I’ve never really gone on a mission to be a tourist before. Sure, you fall into the trap in a new city in a new country, and TripAdvisor tells you the top things to do, and you go do one.
This last week, I spend the week in and around Krakow, with no other agenda than to just see stuff and eat stuff (if you’re interested in a vegan perspective on Krakow, I wrote a separate blog). Okay, that’s not entirely true: my main mission was that I wanted some time alone, away from everyone I know, to have an opportunistic week of calm before the storm of the next three weeks.
Flying from Australia to Europe always gives me the kind of jet lag that I feel I could use for a murder alibi. “Yes, officer, I know I continued to beat the baggage claim attendant for three hours after he was dead, but they didn’t have my special meal on my first flight, and there were five babies within two rows of me on my second .” The judge bangs his gavel and sets me free to a host of reporters who want to know where I’m flying to next.
Pierwszy dzień: Bike Tour
So, the day after landing, I lazed around in the morning, and then went on a Bike Tour that afternoon. Now, this bike tour is not an athletic event of ANY kind. I could have run the course faster than we biked it. But, if gives you a sample of the layout of the city center you’re going to be visiting, and it helps orient you and re-set your clock.
Drugi dzień: Salt Mines
I had sternly fought back against the first three people who said, “You’re going to Krakow? You should go see the Salt Mines!” My family in Northern California has mining heritage — I panned for gold before I was 9, I’ve been down mine shafts in pitch black, and — salt? Really? Let’s put our lives at risk 100s of meters underground to make sure our meals have the right flavor.
After the fourth person suggested I should go see it, I relented. It was either going to be amazing or the biggest Polish conspiracy of all time. “Tell them to go visit the Salt Mines. Ahahahahahahhahahaahhahah” — or however evil Poles laugh, something with lots of z’s and letters with tails, maybe “çZzzççCÇÇzzzCCZZZçççç!”.
Salt Mines were pretty cool. Not as cold as advertized (‘Bring warm clothes’ was not needed, but I am glad I had jeans and left the two piece swimsuit back at the hotel).
Of the three routes offered, I did both the “tourist route” (most commonly chosen, you get to see more of the underground chapels) and the “miners’ route) learn more about how the mining was done, walk in more cramped spaces with only headlamps for light. The best moment was being in a cavern with all of the lights (including headlamps) in the pitch black silence. I remember the first time I experienced complete darkness (also in a mine) as a child, and it filled me with a delicious sensation from head to toe.
So, now I’m also one of those people who will tell you, “Yes, go see the salt mine.”
Dzień trzeci: Auschwitz
I spent Wednesday at Auschwitz. A very difficult day — written up here.
Czwarty dzień: Rest
I didn’t really feel like doing anything serious (and certainly not with tourists) the day after Auschwitz. Most dealt with life admin stuff, and watched more of the Netflix documentary series on Auschwitz.
Piąty dzień: Castle and Walking Tour
Friday I visited the Wawel Castle, the former seat of Polish kings. The buildings are great, though under construction. Walking the grounds is free, and they charge for specific exhibits (climbing the tower costs 8 PLN, going through the dragon tunnel costs 4 PLN, seeing the crown jewels exhibit is more than 20 PLN). I’ve never enjoyed museums that are just about displaying lots of paintings or swords. Only history and sculpture seem to be able to hold my attention, so overall this is one activity I’d skip in my next life. I hope someone shows me this blog when I’m reincarnated.
That night I also did the “Seven Deadly Sins” walking tour of Krakow, supposedly to expose some dark history of Krakow. The tour was short (not much walking, mostly standing around), and overall “meh.”
Szósty dzień i ostatni dzień: Schindler Factory
My final day I didn’t fly out until late, so I could still see the remaining item on my list. I had to check out before 11 AM, and there is no place to leave bags (i.e. it’s not a hotel, so no concierge, so I uber’d to the train station, dropped bags, uber’d to and between the museums, then uber’d back to the station. I must warn you that uber in Krakow is by far the worst of any city I’ve ever visited: You go through 3–4 drivers right off the bat, each one canceling immediately. “Wojciech will be there in 7 minutes,” then “Pavel will be there in 9 minutes,” then “Richard will be there in 10 minutes”. You basically ignore uber until a car is 3 minutes away from you. And in one case the driver didn’t pick me up but just rode past.
But enough about that.
I had purchased a pass that gave me tickets for each of the Old Synagogue Museum, the Eagle Pharmacy Museum, and the Schindler Factory Museum.
The Old Synagogue Museum is great, because it teaches you not just about the building and it’s importance in the Jewish community in Krakow, but about Jewish tradition — i.e. the origin of Hanukkah, the Sabbath, the Arc in the synagogue, the rise of the synagogue as a place of importance. You learn a ton in under an hour.
The Eagle Pharmacy Museum, in the Jewish ghetto (where Krakow jews were forced to relocate by the Nazis) was run by a gentile, Tadeusz Pankiewic, and served as a cultural center for the ghetto. The pharmacy has been converted into a modern museum with a handful of interactive displays, and in general they use every piece of the pharmacy for something interesting (drawers of the cabinets hold pictures of people who lived in the ghettos, etc). The captured video histories of the people who lived in the area are the best part — spend as much time as possible just listening to their experiences.
The Schindler Factory
The Schindler Factory Museum is about 20% Schindler, 80% the history of Krakow in WWII. It’s exceptionally well done, and you simply follow the years, starting just before the Nazi invasion, through the end of WWII (and the beginning of the Soviet occupation of Poland). I’ll leave it to you to experience — but it’s incredibly well done and worth at least 3 hours of your time.
After that, and a second vegan kebab, I was off to the airport and on to Gdansk!
Overall, the week was very much what I needed — experiencing time alone, taking a deep breath, having a relaxed and often open agenda, shedding some of the emotional baggage I’ve been carrying around, and then reloading with a whole new set of emotional baggage. Wheee.