One very important thing about flying to Krakow: don’t let your impressions of the airport tarnish your expectations of your stay. With an arrivals and baggage reclaim area that resemble a hastily constructed temporary shed with a gazebo tagged onto the end to make the roof a bit longer, it can fill recently-landed tourists with a sense of having left civilisation behind. But fear not, it’s all uphill from there in this majestic and striking Polish city.
Having stayed in my fair share of hostels, I can easily say that Mosquito Hostel is amongst the best I’ve had the fortune to rest my travel-weary body in, with filling breakfasts and dinners included in the staggeringly cheap price. The local nightlife is also of economic ease, with the Mosquito staff organising crawls which soon turned into inebriated stumbles from one packed club to another.
The centre of Krakow makes for a fantastic walking and sightseeing experience, with the main square instilling a sense of grandeur with its cathedral and all of its elaborate horse-drawn carriages. The old castle is another stunning spot in which to wander, offering panoramic views of the city as well as its own beauty. There is no better place to see the sun go down than the area by the river, with the sights on display combining both the old and modern aspects of the urban landscape. The one let-down is the ‘dragon’, a feebly disappointing statue whose much-publicised breathing of fire at fifteen minute intervals has about as much strength as a matchstick being fumbled and dropped before being snuffed out.
Wieliczka Salt Mine
As stunning as Krakow’s centre is, the most breath-taking beauty to be found in the vicinity lies a few miles out into the suburbs and about a thousand feet under the ground. An easy train ride out from the main station and a not-so-easy descent down oh-so-many flights of stairs (the phrase ‘it never seems to end’ seems as if it were made for this spiralling entrance) takes one into the depths of Wieliczka Salt Mine, a mystifying maze of chambers, corridors and rooms which must be seen in order to be truly believed. Once into the mines from which commercial acquisition of salt was discontinued in the 1990s, it’s a case of statues and sculptures galore, all of which would be impressive enough even if they weren’t somewhat incredibly made by putting together a multitude of grains of the substance so many of us associate with seasoning our chips.
Furthermore, when visitors are already flabbergasted by the salty artwork they’ve seen so far, they are then presented with Wieliczka’s astounding centrepiece: its cathedral. To describe it as colossal would not by any means be an exaggeration, and the fact that it exists so far under the ground defies belief. As does the fact that every inch of it, from the altar to the ornate walls to the glimmering chandeliers which hang from the ceiling, are made of the same raw material. And what would that be? That’s right, you’ve guessed it – salt!
Anyone whose way of thinking is sufficiently logical to have the saying ‘What goes down must come back up’ ominously ringing through their heads ever since my description of the tour’s starting point must be somewhat worried about how these seemingly-eternal stairs are navigated when going in ascent. Fear not however, you don’t come out the same way you went in. The ascent and exit is carried out in a marginally less terrifying manner, with a mass of tired tourists unceremoniously piled into a metal lift that looks as if it dates from long before inventing lifts ever seemed like it would become a popular idea. After a tour lasting in the region of three hours, daylight is a welcome but startling sight for tourists emerging from their incomparable and unmissable experience.
Seventy years after the anti-Semitic monstrosities were brought to an end, the name still sends cold shivers down the spine. Auschwitz concentration camp, the scene of some of humanity’s most incomprehensibly evil actions, lies just over an hour outside Krakow. With no shortage of tour companies offering packages which include a bus from the city centre (some doing collections from hotels or hostels) and a guided tour of both camps, it is well worth a visit that is both fascinating and horrifying at the same time.
With two camps in close proximity to each other, the smaller one is still intact and now functions as a museum exhibiting the cruelty and suffering endured by so many Jews in the 1940s. With rooms full of discarded items such as shoes, suitcases and human hair – all of which were considered surplus to the requirements of helpless prisoners – and living facilities unfit for the most mistreated of animals, any compassionate human will be saddened and angered by what they witness here. And that’s before they’re even entered the coldly terrifying gas chambers.
The later addition to the Nazi’s extermination programme is a much bigger camp named Birkenau, hastily destroyed by its own creators in order to conceal the evidence once the war started to slip away from them. Its exposure to the biting wind makes one shudder to think of what it must have been like for the malnourished captives undergoing days of back-breaking labour, while standing on the train platform where the selection of two groups sent to work and be gassed respectively heightens the sense of how real it all is.
If you go there in the right frame of mind, Auschwitz is well worth seeing, and there is no denying the importance of these historical events being generally known and seen as the horrors that they are. No other place I’ve visited has had quite the same impression on me, nor given me such a strong desire that the world remain a better place now.
Once back in the centre of Krakow things are as pleasant as ever, with ample opportunities to try some delicious filled dumplings known as pierogi, a local delicacy that sends warmth trickling through every inch of the body. By the time the weekend getaway had come to a close, I had a strong feeling that Poland, and this city in particular with all its grandeur and splendour, might not have seen the last of me.