination and how to call the route – in the end, everything works out and I’m happy to have a cabin all to myself for my first time on a night train…
Let’s see how I find sleeping on trains and what is there to see in Prague in the next article.. see you there and take care!