I could write for hours on most of the cities around the world that I’ve visited. But to make this list more manageable I’ll stick to giving three highlights of each city that I tick off, starting with Kraków which I managed to visit for the second time in February.
I think it’s fair to say that Kraków has shaken off quite a bleak 20th Century to become what is a beautiful, joyful and well visited city. As the second largest city in Poland, Kraków was at the centre of World War II, becoming the capital of the German General Government in 1939 with one of the largest Jewish ghettos in Europe, not to mention being under a communist regime until 1989 along with the rest of Poland. The city and surrounding areas are full of eye opening experiences that can really teach you about all of this history.
We set aside a day to go on an excursion to the Aushwitz concentration camps. While you can probably get good deals from travel agents in the city centre, the choice can be pretty overwhelming. We booked online with Escape2Poland (www.escape2poland.co.uk) which had decent reviews and reasonable prices. It was well organised, communication on where to meet was good and our tour guide was great. It can’t be an easy job taking these tours every day. It is a truly eye opening experience that puts the shear scale of the holocaust into perspective. I won’t go in to the details – anything you read won’t prepare you. One thing I will point out though is that parts of the video they play on the coach are pretty horrifying.
Another really interesting place to learn about the history of the holocaust is Schindler’s Factory Museum. I hadn’t watched Schinder’s List at the time (I have now…amazing film) but that didn’t matter as it’s more about the history of Kraków than Schindler in particular. Anyone wanting to visit should join a tour…we went off our own backs and just found ourselves stuck behind endless tour groups of all languages. The place has narrow corridors so it’s pretty awkward getting past.
Like I say, the city has shook off a sad history, and by no means does a trip here need to be dominated by learning about the holocaust. Kraków’s Old Town, the nearby Kazimierz and the Wawel Castle and Cathedral are amazing places to get lost in with some amazing buildings, architecture and places to eat and drink.
The Salt Mines
No doubt, anyone that visits Kraków will post a picture of the Salt Mines. And for good reason – they are pretty photogenic. Thirty minutes drive away from the city centre, in a town called Wieliczka, they are easy to come by. Again, I would recommend joining an organised tour, not least because the booking hall is pretty stressful! But if you rock up on your own I think you get a tour guide to take you through the mines anyway. We were tagged on to a group of about thirty people, all given headphones so we could hear the guide.
The tour lasts about 2 and a half hours, taking you through some magnificent chapels and chambers (around 20), some of which are used for concerts and weddings. It’s like nothing you would be able to see in the UK! Some of the sculptures and carvings, and even the chandeliers, are unreal. What astonished me is that while you’re walking through 3-4 km of underground pathway, you only see like 2% of the whole of the mine. The size of it is crazy! Be warned, there are about 400 steps to get you down to the start of the tour (and plenty more along the way) and the rickety lift back up is packed to the rim and run by pretty rude beings. But that aside, this is a must visit!
Kraków is cheap! We paid the equivalent of £15 a night for a city centre studio apartment over a weekend. The cheapest beer we found was 80p, vodka is about the same and comes in abundance in all kinds of flavours. Local food is well priced and delicious, such as pierogi (dumplings) and zapiekanka (pretty much baguette pizzas). In fact the most pricey thing we came across was a KFC! Excursions from the city come at a price but are worth it.
All of this really means you don’t have any excuses NOT to visit. Kraków is an amazing city with lots to offer, and I would recommend it to anyone.