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Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Weekend in Poland

Anyone who knows me well knows that I have wanted to go to Poland for a really long time. So, when my friend Colleen (who I met on the Morocco trip) asked if I wanted to go I was on board immediately. We only had one more break from school left, at the end of April so that was our last opportunity to go. We didn't have a ton of time so we decided to only go to Krakow, which is the second biggest city in Poland.
Not really knowing anything about Eastern Europe, we just assumed that the weather was going to be cold and foggy. We were definitely wrong! It was in the upper 70s-80s (21-26) and sunny the whole time we were there. It was perfect. Better weather than we had been having in Almeria.

All together 3 of us who met on the Morocco trip went. Since all of us live in different parts of Spain (Sarah: Cadiz and Colleen: Toledo) we met in the Madrid Airport at about midnight. Our flight was at 6:45 and took about 3 hours. Weirdly, even though Poland is really far away from Spain it is still on the same time zone. It took us forever to get away from the airport because of a money problem. The ATM only gave big bills, and the bus only took coins. When we finally made it into the city we went to the hostel and dropped our stuff off and went to walk around. Our hostel was just one block away from the main square so that was super convenient.

On the other side of the Cloth Market, which is right in the middle of the square.

We wanted to get a good map right away so we tried to go to the tourist office, but the street was blocked off and police were standing there (no one seemed to be in a panic though). While we were waiting for it to open up we went to a little restaurant just down the street. While we were eating a police helicopter started flying over. After we finished we went back to the main square to go check out the basilica. There were SO many police cars and a few ambulances and TV cameras waiting. It was super weird. We found out on Sunday that it was because the Prime Minister of China was there. So, nothing bad. :)

Lots of police cars

St. Mary's Basilica

This basilica was really pretty inside. Very different than all the other cathedrals I have seen in Western Europe which are very stark. This had a beautiful blue ceiling and red and orange walls. This church is most famous for housing the biggest gothic altar in Europe. It was pretty big. They also had a huge shrine to Pope John Paul II, the first of many we would see on this trip. Another interesting thing about this basilica is that every hour they have a trumpet player play part of a song out of one of the towers. It stops suddenly to commemorate a trumpet player who was shot through the throat in the 13th century while he was warning the city about a mongol attack.

Altar for Pope John Paul II

The altar

After we finished at the church we went and walked through the cloth market which is a really old market building which now sells touristy things and a ton of amber jewelry. Underneath the building is a medieval market exhibit. We didn't get a chance to check it out unfortunately but it seemed really cool.

Inside the Cloth Market

On the other side of the square is the old town hall tower. Which was actually used as the town hall way back in the day. Like all towers in Europe the stairs are super sketch, but it was a nice view from the top so it made it worth it.

The main square. The Cloth Market is on the left and the Town Hall Tower is in the center

View of the castle and the river from the tower

View of St. Mary's Basilica from the tower

When we were finished there we went down towards the castle and the river to start exploring that part of town. We didn't do much for the rest of the day, just took a ton of pictures of all the cool architecture (I did at least...I'm weird).

Another church. I definitely thought Poland was mostly Jewish, but it turns out it is over 70% practicing Catholic

Yeah....I don't know....

The next day we woke up early to go to the train station to catch the train to Wieliczka to see the salt mines. Luckily for us someone on the train spoke English and was able to tell us that to get into the town we had to take the free bus. Who knows where we would have ended up if she wasn't there. The salt mine is a UNESCO World Heritage site, so that was another one I can add to my list. Overall, it was pretty interesting. We went with a guide who told the same joke about 1000 times (about how she is the queen of the mine and has been living there for 400 years, it wasn't actually funny....). But, we learned about how they mind salt back in the middle ages when the mine was started and how it has changed up to today. It is the only continuously functioning mine in the whole world. There was a surprising amount of art and sculptures on the tour. A salt statue of Pope John Paul II (he is Polish after all), a salt Jesus, salt The Last Supper, a Polish king, and lots of other things. Probably the coolest artistic thing to see was the salt chandeliers. Instead of being decorated with crystals they are decorated with little pieces of salt.

wood beams that hold the mine up. the ones by the hand are 100 years old and the ones on the other side are 300 years old.

Salt The Last Supper


I'm a theater nerd at heart. I had to take a picture with my good friend Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Although the mine goes down 327 meters (1,072feet) we only went to just over 130. At the end of the tour to exit the mine instead of climbing all the way back up you take the sketchiest elevator I have ever been in. Its a 4 stack of cars and its made out of metal with a bunch of holes in it. I was pretty sure we were going to die (I may have a slight fear of elevators..... :p) When we were finished with the tour I bought some salt for my mom and we went across the street and had our first attempt at eating at a restaurant where oddly, the menu was in English but no one there spoke it. Everything worked out though and we ended up with some fantastic homemade pierogies.


When we got back into Krakow we went onto the castle grounds and walked around in there. We were being cheap/didn't have a ton of spare time so we didn't go in anything that cost money. The cathedral is really famous for it's gold dome so we stopped and took pictures of that. I was more enthralled with the dragon shaped drainage pipes though. :p We went into the cathedral and it was nothing special, the basillica was a lot prettier and more interesting. This cathedral looked just like your average European cathedral. The cool part though was in the basement they had the tomb of Frédéric Chopin, my music nerd self was too excited about that.

The cathedral, and gold dome

Dragon drain!

Chopin's tomb

After the cathedral we left the castle and went to search for the fire breathing dragon statue which was down by the river. This river area is beautiful. Lots of people were laying out relaxing and walking around. We took pictures with the statue and waited for it to breathe fire before we continued on our walk into the old Jewish quarter. (note on the video: make sure you look at the kid do a double take, its hilarious)

The castle at sunset

View of the river from the castle

There is lots of history in this part of town and it was noticeably different than the main part of town. Most of the signs were written in Polish and Hebrew (occasionally English if it was a touristy sign) and there were a ton of synagogues. I wanted to go to the Schindler Factory which is a museum about Krakow during the Nazi occupation, but sadly it was closed by the time we got there. So instead we just continued our tour of the synagogues and went searching for some Jewish food. We ended up eating at a hotel but it was still really good.

Jewish cemetary

The old synagogue

A memorial in the Jewish quarter. Written in Polish, Hebrew and English

After that Sarah went back to the hostel to relax and Colleen and I went on a search for buffalo grass vodka, one that Poland is super famous for. We were unsuccessful that night but we ended up at the same cafe that we ate at the first day we were there and got dessert and some other weird flavored vodka. Mine was smoked dates and currents and Colleens was raspberry. It was pretty weird but good.

The next day we woke up early again and headed to the bus station to go to Oświęcim which is the town where Auschwitz is located. (Note: Out of respect for what happened there, I [unlike SO many people on our tour] didn't take very many pictures, if you want to see more you can take a virtual tour here ) We took a WAY over crowded mini bus for an hour and got dropped off right outside the museum. Between the hours of 10am and 3pm its required to go with a guide. I would have much rather gone without one because I like to take time reading the signs and looking at everything. It felt really rushed going on the tour, but there were an insane amount of people so I completely understand why they have that rule. We started by going through the old blocks in Auschwitz I, most of which have been turned into museums and one was kept in its original state. That was definitely eerie to see, in the basement of the original one they had the solitary confinement cells, a few were completely dark, where people would die from suffocation, a few were for death by starvation and some were standing cells that are only 75 x 80 cm (29.5 x 31.5 inches) which 4 people would have to be in all night. It was pretty crazy. One of the most disturbing things we saw was almost 2 tons of human hair that was in the process of being sold to fabric making factories. Also in that block there were all the things that were confiscated from the prisoners, we saw huge rooms of shoes, suitcases, kitchen supplies, glasses, and brushes and combs. The suitcases were really strange to see too because they all had names on them.

One of the last things we saw in Auschwitz I was one of the last standing gas chambers and crematoriums. The Nazis burned most of them in an attempt to cover up what was really going on in the camps as they were being liberated. That was an incredibly disturbing thing to walk into. I couldn't stay in there for very long.

After that we took a short mental break and then took the bus 3 kilometers to Auschwitz II-Birkenau. Auschwitz I is the work camp, and the prisoners were mostly men for a lot of the time that the camp was in use, but later women prisoners were included. Birkenau is considered to be the death camp and housed the women prisoners. Birkenau is massive and what is most shocking about it is that it was built by prisoners of Auschwitz I. Most of the buildings were deconstructed by the Polish government because it was costing too much money to keep them up, but they left all the chimneys standing for the barracks so everyone could still get a good idea of how many there were.

We started by walking along the train tracks to where the trains would be unloaded and the prisoners sorted. We continued following the same path as the prisoners who were sent to the gas chambers at the end of the train tracks. There are only remains of those two buildings as they were burned down. Also at the end of the tracks is the memorial to the prisoners. After we had time to walk around the memorial we went to the brick barrack. Its pretty much exactly what you think of as a barrack from the holocaust, and really similar to what they look like in movies. It was hard to imagine so many people sleeping in a building that small.

When we were finished there we went back across the train tracks to the other part of the camp that had wooden barracks. There were only a few of these standing, because as you can imagine, it would cost an incredible amount of money to keep wood from WWII standing. The first one we went in was the “sanitary” barrack which was anything but sanitary. Followed by the sleeping barrack which literally looked like a barn. Even though it was only early May it was so hot in there, it was hard to imagine people living in there year round without any windows to open or knowing that they didn't have blankets or anything to keep warm during the winter.

Over all, I wouldn't say I particularly enjoyed the day. It was really emotionally draining, but it was incredibly interesting. I'm definitely glad we went.

Entrance gate to Auschwitz I. Arbeit Macht Frei (Work brings freedom)

Right next to the entrance gate to Auschwitz I. Both rows of barbed wire were electrified and we learned that a lot of people came here to commit suicide. Guards in the towers (in the back right of the picture) would shoot anyone who would somehow be able to make it into the middle of the fences.

Rows of blocks in Auschwitz I

Entrance to Birkenau

Hebrew sign

When we got back to Krakow we decided to get cupcakes and do a little retail therapy at the Cloth Market to cheer ourselves up. The exchange rate was so nice to us while we were shopping. We all got authentic amber jewelry (really famous in this part of Europe) for crazy cheap. After we stopped in a few more stores Sarah went back to talk to her family and Colleen and I went to find the English language book store and to find a bar to try the bison grass vodka. I of course had to buy a book about WWII to add to my already way to large collection. :p

The bar that was recommended was in the Jewish quarter so we decided to walk by the river again to watch the sunset. Finally at the end of the trip we were able to try the famous vodka. We were both pretty apprehensive to try a grass flavored vodka, but man it was delicious! We had it the way the Polish drink it normally which is mixed with apple juice. I think the best way to describe the flavor is Christmas. Haha. It has a really holiday-ish spice to it. After we finished the drink and restrained ourselves from getting another one (we were trying to save some money to buy a few bottles at the duty free shop) we went to a 24hour pierogi place to end our trip on a traditional note. It was really funny at this restaurant because the guy (who was obviously very overwhelmed) was cussing up a storm in English, although he didn't appear to be a native speaker.

Apple pierogies. So good.
I have to say, even though we only spent a few days in Poland, it is definitely one of my favorite countries that I have visited so far. The atmosphere and the people are amazing. I would love to go back again. Anyone want to come with?

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