Although, We have not visited other Baltic countries of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, I am still naming this post as Baltics as we might visit those countries in the future.
A visit to Krakow was hastily thrown together within days as I realized that the trip has been extremely delayed and that the ticket prices are only increasing as days pass and the winter season comes to an end.
In Poland, the main attractions for me were infamous Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration camps and the famed Tatra mountains. After research of exactly 15 minutes, I found organized trips on Viator which would take us to Auschwitz Birkenau and Tatra mountains. Due to scheduling issues, we had to Tatra mountains first when we would have preferred the other way round. Also, these organized trips were our third and fourth organized trips as the entire trip was hastily cobbled together.
Our trip began by taking a flight to Katowice which is the neighboring city of Krakow and an hour away. We had airport transfer bus taking us directly to the Krakow on arrival. getting out of Katowice was a breeze as it is a very small airport and no checks courtesy Schengen agreement.
Swapna had always mentioned she had a friend in Poland, just not sure where and wanted to catch up, if we could. On our way to Krakow, she checked with her friend and turns out he lives in Krakow, oh joy :). As it was nearly time for dinner by the time, we would have made it to Krakow, I asked her to check if her friend, Jayaprakash (JP) was going to join us for dinner.
At Krakow, after alighting from the bus, we fumbled our way to our apartment. the apartment, however, blew us away. it was perfect for 2 in all aspects, size and decor. After freshening up, we met up with JP and headed into town for dinner. As JP had no inkling, we were going to pop into town, he was tongue-tied and in shock. After checking out 2 restaurants, we stuck gold with Czarna Kaczka, the Black Duck. The restaurant is famous for duck delicacies but we stuck to our standard fare mostly. The dinner was fantastic as good food was peppered with great conversation and after getting past the shock, JP became a lot more verbose. After chatting until past the restaurant’s closing hours, we made our way back for next day’s trips.
Day 1: Zakopane and Tatra mountains
Our tour composed of another guy from Malta and was led by Martin who was accompanied by his supposed supervisor. Our day started towards south of Krakow and was a long scenic drive towards Chochołów. Chochołów is a small village comprised of heritage Polish wooden houses. the house we were supposed to visit was that of a local artist but as it was sunday and the time was of Mass, we could not enter the house. The house and the village looked pretty interesting. We took a walk around the house before continuing on.
Our next stop was Gubałówka which is a mountain with a funicular into the town of Zakopane but not the tallest in the range. We walked along the path on the mountain until we reached the funicular. On the way, our guide peppered us with stories of the mountains and the knight who lies on the mountain and was supposed to have risen during the time of need of Poland but seeing as nothing moved during the time of WW2, the legend can safely be put to rest. The Gubałówka range is filled with trails but considering we did not have much time to get around, we had to abandon the idea for another day. There are many trek operators who offer cross-country trails from Poland into Slovakia making for one fabulous trek. At the foot of the funicular, we tried the local delicacy of Oscypek, which is a smoked cheese made of salted sheep milk exclusively in the Tatra Mountains region of Poland. There are many varieties such as salted, filled with jams, tarts, and creams etc. We tried salted and paprika version and were mildly impressed.
Our next stop was at the Zakopane Architectural museum which was the house of Stanisław Witkiewicz, who is the founder of the designs and architecture style. the house was admirably preserved and filled with antiquities and tools in use during his time. We also visited the first church in Zakopane and the nearby cemetery, where each grave is adorned with elaborate headstones and artifacts.
We had a joyride on a chair lift on the ski ramp, The Great Krokiew. We headed home after the entire journey. Dinner was at Pod Aniołami (under the Angels) with JP. Pod Aniołami is located in a 18th century building at The Royal Route, leading to Wawel King’s Castle. For over three hundred years the building was the residence of Cracow’s goldsmiths who also had their workshops there. The restaurant is moderately expensive but fairly priced for the food it serves. After having a dessert if cold coffee shot with whipped cream and mixed fruit jelly, we headed back for the heavy day which was to follow.
Day 2: Auschwitz Birkenau and Wieliczka Salt Mine
Our tour was led by Marek of Cracow local tours who was also the voice of narration for our inside Auschwitz-Birkenau. Our first stop was at Auschwitz I. Auschwitz / Oświęcim lies to the west of Krakow and is a journey of little more than an hour. When you arrive at the gates of the camp, you are greeted by hordes of people who have come to witness some of the most gruesome history of mankind. After passing by security checks and getting earphones to listen to our tour guide, we entered the walls of Auschwitz I. The infamous words, “Arbeit Macht Frei” literally “Work sets you free” greets the visitors now and the camp inmates then. The camp is preserved immaculately with both the buildings and the artifacts standing as it were in its heydays. We had already been to Sachsenhausen concentration camp in Berlin but nothing prepares you for the horrors of Auschwitz. Auschwitz I is bigger than Sachsenhausen by many folds. Some 30 inmates from Sachsenhausen were transferred to Auschwitz I and were designated as “Capos” or Camp elders to Auschwitz I.
We were led in to a few buildings which depicted the stories and scenes from 1940-45. Each building contained within the sufferings of the people who lived within the camp walls. I cannot recount the stories or the scenes that i saw in vivid details. Marek took time during the visit to shed light on Josef Mengele, who was a German Schutzstaffel officer and physician in Auschwitz concentration camp, and Irma Grese, who was a female SS guard and was called the “The beautiful Beast” for the torture and pain she inflicted on the inmates.
Auschwitz I tour was follwed by a tour of Auschwitz II which is way bigger than Auschwitz I as this camp was designed to kill more people and more efficiently. Other than the infamous words, one can also see the railway tracks designed to take the soon to inmates or exterminated into the camp in cattle cars. At the end of the tracks into the camp is the place where selection was made by the direction of the thumb. Right meant death and Left meant unendurable suffering. Ultimately, about 1.3 to 1.5 million people died in the camp walls. We also saw a israeli Jewish group who had come to Auschwitz II who were laughing and joking about what happened on those grounds and were taking selfies. This made me wonder if the horrors of the war is now lost on the younger generations and are bound to be forgotten soon
Following the Auschwitz tour was the tour of Wieliczka Salt Mine which is an active salt mine but no longer profitable and in use for production of salt. However, it is now an source of enthrallment for the visitors and employment for the locals. Our guide within the mine was Matt. We were greeted with an entrance to shaft and had to descend nearly 378 steps to get to the shaft. As we went into the mine, we were greeted with many sculptures carved our of Salt such as Nicolaus Copernicus, the legend of Princess Kinga of Hungary, lives of miners etc. The tour was mesmerising until we came to the great chamber in which magnificent paintings have been carved including the final supper. We then boarded the lift to get out of the mine.
A good dinner with JP at the Sphinx in Krakow and bidding adieu, we boarded the flight back to Eindhoven carrying memories.
We could not cover Oskar Schindler’s factory as there was no time left for us to visit. It still firmly remains in our to-do list