Krakow was a whirlwind trip that packed a lot into four days. From the minute we stepped out of the airport, it was obvious we were in a very different place. Deteriorating but maintained remnants of Soviet occupation were everywhere, especially on the outskirts of the city where our hotel was located (the beds were uncomfortable, the air-conditioning was on constantly, everybody in the lobby smoked constantly, and there was never enough coffee at breakfast, but at least the toilets were disinfected; at least that’s what we thought the note on the seat said). The historic city center – untouched by World War II – was beautiful, complete with a large plaza: an enclosed market selling all types of handmade goods like blankets, chess boards, clocks, tapestries, lamps, etc. sat in the center while shops, cafes, restaurants, and offices were located on the periphery. We took a short tour of the city on the first day, then sat down to a dinner of caprese salad, stuffed chicken breast, and pound cake with raspberry sauce – very Polish indeed.
Day two was devoted to a visit to the Wieliczka Salt Mine – a labyrinthine complex of passages over 300 meters below the surface of the Earth. Table salt was produced continuously from the 13th century until the 1990s, making it one of the worlds oldest continuously operating companies and a UNESCO world heritage site. We descended down 54 flights of stairs and spent about two hours exploring the passages, former production shafts, vaulted rooms, and cathedrals (of which there are two). We finally ascended back into the light via two elevators usually reserved for miners; a rickety, palm-sweating ride that left us all very glad to be out in the sun again. Dinner that night was a traditional Polish meal of salad, borscht, a very heavy beef stew, and ice cream (with a flake, of course. Alright, so that wasn’t very traditional. It was still delicious). I described it as “food that will get you through the winter” – afterwords, nobody wanted to do much other than sit and digest.
Day three was a trip to Auschwitz. The mandatory guided tour seemed a little touristy and, I think, detracted from overwhelming feeling one gets when left to experience a place like that on one’s own (for better or for worse). In the morning we visited Aushwitz I, the former Polish army barracks-turned-concentration camp, complete with “Arbeit Macht Frei” gate sign. There were exhibits throughout showing living and working conditions, food, a Gestapo “courtroom”, and, most moving of all, rooms full of the personal affects of prisoners – including suitcases, combs, toys, clothing, and human hair. We visited Auschwitz II “Birkenau” in the afternoon, and I think the group found that much more moving. Other than the main gate building, the railroad tracks, and the monument at the end of the tracks, it was nothing but a fenced-in field of chimney stacks, the last remnants of the thousands of prisoner barracks that once stood.
That evening we toured the Jewish quarter of Krakow, despite the fact that there are only 120 Jews living there today (the country on the whole is 95% Catholic). We ate dinner in a supposedly famous Jewish restaurant (the food was certainly delicious enough) and then hit the diskotek with our tour guide and old friend of IES Marcin.
Overall, Krakow was a beautiful city full of friendly and proud people. It was nice to get back to Berlin on familiar ground (with a slightly familiar language), but I’ve certainly learned a lot about a country that has hardly had an “easy go of it”.