December 22, 2016
Our overnight Lux Express bus from Budapest to Kraków, Poland departed at midnight and by the time we got onto the bus we were exhausted, as we got up early the previous day to make it to the Szechenyi baths. The bus was luxurious though and we had a 6 and a half hour drive, so we all dozed off quickly. Unfortunately, I am not a good sleeper at the best of times, so when we arrived half an hour early in Kraków, I knew that it was going to be a long day!
After our disaster with the taxis in Budapest, I tried very hard to figure out the public transport system at the bus station but with little luck, and mainly because everything was in Polish. Eventually we decided to just bite the bullet and take a taxi to our hotel, but this time I did ask how much it would be upfront (there is a good tip for you whenever you travel overseas…) and the quick conversion to South African Rands in my head confirmed that it was quite reasonable (about R100).
We arrived at the hotel around 7:00am and were very relieved when we were informed after breakfast that our room was available for an early check in! A quick shower and power-nap was in order before our 9:30 departure for our tour to Auschwitz.
Kraków is the second largest city in Poland, and for many centuries, was the capital of the Crown of the Kingdom of Poland. In the second world war, after Germany invaded Poland, Kraków became the headquarters of the Nazi General Government. This is also the city where Oscar Schindler established his enamelware plant, utilising low cost labour from the Jewish ghettos, which eventually ended up becoming one of the largest rescue initiatives for many Jews in the second world war.
And of course Auschwitz was the largest concentration camp in Europe and was the guinea-pig site for gas chamber exterminations by the Nazis in WWII. Auschwitz II-Birkenau went on to become the major site of the Nazi Final Solution to the Jewish question. The town of Oświęcim is situated about 50km west of Kraków. Auschwitz was the German name for the town and this is where the German Nazi built first Auschwitz I (initially for Polish prisoners) and later expanded to the much larger and more ‘factory like’ Auschwitz II-Birkenau.
The tour was a chilling experience, but very informative and very thought provoking. I learnt so much, but I think the one thing that really captured me was that most of the Jewish prisoners were executed on arrival, so most of the prisoners were actually Polish people, Romani people (gypsies), with many intellectuals, homosexuals, etc being incarcerated in the camps. Many died within days and weeks of arrival due to disease, torture and hardship. This was also the site of many medical experiments, including sterilization experiments on women. And the infamous experiments on identical twins by Josef Mengele also took place here. There are rooms full of glasses, suitcases, brushes and other personal belongings from Jews that the Russians found there when the camp was liberated.
After the tour we returned to Kraków in a somber mode. It was already after 4:00pm when we returned to the hotel and decided on an early night dinner at the popular local restaurant Pod Wawelem, which was just next to our hotel. Anya went for the ‘Huge Schnitzel served with chips’ (very traditional Polish, I know…) and let us just say the portions were huge! And the prices were really cheap too.
Tummies full, we decided to have a well deserved early evening at the hotel.
23 December, 2016
After a filling breakfast at the hotel, we set off towards the Main Square of the Old Town, to meet up with a walking tour departing from St Mary’s Basilica. It was cold outside and we had time to go for a quick coffee before the start of the tour.
We did our walking tour of the Old City Center with Ela from Cracow Free Tours and she was really excellent. Her knowledge of the city, its history and the legends were fantastic. She gave us lots of tips for places to eat, to shop and to visit.
We started the tour by walking to the green park that encircles the Stare Miasto, Planty Park, where the Medieval city walls used to stand until the early 19th century. Our first stop was the Juliusz Słowacki Theatre on the border of Planty Park, erected in 1893 on the spot of a 14th century church and monastery of the Order of the Holy Ghost.
From there we moved to the Kraków Barbican, a fortified outpost which was once connected to the city walls and walked through the 13th century St Florian’s Gate, which, we were told, follows the footsteps of visitors in the medieval ages into the city. From St Florian’s Gate, we walked down the Florianski street towards St Mary’s Basilica. The street is one of the most prestigious in Poland, evident from the many boutique stores down the street. Apparently apartment rentals in the street ranks the 2nd highest in Poland.
Our walk down Florianski street coincided with the top of the hour and we witnessed the St Mary’s Trumpet call, a traditional five note Polish anthem that is played every hour by a trumpeter in the tower of St Mary’s four times in succession from the 4 different windows of the tower. Ela shared the legend of the Trumpeter of Kraków, who according to legend warned the city dwellers of the invasion of the Tartars in the 14th century and was killed by an arrow before he could finish the anthem. In honour of the sentry who gave his life to safe the city. legend goes that the anthem is still played until the note where he was killed, which is the reason why the anthem sounds incomplete. Apparently the legend is not true and was immortalised in a children’s book by a professor on a scholar exchange at the Jagiellonian University in 1928.
We moved on to the Main Town Square, which hosted the annual Christmas Fair. The Square, at 4000 m² is the largest medieval square in Europe. Walking through the Cloth Hall, the western side of the square (sans the Christmas market) gave a better feel for the size and importance of the market. Ela was also outspoken about the ‘Eros Bandota’ sculpture on the Main Square, which was gifted to the city by the Polish artist Igor Mitoraj. The sculpture is a large empty head of a man in bandages on its side.
From here we moved on to the Collegium Maius, the oldest building of the Jagiellonian University, founded in 1364 by Casimir III the Great, with alumni like Nicholas Copernicus and Pope John Paul II. We were really keen to return to the courtyard for the clock show between 11:00am and 3:00pm every day, but unfortunately didn’t make it back there. I did watch it on YouTube afterwards, and it is quite fascinating…
A walk through the university parks took us to the St Paul II window in Kraków at the Bishop’s Palace, where the Cardinal Karol Wojtyla were a resident for 20 years before he became Pope John Paul II, where he often made evening appearances as Pope when he visited Kraków in later years.
We continued our walk South towards the Wawel Castle past the Franciscan Church, St Peter and Paul’s church and the oldest church in Kraków, built in the 11th century.
A short walk down Kanonicza street (the oldest street in Kraków) brought us to the Wawel Royal Castle, the 14th century castle that was the residence of Polish Kings for centuries. The castle was occupied in the Second World war and they built a new administration building on the hill. After a short walk around, with lots of informative stories about the castle (including the one about the Nazi governor Hans Frank’s wife who made ‘ugly’ alterations to make the castle more ‘livable’), we finished the tour. All and all an excellent tour!
We made our way back to the hotel (which was across the road from the castle) for a short break and returned back to the Castle in the afternoon. We visited the Wawel Cathedral and some of the rooms in the Wawel Castle, with its splendour and wonderful artifacts, paintings, tapestries and furniture.
Late afternoon, we made our way to the Main Town Square again for a late afternoon lunch at one of the many restaurants around the square, Kawiarna Bankowa, where I had a traditional Polish bigos, or a hunters’ stew with finely chopped meat, sauerkraut and shredded cabbage. And mulled wine, of course! The girls had goulash. The food was delicious and filling after a full day of walking around.
In the early evening, we split up to do some last minute Christmas shopping and I went to see St Mary’s Basilica which was quite spectacular inside. We later met for coffee (and another hot wine) and started making our way back to the hotel.
One final stop was the monument on the banks of the Vistula River (just below the Wawel Castle), dedicated to the mythical Wawel dragon. Legend goes that the dragon lived on the banks of the river and fed on lambs and young girls. Because King Krakus has a young daughter and was terrified for her safety, he promised her hand in marriage to anyone who could defeat the dragon. Endless unsuccessful efforts later a young cobbler takes up the challenge, stuff a lamb with sulpher and lures the dragon to eat it. Later the dragon gets so thirsty that he drinks so much water from the river that he explodes. And the young cobbler and the King’s daughter lived happily ever after.
Anyway, there is a statue of a dragon on the banks of the river, and he breaths fire every few minutes. Bianca, earlier in the evening, got lost on her way to the hotel and walked by it by accident so Anya and I was on a mission. And it was fabulous! I took a short video on my phone and hope it captures some of the magic!
We would have liked to go to Oscar Schindler’s factory in Kraków but we had an early train the next day to Prague so we decided not to turn in too late.
What a beautiful city this was, and definitely worth the detour from Budapest to Prague! I would like to see more of Poland, Slovakia and some of the former Eastern Block countries one day again, as this visit has only wet my appetite!
Next up, Prague!