Continuing East to Poland

I’m trying to finish this blog off as we continue with “Sunday Polish Vodka Tasting Night” here at the hostel in Krakow … best I get it done quickly as I can see where this is going!

I made my way to Warsaw from Berlin and speaking with fellow travellers, it seems I have a different perception of the city than most people. The city may be a little drab in places, and it’s certainly not as beautiful as Krakow (partly because Krakow remained untouched during WW II as the Germans used it as one of their HQ bases), but the Poles do know how to party! I have met some super people who have shown me round the more local areas of the city and we have enjoyed some very large and fun evenings. And thankfully the beers are cheaper than Amsterdam and Berlin.

When in Warsaw be sure to head to the Warsaw Rising Museum. Opened in 2004, the museum commemorates the city’s heroic uprising in 1944 that was brutally suppressed. The museum is split over three levels;  interactive displays, photographs, film archives and personal accounts, and though there is so much information on display, you can simply move through at your own pace and take in as much or as little as you like.  It’s free to visit on a Sunday whilst the rest of the week it costs a very affordable $5. For more information, including opening hours and how to get there, visit the museum’s website.

The Little Insurgent
The Little Insurgent

The city was almost completely destroyed in the war and the museum gives you a real sense of the  destruction. I also enjoyed wandering around the “old town” (perhaps the newest old town having been rebuilt after the war) and whilst wandering about, I came across “The Little Insurgent” – a memorial to the children who fought and died in the uprising. It is such a ‘simple’ memorial (the oversized helmet conveying the message that helmets are not made for children to wear) yet so incredibly moving. The city, and country, went through so much during the war and I have certainly felt that history.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERALastly, for a great aerial view of the city, head to the top of the “Palace of Culture & Science“, a gift from the generous Soviets in the 1950’s and the tallest building in Poland. This too costs around $5 to visit and for more information, visit their website.

After a few days in the capital, I made my way  south to Krakow, which like most people who visit I thoroughly enjoyed. The city revolves around a huge square (the largest in medieval Europe I read), which is dotted with restaurants and shops. It’s always teeming with people and there are lots of performers; my favorite being the guy with the dancing Michael Jackson, Elvis and Tina Turner puppets. Hearing some Elvis certainly makes me want to hit up a karaoke bar! Off the square there are a number of quaint streets, most of which are packed with pubs, more restaurants and the like. Unlike Warsaw, Krakow was spared major damage during the war because the Germans made it one of their capital bases and the city square is simply gorgeous.

St Mary Church on the main square
St Mary Church on the main square

Basement pubs seems to be the thing here and I really like them. They have this intimate feel to them and are always full but not crowded. Unsurprisingly, I found some wicked pubs, including one that served 122 local beers. You page through this oversized menu and each beer is described with such love and attention.

As in Berlin, I’d highly recommend the free walking tour (only payment being any tip you leave). I’m generally not a huge fan of tours but I learnt a huge amount and would definitely it. It was a long day all round as I took the 2nd free tour that afternoon; which was around the Jewish district of Kazimierz. Poland was home to the largest number  of Jews in Europe before the war with around 30% of Krakow’s population being Jewish. It’s hard to explain but I definitely feel something being here.

I also learnt that Oscar Schindler’s factory was in Kazimierz so the district was the scene for Schindler’s List and I’d like to watch the movie again having walked about the district and the ghetto. They’ve now converted the factory into a museum, which is outstanding. It’s actually a museum about the history of the city during the war, not solely a museum to Schindler, and it is absolutely brilliant.

The museum is very interactive, informative & thankfully not overwhelming. One section is devoted to the Ghetto where they’ve recreated the walls and put up stories from people about what it was like living there. Walking through the snaking, dimly lit corridors and then hearing a Shul service with the Chazzan, the person who sings in synagogue, saying the Mourners Kaddish gave me goose-bumps. The museum is free to visit on a Monday (roughly $6 otherwise) and you can find further information here.

The Jewish cemetery
The Jewish cemetery

Ninety minutes from Krakow is the town of Oswiecim, which the Germans renamed Auschwitz. Home to the largest concentration camp during the war, being there was an indescribable experience.  The Germans “selected” Poland as the site for the largest camp for 2 main reasons – A) Poland had the largest number of European Jewry as noted above and B) it was extremely central & located along the railway line.


The end of the line
The famous gate at Auschwitz
The famous gate at Auschwitz with its ‘Work will set you free’ sign

There really isn’t much to say. Unless you’ve been I can’t begin to explain what it feels like walking past a room full of 40 000 shoes or into a gas chamber & crematorium and if you’re in Poland it is a place you must visit. Perhaps even more spine-chilling than Auschwitz was the visit to Auschwitz II – Birkenau, which is just huge. The Germans tried to destroy it when they evacuated and the vast open spaces only add to the eerie feeling as you walk along the train tracks and through the main gate. Incomprehensible really.

The country is a land of contrasts. Such beauty goes hand in hand with a tumultuous history and you can certainly feel that history. Next up I’m heading to the village of Zakopane, on the Polish/Slovakian border, for some hiking in the Tatras Mts.

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