Saturday, December 22, 2012

Trip to Krakow!

Getting to Krakow from Bratislava or Vienna is a pain in the ass. There are no flights at all, direct or otherwise, from Bratislava, while flights from Vienna generally seem to run $350 per person at least, which is totally outrageous given that it's an hour-long flight and that, as the crow flies, Krakow is really no further away from Bratislava/Vienna than Kosice or Prague. Trains are also problematic. If you ride during the day, it's an epic, snail-paced 8-10 hour journey involving multiple transfers. However, since night trains run regularly from Bratislava (starting in Budapest), we eventually had to accept the fact that if we were ever going to see Krakow and not spend a fortune getting there, we would have to take the night train.

I suspect Krakow is so difficult to get to from here simply because there is not enough traffic between the two regions and therefore not enough demand to warrant cheaper, more frequent or direct flights, or faster/more direct trains, which is puzzling since having now been there, I can say that it's definitely a destination worth going to.

At any rate, I can add trains to the list of moving objects (which includes airplanes, cars, etc.) in which I am unable to sleep. The bunks were clean and just barely spacious enough, and while they were not what anyone would consider comfortable, per se, they were at least not painful. But even with a prescription sleeping pill and ear plugs, the constant bouncing, lurching, and frequent stopping made it difficult to get any kind of meaningful shuteye. Terezia slept okay, though, but she usually sleeps like a rock. The train left Bratislava around 11PM and we rolled into Krakow at 6:45 the next morning.

When we walked out of the extremely conveniently located main train station and passed under the street into the old town, the sun was only just starting to rise, and the dim, misty sky seemed to really suit the atmosphere of the medieval town. Krakow was just waking up, which is what we still needed to do, so we nabbed some front window seats at a cafe on the sprawling Main Market Square and took in the view.

St. Mary's cathedral on the main square

Rick Steves has called Krakow Central Europe's second Prague, and that's partly what drew us to the place. We both go gaga for cities with lots of well preserved medieval and renaissance architecture, like Prague, and we'd heard nothing but positive things about Krakow from numerous people. It struck me as more of a low key Prague: not as dramatically over-the-top stunning (Prague's spire-studded skyline is hard to beat), but still quite beautiful, atmospheric, oozing history, and perfect for aimless strolling.

What Krakow does have over Prague, however, are fewer tacky tourist trinket shops littering some of the major arteries. Krakow has some, just not as extreme as the nauseating kaleidoscope of souvenir vomit that you see along Karlova in Prague.

Krakow's Main Market Square is massive - the largest medieval town square in Europe - and in the center of it is the Cloth Hall, a beautifully ornate Renaissance-era market hall, the inside of which is unfortunately lined with vendors selling tourist crap. But that's okay - at least it keeps the trashy tourist tchotchkies off the street and out of sight.

Krakow's main square and Cloth Hall

The square is lined with gorgeous facades - some stately and neoclassical, others more flamboyantly gothic or baroque. It's a great place for people-watching, too - probably better in the summer.

St. Mary's cathedral towers over the northeastern corner of the square. While not as dazzling as Prague's Tyn cathedral, it's still quite a fetching structure, with an ornately detailed interior, the centerpiece of which is this massive and intricate 15th-century wooden altarpiece by Veit Stoss. I do have to say, however, that the cathedrals in Krakow are fairly non-tourist-friendly. For example, none of them allow photos, and the St. Francis church, which all the guidebooks list as an absolute must-see for its unique melding of gothic and art nouveau, was full of people praying, genuflecting, lining up for pre-xmas confession (that is something catholics do, apparently), and giving stern or disapproving looks to tourists like us, who were clearly not there to do the same. And this interior really was unique - I suppose it goes to show just how seriously catholic the Poles are. Unlike the Italians, they seem reluctant to share their historical churches - which are still very much in use - with the tourist industry.

The streets that take you off the main square are all pretty consistently attractive. While their facades run the gamut from medieval to renaissance to a kind of 19th-century eclecticism, there's almost no post-WWII intrusion to speak of (except for this). It is thoroughly amazing that Krakow survived WWII and communism pretty much unscathed. What's also nice, however, is that the historical facades aren't too pristine or whitewashed. Many have obviously been restored, but there are still many others that look beautifully worn down and ooze character.

Wawel castle, which overlooks the town, perched on a small hill, is quite striking, and its cathedral, a crazy mishmash of architectural styles, is packed with ornate tombs, and is a who's who of important Polish historical figures. The hill also offers views over parts of the city that most tourists wouldn't dare to tread.

The one thing that we couldn't help noticing was that Krakow is a big university town. It seemed like at any time of the day the streets were teeming with university aged kids. It almost felt like we were on a university campus. Going on what we saw, one would think the average age of the city's inhabitants was about 20. This, of course, seems to give Krakow its pulse, and it also seems to go someway toward making Krakow feel a bit more "with it" culturally.

That culture came out in spades in the Kazimierz district, a soot-stained, endearingly worn down borough, which for centuries was the district where the city's Jewish community resided. The Jewish presence is still very much there, with old synagogues and klezmer music venues seemingly on every corner, as well as two Jewish cemeteries. But Kazimierz also has a bit of that offbeat gentrified hipster neighborhood vibe, so it's definitely the place to go when you're in need of good cafes decked out in cool and kitschy mismatched vintage furniture, hip vintage clothing stores, junk shops, and trendy modern restaurants.

A quiet corner of the Kazimierz district

But there is a palpable working class vibe there as well, particularly in the neighborhood's center at the Plac Nowy market, where you can buy cheap street food like Polish staple zapiekanki. In fact, the zapiekanki that we ordered (on two occasions) from the Endzior stall was some of the best food we had the entire trip. Zapiekanki are long, toasted, open-face baguettes with an array of different toppings. We chose one with sautéed mushrooms, spinach, and a garlic and a hot chili sauce. It was surprisingly rich and flavorful, the ingredients were piled kind of high, and I love how it's damn near impossible to eat one of these things without getting it all over your upper lip, yet the vendor only gives you little squares of wax paper for napkins. At 8 zloty (about $2.65), they're dirt cheap, too, and we found them to be large enough so that we could just order one and split it!

Terezia enjoying a delicious zapiekanka at the Plac Nowy market

As for food in Krakow, the non-zapiekanki choices were hit and miss. Krakow appears to suffer somewhat from a lot of restaurants that are trying to be upscale and international, yet their cooks lack the skills to really pull it off. In fact, it seemed like the cheaper, more student-y food options wound up being the best. While a restaurant called Aperitif, touted by several travel guides, basically sucked, I had some of the best falafel in my life at a cheap vegetarian restaurant that we stumbled on just outside the historical center.

We also strolled through Kazimierz's New Jewish cemetery, which should really be called "newer," because it's still fairly old (people started to be buried there around 1800). The Nazis vandalized this cemetery, but thankfully didn't annihilate it. Like other old Jewish cemeteries in Europe, a lot of the headstones are densely clustered, shooting out of the ground at odd angles. This is probably the biggest Jewish cemetery I've seen in Europe - the lot actually went pretty far back.

The "New" Jewish cemetery in Kazimierz

The area around the historical center, including Kazimierz, was pretty interesting and (much like Kazimierz) had a lot of soot-stained, beautifully detailed 19th century facades with cracks and chunks of missing plaster. This ring was way more consistently 19th century than the same ring that encircles Bratislava's historical center. A colleague of mine told me about a very cool bookstore/cafe just to the east of the historical center called Massolit, which sells used books in English and has kind of a nice Berkeley vibe. Definitely a place worth checking out.

Our hotel was noteworthy for many reasons (like its excellent central location), but mainly for the awesome, faded, and water-stained art nouveau designs painted on the walls of the cool stairwell.

More examples here and here.


We spent one day of our trip visiting Auschwitz, since it is fairly close to Krakow. The trip requires the better part of a day: the bus ride from Krakow to Auschwitz alone takes about an hour and 45 minutes, and you can easily spend several hours at the Auschwitz I camp before moving on to nearby Birkenau.

Even if you are aware of everything that what went on in these camps, it's still a deeply moving experience to actually walk through the halls of these barracks and see the faces of the prisoners whose portraits line the walls. They look so uncertain, a bit frightened or nervous, but still trying to stay composed even though their heads have just been shaved and they're wearing prison stripe uniforms despite the fact that many had been told they were simply being relocated. Absolutely devastating.

Prosthetic limbs, crutches, and braces at Auschwitz

Seeing the execution wall was also really intense, as was the first gas chamber/crematorium. The material evidence bunker is particularly noteworthy, since that's where they keep the massive piles of spectacles, suitcases, shoes, clothing, and prosthetic limbs and braces that were taken from those who were imprisoned.

Birkenau has much less in the way of exhibits, but I think part of the point is just to show how mind bogglingly sprawling it is. As soon as you walk through the gate and look out at the fields behind it, you see acres and acres of chimney-studded fields, with many of the surrounding wooden barracks having burned down or collapsed. A row of these toward the front remains, however, and by the time the Nazis were using these wooden stables to house their victims, they were cutting so many corners that the original two-level brick bunkers almost look cozy and inviting by comparison. In particular, seeing the row of latrines, which is just a long ditch with holes in the cover, was pretty horrifying, as was the method of heating - a fireplace at one end attached to a lengthy hearth that ran horizontally all the way to the back of the stable. People had to sit on these for warmth in the totally uninsulated structures.

The slightly earlier brick structures at Birkenau were similarly squalid, cramped, and dehumanizing. The remains of the larger gas chambers and crematoriums at the back of Birkenau are still there, left in heaps of rubble after the Nazis bombed them to destroy evidence.

What was truly bizarre to me was to discover that there were clusters of modern residential houses just beyond the wall behind Birkenau, which had clear views of the destroyed crematoriums and gas chambers. Call me crazy, but who would want to live right behind Birkenau? How do you tell your friends and colleagues about the house you just bought with views over the death camp? I can't help but think that living in such close proximity to one of the most infamous symbols of the Holocaust would put a damper on any backyard barbecue parties, not to mention have a negative impact on the property value.

The dark grey cloud of death that the bus between Auschwitz and Birkenau was belching out seemed to indicate that Poland's laws on vehicle emissions are really lax. I swear, when we stepped off this thing, I felt like I was wading through a sea of dry ice at a rock concert. Adding insult to injury, the bus was idling when we got on, and with all three doors open, all it took was a light breeze to blow the fumes straight into the bus. The driver was apparently not in the least bit phased by the prospect of killing his passengers by carbon monoxide poisoning.

The bus ride between Krakow and Auschwitz was initially interesting because it gave us a glimpse of Krakow's outer layers, and we got to see a few communist-era monstrosities, in addition to some communist-era panelaks and these sort of sooty, dark grey apartment blocks built shortly after WWII that I like to call proto-panelaks, which we have a lot of here in Bratislava. Also, like I mentioned above, a lot of 19th-century buildings still survive. However, the countryside outside the city was oppressively dull, and kind of reminded me of parts of Ohio or something.

Back to Krakow

I was surprised at how close the Polish language is to Slovak. The two languages are technically not mutually intelligible, and they have some different letters and accents, but Terezia was able to interact with several Poles, with them understanding her Slovak and she understanding their Polish. When I would listen to Polish people converse around me, I could make out a lot of words that are very similar to or pretty much the same in Slovak. Neat!

Empty concrete planter boxes and a Trabant - it doesn't get much more communist than that!

Anyhow, I can definitely see us wanting to go back to Krakow and explore it further. It certainly has more to see, like the massive Nowa Huta communist-era residential development, Podgorze (the site where Krakow's Jews were corralled in WWII and Schindler's factory), and other areas around the historical center.  Plus, it would be nice to see this city in the summer when the sun is out. Traveling in the winter is doable as long as there's not a blizzard, but it can still be too cold to actually sit outside and people-watch and absorb the scenery.

For a smaller city (albeit bigger than Bratislava), it has a fair amount to offer. We liked how it managed to come across as reasonably cosmopolitan despite existing in such a catholic and conservative country. It has a nice pulse and a pleasantly laid back vibe, as well as enclaves that seem fairly "with it" and hip, which is something I can't quite say about Bratislava. We give Krakow two thumbs up, which means we'll have to endure more sleepless nights on the night train.

See the whole set of Krakow photos here!


  1. Thanks for sharing your experience of visiting Auschwitz and Birkenau. That seems like something that could change you forever. Do you think that experience will stay with you? It freaks me out that that stuff was going on just 9 years before I was born. And it's more poignant for me because I live in a country that consists of about 95 percent Holocaust Deniers. That's right, I live in Amerika, where few people know or care that our government (with permission of a majority of our people) killed 3.8 million Vietnamese, a million Cambodians, maybe a million Laotians, 500,000 Central Americans, and at least 2 million Iraqis just from the time I was in junior high school until now.

    1. It's true. I think that because it's so far removed, geographically, that for a lot of people it's like out of sight, out of mind. Which it shouldn't be, especially when you can find all this information quite easily on the internet - but then, it seems like most people just use the internet for entertainment these days.

      Yes, Auschwitz and Birkenau are not places that one could easily forget. The visit prompted us to watch Schindler's List, part of which takes place at Birkenau, and much of which takes place in Krakow, and it is an incredibly powerful and well made film. The scenes in Birkenau were particularly moving since I could envision each place in the camp that the characters were, having been there and seen what's left of the place myself.

  2. That zapiekanka Terezia is eating looks GOOD. I want one! But with a real napkin. What's up with wax paper napkins? I saw a couple of those in Italy.

    1. It was extremely tasty - and cheap. One of the best things we ate in Krakow - even better than one of the "gourmet" restaurants we ate at. There are times when street food is the way to go.

      Wax paper napkins are even more of a problem when you've got facial hair. Europe is really cheap when it comes to that kind of thing. It could be that paper products just cost a little more here, I don't know. A lot of people buy uber cheap toilet paper as well, and I've noticed that NONE of the public bathrooms ever have those wax toilet seat sanitation covers that you see in most places in the US.

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